Florida: The Cantonists, Sept. 10

The Jewish Genealogical Society of Palm Beach County is celebrating its 18th year. Congratulations to the leaders of this society, which provides some of the best programming to its members.

Set for Delray Beach’s South County Civic Center, the first meeting of this program year – on Wednesday, September 10 – features, from 11.30am, a Belarus SIG meeting, a brick wall session and a report on the recent IAJGS Chicago 2008 conference.

At 1pm, author Larry Domnitch will speak on his book, “The Cantonists: The Jewish Children’s Army of the Tsar.”

Domnitch holds degrees in political science and Jewish history, and writes for newspapers and journals in the US and Israel.

Some of us grew up hearing about the “khappers” (kidnappers), those who would kidnap young Jewish boys, ages 12-25, into the tsar’s army where they were tortured and pressured to convert. Some may have also heard stories about male ancestors who had undergone the loss of a finger or a damaged hand – to prevent their being taken.

From 1827-1856, the Cantonist law demanded 25 years’ service in the Tsar’s army, and was finally abolished by Tsar Alexander II after Russia was defeated in the Crimean War.

Estimates are that some 30,000-70,000 Jewish boys served as cantonists. After 25 years, the young men could live and own land anywhere outside the Pale of Settlement. Finland’s Jewish community began with such men. Conversion rates were high, intermarriage followed, and many never returned home. An 1844 figure indicated that one-third of all Jewish cantonists had converted.

In some families, boys who had served the required number of years settled in towns other than their birthplaces and established family branches. This accounts for the branch of our Mogilev, Belarus TALALAY family that sprung up in Novgorod-Severski, Chernigov Gubernia, Ukraine, even as later marriages were made with girls from hometown Mogilev, including the AZBEL family. It answers questions as to why some young boys disappeared from the family tree, and the absence of local death records for them.

At previous programs, Domnitch has shared such stories as that of Israel Itzkovich, 7, abducted in October 1853 from Polotzk. A large group of children were eventually forcibly marched to Siberia, from November 1853-June 1854, where they were tortured and beaten to pressure conversion.

This program should reveal some relatively unknown history, and help researchers to understand why family branches suddenly appeared in far-flung places, or why some names on a tree simply disappeared without a trace.


2 Responses

  1. Schelly – Thank you for recognizing Larry Domnitch, JGSPBC’s guest lecturer at
    our opening meeting of the season. The advance publicity has generated a large
    amount of interest in the community. We’re looking forward to Domnitch’s
    presentation, which may reveal answers to questions many of us have regarding
    our family research.
    Sylvia Furshman Nusinov
    President Emerita, JGSPBCI

  2. Hi, Sylvia,

    It is always a pleasure to inform Tracing the Tribe readers about quality programs, such as those planned by JGSPBCI! I wish I could be there.


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