The Jewish people are hardly strangers to persecution and tyranny. We are a people who have been oppressed for centuries, forced to endure grievous loss and hardship.
And among the bitter memories of the past, few are more painful than those days under the heel of the wicked Czar Nicholas I. In his hatred and frustration, this wicked ruler decided upon a cruel scheme as the answer to his “Jewish problem.” His “solution” was to draft Jewish youngsters as young as eight and nine for a period of 25 years. Every town was given its quota of Cantonists to fill under penalty of severe punishment.
The wailing and tears that accompanied this announcement can only be partly imagined. But it was to no avail. The leaders of the communities were told that it was their responsibility to furnish the children, and they, in turn, hired people to enforce the decree.
These men, known as “kidnappers” to the distraught parents, zealously tracked down the children, chasing after them in the forests and the caves. They would drag them back and throw them into the communal jail until the inspectors could arrive and choose the fit.
The children were then cruelly torn from their parents and homes, dragged away to the far reaches of Siberia and forced to undergo – not only terrible physical pain – but also attempts to convert them.
Who can count the number who died? Who can number those who succumbed to the tortures and embraced Christianity in order to escape the pain and suffering?
The story is told of the great gaon of Velkovsk, Rav Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, who came to a small Lithuanian town and, hearing the wailing of children who were in the town jail awaiting transportation to the army, feigned drunkenness and was thrown into jail with them.
“My children,” he cried out, “listen to me. I speak to you through tears but what I have to say you must hear carefully.”
As the children gathered around him, Rav Yitzchak Isaac began to speak about Yiddishkeit.
“You are going to be taken to faraway places and you will be tortured in an attempt to make you leave your faith. Please, dear children, remember what I tell you today.
“Remember the Ten Martyrs who refused to bow their heads to the Roman oppressors who wanted them to stop teaching Torah. Remember how they chose death rather than give up the life of Torah. Remember Chana and her seven children, some of whom were as young as you – all of who clung steadfastly to G-d and willingly gave up their lives. Be as brave as they; choose life by welcoming – if necessary – death.”
All night he spoke to the children giving them chizuk and, as morning came, he said: “Holy little sheep! Soon we will part. I will be taken to be flogged and you will endure the severest of tests. I do not know if I will still be alive when you return, but I do know that we will meet some day in the True World. I hope that when we do I will be proud of all of you.”
The Wicked Leaders
The sages of the time actively condemned the leaders of the community who timidly acquiesced to the government’s demands and who helped in the collection of the children. They also urged the people to physically free the unfortunate captives. One of those who tried to free the children was Rav Eliyahu Shick.
On a visit to a small town, Rav Shick was horrified to hear that a whole group of children was imprisoned in the community jail, awaiting shipment to the army. Seizing a hatchet, he ran out to the main Jewish street and cried, “Jews! Do you know the true meaning of the verse (Yeshaya 42:24) where it says, ‘Who has given Jacob over for plunder, Israel to robbers?’ ‘Jacob’ refers to the masses of the Jewish people who are being plundered while ‘Israel’ refers to those communal leaders who are themselves the robbers and kidnappers.”
Turning to the crowd, he called: “My brothers, children of Israel, why do you stand silently? Let us go and save Jewish souls!”
Inspired by the words of the rav, the crowd seized the hatchets and crowbars and broke into the jail freeing the happy children. Rav Shick then gathered the crowd into the local shul and addressed them concerning the meaning of the verse (Shemos 21:16), “And he who kidnaps a man and sells him shall surely die.” Finishing, he turned to the Aron Hakodesh, removed a Torah scroll and said, “I call upon you to swear on this Torah scroll that never again will you permit such a horrible abomination to occur in this town.”
Rav Yaakov Of Karlin
Similarly, the great Rav Yaakov (author of Mishkenos Yaakov), one of the leading students of Rav Chaim of Volozhin, heard that some of the communal heads of the town of Karlin – where he served as rav – had agreed to the kidnapping of the children. He immediately called in the leaders and pleaded with them to change their ways.
Nevertheless, one Shabbos morning, a woman suddenly burst into shul and cried out, “My brothers! My only son has been taken – along with others – and is being held now in the community jail to be taken into the army. Save him, I beg of you!”
Greatly moved by the pitiful woman, the congregation crowded around the benches of the east wall, where the leaders of the community sat.
“Have mercy,” they cried, “free the poor children!”
One of the leaders, however, arose in great wrath and exclaimed: “Eject this woman immediately. She has disrupted the services and insulted the communal leaders!”
The shamash, acting under orders, seized the poor woman and had her removed from shul. Suddenly, the entire congregation grew silent as Rav Yaakov rose, strode to the holy ark and removed one of the scrolls. He rolled it until he reached Parshas Ki Seitzei (Devarim 22:7) and began to read the mitzvah concerning one who finds eggs in a nest and a bird sitting on them: “You shall surely send away the mother, and the children you may take for yourself in order that it shall be good for you and you shall lengthen your days.”
He then turned to the communal leader and exclaimed, “You have done the exact opposite of this verse. You first took the son and afterward you gave orders to send away the mother.
“I am convinced that the Holy One, blessed be He, will also give you the opposite reward and you will not live many more days.”
The congregation heard the words of their rav and, without hesitation, they ran to the jail where they broke in and freed the captive children.
Not all the children were, of course, as fortunate. Many were led away, but even they exhibited courage and martyrdom. One of the tragic stories concerning these children involves a special visit of the czar to one of the children camps. The commander had all the Jewish children lined up near the riverbank and the Russian Orthodox priests prepared to have them undergo the rites of baptism. As the command was given for the children to immerse themselves, they cried, “Naaseh V’Nishma!”
They then threw themselves into the river – and remained there. Before the startled soldiers could remove them, the martyred children had drowned – al kiddush Hashem.