Historical Background of the Cantonists’ Fate
Under the guise of attempting to assimilate the Jewish Russian citizens into secular society, Czar Nicholas I ordered an annual recruitment quota on Jewish males, ages twelve through twenty five, forcing them to serve in the Russian army. Beginning in the year 1827, ten Jewish recruits for every thousand inhabitants were drafted into the army. Boys younger than eighteen, many of who were as young as eight years old, were placed in Cantonist Batallions for special military training and education. Nicholas’s mission was to baptize these boys before they turned eighteen, the official age of conscription. Upon their eighteenth birthdays, cantonists were thrust into the army for twenty-five years of army service1.
The legislation of the Cantonist Decrees prohibited the Jews’ ability to exempt their sons from the draft through monetary substitution. Nicholas hoped that by forcing all Jewish males to serve in the Russian army the Jews would assimilate into society, following in the path of their soon-to-be baptized sons. However, Jewish merchants who belonged to the elite first guild social class, as well as rabbis and their families were exempted from the military draft despite the amount of age-eligible boys in their families.
The task of recruiting enough boys to fill the quotas of the conscription was placed upon the leaders of the Jewish communities. The leaders appointed khappers, members of their Jewish communities, to snatch, or khap, Jewish boys. The khappers engaged in deceptive ploys in order to bait children, and sometimes they went as far as to
1Ofek, Adina. Cantonists: Jewish Children as Soldiers in Tsar Nicholas’s Army. Modern Judaism: volume 13, number 3, pages 277-308. 1993. Oxford University Press.
abduct boys from the embrace of their mothers on public streets in broad daylight. Indubitably, members of the Jewish communities despised the khappers and were terrified of...