The Jewish people are hardly strangers to persecution and tyranny. When we hear of the complaints of other peoples, we smile bitterly and wonder: What do they know of persecution? What do they know of tragedy and bitterness? We are a people who have experienced oppression for centuries and have drunk deeply of the bitter cup of woe.
Among the bitter memories of the past, few are more painful than that of the days of Russian Jewry under the heel of the wicked Czar Nicholas I. In his hatred and frustration, the evil man devised a cruel scheme that he saw as the answer to his “Jewish problem.” His “solution” was to draft Jewish youngsters as young as eight and nine into his army for a period of 25 years. Every town was given its quota and commanded to fill it under penalty of severe punishment. The wailing and tears that accompanied this announcement can only be 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,” zealously tracked down the children, chasing them into forests and caves. They would drag them back and throw them into the communal jail until the inspectors would arrive and choose.
The children were cruelly torn from their parents and homes, dragged away to the far reaches of Siberia and forced to endure not only terrible physical pain – but also attempts to convert them. Who can count the number who died; the number of those who succumbed to the tortures and embraced Christianity in order to escape the pain and suffering?
The story is told of the great Rav Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, who visited a small Lithuanian town. When he heard the wailing of children who were in the town jail awaiting transportation to the army, he 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.
“You are going to be taken to far away places and you will be tempted and tortured in an attempt to make you leave your faith. Please, dear children, remember what I tell you today. “Remember the 10 martyrs who refused to bow their heads to the Roman oppressors who tried to stop them from teaching Torah. Remember how they chose death rather than give up the life of Torah. Remember Chana and her seven children, 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 strength and chizuk, and as morning came he said:
“Holy little sheep! Soon we will part. 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 rabbanim did more than simply give the children courage. They actively condemned the leaders of the community who timidly acquiesced to the government demands and who helped in the collection of the children. They also urged the people to physically free the unfortunate children. One of those rabbanim was Rav Eliyahu Schick.
On a visit to a small town, Rav Schick was horrified to hear that a whole group of children were imprisoned in the community house, awaiting shipment to the army. Seizing a hatchet in his hand, he ran out to the main Jewish street and cried: “Yidden! Do you know the true meaning of the verse in Yeshaya (42:24) that says: ‘Who has given Yaakov over for plunder, Yisrael to robbers?’ ‘Yaakov” refers to the masses of Bnei Yisrael who are being plundered while ‘Yisrael’ refers to those communal leaders who are themselves the robbers and kidnappers.”
And, turning to the crowd gathered about, he called: “My brothers, why do you stand silently? Let us go and save Jewish souls!”
Inspired by the words of the rav, the crowd seized hatchets and crowbars and broke into the hall, freeing the happy children. Rav Schick then assembled all the Jews into the 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 Kodesh, and removing a Torah Scroll, he cried: “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 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 the synagogue and, interrupting the services, cried out:
“My brothers! My only son has been arrested – along with other boys – and is being held in the community house 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 community leaders!”
The shammas, acting under orders, seized the poor woman and removed her from the shul. The congregation grew silent as Rav Yaakov rose, strode to the Aron and removed one of the scrolls. Rolling it until he reached Parashas Ki Tetzei he 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.”
Having finished, 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 his words and, without hesitation, ran to the communal hall where they broke in and freed the captive children.
Not all the children were, of course, as fortunate. One of these tragic, yet significant stories concerning these children tells of a special visit of the Czar to one of the 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:
“We shall do and we shall hear!”
They then threw themselves into the river – and remained there. Before the startled soldiers could remove them, the martyred children had drowned to sanctify Hashem’s Name.
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