Many of our
Jewish ancestors chose to emigrate from countries such as Russia in
search of a better life. They wanted very much to escape the discrimination
and selective persecution that had dogged them on a daily basis. Except for the
period of time when Czar Alexander II ruled Russia (between 1855 and 1881), Jews
were subject to arbitrary laws that singled them out for pejorative treatment.
Some of these laws dealt with how many and by what means the Russian
government would conscript (draft) Jewish males into the Russian Army. Actually,
even though many Jews had been or wished to be patriotic, they were not allowed
to serve in the Russian military until 1827, soon after Czar Nicholas I took
power. Before then, they were kept out of the army because including them with
the other fighting men might have suggested that the Jewish soldier had earned
the same rights as the non-Jewish soldier, and the previous czars and nobility
did not want that. Unfortunately, many in the general population who were
ignorant to this ban, mistakenly thought that Jews were cowards or unpatriotic because they
were not serving in the Army, and of course, this turned into yet another reason
why others thought so poorly of the Jew.
Eventually Jews were permitted to become soldiers in the Czar’s
army. Youths as young as twelve years of age were conscripted. The rate of
conscription for Jews was significantly more than for non-Jews. Also, Jews in
different areas were often subjected to various quotas that had to be met. If a
town could not supply the required number of men, those previously ruled
ineligible for conscription were forced into the army until the quota was met.
In 1876, a Jew that was unfit for duty had to be replaced by another, regardless
of the reason.
I was told that my uncle's father from Volhin, pictured above left, was a drummer in the Czar's army. He
eventually immigrated to the United States where he lived the rest of his
life (over 101 years old!)
One could not escape their duty easily. If a person somehow
managed to evade military service, his family could be fined 300 rubles, which
was quite a large sum of money in that time. If someone managed to catch a
potential conscript trying to flee, he could get a financial reward of 50
The real reason that the czars created these laws was that they wanted to
decrease the number of Jews in the general population, either by attrition
or by their conversion to Christianity. One way of doing this was by
drafting them for a term of twenty-five years. Only during the reign of
Alexander II was the term reduced to five to ten years. By keeping
Jewish men and boys in the Army for such a long period of time, the Russian
government had hoped to separate them from their shtetl and their Jewish
roots for a such a long time that they would eventually be more willing to convert to
Christianity in order to improve their conditions.
The pull of conversion was great. By being baptized and becoming
a Christian, they would be treated more fairly and have the same rights that a
Christian had. He would be able to more easily advance in rank. Also, the Jewish
convert would be exempt from taxes for three years.
right: My great uncle Charles Burack, who spent a short time in what was
probably the Polish army, cir 1920. He eventually found his way to either
Cuba or Canada,
and then to the U.S. cir 1924.
Often conscription was tied in with the payment of taxes. If a
family was late in paying their taxes, a family member could be conscripted.
Even after this occurred, they would still owe the full amount of taxes!
Many tried various methods to avoid conscription, but how many
remains under debate. Some chose to self-mutilate themselves. Others tried to
change their name while others tried to get adopted by other families, all to
avoid that twenty-five year sentence in the army. None of these methods would
necessarily keep a
Jew out of serving with the Russian military. The Russians forced Jewish
communities to supply the required number of Jews for the army. Committees of
Jews called kahals were formed, and they were required to supply the
correct number of Jewish males, and were told to do so by any means necessary. If the
kahals failed to do this, the Russians would conscript invalids, cripples and
men normally too old and/or feeble to serve. There would be no exemptions for
sole supporter of family, no exemptions.
left: Shaul Frydman, second
from the left, with other Polish army soldiers, 21 Oct 1927. The photo was
either taken in Deblin or Ryki, Poland.
Certain towns would deliver recruits that had no passport, or if
there was someone in their jurisdiction who came from another town, they might
take them too. Some communities employed khappers, who also were Jews,
whose job it was to round up the right number of Jews, even if it meant they had
to kidnap them. They often would take children as young as eight, and bring them
to some inaccessible place where they would be kept under wraps until they were
twelve years old. Then they would be conscripted into the Russian army.
Is it any wonder why our ancestors wanted desperately to get so far
away from where they lived? It should go without saying that the Jews who were
forced to serve in the Russian army were subject to varying degrees of
brutality. The incidence of Jewish soldier deaths was known to be higher than that of the
Israel Drozdiasz, from Karczew, Poland (then Russia), played this musical
instrument, probably the flugelhorn, for the Russian Army.
Photo cir mid 1890s
We can see then that at various times Jews were forced to turn
against Jew, and this, of course, was very unfortunate. I suppose that it shows
us that no matter who it is, people who want to survive will often do whatever
they have to do to protect their family.
Many, many Jews decided to leave Russia by whatever means they
could. Many left illegally with forged papers. This is one reason why
genealogists occasionally have such a difficult time trying to find records of
their ancestors in Eastern Europe. Some changed their names for various reasons;
others registered in towns other than the one they grew up in. There was a great
wave of emigration in the 1880s once Czar Alexander II was assassinated. He was
the one who had reduced the length of time a Jew had to serve to "only" five to
ten years. Many Jews were fearful that whoever the new czar would be might very
well institute once again the twenty-five year old term of service. Rumors also spread
that it was a Jew that was responsible for the Czar’s death. So the Jews fled in
great numbers, with the majority of them immigrating to the United States.
Jelen from Zambrow, seated on the left,
with his fellow Russian army soldiers