Simchat Torah of a Cantonist

Simchat Torah of a Cantonist

Simchat Torah in the "Soldiers' Synagogue" of the town S. in old Russia was a wonderful sight. There was true and genuine rejoicing with the Torah in that little synagogue, where most of the members were one-time cantonists.

The most impressive sight was when at the height of the rejoicing, one of the old soldiers, while dancing with a Scroll of the Torah in his arms, would puff his shirt open, disclosing deep scars on his chest and shoulders, and would sing, "Torah, Torah, I love thee." After the hakafot we, the youngsters in the little synagogue, would surround him and beg him to tell us all about those scars. Spellbound we listened to his tale though we had heard it so many times before. This is what he related:

"I was a little boy of eight when the terrible order came to my father, Rabbi Shlomo, his memory be blessed, to hand over twenty boys from our town for the Czar's army. There was a great outcry in our small town. To all those parents who had any boys of my age, my parents included, it meant a day of judgment. If all the children in town would have died of a plague on one day, the tragedy would not have been as great as it was now.

"In my father's house were gathered all the leading members of our community. Some of the wealthier members offered large sums to the community chest if their sons were spared. But my father would have none of it. He demanded that all children be treated alike, and that the recruiting should be done by casting lots.

"Young though I was, I realized how terrible the tragedy was, and lying in my bedroom pretending to be asleep, I heard many a raised and excited voice in the adjoining room, where the meeting was taking place.

"'And what about your Dovidel?' I shivered when I heard my name mentioned.

"'Of course he will be no exception,' I heard my father's grave reply. The meeting continued almost all night, but I had fallen asleep before it ended.

"When I awoke in the morning I found my mother sitting at my bedside, her eyes red from weeping and from lack of sleep. She embraced me as soon as I opened my eyes, and I felt two hot tears burning on my cheek. No words were necessary. I knew I was to be one of those boys who would be sent away from home, perhaps never to see my parents again.

"'Don't cry mother,' I said, 'I will come back.'

"'What I am worried about, Dovidel,' my mother said, 'is whether you will come back a Jew.'

"'Mother, I will always be a Jew,' I said resolutely.

"The scene was repeated again as I sat on my father's knee in his little study. He spoke to me for a long time. There were no tears in his eyes, but I knew his heart was breaking.

"Father did not live long after. About a week before the boys had to be delivered, he died.

"A few days later, two strangers came to town. They said they came to buy cattle from the surrounding farmers. Rumors spread that they were kidnappers. People whispered that they had been bribed by the wealthy families to leave their children alone and to fulfill the quota by kidnapping the boys of the poor families. My father's plan was not heeded.

"The day the kidnappers came, our town seemed to have lost all its boys. Mother hid me in the cellar. Then the kidnappers came to our house. I heard rude voices, a faint tussle, then a gasp and a thud, as if a lifeless body had fallen to the floor. I could not stay in my hiding place, I climbed up the steps leading to the trap-door and cried, 'Mother, are you alright? Let me out!'

"The next moment firm hands grabbed me and I was taken away. I saw my mother lying on the floor. I fought desperately, but it was to no avail. I could only cry, 'You brutes, you killed my mother.'

"'Your mother will be alright,' they said. 'Now you be a good boy or you will be sorry.'

"We boys were led away in two wagons. We were roped together, with the end of the rope tied to the wagon. The whole town turned out to see us off, and my mother was there too. I will never forget that parting. An armed guard surrounded our wagons and held the people at bay. But suddenly my mother tore forward and managed to throw me a little package. 'Don't forget your Bar Mitzvah,' were her parting words. It was a pair of tefillin and a little prayer book, but my Bar Mitzvah was so far off....

"Well, I will not tell you what I went through in the next three years of my 'training.' It was not a military training, but a systematic preparation for conversion, with endless beatings and tortures whenever we refused to go with our heads uncovered, or to kiss the cross; and we always refused.

"During these years I came to be regarded as the 'chief' of our group. Being the son of a rabbi and having learned a great deal more than the others, they all looked up to me for guidance and encouragement. I knew that if I should show the slightest weakness, the spirit of the boys would be broken by the cruel and horrible 'training' we were getting.

"Somehow, the sergeant who was in charge of our group got wind of it. From that time on he concentrated all the 'heavy artillery' on little me. I was to be the example for the other boys by renouncing my faith.

"Well they did not have an easy time of it, and the deep scars that you can see will tell you that I had no easy time of it either.

"One day, after a terrific beating, I was brought before the sergeant. A priest was present and he tried to appear very friendly and concerned. A long talk followed and whenever one of them stopped to catch his breath, the other one took over. I was told of a bright future, of a brilliant career in the military academy, of the dashing uniform of a general, and the honor and power of a governor; but if I refused, I would die miserably, never seeing my mother again.

"On and on they talked, but I was hardly able to follow all they said. I was only aware of an acute pain all over my body, and an agonizing thirst. I asked for a drink of water.

"The sergeant filled a glass of sparkling water, and as I reached for it he held it back.

"'Not so fast, my boy, you must first give us an answer.'

"'Please give me the water, I will give you an answer in three days,' I said desperately.

"The sergeant and the priest exchanged glances, and then I was allowed to drink the water.

"The next three days were the worst that I had ever had. I lay on my bunk with all my body aching, but worse still was my mental agony. Could I hold out much longer? Should I give in? And then, I thought of my charges, the other boys of my group, and of my parents, and I shook my head and cried, No, no, no!' And so it was, yes and no, all the time.

"Finally, came the last night before the fateful day. I was visited by the sergeant. 'You are looking fine, my boy. Won't it be a great day tomorrow?'

"'It sure will,' I replied. He went away greatly elated, feeling quite certain that the morrow would be a day of triumph for him, a day of promotion, when the general would pat him on his back and say, 'Well done, Ivan,' and the priest would bless him with eternal life for having 'saved a soul.'

"That night I had a strange dream. I was back in my little town at the bank of our stream, where I dived in for a swim. Suddenly, I felt a terrible cramp and I was unable to swim any longer. I became frightened and gasped for breath. I wanted to shout for help but could make no sound. I was drowning... Then I saw a straw floating nearby, and in desperation I grabbed for it. Suddenly the straw turned into a mighty golden chain, the farther end of which was firmly and securely fastened to a tree growing on the river's brink. As I caught the end of the chain nearest to me, I saw that it consisted of many links growing bigger and bigger the further removed they were from me. Then I saw golden words engraved in the links and when I looked closer I could read, 'Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,' on the biggest and remotest three links, followed by many other names so familiar to me from the Bible. When I looked at my own link I saw my own name engraved on it, and it was securely held by my father's link.

"For a moment I felt secure and happy, but then to my great horror I saw that my link was slowly breaking apart. One more minute and it would completely break away from the chain, and I would be drowned....

"'No, no! I cried. 'Don't break!' I woke up with a start and my little heart was pounding away. I lay crying the rest of the night.

"The big mess-hall was filled to capacity. At the dais sat many military men and among them my own sergeant and the priest. In the hall sat many young Jewish recruits from my own group, as well as from other nearby units. An elaborate affair was planned for my 'conversion.'

"When I was led up to the dais and was ceremoniously asked to declare my willingness to become a Christian, I did not answer immediately. I turned around, deliberately gazing at my fellow-Jewish recruits, at the walls adorned with various swords and sabers, and through the window into the blue sky.

"They became impatient at the head table and prompted me again to tell them of my willingness to embrace their faith.

"Then I walked up to the wall and took down a small hatchet. Returning to the table I placed three fingers on it, carefully avoiding the middle one around which I hoped to wind the straps of tefillin one day, and before anyone realized what I was about to do, I lifted the hatchet and brought it down with all my strength upon my fingers.

"'There is your answer for the three days!' I said, waving my bloody hand in their faces. The next moment I fainted…"

Here the old cantonist paused and looked with pride at his left hand where the tips of three fingers were missing. He told us no more, but we knew that it was this very aged soldier who brought about the repeal of the Czar's cruel decree. For the story of the young boy's heroism and devotion to his faith was the talk of the whole imperial court. When Czar Nicholas heard of it, he knew that so long as there were boys like this David among his Jewish subjects, all his decrees were doomed to failure.

We looked admiringly upon the aged cantonist, but hero worship was something he could not stand. He jumped up from his place and went dancing and singing:

"The Torah is our only choice,

On Simchat Torah rejoice! Rejoice!"

Excerpted from The Complete Story of Tishrei, published and copyright by Kehot Publication Society, Brooklyn NY
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Chani Benjaminson, chabad.org September 28, 2010

Re: Purchasing Book Glad to hear you enjoyed the story! You can buy that book at this link (do a search for "Complete Story Of Tishrei"). Reply

Mushka Pushka Albany, NY September 28, 2010

Amazing Story!!!!! where can i buy the book? these stories are amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Reply



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