Sunday, July 10, 2011

Now and then: Forced Jewish conscription and the Volga River

The Volga River in Kazan, where 1,000 Jewish children did
a monumentous act of Kiddush Hashem in 1836

On Sunday a boat carrying 182 people sank in the Volga River near the city of Tatarstan. News agencies are reporting one dead and at least a hundred people missing.

In the auspicious week of Yud Bes - Yud Gimmel Tammuz, the holiday of the liberation of the Freideker Rebbe (1880-1950) from Russian prison, we learn that the Volga River has not forgotten. Upon being released from Soviet prison, the Friedeker Rebbe made sure to emphasize the significance his release for all of am yisrael for generations to come: "It was not myself alone that the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed on Yud-Beis Tammuz, but also all who love the Holy Torah and observe its commands, and so too all who bear the name ‘Jew’."

The Rebbe's imprisonment as well was a direct result of his mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) for the Jews of Russia and the Torah. Despite persistent surveillance by the Russian secret police, the Rebbe continued to strengthen Torah observance through establishing clandestine Torah schools for children, mikvahs, and yeshivas. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, the Friediker Rebbe made great efforts to provide kosher food and supplies for Jewish conscripts of the Russian army in the Russian far East year-round and during Passover.

In the 19th century the Russian army essentially began abducting Jewish boys from the age of 12, placing them in six-year military schools, and requiring them to serve for 25 years after their studies. Between 1827 and 1856 between 30,000 and 70,000 Jewish boys served as compulsory conscripts, comprising 20% of conscripts in Riga and Vitebsk and as much as half of conscripts in Kazan and Kiev. During the Crimean War (1952-1856) these the Jewish percentage of recruits tripled.

The first draft of 1827 called for 1,800 Jewish conscripts, half of whom were children. Whereas other populations were called to provide conscripts between 18 and 35, Jews were required to provide conscripts between 12 and 25. All conscripts were institutionally malnourished, and kosher food far from available. By Russian policy conscripts were encouraged to convert to Orthodox Christinaity, and Jews boys were forced into baptism. Estimates are that one third of Jewish forced conscripts, or cantonists, underwent conversion between 1827 and 1844.

In Cantonists: Jewish Children as Soldiers in Tsar Nichloas' Army, by Adina Ofek (Modern Judaism: 13:3, Oct. 1993, p. 286), the author retells an account of a group of around 1,000 Jewish children recruited to be conscripts in the Russian army, who were ordered to be baptized in the Volga River in the city of Kazan during a visit by Tsar Nicholas in the summer of 1836. All the children, some as young as nine, were marched into the river together. Yet to the Tsar's astonishment, the children held on to each other, waded deeper into the river and drowned themselves in an unfathomable act of kiddush Hashem.

Hashem does not forget his people. Imagine the pure and holy mesiras nefesh of one Jewish boy who walked into the river by his own will in order to glorify God's name for eternity, the preciousness of that soul is not forgotten, the memory has not faded, every tribulation that every Jew throughout history faced is recorded and calculated, every detail precious and ever relevant to the Almighty, whose merit shines upon all future generations. May Hashem's love for his people overflow upon His middot and His people and may He usher in the geulah in the merit of the tefilos of these holy souls.

נצח ישראל לא ישקר

See map below for the proximity of Kazan (A) and Tartastan (B)

View Larger Map

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest! Please join the conversation:

Discuss with other readers in real-time