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The Memoirs of Rav Yitzchok Zilber zt"l "To Remain A Jew" - The Story of the Cantonist

I was nine when I was taken away from my mother and drafted to be a soldier. My mother was a widow; I was her only child. My father passed away before I was born and I was named after him.

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I was nine when I was taken away from my mother and drafted to be a soldier. My mother was a widow; I was her only child. My father passed away before I was born and I was named after him. According to the law, as an only son I should have been exempt. But rich people don't always follow the law. Some rich relative, from either my father's or mother's side, bribed the authorities and presented me as one of his sons, so I was drafted instead of his son.


Those times are still like a nightmare to me that I don't want to remember. I was young and didn't understand what was going on. They locked me and ten other unfortunate boys in a room for days. The soldiers were smoking and swearing. Each of us was visited by his father or mother or some relatives. They kissed them. But nobody came to visit me. When a woman with a sad face would enter, I would jump, thinking it was my mother. But every time I was wrong. Mother didn't come. This concerned me very much. Every day I grew angrier and angrier. I didn't speak to anybody, I didn't answer anybody. I was angry with them all. I couldn’t help myself. I remember how some woman wanted to console me and she tried to stroke my head. I, like an angry puppy, bit her.


The last day before we were sent off to the city, a Jew from my town Pyatovka, came to visit me. He gave me twenty or thirty kopecks, a scarf, and old, patched boots. “Your mother sent you this,” he said.


“And where is she?” I asked, pushing away the goods. I was embarrassed in front of the other boys. They had all had visitors and I hadn't.


“Your mother? She is sleeping, she is sleeping, your mother. Understand my boy, she is resting, she is sleeping, your mother.” He became quiet and then scuttled away.


A woman who watched this scene from afar said, “She is sleeping. Poor thing,” and tears started to pour down her cheeks.


I never saw my home town again. Remembering this scene later, I realized that my mother had probably died the same week I was drafted. But at that time I didn't understand what had happened. She couldn't find a better time to sleep? I wondered. Everybody's mother is not sleeping and she is?


We were en route for five weeks. We would stop in a city for a day or two to gather more boys. Most of the Cantonists were between the ages of twelve and sixteen.


In the sixth week we arrived in Lyutzin, a big city that had both commerce and fairs. In those days they did not have railroads, but a big road went from Petersburg to Warsaw, through Lyutzin, and it was called Yekaterina's Trakt. This was a gathering point where children from all the towns were collected, divided into units, and sent on further.


I remember all this like a bad dream. I was cold, my feet were freezing, men were screaming, swearing, ridiculing us while they transported us, always moving. Tired, frightened, like a flock of sheep led to the slaughter, we arrived in Lyutzin on a cold morning.


When we entered the spacious barrack, we were surprised to meet five or six Jewish men. One stood out among them. He was handsome, with a black beard, and unusually expressive, deep-set brown eyes. I think that is probably what an angel coming to soothe someone’s pain looks like. In his eyes there was so much empathy, so much love, such wonderful kindness! I was so young, tired, and frozen. His eyes attracted us, captivated our attention. All of a sudden we became quiet and stared at this Jew "with the eyes.”


"Shalom aleichem, dear ones!” he said. He had a calm voice and our hearts started to thaw. As if by rote we screamed back, "Aleichem shalom, Rebbe!” But we did not know who he was.


He was a young man, about twenty-eight or thirty years old, tall, with wide shoulders. He shook everyone's hand and found a kind word for each of us. I came to him, too, with a heavy weight in my heart. Others at least got to see their father or mother one last time, but I did not get to see my mother. They cried, but I did not. Since I was taken away from my mother, I had not cried, not even once. I was as angry as a cornered animal.

When I was beaten, I remained quiet. When I was spoken to, I did not answer. But when I saw this Jew “with the eyes,” something began to wake up inside of me and I started to cry.


He said to me, "My dear, how old are you, my poor boy?"


I cried and said, "My mother didn't come to say goodbye to me." I was crying and crying. I felt like my heart would burst. His warm hands were stroking me. We sat on a log outside. He was stroking me and saying, "Cry, cry, lonely child, orphan...” It felt like my mother was stroking me. When I stopped crying and calmed down, I looked around cautiously. I was embarrassed. But nobody laughed. Those other Jews who came with the rabbi were wiping their eyes. A few old soldiers with epaulets on their shoulders stood by, with knitted brows. One fat soldier with a mustache wiped away a tear.


While the rebbe was talking to me, two other Jewish men were handing out loaves of bread and candies, while others served the soldiers vodka. All were waiting for the military commander to arrive.


When he came, two of the men who knew Russian started speaking with him, begging him for something. Later the commander gave an order to write down our names, and we were released to these men. They had arranged for us to stay with them while our unit was stationed in Lyutzin.


They took us to the synagogue. There many men and women were already waiting for us. They were going to take us home with them. The Rebbe supervised very carefully who took each child. He did not trust everybody with a child.


Then all of the children were taken, except for me; I was left alone. My mother hadn’t come to see me, and now I thought that everyone had forgotten about me. I was sitting by myself and suddenly I felt a warm hand on my shoulder. "Let's go, my boy.” The Rebbe, Rav Naftali took me himself! That is why he had not offered me to anybody else!


We had to come to the base to check in every morning and evening. Rav Naftali used to come with us for an hour or more. He would sit with us on the bunks in the barrack. If it was dry and sunny, he would sit outside on a log and we would surround him, and, hanging onto each word, listen to his amazing, inspiring stories. He told us a lot about Jews who had been tortured by others who wanted them to change their beliefs, but who stood firm. He told us about Rabbi Akiva, Chananya, Mishael, and Azarya, and about the Inquisition and the Crusades. But most of all he liked to repeat the story of Yosef HaTzaddik.[2]


Who doesn't know the story of Yosef HaTzaddik? But you should hear how he told it! Yosef was sold by his own brothers. Using his talents, wits, and honesty, he managed to reach a high position, but lived far from his dear ones — his people, his parents, and his brothers. And then came his hardest test.[3] He had been hurt; his own brothers hated him and threw him out! Nevertheless, during the time of his test he saw the face of his father Yaakov before him and knew that Yaakov was crying and longing for him. Was it Yaakov's fault he was so far away? It was his brothers' fault, not Yaakov's! “So,” the rabbi finished the story, “let Yaakov's face always be in front of your eyes!”


After many years I understood why this rabbi told us about Yosef so many times. Rav Naftali was one smart Jew! Yosef felt hurt. He was betrayed by his own Jews. He could have gotten angry with all the Jews and abandoned his religion. But Yaakov was not guilty!


We all listened to him, hanging onto every word. He spoke so well, with such love. He used words that would penetrate a child's heart. His own heart was as pure as that of a child. And as he softened our hearts, our heads started to work differently.


Time passed. The official papers came announcing who was to be sent where. We learned a lot in those four weeks. Our hearts attached themselves to our nation and we learned to forgive. With his words, Rav Naftali cured us from the dangerous sickness of hatred. Each of us had come to hate some Jewish figure of power. Each of us could point to the person who had betrayed us. Reb Naftali taught us to forgive. What a black era of cruelty it was! This was how the rich treated their poor.


Let the compassionate God forgive them, if it is possible to forgive such behavior at all. What would happen to the world if it did not have in it people like the Rav and those who came with him?


I felt good in his house. I completely forgot where I was, who I was. His wife was like a mother to me. But what meant more to me than anything or anybody was the Rav. I do not know what he saw in me. After all, there were many other children there. Maybe he felt special pity for me because I was an orphan, or maybe he knew what lay ahead for me. He had a sharp eye for the future.


And then it came. On the last night, we were not permitted to go to our hosts’ homes. We had to stay in the barracks. In the morning, the drums banged and the trumpets blared. Our hands trembled from cold, our teeth chattered, we were frightened. The golden days were over. What awaited us? Each thought was heavier than the next. Would our Rav come today?


This was on everyone's mind. We did not believe that he would come. It was before dawn and we were already standing outside with bags over our shoulders, sleepy, shivering… when suddenly we lifted our eyes. Rav Naftali was already here! He looked completely different. I did not recognize him. His face was strict and cold, but in his eyes there was fire. Together with his men he walked through our rows and gave each child above bar mitzvah a set of tefillin[4] and arba kanfos.[5] To the younger boys he gave only arba kanfos.


He then stepped back and screamed, "Children, you are sons of Jews, you are Jews! Know and remember that you are children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov!” He began to cry. “You are Jewish children; don't forget that you are Jews. Remember Daniel, Chananya, Mishael, Azarya, Rabbi Akiva, and Yosef. Recite with me now Shema Yisrael!" [6]


"Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!" we all screamed.


"Children, you are embarking on a long, hard journey. There will be many problems and many hard tests.” He could not speak, his voice broke. “But God will be with you if you will not forget Him, God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Children, I bless you with the same blessing that the Kohanim[7] used to bless the Jews in the times of the Temple.” And he started to recite the blessing. He came to us, we surrounded him.


“Please,” we begged, “bless each of us separately!” He put his hands on our heads and blessed us.


The sun’s first rays appeared. The drums banged, the trumpets blared. We started to go. With heads down we passed our Rebbe. He told each one, "Go and be well.” We left, and after a while we looked down from a hill at the hospitable city with its holy rabbi. Even now I see him whispering "Yivarechecha..."[8] 


[1] From Der Yiddishe Shtral, no. 1127 (1995).

[2] Joseph the Righteous.

[3] With the wife of Potiphar.

[4] Jewish men, starting at age thirteen, have a commandment to put on tefillin, phylacteries, for the morning prayers  — Y.Z.

[5] A small tallis worn by Jewish men and boys to observe the Torah’s commandment to wear fringes on the corners of four-cornered garments.

[6] The Shema is Judaism’s fundamental declaration of faith.

[7] Priests.

[8] The beginning of the priestly blessing, “May God bless you..."


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