By Yechezkel Kotik
Translated and annotated by Rabbi Yair Hoffman
COVID-19 is causing unprecedented challenges and stressors in our times. We should recall, however, that our previous generations suffered greatly too. Our parents and grandparents went through the Holocaust and through wars. Before that were pogroms and before that were the Cantonist decrees. [We can go further to gezeiros tach v’tat and the Crusades, but let’s pause for now.]
Yechezkel Kotik was the misnaged son of a Slonimer Chossid who lived in Kamenetz during the period of the Cantonist Decrees. [He was raised Chassidish, however.] Kotik’s grandfather, Reb Aharon Leizer, was the parnes of Kamenetz at the time. He was very wealthy, and wielded political power. Yechezkel Kotik’s memoirs remain one of the most fascinating glimpses of life in the shtetl and were first published in 1913. His memoirs include a very vivid description of the horrors of the Cantonist Decrees — when children and young men were kidnapped by our own people to serve in the army of Tsar Nicholas I. It was a horrible time, an eerie precursor to the Kapos of the Nazi era.
The memoirs were an instant hit and were praised by many of the famous Yiddish writers at the time. They were translated from the Yiddish into Hebrew in 1998 by Professor David Assaf, and into English in a work entitled, “Journey to a 19th Century Shtetl.” What follows below is Kotik’s own words from his chapter on the chappers. The headings and re-paragraphing were added to facilitate greater understanding. What is contained in brackets are my notes. Kotik’s firsthand account is truly heart-wrenching.
When I turned eight years old, the infamous decree [of Tzar Nicholas I] was issued, where all eight-year-old boys were to be taken by force in the [Russian] army, where they wanted to convert them to be Christians. The kidnapping of such little boys lasted just one year, when they realized that it was a mistake.
Only 1 out of 100 boys converted — and even that was just barely. Even though they suffered so much, only 1 in a 100 converted. The mothers of these boys had enormous mesiras nefesh in preparing their sons if something like that were to happen.
They warned their sons not to convert for any amount of money. They gave each of their children little tefillin [to use after their eventual bar mitzvah]. The faces of their mothers, so filled with grief, stuck deeply inside the hearts of these little soldiers so much that they refused to abandon Yiddishkeit.
At that time in Kamenetz, there were three [professional] chappers, kidnappers [who were hired to steal the children]. One of them, Aharon Leibeleh, was as cruel as a murderer and had zero rachmanus in his heart. The other two were Chatzkel and Moishky. [These three were originally the bodyguards of Kotik’s alter–zeideh] Their job was to kidnap eight-year-old boys and give them to the army as recruits.
In the cheider of Motke the Melamed was Yosseleh who was from a wealthy family. He was an orphan whose father was a wealthy wagon-driver. He was friendly and smart. His mother was a wealthy widow, who paid the high cost to have a good melamed so that her son could be with the boys of the shtetl’s wealthy families.
The First Attempt
One day, two of the kidnappers came into the cheder in the middle of the day.
They paused at the doorway and looked carefully at all the talmidim learning there. My uncle Yisroel and I knew right away that they had come to kidnap Yosseleh to force him into the army. We grabbed the melamed’s wife’s leichter to throw at their heads and we yelled at them, making a huge noise. We warned them that we would smash their heads if they ever dared show up to the cheder again. Though we were just children, they retreated quickly. [It is likely that this was just “casing out” the situation and that they did not want to execute the kidnapping in front of the children of the shtetl’s elite.]
The Second Attempt
Once, in the middle of the day, when all the cheider boys were on their way home to eat lunch, Aharon Leibeleh tried to kidnap Yosseleh. Immediately realizing what was happening Yosseleh jumped onto me [it seems that this effected an escape because the choppers were afraid of Kotik’s grandfather]. I managed to throw a [large] stone at him and Aharon Leibeleh gave up. It hit him so hard on his shoulder that he suffered from it for a long time afterward.
I took Yosseleh by the hand and brought him to my house. I asked my mother to let him stay at our house, and to let him eat, drink, and sleep with me — until the danger was over. All of us loved Yosseleh because he was smart and gentle. He was also a good-looking boy with rosy cheeks and a nice complexion.
The Third Attempt
The elders [of Kamenetz] gave the chappers permission to catch Yosseleh and no one else. So they hid and waited to ambush him wherever they could. One of them hid close to our house for many days and nights, just in case Yosseleh would accidently leave the house of Moshe and Aharon Leizer on his own.
Yosseleh hid in our home for three whole weeks. As mazal would have it, he was so homesick for his mother that he snuck out once and ran toward his mother’s house. That was when Moishke jumped on him, and there was nothing that could be done. His mother cried with bitter tears over her loss.
One can well imagine his mother’s pain: a young child marches along with rough soldiers — all goyim. He does so until he is 20 years old. Then he must raise pigs until he is to finally start his 25 years of service in the army!
The Fate of Yosseleh
Yosseleh was locked up in the small room next to the Great Beis Medrash [in Kamenetz]. The room had bars on the windows and an iron door. This was where they held all of the kidnapped boys until they brought them to the district leader in Brisk.
In this room, Yosseleh never stopped crying. His mother stood outside of the window. She almost went completely out of her mind with grief.
Later on, the assessor brought up a wagon [from Brisk] that was guarded by three soldiers, to take little Yosseleh away. The little yingeleh fought hard, but he was beaten without mercy until he almost lost consciousness. He was tied up, hands and feet together, and thrown onto the wagon. His mother kept fainting. She never stopped crying fearing chas v’shalom that her child would be forced to convert. Even if they burned him, beat him, and tore his body apart, he must remain strong and resist the physical torture so that his neshamah would rise up to Shamayim.
The heart-wrenching crying of both the mother and her son were heard throughout the shtetl. The atmosphere throughout the kehillah was devastating. Men could not withhold their tears — they joined in with the crying and weeping of the women. The boys of the cheider (some were not allowed to come out and watch) were there to see little Yosseleh be dragged out of the room and thrown into the wagon attached to a team of horses. His mother ran after him toward Brisk in a different wagon. She was constantly fainting the entire way, until some goyim were able to revive her.
Yosseleh’s Mother Dies
Little Yossele had no more strength to keep crying and appeared more dead than alive inside the wagon. He had not eaten anything for many days already. When they reached Brisk, the [assessor?] told the ispravnik what he and his three men had to deal with because of the mother — her crying and her fainting. The ispravnik sent her back home to Kamenetz. She returned home. After two days in bed, she died.
The ispravnik had strict orders never to reveal where the Cantonists were held. They were sent very far away, deep into Russia.
Another Cantonist Speaks
A Cantonist who had actually converted told me [much later] how six such boys out of a group of 30 in Saratov had been baptized [as Christians]. [They started with whipping the children.] When the commander realized that the whippings did not convince them to convert, he came up with an idea as to how to break their resistance to being baptized. He shoved the 30 boys into a bathhouse and turned the steam on so high that it became completely intolerable. Six of the boys broke down and agreed to convert. The rest of them fainted. Three of those died of suffocation. The Cantonist that spoke to me was full of anger to Hashem. In his mind, Hashem does not exist if there can be such cruelty and suffering in the world. If there is a G-d in heaven, then He is an evil G-d.
As I had mentioned before, it was only in the year 1855 that eight-year-old boys were drafted into the army. Soon afterwards, it became clear that these activities did not work. It was too hard to convert a Jewish boy — even if he was only eight years old. The decree was undone [and changed around to create something horrible as well].
Yosseleh disappeared as if he had drowned at sea. One year later, during Chanukah a group of soldiers stayed in a home near Kamenetz for a few months. As often happened, the group of soldiers were switched every three months and then a new group came.
We were shocked to learn that Yosseleh the orphan was among the current soldiers. Aryeh Lein immediately asked the commanding officer to bring Yosseleh to us. He was brought to Zeidy’s house escorted by a number of soldiers. Yosseleh entered barefoot wearing a long peasant’s shirt that went all the way down to his ankles. He had no pants and wore on top of the shirt a long army coat. His face was swollen and pale, like a corpse.
We all broke into tears when we saw him. I cried more than anyone else because he was my closest friend. I loved him dearly.
I went to him and cried, “Yosseleh, Yosseleh!”
It was useless. He didn’t answer. He was like a log. No matter what I said and did. I said, “Yosseleh, Yosseleh, Yosseleh!” There was no response. They brought him tea and cake, but he did not eat or drink. It was a lost cause.
Picture the crying that broke out throughout the shtetl! Most people didn’t see him themselves — the officer only allowed a few people to come and talk to him. I was heartbroken and crushed. I cried for weeks and months over him.
We asked the officer how it was that only this Cantonist came to be among the soldiers here. The officer explained that when the other Cantonists were sent deep into Russia, Yosseleh became very sick. The reason was that he refused to eat any food and was crying for days and nights nonstop. He was in the hospital within one of the fortresses for a long time. Because he had no nutrition, and his constant crying, he completely stopped talking.
It is logical that the real reason that brought this all about was his fear of his kidnappers. Is this really something to play with? Should an eight-year-old child be in constant fear that he will be kidnapped? What could be more frightening? He never understood why they were trying to take him. The only think he could think of was: Here they will take me! Take me! Take me!
Once he had completely turned into a simpleton, he was finally able to eat regularly and stand on his feet. He was released from the hospital and handed over to the soldiers. They took him along with them. Shortly afterward, the commanding officer sent him back to the fortress. Why did they have to drag him along with them from place to place? The soldiers might even kill this little Jew one of these days.
The Decree Changes
The next year, in 1856, the decree was removed. But there was a new decree on the Jews. Each town was allowed to get its quota of Jews from the people of another town. That [decree] started unheard of kidnappings among Jews. It was supposedly kidnapping but it turned into bloody wars.
The kidnappers would arrive from out-of-the-way towns and catch potential soldiers. They would arrive in the middle of the night and snatch from their beds [specific] young men, some even from wealthy families, and some even fathers of children.
Those were the most horrible scenes ever seen among Jews. The kidnappers would come quietly into the town, not noticed by others. They came to the local police with permits that were issued by their own town’s sborshchik and assessor that identified them as [officially sanctioned] kidnappers. The police gave them as many officers and soldiers as were needed.
They would bang on the door in the middle of the night. If the door did not open immediately, they would break open the locks with special tools that were brought along for this purpose. They entered inside quickly and dragged out the young man with shocking brutality and then they left [with him].
When a family heard the police knocking they were gripped with intense fear. Sometimes, they tried fighting the chappers off with axes, knives, iron bars, and hammers that were prepared beforehand. As soon as the kidnappers entered the house all of the family members would attack them with murderous blows.
The chappers also came with sticks and rods of iron. They hit back as much as they received. The house turned into a war scene. Blood would flow like water. Both sides fought with all their strength. The winners were the ones that held out the longest. Usually they were the chappers.
Once they latched onto someone, it was a lost cause. The whole matter caused damage beyond what words can describe. Even the chappers put their lives at risk. They either succeeded and kidnapped their intended victim or they were permanently maimed for life.
Very often, the mothers of those who were drafted died of a broken heart. The fathers and the wives [of the young men taken] were crippled as a result of the violent clashes. The cries and wailing of these families rose up to the highest levels in shamayim. There was more. The family members had to face charges in court for resisting the police, for murder [and attempted murder], for assaults with iron rods, etc.
They lost any wealth that they had, even the wealthiest of families were destroyed and wiped out completely. It is easy to understand why they risked life and property to save their sons from the jaws of the army. In those days, everyone knew of the remarkably cruel treatment these soldiers had to endure. They had to endure it for 25 years.
Seeing the Soldiers Firsthand
I remember when a group of recruits were stationed in Kamenetz. Only then did I really understand what serving in Tsar Nicholas’s army really meant. The soldiers had to undergo the cruelest of punishments in their drills that were held in the market square. If the soldier did not hold his rifle properly or stood just a fraction off in lineup, his sergeant would twist his ear, pull his nose, or kick him without mercy.
We were certain that the soldier’s ear or nose were actually ripped off and would end up in the sergeant’s hand. At times, he would hit a soldier so hard with the iron barrel of the rifle that the soldier doubled up in pain writhing around. They would whip soldiers so brutally in public for the flimsiest of reasons. Fresh birch switches were brought from the forest every day [for this]. Each whipping from such a branch tore strips of flesh from the body of the soldier.
I remember one officer that was housed at Moshke’s inn — who was especially cruel and a murderer. The inn was a nice building with a stable large enough to house a number of carriages. Moshke rented the entire inn out to the officers, who used the stables for whipping the soldiers. I remember those birch branches whipping switches well. Every day you could hear the sounds of those whips cracking in the air. Sometimes it landed on one single soldier, at other times it was for three of them at a time. After these whippings, we boys snuck into the stables and we would find the ground completely drenched in blood.
Once an officer whipped three soldiers to death. He ordered 500 lashes for each one. After 80 or 90, they were pretty much dead. The officer was standing there and yelled, Continue! Whip harder!” If the officer had ordered 500 lashes—that was what would be. Two soldiers did the whipping and one did the counting.
Army bread was black and tough to eat. It was tasteless and had no salt. It could barely be swallowed. The officers, however, had everything they needed. They stole whatever they found from the soldiers who went without tasting meat unless it was from a dead animal’s carcass.
The officers would sell absolutely everything that they could get their hands on. When suppliers brought in flour or meat — they would give receipts for only one third of what was brought in [and consume or hold onto the rest for themselves.] The soldiers were always near starvation, which is why they stole. Whipping wouldn’t stop the stealing; they were starving and were just skin and bones — from both the lack of food and from the whippings. It is because of all of this that families were willing to risk their lives to save a family member from the most miserable life and the twenty-five years of a soldier in Nicholas’ army — it was to save their son from the clutches of such cruel animals.
The Newer Decree
This kind of kidnapping from out-of-town chappers soon was to change. It did not work and the government soon changed this form of the decree as well. Now, each town, once again, had to provide its quota of soldiers from its own “nefashos” — not from other towns. Since many people did not technically reside within their own town the chappers were sent to other towns to chap their “own residents.”
This too created some workarounds [which allowed for the horrific and immoral action of kidnapping strangers and giving them in under false identities]. Towns handed in names of people who were actually not registered anywhere. All of the “non-registered” were caught and delivered to the army. Every town also added fictitious names to the official census [of that town]. That was also a devious yet simple ruse. Back then, every Jew had two or three names.
For example, one person was called Yaakov Yoseph Leib Mintz. One Jew would get a passport with the name of Yaakov Mintz. A second would get one under the name Yoel Mintz. A third would go under the name Leib Mintz. They would create a fictitious name for another. That is how the Jews did things in Russia until the year 1874.
If someone did not leave the area and was to be handed into the army— he had to be kidnapped. No one entered it voluntarily. Once a person was caught—it was a lost cause. We can understand here [as well] why families of these recruits waged wars against the chappers. Words cannot describe how these chappers’ hearts were made of stone. They were more vile and hated than even the hangman of the times. Every “chapping” involved major beatings and very serious injuries. The crying and weeping of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and other family members made these cold-hearted chappers callous and uncaring.
Aharon Leibeleh Himself
The chapper, Aharon Leibele was an animal in human form. His face itself showed his murderous nature. Everyone hated him and his name was used to frighten and threaten children who misbehaved. He was the example of the most hateful of people. The worst curse that one could give someone was to say, “You are just like Aharon Leibele.” It was an unforgiveable insult.
I had previously explained how when I was young I “fought” with the chappers. I did so out of a feeling of disgust at seeing what they did. Here is another story: Once, while standing with a group of boys next to the Maggid’s house, I saw David the Carpenter run by quickly. I thought that perhaps Aharon Leibele was chasing him to chap him for the army. That was exactly what it was.
Aharon Leibeleh had almost caught up with him. By instinct I ran toward him and stuck out my leg, tripping him. He fell down and his nose bled like a pig. All the other kids ran away. I remained and yelled, “Aharon Leibeleh, you should die a misa meshuneh!”
He got up and wiped his bloody nose with a dirty cloth. He did not dare to curse me. He did, however, complain to my father about me. My father slapped me and said, “You should not have tripped him — even though he is Aharon Leibele.”
Zeidy eventually stopped his involvement with all public matters. Only if something very important was needed from the chief official of the district [ispravnik] did the leaders of the shtetl come to Zeidy and ask for a letter about the matter. They knew that the chief official never refused any of Zeidy’s requests. During the terrible days of the [Cantonist] decrees, the families of someone who was to be drafted would come and beg my Bubby, Bailah Rasha, to try to convince her husband to do something to free him.
They didn’t go to the tax assessor [the shborshchik who wielded enormous power] or to the town elders — they came to Bubby. They knew that Reb Aharon Leizer [Kotik’s zeidy] was not involved with the drafting and that he did not even know who they were going to be. But they were sure that if he recommended that this person not be taken — he would be listened to and someone else would be taken in his place. This happened in the past and they always came to Bubby — who did not have the strength to go on [from this].
This ends Yechezkel Kotik’s firsthand account of the chappers.
Background of the Cantonist Decrees
The Cantonist Decree for Jewish children was made on August 26, 1827 (September 7, 1827 according to the Gregorian Calendar) and was signed by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia 20 months after he became Tsar. It was officially called the “Statute on Conscription Duty.” Essentially, it required that Jews also perform military service, but at a higher recruitment rate than the gentile population and from a younger age. Jewish boys from the ages of 12 to 25 (but sometimes as young as 8) were taken at the rate of 4 recruits per 1,000 Jewish residents. In total, about 84,000 Jews were taken.
It was the responsibility of the leaders of the kehillah to deliver the recruits and some adopted some very vile means of doing so. There were people called chappers who literally kidnapped children to place the in the hands of the Tsarist army.
Rav Yisroel Salanter, zt’l, could not stand this government-sanctioned kidnapping and near-forced conversion to Christianity and made every effort to put a stop to it at the highest level of government. He created a special committee to attempt to repeal this most vile of decrees.
A secret meeting was held in the summer of 1851 during the market of Zelwa (held each year from July 25 for four weeks; it lasted until the end of the 19th century). Money was raised secretly to fund a mission of deputized shtadlanim. Eliyahu Levinson of Kratinga, a wealthy student of Rav Salanter, donated 1,100 rubles of his own funds toward this effort. Counting inflation this would have a modern approximate value of $22,000. The attendees of the meeting sent Rabbi Elchanan Cohen to St. Petersburg to work toward this goal and to act on the groups behalf. Rav Yisroel Salanter was the main force behind it and worked with Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector on it as well.
In 1852, the group had the Gomel petition presented, which asked the Tsar to repeal the yet higher draft rate. The group met again that year in Bobruisk and chose two wealthy shtadlanim to go to St. Petersburg with large sums of money for purposes of helping convince government officials to try to influence the Tsar and with letters from attorneys. These two individuals were Meshulem Feivel Friedland of Dvinsk and Nissen Katzenelson of Bobruisk.
Try as they could, however, those behind all of these efforts did not see fruit with Nicholas I. He died in February of 1855. Nicholas I’s son, Alexander II, took over as Tsar.
On August 26, 1856, after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, Tsar Alexander II, in response to appeals by the Jewish community, removed the horrifying clauses of the Cantonist Decree. It took three years to fully implement. When Rav Yisroel heard that the conditions were abrogated, he declared a yom tov.
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.