Military Conscription

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After the pogroms, the czarist policy of forced military conscription was the most oppressive reality confronting the Jews in the Pale of Settlement.  Dan Leeson, in his essay entitled “Military Conscription in 19th Century Russia”, argues that Russian Jews usually did not change their names in order to avoid the draft, as scholars have traditionally claimed, nor did they commonly resort to mutilating themselves.  However, they resisted military recruiters as best they could, and fled the country when they ran out of options.

            In the first quarter of the nineteenth century the threat of recruitment did not yet exist for Jews.  Leeson explains: “Until 1827, Jews in Russia were forbidden to serve in the military.  Instead, they were taxed for being denied the right to serve their country... The impossibility of a Jew serving in the Russian military did not come at the request of the Jewish community but from Russian law, [which was] designed to prevent Jews from serving their country...  Any contrary position would have forced the Russian oligarchy into giving Jews a measure of political equality, [which] they had no intention of doing... (In some countries where it was forbidden for Jews to serve in the armed forces, their absence in the armies was offered as evidence that Jews were cowards, unwilling to fight for their country.)”

            In 1827 it was decreed by the Russian authorities that henceforth Jews were subject to compulsory military duty.  Under Nicholas I “any male between the ages of 12 and 25 could be conscripted for a standard period of 25 years.”  However, in the 1880s the length of service was reduced to 5 to 10 years.  According to Leeson, the levy called for ten Jewish males to be selected out of every thousand Jews of the population each year, while only seven gentile males were to be drafted out of every thousand gentiles every two years.  Thus, with respect to the general population, a far higher proportion of Jews were required to serve.  In the course of the century military service came to be seen as more of a burden than an honor, as Jews were increasingly called upon to fill the ranks of the czar’s armies.  Although Jews were “permitted” to serve in the military from 1827 onwards, veterans’ privileges were not extended to them until 1856.  Prior to 1856 non-Jewish veterans who had served for twenty-five years were automatically given land, although often in inhospitable or inaccessible places.  After this date the same land privileges were granted to Jewish veterans.

            A military code redacted in 1864 contained no special clauses with regard to Jews, but in 1876 a law was passed decreeing that every Jewish draftee who was unfit for duty was to be replaced by another Jew from the same precinct.  In 1878 the law was amended so that Jewish precincts were obliged to meet recruitment quotas, even if it meant drafting unhealthy Jews who otherwise would have been exempt from duty.  Meanwhile, non-Jews were often able to find a legal pretext for avoiding duty.  In 1886, in order to close a gaping loophole, Jews were forbidden from transferring between military precincts.  Additional rubrics stipulated that the family of any Jew who evaded military service was to be fined 300 rubles, while anyone who captured a Jewish draft-evader was to be rewarded 50 rubles in cash. In addition, Jewish communities were compelled to provide one conscript for every 1,000 rubles of debt owed to the government in back-taxes.  Leeson claims that “Between the years 1874 and 1892 (excluding 1883 for which no reliable figures are available), a total of 173,434 Jewish recruits were drafted.”  The military authorities were highly organized and disciplined, and it was extremely difficult to avoid recruitment.

New conscripts depart for war

            According to Leeson, “The entire subject of conscription of Jews into the Russian army cannot be divorced from the apparently overwhelming desire of the Russian oligarchy to convert all Jews to Christianity.  Many measures were instituted to accomplish that end, including: (1) the endowment of all rights accorded to Christians to any baptized Jew of the same rank; (2) the exemption from taxes for three years [for] any Jewish convert”; (3) the establishment of obligatory military service for Jews as well as Christians.  Leeson believes that the 1827 regulation permitting Jews to serve in the army was “motivated solely by the [government’s] desire to detach a large number of Jews from Jewish society, or else to transplant them elsewhere on Russian soil, so as to deprive them of Jewish influence and, where practical, baptize them.”

            Naturally, the government’s conscription policies, together with the violent pogroms, caused a mass emigration of Jews from the Russian Empire.  As a consequence of the loss of so many able-bodied young men, the kahals, committees of Jewish elders designated by the authorities as representatives of the Jewish communities, were unable to furnish the required number of recruits.  Since each conscript not presented on demand resulted in the forced conscription of an additional two men, “it became necessary to recruit cripples, invalids, old men, and others who had previously been exempt.  This included only sons, oldest sons, sole supporters of families, children as young as eight years of age, and others who were thought to be exempt [because] of their family or personal situations.”  The authorities even went so far as to conscript members of the kahals themselves, which were generally constituted by men of advanced age.

            In spite of these Draconian measures, conscription arrears continued to increase.  Leeson claims that from 1853 “the Jewish communities began to remedy this situation by seizing Jews within their own districts who were without passports, or who belonged to other Jewish communities.  These seized men were then included in their own quota of recruits.  The head of a family, whatever his own standing, was given the right to seize such Jews and to deliver them to the authorities as substitutes for themselves or for members of their own families.”  Certainly, this type of behavior was more the exception than the rule, but the fact that Jews, even occasionally, were reduced to betraying one another attests to their extreme desperation.  In the second half of the nineteenth century, as exemptions became almost impossible to obtain, Jews began to flee to the west in large numbers, while those who remained frantically sought to evade the authorities.

            During the darkest period of forced military conscription Jewish communities were ordered to appoint special officers called khappers (which can be translated as “bounty-hunters” or “those who grab”).  The khappers were charged with seizing boys and young men from their families, incarcerating them in the town government building and turning them over to the army.  Leeson claims that the khappers “were not scrupulous about adhering to the minimum age of twelve”, and frequently abducted children as young as eight years old.  After witnesses affirmed under oath that the sequestered children had reached the statutory age the latter were spirited away to inaccessible regions such as Kazan, Orenburg (now Chklaov), Perm and Siberia.  Once there, it was impossible to escape and return home.  The youngest children were raised in holding facilities until they reached the age of twelve, at which point they were formally inducted into the armed forces.  The writer A. Herzen tells of his encounter with a convoy of abducted Jewish children in 1835: “The officer who escorted them said, ‘They have collected a crew of cursed little Jew boys of 8 or 9 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. [material deleted]  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 12 or 13 might somehow have survived it, but little fellows of 8...”

            Leeson emphasizes the lawlessness of the khappers’ methods.  In addition to healthy Jewish males they seized many who were sick or in poor physical health, others who had legal documents that were supposed to exempt them from military duty, and still others on whom entire families depended for food and income.  Although children were the special targets of abductions, no man was safe upon leaving his home unescorted and unarmed.  Once the poimaniki (abductees) were in the hands of the khappers there was absolutely no legal recourse.  Certain sources suggest that some of the kidnappers may have been Jews, but this has never been proven.  In all likelihood they were rough gentile peasants who were sent into Jewish areas in order to levy troops.

            According to Leeson, Jews did not frequently mutilate themselves in order to disqualify themselves for the draft, nor did parents intentionally harm their children in order to achieve such an end.  However, he reports that there were “cases of children who were made unfit for service (or at least an attempt was made to make them unfit) by not permitting them to sleep for days, running them around town for hours until they were exhausted, and starving them...” As far as the Grossman family is concerned, John Marcus told me that the family of Jacob (Moishe Grossman’s uncle, who came to Minneapolis from Ukraine in 1892) cut off his big toe in order to exempt him from military duty.  The stratagem probably did not work since he ultimately fled from the Russian Empire anyway.  On the other hand, he may have emigrated as a direct consequence of the pogroms, and not because of the threat of induction into the military.

            With regard to conscription the account of Paul W. Ginsburg (cited below) is interesting: “This shtetl (Sudilkov) was the birthplace of my great-grandfather Nuchem Wilcher. Nuchem, son of Yitzchok and Gissie, was born in 1874 into a family of two brothers and one sister. As a teenager he was drafted into the Czarist army.  Following the lead of his older brother Aaron, Nuchem left Sudilkov and immigrated to America.  On February 23, 1898 Nuchem arrived in New York aboard the S.S. Furnessia. Shortly thereafter, he was reunited with his brother Aaron in Philadelphia.  In America, Nuchem Wilcher became Nathan Ginsburg.”

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