CANTONISTS, Jewish children who were conscripted to military institutions in czarist Russia with the intention that the conditions in which they were placed would force them to adopt Christianity. The "cantonist units" were properly barracks (cantonments) established for children of Russian soldiers. They provided instruction in drill and military training, as well as a rudimentary education. Discipline was maintained by threat of starvation and corporal punishment. At the age of 18 the pupils were drafted to regular army units where they served for 25 years. Enlistment for the cantonist institutions, which originated in the 17th century, was most rigorously enforced during the reigns of
I (1801–25) and
I (1825–55). It was abolished in 1856 under
Military service was made compulsory for Jews in Russia in 1827, the age for the draft being established as between 12 and 25 years. The 1827 statute also provided that "Jewish minors under 18 years of age shall be placed in preparatory training establishments for military training," i.e., the cantonist units. The Jewish communal authorities, who were required to furnish a certain quota of army recruits, were authorized to make up the number of adults with adolescents. The high quota that was demanded, the brutally severe service conditions, as well as the knowledge that the conscript would be forced to contravene Jewish religious precepts and cut himself off from his home and family, made those liable for conscription try every means of evading it. The communal leaders who were made personally responsible for implementing the law took the easiest way out and filled the quota from children of the poorest homes, who made up over half
the total of those conscripted. Every community had special officers, known in Yiddish as khapers ("kidnappers") for seizing the children, who were incarcerated in the communal building and handed over to the military authorities. The khapers, who were not scrupulous about adhering to the minimum age of 12, also impressed children of eight or nine. These were alleged by witnesses on oath to have reached the statutory age. An additional consideration in sending minors was reluctance to cause hardship to adults who were generally married and had to support their families.
The objective of the Russian authorities was to alienate the cantonist children-recruits from their own people and religion. The children were therefore transferred from their homes within the
*Pale of Settlement
and sent to cantonist institutions in Kazan, Orenburg (now Chkalov), Perm, and in Siberia. The journey took several weeks.
The Russian radical author A. Herzen described his meeting in 1835 with a convoy of Jewish cantonists:
"The officer who escorted them said, 'They have collected a crowd of cursed little Jew boys of eight or nine years old. Whether they are taking them for the navy or what, I can't say. At first the orders were to drive them to Perm; then there was a change and we are driving them to Kazan. I took them over a hundred versts farther back. The officer who handed them over said, 'It's dreadful, and that's all about it; a third were left on the way' (and the officer pointed to the earth). Not half will reach their destination,' he said.
"'Have there been epidemics, or what?' I asked, deeply moved.
"'No, not epidemics, but they just die off like flies. A Jew boy, you know, is such a frail, weakly creature, like a skinned cat; he is not used to tramping in the mud for ten hours a day and eating biscuit – then again, being among strangers, no father nor mother nor petting; well, they cough and cough until they cough themselves into their graves. And I ask you, what use is it to them? What can they do with little boys?…'
"They brought the children and formed them into regular ranks: it was one of the most awful sights I have ever seen, those poor, poor children! Boys of twelve or thirteen might somehow have survived it, but little fellows of eight and ten… Not even a brush full of black paint could put such horror on canvas. Pale, exhausted, with frightened faces, they stood in thick, clumsy, soldiers' overcoats, with stand-up collars, fixing helpless, pitiful eyes on the garrison soldiers who were roughly getting them into ranks. The white lips, the blue rings under their eyes, bore witness to fever or chill. And these sick children, without care or kindness, exposed to the icy wind that blows unobstructed from the Arctic Ocean were going to their graves" (A. Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, 1 (1968), 219–20).
Once in the cantonments they were handed over to the supervision of Russian sergeants and soldiers who had been directed to "influence" the children to become baptized. Their ẓiẓit and tefillin were removed forcibly. They were forbidden to pray or even to talk in their own language, and forced to attend Christian religious instruction and learn the ritual. If routine measures, such as threats of starvation, of deprivation of sleep, or of lashing, proved unavailing, the "educators" would resort to all kinds of physical torture until their more stubborn victims either died or became converted. Only a few, mainly the older ones, held out. The cantonists were sometimes sent to Russian farmsteads in remote villages where they performed exhausting labor and were forced to change their faith.
After the baptismal ceremony, when the youngsters changed their names and were registered as children of their sponsors, there commenced a period of training in the company of the non-Jewish cantonists who did not forget the Jewish origin of the converts and continued to maltreat them. Sometimes a youth who reached the age of 18, when about to be drafted to the regular army unit, would state that he wished to revert to Judaism. For this he would be sent to a detention center and punished until he signed a retraction. Some converts returned to the faith on their release from the army, but discovery meant prosecution. A number of cases brought to court during the reign of Alexander II revealed the full horrors of the regime in the cantonist institutions to the Russian public.
The conscription laws were imposed with particular rigor during the Crimean War (1854–55), when a Jewish quota of 30 conscripts per thousand males was required, and gangs of khapers went to hunt down their victims. It is difficult to estimate the number of Jewish minors recruited under the cantonist legislation in the 29 years of its operation. The incomplete data available indicate that they numbered 30,000 to 40,000. In 1843, 6,753 children of Jewish origin were reported in 22 cantonist institutions, and in 1854, at the height of the enforcement of the laws, 7,515 Jewish minors were conscripted into the Russian army.
The government of Nicholas I regarded the cantonist laws as part of the system of legislation for "correcting" the Jews in the realm, their principal object being to convert large numbers of Jewish children to Christianity and make them conform to the Russian environment. The cantonist laws were therefore used as a means of exerting pressure on Jews in other spheres. Jewish youths who attended the state schools, for instance, were exempted from their military obligations, as were children of Jewish agricultural colonists. These concessions, therefore, to some extent promoted an increase in the proportion of Jewish children at state schools and of Jewish agricultural settlers. The cantonist legislation also did not apply to districts of the Kingdom of Poland and of Bessarabia – the latter until 1852 – so that a number of Jews moved from the Ukraine, Belorussia, and Lithuania to these areas. The law thus also stimulated Jewish emigration from Russia.
The "kidnapping rules" left a bitter residue in the minds of the Jewish masses in Russia. The opposition which sometimes flared up was generally directed against the Jewish communal leaders. Tales circulated of tragic cases of death and martyrdom among the cantonists. It is no accident that in those districts where the cantonist problem was acute social tension within Jewish society was more intense. The horror that descended upon the Jewish communities is reflected in the folk poems of the period:
"Tears flood the streets
Bathed in the blood of children –
The fledglings are torn from ḥeder
And thrust into uniform –
Alas! What bitterness.
Will day never dawn?"
Accounts of the afflictions endured by the cantonists appear in memoirs of the period by the Russian revolutionary A. Herzen (see above), the Jewish authors
Judah Leib *Levin
, and others. In Jewish literature their sufferings find expression in works by
Mokher Seforim (Emek ha-Bakha),
(Ba-Yamim ha-Hem, 1906), and
(Ha-Ḥatufim) as well as in the books of
, who was of cantonist origin (Vek perezhit – ne pole pereyti, 1910).