On August 26, 1827, Tsar Nicholas I published the Recruitment Decree calling for conscription of Jewish boys between the ages of twelve and twenty-five. These boys were known as Cantonists, derived from the term ‘canton,’ referring to the districts where they were sent and the barracks in which they were kept.

Conscripts under the age of eighteen were assigned to live in preparatory institutions until they were old enough to formally join the army. The twenty-five years of service required that these recruits be counted from age eighteen, even if they had already spent many years in military institutions before reaching that age.

Nicholas used the Cantonist system to single out Jewish children for persecution, their baptism being a high priority to him. No other group or minority in Russia was expected to serve at such a young age, nor were other groups of recruits tormented in the same way.

Nicholas wrote in a confidential memorandum, “The chief benefit to be derived from the drafting of the Jews is the certainty that it will move them most effectively to change their religion.”

Observed historian Simon Dubnow: “The barrack was to serve as a school, or rather as a factory, for producing a new generation of de-Judaized Jews, who were completely Russified, and if possible Chritianized.”

During the reign of Nicholas I, approximately seventy thousand Jews, some fifty thousand of whom were children, were taken by force from their homes and families and inducted into the Russian army. The boys, who’d been raised in the traditional world of the shtetl, were pressured by every possible means, including torture, to accept baptism. Many resisted and some managed to maintain their Jewish identity. The magnitude of their struggle is difficult to conceive.

This thirty-year period saw the Jewish community in an unrelieved state of panic. Parents lived in perpetual fear that their children would be the next to fill the Tsar’s quota. A child could be snatched from any place at any time. Every moment might be the last together; when a child left for cheder in the morning, his parents could not know if they’d ever see him again. When they retired after singing him to sleep, they never knew if they’d have to struggle with chappers (kidnappers) during the night in a last ditch effort to hold onto their son.

The famed writer and folk poet Eliyakum Zunser compared the suffering of the Cantonists to the suffering of Jewish children in other eras of Jewish history: “The mothers who were robbed of their children by the Egyptians, the Romans and the Spanish priests had, at least, the sad comfort of knowing that their little ones were spared from long and great sufferings – by a quick death. The bereaved mothers in the days of Nicholas I had not even that much ‘comfort.’ Their young were snatched away from them, scattered in the faraway snow fields of Siberia, or in the steppes of the Caucasus.”

Though a significant number of young men found ways to avoid conscription, government quotas of recruits remained in force. It was the duty of the kahal (Jewish communal leadership) to ensure that the quotas were met. The kahal was thus under tremendous pressure and faced a serious moral dilemma: If Jewish leaders did not provide recruits to fill the quota, the government would punish the Jewish communities with more severe measures, i.e., increasing the quota of recruits.

In dealing with this agonizing quandary, the kahal often chose to conscript the very young on the basis that they did not yet have dependents. Needless to say, this policy did not provide a satisfactory solution, since no family would volunteer its child for the draft. The kahal therefore resorted to paying a fee to chappers for each child they abducted and turned over to the army toward fulfillment of the community’s quota. Jewish chappers, familiar with the community’s language and habits, proved most effective in locating and abducting these children.

Israel Itzkovich, Cantonist Soldier

In 1853, when Israel Itzkovich was seven years old, his family moved to the city of Polotzk in the Vitebsk District. They somehow managed to support themselves. Israel’s mother sent her twelve-year-old son to live somewhere safe from the draft. Israel and his nine-year-old sister remained at home with their mother.

One October morning, three chappers burst into their apartment, tied Israel up and carried him off. His mother’s cries and screams fell on deaf ears. Itzkovich was taken to a house holding several dozen captive children. The chappers kept them there for a couple of weeks. Itzkovich’s mother and relatives visited him often, but were powerless to get him back.

A few weeks later, on October 23, 1853, the children were hauled to the receiving station where they were inducted and handed over to an army commander. They were housed temporarily in military barracks and issued military garments: underwear, overcoats, sheepskin coats, and boots – none the right size – and a cloth knapsack in which to store their belongings.

On November 6, Itzkovich was sent off to the battalion. Six or more boys were placed in each of a long line of carts. The entire town came to bid them farewell. The children and the adults cried and screamed. The crescendo of voices shook the ground.

Even after several miles, Itzkovich and his companions still heard their relatives’ cries. The wagons traveled until evening when the boys arrived at a village and were assigned to quarters in cold houses with dirt floors. The children were frozen, their hands and feet stiff with cold. If the boys cried, they were beaten. Many became ill and died before they arrived at their next destination, St. Petersburg.

From St. Petersburg, Itzkovich and his detachment were forcibly marched to the Siberian city of Archangelsk. The march lasted from November 1853 to June 1854. En route, the children were beaten and harassed and died like flies. The road was littered with their corpses. Finally, they entered the ‘Promised Land,’ Archangelsk. The officers took the boys to a building occupied by other Cantonists.

Life for Itzkovich and his unit was one of extreme hardship, full of torture and suffering. Pressure, supported by beatings, to accept baptism occurred throughout the day. Even after Itzkovich contracted an eye disease, a non-commissioned officer beat him with his fists.

The officer in charge of Itzkovich and his detachment was a converted Jew named Gulevich, who was the godson of the battalion commander, Dyakonov. At the first inspection of the detachment, Dyakonov declared to the battalion that as long as he lived, no one would leave his battalion as a Jew. Gulevich endeavored to fulfill the wish of his godfather.

Every evening at about nine o’clock, when it was time for bed, Gulevich would lie down on his bed, call a few boys over, and order them to kneel. He then would attempt to persuade the boys to convert with quotations from the Bible, implying that the Jews were in error. Finally, he would demand in a threatening tone that the boys accept Christianity or face punishment.

Gulevich allowed those boys who agreed to his importuning to go to sleep. The next day they were given uniforms and an extra piece of bread. The obstinate ones, however, were kept on their knees by his bed all night, and the next day they went to bed without bread and were harassed and whipped on any pretext.

The older Cantonists, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, were tortured for longer durations. They were beaten and whipped so severely that many of them died of their wounds. Under these conditions, most of the boys, understandably, did not resist for long. They finally consented, albeit against their wishes, to conversion.

One boy who resisted was placed on a bench every morning and given at least one hundred strokes of a birch leaving him bleeding and reeling in agony. After each birching, he was sent to the infirmary where he was treated and then soon beaten again. He absorbed the abuse, did not cry out and did not relent.

Even after their forced conversion to Christianity, Itzkovich and his fellow Cantonists suffered from continued abuse. A converted Jew in an argument with a Christian comrade would still hear the epithet, ‘parkhatyy Yevri!’ (disgusting Jew). Sometimes their abusers would add, ‘A Jew who has been baptized is like a wolf that has been fed.’

These insults served a good purpose for Itzkovich. By continually reminding him of his Jewish identity, they strengthened his inner resolve to remain a Jew. He pledged to himself that he would seek justice and, without allowing fear of the penalties to dissuade him, would win back the right to live as a Jew.

Every year in May, the order came from St. Petersburg to send the Cantonists who had turned eighteen to join the regular field troops. In 1854, the boys who’d reached age eighteen, including those from Itzkovich’s detachment, were dispatched to St. Petersburg and once there assigned to various units.

Itzkovich’s detachment participated in an imperial review in the presence of the Tsar, during the course of which many of the Cantonists complained about their forced conversion to Christianity. That took immense courage, as it put their lives at risk. As a result, the entire unit was placed under arrest, and they were all sentenced to the harsh punishment of running a gauntlet past three thousand men.

They would all have been beaten to death had the sentence been carried out, but it was suspended after the death of Nicholas I on February 19, 1855. Nicholas’s successor, Alexander II, canceled the punishment for the entire detachment, and only those of the Cantonists who had complained were assigned to garrison battalions in Siberia.

Soon afterward, Colonel Dyakonov died suddenly. Dyakonov’s burial during a hard December frost kept the boys outside for over two hours, but it was a joyous holiday nonetheless.

The manifesto of Tsar Alexander II on August 26, 1856, forbade the taking of underage Jewish children to be Cantonists, and it was soon ordered that all the boys in Cantonist battalions be released and returned to their original status. Jewish converts, however, were not eligible for return to their previous status as Jews. The directive that concerned them ordered that the older Cantonists who had reached the age of eighteen were to be assigned to serve in the regular forces, while the younger ones were enrolled in the War Department academies.

Meanwhile, life had changed for the better after Dyakonov’s death. The food improved and the brutal beatings stopped. The members of the company, by now adults, were dispatched to central Russia for assignment to troop units. The Second Company of younger boys was assigned to the academy.

Israel Itzkovich had become a Cantonist in 1853. He continually attempted to restore his official status as a Jew. Finally, in 1872, he was released on indefinite leave.

At this point Itzkovich was motivated by two wishes. One was to be granted retirement status and the benefits that entailed. The other was to change his official listing back from Christian to Jew.

Itzkovich reported to the authorities that he was a soldier on indefinite leave and he requested retirement status. Informed that to receive this status he would either have to serve another ten months or maintain his status of indefinite leave for an additional three years, he chose the former and enlisted in the Tomsk Province for the purpose of serving out his remaining time.

Soon he officially declared that he did not wish to be listed as a Christian, since he had been forced to convert. His new commanders threatened Itzkovich with a trial that would deprive him of his retirement rights. Despite this, he stubbornly submitted a memorandum which set forth in detail the barbarous treatment he’d received as a seven-year-old child, and how he, nevertheless, had served the Tsar honestly and conscientiously for twenty years and had received several commendations.

Though his earlier commander had tortured him and given him a new Christian name, Itzkovich claimed that his current commanders could not prohibit him from petitioning for the return of what had been taken from him by force. He asked to be put on trial so that his torment might be ended.

The army commander appealed to Itzkovich to drop his request, but Itzkovich stated categorically that he would no longer betray his God and would no longer attend Church or go to confession. Itzkovich’s memorandum was forwarded up the chain of command. Six weeks later, he received orders from the Commander of the Forces of Western Siberia: “Non-commissioned Officer Itzkovich, who had strayed from Russian Orthodoxy, is to be presented for exhortation by a priest. If he remains unrepentant, he is to be transferred to another troop unit.”

The priest tried his best but could do nothing to sway Itzkovich. In response to his exhortation, Itzkovich just smiled and said that he was no longer seven years old, but twenty-six. In the end he was not transferred to another unit, since his term of service had by that time expired.

Itzkovich retired on October 23, 1873, after serving exactly twenty years.

Larry Domnitch is an author and high school teacher living in Efrat, Israel. The above essay was adapted from his new book, ‘The Cantonists’ (Devora Publishing), which is available online at DevoraPublishers.com, MileChai.com and Amazon.com, and at Eichler’s (Brooklyn and Manhattan) and other fine Jewish book stores. Mr. Domnitch can be contacted at tdomnitch@aol.com.