by Jacob Maratek
Editor’s Note: The below Introduction
first appeared (with the article that
follows) in “Hadassah Magazine,” March,
1972 and is reprinted with written
permission of “Hadassah Magazine.” The following article is an excerpt from
The Samurai of Vishogord, by Jacob
Marateck, Jewish Publication Society of
America, 1976. This excerpt is reprinted
with permission of Shimon and Anita
Wincelberg. Mr. Wincelberg has recently
completed the manuscript of The Siberian
Bachelor, a sequel to The Samurai of
One of the most dreaded aspects of Jewish life in Tzarist Russia was conscription into the army. For a Jew, service in the army of Batyushka Tzar (our little father the Tzar) was a four-year nightmare of endless abuse, beatings and attempts at forced conversion.
In the mid-nineteenth century, when Tzarist agents took to kidnapping young Jewish boys for forced military service, Jews began to refer to the Russian Government as Fonye Gonif (Fonye is the friendly diminutive for Ivan), a relatively mild description for a heartless oppressor.
Many who returned after their long hitch were pathetic figures stripped of all memory of things Jewish, coarse, more like Russian peasants than Jews, they were at home neither among Jews nor Russians. To avoid the fate of these “Cantonists,” as they were called, Jews often took desperate measures.
The desperation with which Russian Jews faced conscription is described by Jacob Marateck in the diary he kept of his experiences in and out of the Tzarist Army during the first decades of the 20th century. The Yiddish manuscript, from which the following article is taken, was translated and edited by screenwriter-novelist Shimon Wincelberg and his wife, Anita (daughter of Jacob Marateck). It offers a colorful panorama of Jewish
life in Eastern Europe seventy years ago.
Every year, with the declining days of Elul, a familiar pall of fear began to descend on our village. Soon it would once again be the fifteenth of September. It was a date that struck a shudder even in the breasts of mothers still suckling their sons. For on that day all the young men who had reached military age during the year became subject to immediate conscription.
Do I need to paint you a picture of what it meant in 1902, particularly for a Jew, to be pitchforked into the Tzar’s Army? Our Elders’ terror of conscription, though, twas due only in part to the knowledge that we would be exposed to certain dangers and discomforts, not to mention the mercies of superiors who would as soon torment a Jew as scratch themselves. Inconveniences like that were, after all, not exactly unknown even here in Vishograd (Wyszegrod), among one’s own good Polish neighbors. What Jewish parents dreaded above all, though, was the prospect, amply illustrated by returning soliders, of sons who, within less than four years, would come home coarsened, brutalized, Russianized in short, with scarcely a spark of Jewish feeling still left in them.
The Market Place at Vishograd (Wyszegrod).
Thus, as the summer dwindled to an end, every other home rang with heated family conferences, all dedicated to the search for some means by which an innocent child could be preserved from the fatal clutches of Fonye’s Army.
For the rich, there was no problem. You bought your way out. To the poor, however, there was only one avenue of escape: self-mutilation. And since there were any number of equally frightful possibilities to choose from, long evenings of consultation took place.
The year my turn arrived, Aunt Tzivia strongly recommended a man who would draw all my teeth. Feibush the bath-attendant held that the surest remedy would be for me to blind myself in the right eye, the one without which a man cannot aim a rifle. And my Uncle Yonhah, never at a loss, knew a man skilled in the art of severing a tendon at the knee.
None of these schemes, I am glad to say, found favor with my parents. In fact, the only suggestion they considered as not totally devoid of sense was the one proposed by Zahnvel the matchmaker, who held that, for an unmarried young man, the most “respectable” disability was a hernia, which afterwards could easily be hidden from prospective in-laws.
Had I accepted even half of the suggestions offered me, I should not only have escaped military service but I would have ended up a cripple such as the world had never seen. (The biggest joke of all, as I read years later, was that at this very time the share of Jews in the Russian Army or Navy was almost forty percent greater than its proportion of the population. The reason for this I’ll leave to greater philosophers than I to figure out.)
Although no one had bothered to ask me, I hadn’t the slightest intention of maiming myself. In fact, the prospect of serving Fonye for three years and eight months did not, frankly, strike me as the world coming to an end.
Meanwhile, though, in anticipation of my finding some way to avoid conscription, our little house had also come to life with matchmakers. These, I am flattered to say, considered me a good bargain despite whatever self-inflicted disability I might come up with. Not that Jewish girls in 1902 didn’t have standards as high as anyone else’s. But, unlike their Hollywood-crazed sisters of today, they were not quite so stuck on physical perfection.
In fact, you must forgive me, but such girls as we had in Vishogrod just don’t exist any longer. You can’t compare them to what you see today in Columbus’ land. Our girls had never grown pale, dusty, and gaunt from drudging in sweatshops, riding crushed like raisins in packed subway trains or squandering half the night at dances which improve our health as little as your marital prospects.
Altogether, our village that year had fifty-four men eligible for conscription, excluding those, Jew or gentile, who had already disabled themselves or bought exemptions. And since, for us, while awaiting September 15, there seemed no longer much point in working or studying, the village nightly rang with the noise of furious celebration. Fully aware that Fonye would be starving us soon enough, we tried to fortify and anesthetize ourselves with orgies of eating and drinking.
Where did we get money for our feasts? The fact is, there were certain traditional ways, for boys in our tragic and privileged position, to raise funds. As in previous years, the prospective Jewish conscripts had organized themselves into a committee, elected a treasurer, a gabbai, and a secretary, and impudently leveled a “tax” on the more fortunate of our fellow-Jews.
We came to them and said, quite simply, “You’re staying home, while we are off to serve the Tzar.”There is no need to remind me that even such an innocent remark, if delivered by a couple of healthy young men in a somewhat reproachful tone, was what any American lawyer, without charging you for the advice, would call criminal extortion. But you must understand that the money we collected wasn’t spent on food and drink alone.
Going into Fonye’s Army was not only a personal sacrifice, it also required a cash investment. Each recruit needed at least twenty-five rubles for such necessities as boots, socks, and a strong sheepskin coat, none of which the Tzar was accustomed to lavish upon his defenders. In addition, those who did not intend to touch Fonye’s unclean food also had to stock up on things like bread, chicken fat and sausages.
I remember the first victim we called on was Mayer, the retired blacksmith. His well-kept beard smelled of scholarship and piety, although in truth he was an utter ignoramus and a bad Jew, who had never been guilty of giving a kopek to a charitable cause.
(Not giving charity in our village was a far more serious business than it is today. Almost half of all Jewish families were able to celebrate Shabbes, not to mention Pesach, only by grace of the handouts they received. A man who didn’t give almost literally doomed someone else to starvation).
At our demand for seventy-five rubles, Meyer started to bewail the bad times. Then, getting nowhere with that, he abruptly offered to settle with us for thirty-five. We refused to bargain. In the end, we came away with a pledge of seventy-five rubles and an immediate cash advance of twenty-five. But on our way out he called us back to complain that the father of one of the boys owed him three rubles. Couldn’t he at least deduct that from our seventy-five? We coldly informed him his private debts were his own problem.
From most other householders we only asked five or ten rubles, and sometimes even less than that. Altogether, we collected more than enough to outfit all the conscripts. With the balance, we had a few more good parties, and whatever money was left over by September 15 we gave to the Rabbi to distribute to the poor.
I suppose I’ve left you with the impression that everyone gave willingly. Not so. Even some of those who should have been most grateful to us for filling the conscription quota didn’t see what right we had to go about collecting money.
What did we do in such a case?
There was, for example, Yankel the teamster, who owned six horses and was childless and, worst of all, charged interest on money he lent to other Jews. Yankel had recently bought a new coach, of which he was as proud as a doting father might be of a newborn son.
Our town, as I may have mentioned, is situated on top of a hill. So one dark night, half a dozen of us applied our shoulders to the new coach after releasing the brake, and pushed it until it faced downhill. From there, with the merest nudge, it continued by its own momentum down into the valley, where its wreckage may be lying to this day.
Kokoska the tailor also held himself too good to respond to our appeal. Consequently, one morning when he got up he found his front door mysteriously sealed by a gigantic boulder our boys had rolled against it during the night. After raising a tremendous cry to be let out, Kokoska paid his “tax” through the window, and it took nearly all fifty-four of us to remove the stone from his door again.
If you think our methods were unduly severe for good Jewish boys, you will be reassured to know that the gentile conscripts in our town were no less brutal in imposing a similar sort of levy on their people. But, being neither as organized nor as inventive as ourselves, all they could think of to punish reluctant donors was to tear the crucifixes off their walls or release the pigs from their sties.
I know you’ve been waiting to ask, where were the police in all this? Well, for one thing, there were only two policemen. One, who was also the Mayor, was a Russian at least eight-five yars old who had very nearly forgotten his own language and communicated with his citizens in pure Yiddish and broken Polish.
The second one was said to be a descendant of “Cantonists,” those wretched Jewish children who, under Tzar Nicholas I, were often literally kidnapped at the age of eight or ten for twenty-five years of military service, counted from their eighteenth birthday, if they lived until then. He was an ancient, harmless, crookbacked little man whose sunken chest barely managed to support two corroded medals, earned for heaven knows what acts of bravery during the first half of the previous century.
He normally made himself useful by emptying troughs, chopping wood, or shepherding someone’s goat to the meadow. Perversely, the one service you couldn’t prevail upon him to perform was to stoke an oven on Shabbes. From this it was concluded that he must have had at least a Jewish father, who, like so many Cantonists, had been forcibly converted as a child.
Presently, of course, the dreaded moment arrived.
On the fifteenth of September, in a thunderous downpour, we climbed into a row of open wagons and, with a good deal of comradely vodka-passing between Jew and gentile, we jolted towards Plotsk, the capital of the guberniya (province).
By ten o’clock the following morning I was at the induction center, mother naked, for a medical examination by several Army doctors who fell all over themselves to pronounce me fit, and even wanted to know, “Where do we find more young men like this?”
Meanwhile, the brief, drunken friendship between the young Jews and Poles from our hometown had already come unstuck. In the room where we put our clothes back on, a brawl had developed over some remarks passed on the sacred subject of circumcision. And, though my role in the fight was relatively modest, I ended up with a mashed finger which had gotten caught in someone’s teeth.
Together with a friend who had also sustained some damage, I went to the aid station, where by luck, we happened to meet our future company clerk. This little man took pleasure in giving us advance notice that we were to be stationed deep in Siberia, a province not legendary for its temperate climate.
What to do? Without parents or relatives to advise us, we didn’t know the first thing about whom to bribe, even if we had had sufficient money in our pockets. We therefore decided, since our company was not to be shipped out for another couple of days, to absent ourselves and go home for Shabbes.
The late Jacob Marateck (left) and his brother Abe in Tzarist dress uniforms, about 1904. His military career included an extended period in the front lines during the Russo-Japanese war, two death sentences, and escape by way of
China to the United States.
Once more we traveled for a day and a half in such a downpour as might have swamped Noah’s ark. Worst of all, for the last part of the way, as the sky began to darken for the Sabbath, we had to walk, and finally, to run. If it were past candlelighting time when we arrived in the village, it would be obvious, to our parents’ disgrace, that in less than a day Fonye’s Army had already turned us into heathens. Although our lungs rattled with the strain, we were unable to reach the village until well after the synagogues had emptied.
But when at last I reached our little home and looked into the window, I suddenly felt unable to cross the threshold. I was a Russian soldier now, no longer one of them, and when they saw me they would surely burst into tears at my misfortune, and their Shabbes would be ruined.
So I stood at the window, shivering in the deep mud, and stared at the dear, honorable features of my father, as he sang his familiar zmiros, and watched the sympathetic flicker of the candles, as my mother quietly wept to herself. My father suddenly stopped singing and admonished her, “We are forbidden to mourn on the Sabbath.” But my mother’s weeping continued. “If at least he were here today, for one last Shabbes.” And at those words, I saw even my father shed a tear.
I couldn’t stand it any longer. I burst into the house and cried “Good Shabbes!” My mother fell upon my neck and drenched me with her tears. But my father had already regained his self-control. Bidding me “Sholom aleikhem,” he asked no questions, but handed me a siddur to catch up with the evening prayers I had missed. He wanted it clearly understood that being a soldier of the Tzar did not absolve one from one’s daily duty as a soldier to the Almighty.
After Shabbes I told my parents why I had returned. What could be done to change my orders to that I would not have to go to Siberia?
All of the great advice-givers so full of ingenious schemes for self-mutilation, were silent now. Only the rabbi had a different suggestion. Perhaps an emissary should be sent in person to the Military Governor at Plotsk. What sort of an emissary? The rabbi hesitated to say. But we understood what he meant. Better a woman than a man. And better a young woman than an old one.
Now we had in our town a girl named Malka, twenty-three years old, tall, high-bosomed, with raven hair, fiery coal black eyes, and altogether a veritable Queen Esther. Among her family and friends she was known as “Malka Cossack,” not for any fierceness of temper but for the quickness of her wit. This, we felt, would be sufficient to deflate any natchalnik (government official) trying to take advantage of her. And Malka readily agreed to go intercede for me. Why? Because “Malka Cossack” was none other than my own sister.
They left for Plotsk early the following morning.
The gist of her appeal there, as she told us on her return, was, “We are loyal subjects of the divinely-appointed Tzar, and already have the unspeakable privilege of an older son serving him in Petersburg. We could hardly wait for his brother to attain military age. And now that we have the good fortune to see him accepted for service to the holy Tzar, nothing could make our happiness more complete than to know that the two brothers were reunited, serving shoulder to shoulder.
It didn’t all go one-two-three, but in the end, the natchalnik, his eyes glittering with gentlemanly charm, pressed Malka’s hand perhaps longer than necessary and assured her, “Your request shall at once be granted.”
It was, of course, not possible for me to stay and find out if he’d kept his word. The time had come for me to leave, as the Holy Scripture puts it, my land, my place of birth and my father’s house.
In yet another driving rainstorm, I left for Plotsk with my solder’s baggage. This amounted mainly to a canvas-covered box, which my mother had filled with bread, herring, chicken fat and sausages. Accompanying me to the coach were not only my near and distant relatives, but acquaintances who seemed to have come solely for the purpose of adding their tears to everyone else’s.
My father alone expressed his sorrow by remaining silent. But it was his three parting words that continued to ring in my ears long after the coach had taken me away. All he had said was, “Be a Jew.”