In the footsteps of the Cantonists

July 28, 2016

Those who had survived the 25 years of forced conscription in the tsar’s army were brought to be reintegrated into Jewish life. Most knew nothing about their heritage or religion.
Russian Lithuanian Jewish heritage

Two Jewish boys conscripted into the tsar’s Army, in Lithuania in the late 19th century. The photo was found among the author’s family records. (photo credit:Courtesy)

As a teenager I remember my parents proudly referring to my height and talking about my Dad’s Grandfather.

“You take after your great-grandfather. He was 6’6” [198 cm.] and a Nikolai Soldat.”

What was a Nikolai Soldat? I wondered. It wasn’t until recently when I read Larry Domnitch’s book The Cantonists – The Jewish Children’s Army of the Tsar that I began to appreciate the dark history of my Russian/ Lithuanian Jewish heritage.

Back in 1966, my father’s American cousins confirmed to him that he was indeed the grandchild of Arieh Hersowitz, who had been snatched from his parents’ home in Odessa at the tender age of 14. Such was the fate of thousands of Jewish youngsters who were press-ganged into Imperial Russian military service. My great-grandfather served in the army of Tsar Nicholas I for 25 years, miraculously survived and remained Jewish.

I always wanted to know more and never quite managed to connect the pieces of this family puzzle. Was this just a family bob be-meise (“old wives’ tale”) or did this actually happen? In 1997 my wife and I undertook a roots trip to Lithuania. One Friday morning in the archives of Vilnius, I was incredibly fortunate to find a piece of evidence confirming that the said great-grandfather was indeed a Nikolai Soldat. It came in the form of the birth record of his son Leib who was born in 1867. The birth record was documented in Russian and Yiddish and clearly stated that my great-grandfather was a farmer and a military reservist.

My recent visit to St. Petersburg helped me unravel more of the story. I learned a lot about the illustrious Empress of all the Russians, Catherine the Great, and her offspring. None of the tour guides mentioned that it was she and her son Nicholas who carried out the evil decrees that resulted in the kidnapping of Jewish children, some as young as seven. It seems she could not tolerate the idea of her Jewish subjects refusing to accept Russian Orthodox Christianity. After many attempts at forcing Jewish families to convert, she targeted young Jewish males. Throughout the Russian Empire groups of Jewish men called “chappers” (grabbers) were sent to forcibly abduct at least one Jewish male child from every family. The stories documented in Domnitch’s book are horrifying and heartrending. Subsequently, thousands of Jewish boys perished as they were marched across Russia in freezing temperatures, without food or adequate protection from the elements. Many accepted conversion after being starved and brutally tortured.

In St. Petersburg, I came face to face with our family nemesis – the statue of Nicholas I on a prancing warhorse. His image dominates the skyline in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. A short distance away is another church that looks like the Kremlin. It is known as the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The guide then recounted more of the story enabling me to understand how and why my great-grandfather survived. The magnificent church was built to honor the memory of Tsar Alexander II. He was the son of Nicholas I. He was known as a more liberal ruler and a reformer. Indeed he revoked many of his predecessors’ edicts, and abolished serfdom. He also brought to an end the brutal conscription of Jewish youngsters. By the time Alexander II acceded to the Russian throne, rumblings of dissent began to appear. There were two attempts on the tsar’s life. The second one ended with him being horrifically blown up by an assassin’s bomb hurled into his carriage. His blood drenched the cobblestone streets and the church was erected by his son Alexander III on the exact spot where he died. It was a terrible end to a man who was probably responsible for my great-grandfather’s survival and our family’s continuity.

Our tour to the Baltics ended in Riga, Latvia, a city overshadowed by the Holocaust and drenched in Jewish blood. As we drove through the remains of the ghetto, we passed an empty lot which was covered in fresh green grass.

“Here once stood the soldier’s shul [Yiddish for synagogue],” the guide told us. “This was a shul where those who had survived the 25 years of forced conscription in the tsar’s army were brought to be reintegrated into Jewish life. Most knew nothing about their heritage or religion. Some of these soldiers were rewarded with small plots of land in the Pale of Settlement.”

I felt a shiver down my spine as I remembered my great-grandfather’s story. He too had been rewarded with a small plot in Posvil, Lithuania. The land was sold and the proceeds used to pay for his children’s passages to America and South Africa.

The unusual inscription above the Ark in the Great Synagogue of Riga reads: “Blessed Art Thou O Lord who did not give us as prey to their teeth.”

Although this verse from Psalms refers to the Holocaust, it could have quite easily been recited by Great-Grandpa Arieh, who would have been thrilled to know that at least one of his descendants lives in Eretz Yisrael, free from persecution and protected by a formidable IDF.

The writer lives in Jerusalem