Larry Domnitch     
author of "
The Cantonists: The Jewish Children's Army of the Tsar."
The Jewish Magazine


On August 26, 1827, Tsar Nicholas 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' 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 strengthened the Cantonist system and used it to single out Jewish children for persecution, their baptism being of 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." Historian Simon Dubnov wrote, "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 who were children, were taken by force from their homes and families and inducted into the Russian army. The boys, raised in the traditional world of the Shtetle, were pressured via 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, parents did not know if they would ever see him again. When they retired at night after singing him to sleep, they never knew whether they would have to struggle with the chappers (kidnapper, chap is the Yiddish term for grab) 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 proportion of young men found ways to avoid conscription, government quotas of recruits remained in force. It was the duty of the Kahal (Jewish communal organizational leaders) to ensure the quotas were met. The Kahal was thus under tremendous pressure and had a serious moral dilemma. If they did not provide recruits to fill the quota, the government would punish the Jewish communities with more severe measures, such as increasing the quota of recruits. What was the least damaging way to meet their community's quotas? Should they force the young married men, still in their teens and already supporting a wife and children, to be a Cantonist?

Faced with this agonizing decision, the Kahal often chose to conscript the very young on the basis that they did not yet have dependants. Needless to say, this policy did not provide a trivial solution, since no family would volunteer its child for the draft. The Kahal therefore resorted to the infamous institution of the Chapper. The Kahal paid a fee to the chapper for each child he 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:
The Story of an Archangelsk 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 his twelve year old brother 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 upon 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.

About 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 of it the right size-and a cloth knapsack in which t store their belongings.

On November 6, Itzkovich, with a detachment of boys, was sent off to the battalion. Six or more boys were placed in each of a long line of carts. Most of the Cantonists said goodbye to their families-forever-that day. The entire town also came to bid them farewell. The children and the adults frantically screamed and wept. The crescendo of voices shook the ground. Even after traveling 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 and their hands and feet were stiff with cold. A boy could not remove his knapsack because he could not unfasten the cloth buttons. If the boys cried, they were beaten. Many became ill and died before they arrived at their next destination, Petersburg.

From 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 many perished. 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.

For Itzkovich and his unit, it was one of extreme hardship, full of torture and suffering. Beatings and pressure to accept baptism occurred throughout the day. Even after Itzkovitch contracted an eye disease, a non-commissioned officer beat him with his fists.

A non-commissioned officer was in charge of Itzkovich and his detachment. He was a converted Jew named Yevgraf Vasilyevich 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 down beside the bed. Then he would attempt to persuade the boys with quotations from the Bible, implying that the Jews were in error. Finally, he would demand in a threatening tone that the boys give their consent to be converted to Christianity or else face punishment. Gulevich allowed those boys who agreed 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 accept conversion.

One boy resisted. Every morning he was placed on a bench 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 while in an argument with a Christian comrade would still hear the epithet, "Parkhatyy Yevri!" (disgusting Jew). Sometimes they would add, "A Jew who has been baptized is like a wolf that has been fed!" These insults though 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 Petersburg to send the Cantonists who had turned eighteen to join the regular field troops. In 1854, the boys who had reached that age, including those among Itzkovich's detachment, were dispatched to Petersburg and there, assigned to various units.

When Itzkovich's detachment arrived, it participated in an imperial review in the presence of the Tsar. During the course of the usual questioning about claims, 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 a harsh punishment: to run the gauntlet past three thousand men. However, what would have been a virtual death sentence was suspended after the death of Tsar Nicholas I on February 19, 1855. Nicholas's successor Alexander, cancelled the punishment for the rest of the detachment, and only those who had themselves complained were assigned to garrison battalions in Siberia.

Soon after, Colonel Dyakonov, died suddenly. When the sergeant major came to announce the death of Commander Dyakonov, he ordered that the icon lamps be lighted. Everyone in the room joyfully rushed to light the icon lamps. Dyakonov's burial in a hard December frost kept the boys outside for over two hours; they grew stiff with cold, but it was a joyous holiday for them.

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. However, Jewish children, 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.

A new commander, Captain Okulov was appointed to command the First Company when Dyakonov died. Life changed for the better. 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.

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

Following his release, 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 requested retirement status. He was 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 had 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 as to end his torment.

The army commander appealed to Itzkovich to drop his request, but Itzkovich stated categorically that he would no longer betray God or His people and that he would no longer attend Church or go to confession. Itkovich'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 way Itzkovich. In response to his exhortation, Itzkovich just smiled and said that he was no longer seven years old, but twenty-six. Nor was he transferred to another unit, since his term of service had, by the time ended.

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

The Russian Tsar is long gone, so is the Soviet Union. But today many descendants of the Cantonists outlived all their antagonists and continue to keep the traditions of their forefathers.

For an excellent description of family life see  ‘Brothers’  by Bernice Rubens, Hamish Hamilton 1983

See also