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The Cantonists: The Jewish Children's Army of the Tsar

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The Cantonists
The Jewish Children's Army of the Tsar

By Larry Domnitch
Devora Publishing (2003)
ISBN: 1-930143-85-0

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - March 16, 2009

The basic period of military service during the Tzarist period in Russia was twenty-five years. It was common for boys as young as seven to be inducted into the military and sent to Cantonist school where they acquired a basic education and went through their military training. It was only after graduating from these schools, at age eighteen, that their twenty-five years of required military service commenced.

In 1827, the Jewish minority in Russia became obligated to take on military service, with each district setting a quota for the number of conscripts be sent to the military from each of the Jewish communities. The age of conscription was twelve! In short order a diabolic trade began in which young boys, many even younger than twelve where kidnapped and sent into the military to fulfill quotas from other regions, to replace the sons of wealthy or high-ranking individuals, and simply because they were Jewish. The reason that the draft was extended to the Jews was that Tzar Nicholas thought that this would be an ideal method of incorporating the Jews into Russia society, primarily by the forcible or coerced conversion to the Russian version of Christianity of these young draftees while they were separated from their families and the greater Jewish community. Later, the 'draft' became even more hideous, when any Jewish male caught without his passport, was automatically drafted.

In The Cantonists: The Jewish Children's Army of the Tsar, Larry Domnitch provides an eye-opening and heart-wrenching account of this horrific period in Jewish history that lasted until 1856. In that short period from 1827-1856, it is estimated that anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000 Jews were forcibly inducted into the Russian military. In this book, Domnitch provides first person accounts of what life was like for these Jewish Cantonists, as well as how the 'draft' worked, and the horrific impact that it had on the Jewish community within the Pale of Settlement.

I found this to be a very haunting book to read, and tears sprung readily to my eyes as I read about the tortures that these young men faced and the harsh penalties faced by those that remained true to Judaism. It is a wonder that any of these young boys found the fortitude to refuse baptism, and it is not surprising, after reading what these children endured, that most succumbed to the pressures they faced, and converted. Which makes the stories of those that remained Jews even more amazing and exhilierating!

The Cantonists: The Jewish Children's Army of the Tsar should be read by anyone with an interest in antisemitism, Tzarist-Russian history, and the history of Eastern European Jewry. This is a book that you'll not soon forget - nor should you!

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