A particularly painful time in Jewish history began in 1827, when conscription to Russian military service was enforced on underage Jewish children, as well as other minorities. These children, who were called cantonists, were drafted at the age of twelve to begin their six-year military education. After completing their studies at the age of 18, they were required to serve in the Imperial Russian army for 25 years.
The primary goal behind the compulsory military service was the integration of Jews and other non-Russian minorities into Russian society. The official policy was to encourage their conversion to the state religion of Orthodox Christianity . It is estimated that tens of thousands of Jewish boys served as cantonists, a disproportionately high number in relation to the total number of cantonists.
The cantonists experienced unimaginable cruelty. They were institutionally underfed, beaten mercilessly, verbally abused, and poorly dressed in the harsh winter. Many of them simply died.
It was the responsibility of the Jewish communities to decide which children would be enlisted. This placed the communities under huge moral pressure. Although some communities implemented a fair process, most sadly didn’t. The communities first enlisted the children coming from the weakest and poorest families such as orphans. The enlisted children rarely came from wealthy or powerful families. Additionally, to supply the required quota, communities often sent boys as young as seven, claiming they were twelve. To prevent children from fleeing and hiding, communities employed informers and kidnappers who caught the boys and kept them till they were conscripted.
The Yiddish newspaper, Der Yiddishe Shtral, published an article written by a former contonist. Already orphaned from his father, he was taken at the age of nine from his widowed mother. Although as an only child he was legally exempt from conscription, a wealthy relative bribed the authorities to take him instead of his own son. Several weeks after conscription, he and other children arrived at a gathering point in Lyutzin, now Ludza. They were met by Rabbi Naftali Tziyuni, the Rabbi of Lyutzin, and several members of the local Jewish community who arranged for the children to be fed and hosted by local families. During their four week long stay in Lyutzin, the Rabbi spent time with the children, offering words of kindness and comfort. He also taught them Torah, especially about Jewish figures who remained loyal to their faith despite unimaginable torture. Most of all, however, he lovingly and emotionally spoke about the biblical Joseph. He would retell the story of young Joseph who was sold to slavery by his own brothers after almost being killed by them. Nevertheless, despite feeling hurt and betrayed, he remained loyal to his family’s values rather than abandoning his past. This is why he would forever be known as “Joseph the righteous”.
On the morning of departure, as the children were ready to leave, the Rabbi cried aloud: “Children, you are embarking on a long, hard journey. There will be many challenges and many hard tests. Children, Jewish children, you are Jews! Know and remember that you are children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Remember Daniel, Rabbi Akiva, and remember Joseph the righteous!”