Sunday, January 24, 2021

"I humbly ask you not to recruit my own sons, but take the sons of my husband's brother"

I've mentioned how I got various cases relating to my family from the Chernigov Archives, thanks to J-Roots tipping me off to their existence.  I just finished getting the largest case (nearly 100 pages) translated, and it reveals a tale of betrayal, ancestors being arrested, relatives illegally traveling to far-away districts to hide from the draft, and an ancestor of mine who was set on protecting her remaining children, whatever it took.

Life for Jews in the Russian Empire under Czar Nicholas I was very difficult.  There were many difficult edicts that impacted where they could live, what professions they could enter, and how much they were taxed.  One of the most hated edicts was the mandatory military service that took Jewish boys from their families, with the ultimate intent of converting them to Christianity.  Jewish boys were taken as young as aged 12 (and sometimes younger, illegally) and conscripted to military institutions until the age of 18, at which they were mandated to enter the regular army for a 25-year term--which started at that point, meaning that if they survived, they were serving until the age of 43.  These boys were called Cantonists, after those military institutions.  Each Jewish community had a quota to meet, and everyone knew that once a boy was taken, he'd likely never be seen by his family again.  There are lots of stories of what families would do to try to protect their sons.  (You can read more about this era here.) In a document I've recently had translated, I've learned part of my own family's story.

And I've learned that you should not mess with my 5th great grandmother.

One page of correspondence

This case consists of about 100 pages of correspondence from the period 1853-1854.  The initial request relates to some of the other restrictions on Jews in the Russian Empire at that time--the ability to easily move and the ability to farm.  In January 1853, my 5th great grandparents (along with another Jewish family) had leased land in the village of Drozdovka (now Drozdivka), not too far from where they had formerly lived in Nezhin, and still in the same uyezd (district).  30 desyatyns (327762 square meters) of land were leased for a 25-year period, paid for with 60 rubles in silver.  In order to formalize their move and ability to farm, they requested to be included in the official list of farmers.

The other family (the Henkins) was approved.  But there was an issue with the Lefands' request.  A March 1853 document notes that the 1850 revision (census) included fifteen males and eight females.  Therefore, "this family was ranked second in the recruitment (conscription) queue in terms of the number of souls and employees in the last 9th recruitment, but the recruitment was not completed, as some members of this family were in an unknown absence, and others were being treated in a town medical infirmary."  Therefore, "we ask you to notify the petitioner Meer Lefand that while his family does not fulfill duty of the conscription for military service his family cannot be counted among the farmers of the Nizhyn uyezd of the Chernihiv province."

Well, this didn't sit well with my 5th great grandmother Chava.  In September 1853, she wrote her response, which tells a lot about the family's situation at the time.  We learn the following facts from this response:

  • One of her sons had already been conscripted in 1836.  (He would have been about 14 at that time.)
  • Another son was "possessed by a disease," had a long stay in a Chernigov (larger nearby city) hospital, and had converted to Christianity.
  • Her husband's brother Abram had his family included with Chava's family in the 1850 revision, but they never lived together, so Abram's sons shouldn't impact the conscription of Chava's sons.
  • Her husband is old and sick.  So Chava's remaining sons are needed to farm the land being discussed.  And that is why Chava is the one doing the requests.
  • Chava was illiterate, so she dictated to others.  (Unclear if she was illiterate in Russian but could read/write Yiddish or if she was illiterate in general.)
  • Her letter includes the sentence "In the event that someone from my husband's family will be assigned to military service, I humbly ask you not to recruit my own sons, but take the sons of my husband's brother, Abram Lefand."  We learn in later documents why she says that.

By February 1854, the saga was still ongoing and was spiraling out of control.  Chava and one of her sons had been arrested, and the Jewish community had turned against them.  An 1854 document sent by Chava to the Chernigov Prosecutor tells us that:

  • Abram's sons were originally the ones chosen for recruitment, but they were hiding, which is why Chava's sons were now at risk.
  • Abram was well-connected, so he was able to get Chaim Yankel, head of the Nezhin Jewish Society, to give Abram's to-be-conscripted son a passport, and a relative of Abram's who lived in Mogilev Guberniya helped to hide the son there, several hundred miles north (in modern-day Belarus).
  • The Jewish Society did not want this investigated so simply decided to give Chava's son to the draft instead.  Chava was not going to take this.
  • The Jewish Society had Chava arrested, saying she was not trustworthy.  They did the same with one of her sons.  They spoke out against her to the community.  This is an example of how the quota system of Cantonist drafts really tore apart the Jewish community.
  • Chava petitioned for this to be investigated, so that her name could be cleared and her remaining sons not drafted.  She believes the Nezhin Duma (local government) needs to be instructed to clear her name and not draft her sons.

Petition to Czar Nikolas I
The case really took off in May 1854, with a series of documents generated that month.  Chava and the Nezhin Duma (government) each wrote a letter making their case.  Chava aimed high.

She made a petition to Czar Nikolas I (see image above)!  We learn a bit more about the cruelty involved with the Cantonist conscription and why she's pushing for one of her nephews to be conscripted in the place of one of her sons.

  • Not only was her 14-year-old son forcibly conscripted in 1836, but his family had to financially cover expenses!  She says that "a tax was collected from our family in the amount of 42 rubles 93 kopecks in silver for uniforms, food and salary for my son's military service. In December 1836, we received a receipt for the payment of this tax."
  • As we discovered earlier, Abram's sons were the ones who had been selected to be drafted, but they were hiding from conscription.  And because they couldn't be found, and because Abram's sons were listed as part of Chava's family in 1850, it would impact Chava's own sons.  "A decree was issued from the Chernihiv Provincial Government to take one of the sons of my husband's own brother Abram Lefant, as his family is included in the last revision of the family of my husband,as a recruit in the next recruitment process. The sons of Abram Lefant are indeed hiding from conscription."
  • So Abram's sons were the ones who were to be conscripted, and Chava doesn't think her sons should be conscripted just because Abram's sons were hiding.

At the same time, the Nezhin Duma (local government) sent a report to the Chernigov Provincial Government as well.  They reference Chava's February 1854 letter in which she complains about the Duma's actions.  From this letter, we learn still more about the background of this bizarre saga:

  • My 6th great grandfather (Chava's father-in-law) had petitioned the government to release a grandson from military duty.  This grandson is not a son of either Chava or Abram.  In doing so, he opened the entire family up for examination, and it was noticed that the Lefands had lots of males who were eligible for conscription.  Not only did this include boys the generation of Chava's and Abram's sons, but it also included some the next generation down, some of whom weren't even in their teens.
  • Most of the males of conscription age were not able to be located.  They did locate one--Chava's grandson, who was thirteen years old.  He was taken for conscription.  Let's just say that Chava did not take that well at all.
  • All of the remaining (missing) males were searched for in order to be tried for draft evasion.  This included some of Chava's sons, some of Abram's, and others.  And the relationships are nicely laid out.  (This genealogist thanks the Nezhin Duma for being so thoughtful.)
  • The searching yielded one of those who was hiding.  That was one of Chava's sons (and my 4th great grandfather).  He was handed over to recruiters.
  • Chava had complained that she wasn't able to located Abram's sons.  The Duma says this wasn't true, and she had enough information but did not use it.

These two documents--Chava's addressing the Czar and the report by the Nezhin Duma were submitted together to the Chernigov Provincial Government.

A decision was made in May 1854.  And didn't look good for Chava (or indeed for my branch of the family).  Her son, my fourth great grandfather, was to be conscripted in the next conscription round.

But then there's a change.  In July 1854, the Nezhin Duma notified the Chernigov Provincial Government that my fourth great grandfather could not be located.  And instead they would be drafting one of Abram's sons.  His (pretty nondescript) description is given.

And then in January 1855, Chava is given official notice that all of her sons are hereby released from conscription!

Now, who actually was conscripted?  Other than the son who had been conscripted in 1836, I'm not sure that anyone was.  All of the sons and grandsons mentioned in this case married and had children born in the area.  They all seem to have lived in Nezhin and the surrounding villages (including Drozdovka) for the next decades.  This was likely a function of Czar Alexander abolishing the Cantonist system after the death of Nicholas I in 1856.  Perhaps Chava persistence pushed off her sons' drafting long enough for them to outlast the cruel system.

And that's where I thought the story would end.  But I found reference to another case about Chava and her sons' conscription in 1859.  I guess I'll need to get that to find out how this story progressed, so stay tuned!

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  1. Replies
    1. Aw, thanks. I owe it all to Chava. I inherited some of her persistence!

  2. Loved reading this Lara ... it just is unimaginable what these families had to go through, especially when seen through the eyes and words of a mother. You do show up as a distant cousin of my husband, Alan Diamond (Darman) so I always read through your emails to see if I can find any connections!

  3. It probably should be told in the context of Crimean War of 1853-1856, which doubled the pace of call-ups, and Russia's defeat in said war, which made it downsize its military and release the underage cantonists as as a part of demilitarization. (And pushed Nicholas I's son Alexander to rethink the policies).
    But it also may benefit from a reference to Nicholas's "sorting of the Jews" which made a conscious effort to turn influential Jews against the commoners, by introducing an up to 5 fold draft differential between the two parts of the communities.

  4. Fascinating story and well written! Relentless persistence. A great trait to inherit.