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Jews Fled Russia to Escape Poverty, Oppression, and Czarist Edicts—and their Own Self-Interested Communal Leaders

What did America offer them?

Robert Rockaway
October 23, 2017
Image via Houston Public Media
Image via Houston Public Media

Histories written about the “Great Immigration” of 2 million Russian Jews to the United States during the years 1881–1914, all cite Russian oppression, poverty, and pogroms as central reasons for the exodus. But another salient cause is rarely noted or publicized: the restrictive, self-interested, and anti-democratic leadership of their own Jewish communities.

Nicholas I ascended to the Imperial Russian throne in 1825. Nicholas hated the Jews, whom he viewed as an anarchic, cowardly, and parasitic people; he referred to them as Zhids (Yids, kikes), damned for eternity for killing Christ and for refusing to accept him as the messiah. The best way to deal with them was through repression, persecution and, if possible, conversion. During his 30-year reign, he passed 600 decrees against Jews. Nevertheless, he also sought to transform the Jews into “useful” subjects. He used the army to accomplish this goal.

Nicholas held army service in high esteem. He believed that the army served as a school for virtue and discipline, and saw the army as a genuinely educational institution. He became convinced that that most of the ills of Jewish society could be cured by forcing Jewish young men to spend a period in the army. Then they would learn Russian, as well as useful skills and crafts, and eventually, they would become more modern and useful subjects. Nicholas also viewed the army as a means to break down Jewish separatism and autonomy, a way to foster Jewish integration, and a means to convert them.

In 1827, he passed a military service law that decreed a period of service for 25 years beginning at the age of 18. Nicholas also added a special clause that referred to the Jews. Like their non-Jewish counterparts, the local Jewish community was collectively required to furnish a quota of military recruits. However, Jewish children could be inducted into the army at the age of 12. These child conscripts were called “cantonists,” the Russian term for juvenile conscripts. These recruits would serve in special cantonist battalions until they reached 18, upon reaching which age they would be transferred to the regular army and begin their 25-year term. Cantonists made up 50,000 of the 70,000 Jewish recruits between 1827 and 1855.

In his memoir, My Past and Thoughts, Alexander Herzen, a Russian writer and thinker, recorded his feelings when he encountered a group of these Jewish recruits in 1835. He described the scene as “one of the most terrible spectacles I have ever witnessed. Poor, poor children! The boys of 12 or 13 managed somehow to stand up, but the little ones of 8 and 10. … No brush, however black, could convey the terror of this scene on the canvas. … Pale, worn out, with scared looks, they stood in their rough soldier’s uniforms … fixing a helpless, pitiful gaze upon the garrison soldiers, who were handling them rudely. White lips, blue lines under the eyes betokened either fever or cold. And these poor children, without care, without a caress, exposed to the wind which blows unhindered from the Arctic Ocean, were marching to their graves.”

Nicholas viewed converting the Jewish recruits to Russian Orthodoxy as part of his program to Russify them. As soon as they entered the camps, Jewish cantonists encountered pressures to convert. The methods employed included taking away their phylacteries, prayer books, prayer shawls, forcing them to eat pork, and physically abusing them. At least half of the cantonists underwent conversion to Christianity. In most cases however, conversion was a means to survive in an utterly hostile environment.

Popular memory describes cases where cantonists preferred martyrdom to conversion. One surviving story tells of a military parade in the city of Kazan, where the battalion commander ordered all the cantonists to line up on the banks of the river, where Russian Orthodox priests stood in their vestments ready to baptize them. At his command to jump in the water, the boys answered “Yes, sir,” and marched into the water and disappeared. When they were finally dragged out, they all were dead.

Each local Jewish community (the Kahal) had the responsibility for selecting those who would serve. The communal leaders consisting of the wealthy, the well-connected, and the rabbis decided which members of the community would serve. It was natural for them to protect their own families and children from conscription and to send the weakest and most vulnerable members of the community. These included single men, heretics, beggars, vagrants, orphaned children, and children of the poor.

Since poor families knew what to expect, they sought to save their children. Much of their trauma stemmed from their fear that their children would be forcibly baptized. Consequently, they hid them in the forest, sent them to other towns, and even mutilated their bodies so as to become ineligible for military service. Mutilation included amputating a finger from the right hand, cutting the Achilles tendon so the youngster would limp, and in extreme cases, blinding one eye.

Because of the resistance to the draft and to meet the quotas, the communal leadership employed Jewish thugs, called khappers (snatchers) to go into the homes or grab children off the street. One witness remembered khappers in his village as being pious Jews with beards and side-locks. The khappers did not discriminate as to the age of the children, and often snatched youngsters from age 10 or even younger claiming they were 12 or older. This embittered the recruits and their families toward the czar and his government, and also toward the Jewish “establishment” in their communities. Their anger led to violent resistance against the khappers, including rioting against communal leaders and efforts to leave the community.

A Yiddish folk song of the period movingly expresses their sentiments:

Tears flow in the streets
One can wash oneself in children’s blood
Alas! How great is our dismay
Will never dawn a brighter day?
Little babies from school are torn away,
And dressed up in soldier’s gray
Our leaders and our rabbis
Even help turn them into Gentiles
Rich Zushe Rakover has seven sons
Not one a uniform dons
But poor widow Leah has an only child
And they hunt him down as if he were wild
It is right to draft the hard working masses
Shoemakers or tailors, they’re only asses!
But the children of the idle rich
They must carry on without a hitch

It is not surprising that the involvement of the Jewish leadership in conscription led to a breakdown of communal solidarity.

The immigration of Russian Jews to America was due not only to poverty and czarist oppression. For many Jews, it was an act of rebellion against their community’s elites and rabbis. Fleeing to America was a manifestation of this anger. Once in America, they experienced freedom, opportunity, and independence. They were no longer beholden to a Jewish establishment and had the religious autonomy to be any kind of Jew they chose—or no kind at all.

My grandfather’s story illustrates this dynamic well. He came to America in 1909 from David Horodok, a town in White Russia. He was Orthodox and worked as a blacksmith. In America, he turned to peddling. He arrived in Galveston, Texas, as part of the Galveston Movement. This was the brainchild of the Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff. Its goal was to have the Eastern European Jewish immigrants bypass New York City with its congestion, poverty, and problem-filled Lower East Side—and its population of highly-assimilated German Jews, who feared and loathed the Eastern newcomers as threats to their own social status—and travel directly from European ports to the western part of the United States.

My grandfather liked Galveston and worked on the railroad. But he left after a few years because the city did not have enough of a Jewish environment. He made his way to New York, where he worked as a watchman and slept at night on a bench in Central Park. He left New York for Detroit because he had a relative in the city who told him that jobs were plentiful, as were Jews, and the city was pleasant and less crowded than New York. He arrived in Detroit in 1913 and started to work as a peddler. After a year, he brought my grandmother and their two children. Eventually, they had seven children, all of whom remained in Detroit. Free from pressure exerted by any religious establishment, he chose to remain Orthodox.

In America, my grandfather had the option to be any kind of Jew he chose. He never had to worry about Jewish leaders imposing their will on him or his children. He was Orthodox, but free. It is no wonder that many Jews who stayed behind in Russia gladly joined the revolution.


This article is part of a week-long Tablet series analyzing the 100th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution.

Robert Rockaway is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, and the author of But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.

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