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"You Will Never Be the Czar's Soldier"

"You Will Never Be the Czar's Soldier"

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A busy street in Homel, once a center of Jewish life (image: www.globus.tut.by).
A busy street in Homel, once a center of Jewish life (image: www.globus.tut.by).

Like every eligible male in Czarist Russia, Peretz Chein eventually received a letter stating that he was required to show up at a conscription office. There, a government-certified physician would appraise the young man’s health before determining whether he was fit for a grueling army service. The letter required him to report to the conscription office in Homel, a large administrative center in what was then White Russia.

Now, the Czar’s army was no place for a Jew who wished to follow Jewish tradition—or even remain alive. It was no secret that Jewish conscripts were treated worse than their fellow soldiers, and were often the first to be sent to the front, ill-prepared for the rigors of battle. Besides, he was urgently needed at home, where he worked hard to support his parents and siblings.

Naturally, Peretz was worried. Knowing there was only one man who could help him, he traveled to Lubavitch to meet with Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn, also known as the Rebbe Rashab.

“With G‑d’s help, you will never be a soldier,” the Rebbe Rashab said, dispelling any worries. “Just do what you were told. Report to the office in Homel, and everything will be alright.”

Now, the inspectors in Homel were known to be particularly exacting, more so than the staff in the other intake centers around the country, and the rebbe’s advice didn’t sit well with some of Peretz’s relatives. Fearing the worst, they forbade him to appear in Homel. But their doubts and bleak predictions could not sway young Peretz, who remained confident in the rebbe’s words. And so he departed for Homel, determined to fulfill the rebbe’s directive.

He arrived there long before his scheduled appointment, which was to take place on Shabbat. Knowing that he would be in town for several days, he arranged to lodge with a local Jew, a Polish chassid.

Shabbat morning was as nerve-wracking as could be for Reb Peretz. He wanted to pray alone, have a quick Shabbat meal, and then run to the conscription office to be there on time. But his host genially detained him.

“What are you worried about?” he asked. “There’s no reason to hurry. Let’s go to synagogue as Jews customarily do, and then, after the Shabbat meal, I’ll go with you to the conscription office.”

Against his better judgment, Reb Peretz listened to his host.

They prayed together and then spent most of Shabbat afternoon singing traditional Shabbat hymns over a lavish meal. The host did everything slowly and deliberately, as though he had all the time in the world, while Peretz sat in his seat, a tight ball of nerves, thinking incessantly about the appointment he was going to miss.

When they finally arrived at the conscription office, it was already very late in the day. The employees were about to head home after having seen a day’s worth of draft-eligible men.

“Why did you show up now?” the exasperated employees yelled at him, knowing they had no choice but to evaluate him.

The staff conferred, apparently trying to figure out how to rid themselves of the newcomer so they could leave for home. At last they decided to give him a “white card,” certifying him as so clearly unfit that there was no need for further inspection.

After informing him that he was released, they told Peretz to come back in a few days to pick up the appropriate documents. Meanwhile, Peretz and his host were free to celebrate the remainder of Shabbat with gladness and joy.

Adapted from Shemuot Vesippurim Vol. 2, page 90

Adapted and translated by Asharon Baltazar from Rabbi Rephael Nachman Kahan's Shemuot Vesippurim.
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Anonymous Boca Raton, FL January 19, 2018

One of my great uncles was drafted in Russia. My great-grandmother OBM, went to the authorities and stayed there 2 days waiting on the steps till she could plead his case not to be drafted. No one in the family knows what she said or did to convince him but she got her way and he was not drafted. She was a righteous observant Jew till the day she died (at 96 in Canada, with her family) but she knew how to fight for her son's life. Reply

Anonymous England January 18, 2018

My great great grandfather decided he wouldn't serve under the Tzar so he moved and changed his last name. To this day we're not sure the spelling of our former last name. Reply

Anonymous Ny January 19, 2018
in response to Anonymous:

I think my great grandfather also had issues with the conscription laws. Family history is that he took his own life as some sort of resistance to the conscription. There is so much mystery around it and I’m not sure if the conscription records are extant. They burned synagogues in Starodub where he lived. My Grandpa was very young when this happened and maybe went to live with an uncle. I’d so like to know what happened to my Great Grandpa (he was supposedly some type of “holy man”) and if my Grandpa had a brother and if so who he was and what became of him... and what events, (Haskala, pogroms, conscription???) led my Grandpa to become anti- religious when he emigrated to America.
Still researching this through geniology stuff.. maybe you can figure out more about your Great Great Grandpa through research & dna tests and stuff. Reply

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