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Czarist Russia, 1840. Yankeleh,
only son of the Kronitzer Rebbe
and the pride of his community,
suddenly finds himself thrust into
the horror of the Russian army, an
unwilling conscript facing the
might of an empire dedicated to
obliterating his beliefs.
The challenge the youth faces is
immediate and compelling: how
to survive as a Jew in this new and
hostile environment. In an ex-
traordinary show of strength
Yankeleh not only survives but
prevails, inspiring his fellow con-
scripts by his teaching and his ex-
In his travels through the bleak
Russian countryside, Yankeleh
meets a host of fascinating charac-
ters: Father Peter, the priest
enthralled by Jewish wisdom;
Srulik, an uneducated boy with
faith to match Yankeleh's own;
Gershom Lader, the itinerant ped-
dler who daily risks his life to help
his brethren; and Vlad Ruszky, an
ignorant peasant harboring a
Copyright © 1989 by Targum Press
22700 W. Eleven Mile Rd.
Southfield, Mich. 48034
Philipp Feldheim Inc.
200 Airport Executive Park
Spring Valley, N.Y. 10977
To my mother, Bracha, and to the memory of
my father, Pesach may his memory forever
be a blessing.
And to my family for their encouragement,
patience and support.
IT WAS IN 1827 that Czar Nicholas I, the Iron Czar, decided
to "civilize" the Jews of his realm. At first his decrees were in-
nocuous, just a matter of adopting a family name as other
Western Jews had done. No one objected. If you had money
and station, you might even be given a distinguished sound-
ing surname. But the Jews soon learned that the Czar had
more sinister plans in store for them, such as forcing them to
discard the kapote for Western dress and trim their beards.
Then, with what appeared to some as a gesture toward
equality and emancipation, Nicholas opened his army's ranks
to the Russian Jews. But it soon became clear that it wasn't
equality that the Czar had in mind, but rather the "Russifka-
tion" of the Jews: The conscripts were to serve in the army
for twenty-five years, and it was assumed by the Czar and his
ministers that the Jewish soldiers would return home true
Russians, "positive" examples for the Jewish community to
emulate. Once the details of the Czar's edict were an-
nounced, Jewish blood ran cold with terror. Non-Jews had
always begun army service at the age of eighteen, but Jewish
boys were to be conscripted at the age of twelve and confined
in special camps for six years of preparation for army life.
When the decree was implemented, it became obvious that
the conditions in the camps were such that few boys would
survive as Jews for even a single year.
These camps, or cantons, were run by peasant sergeants
who had orders to wipe out all vestiges of "bad habits" such
as refusing to eat pork or make the sign of the cross. The
physical conditions were harsh and the overseers ruthless.
Too frightened and too weak to withstand the fiendishness
of their masters, many tender shoots were lost forever to the
What followed in the wake of the edict were close to three
decades of horror, of widows' wails and children's shrieks, of
men forced to make choices that no one could possibly make.
The Russian government gave no orderly guidelines or
laws for the draft, nor did they hold individuals responsible
for military service. They simply handed each community its
quota, and it became the crushing burden of each commu-
nity council, or kahal, to provide the required number of
Faced with an impossible situation, and refusing to hand
over Jewish children to the Czar's army, the Torah leader-
ship was left with no choice but to withdraw from active par-
ticipation in the kahals, putting all of their efforts into
behind-the-scenes attempts to abolish the evil decree.
With wealthier families using legal and illegal stratagems
to avoid conscription, and others simply fleeing to the forests,
the kahals found it increasingly difficult to meet their quotas.
Yet the threat of disaster for the entire community hung over
its head if a kahal failed to provide the requisite number of
conscripts. In desperation, many kahals were forced to resort
to increasingly harsh methods of conscription, including hir-
ing kidnappers, khappers, to snatch youngsters from their
CLUTCHING THEIR SIDDURIM, Yaakov Yitzchak
Halevi, the only son of the Kronitzer Rebbe, and his closest
friend, Moshe Vohlman, the son of the Rebbe's gabbai,
strolled home from the synagogue following evening pray-
ers. Yankeleh, as he was affectionately called, walked with a
new spring to his step, for it was just one week ago that he
had been called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. He was think-
ing about his new status, savoring the memory of that special
day, along with the memory of still another day one month
earlier, when he had stood next to his father in the syn-
agogue and wrapped the brand new tefillin around his arm
for the very first time. Yankeleh still found it hard to believe
that he was now considered an adult and counted in the
minyan. His father's words, recited after he had chanted his
haphtorah, still rang in his ears: "Baruch sheptarani mei'onsho
With these words his father had been freed from religious
responsibility toward him, placing it directly upon
Yankeleh's own thirteen-year-old shoulders.
His pulse quickened as he remembered his father's nod
of approval upon the conclusion of his meticulously pre-
pared drashah and the laudatory words of Rav Lippeh Krons-
berg, a leading Torah light, who had compared him to his
father. "Yaakov Yitzchak's interpretation of the sugyah in
Pesachim and his ability to analyze the meaning of the Korban
Pesach with such perception speaks of an intellect beyond his
years," the Rabbi had said. "We all benefited from Yaakov
Yitzchak's learned drashah, and he has proven today that he
is following in his father's footsteps, the footsteps of the great
Torah scholar, the Kronitzer Rebbe, Reb Moshe Yechezkel."
Yankeleh was embarrassed by the thunderous acclamation of
his father's Chassidim when they pounded their agreement
on their shtenders. He felt undeserving of their acclaim.
A waft of the sweet-scented air of early spring brought
him back to the present. "Moshe, do you remember how you
felt the first time you were counted in the minyan?"
Moshe nodded, a smile lighting up his face. "I'll never
forget that feeling, Yankeleh. Whenever I think about it I
shiver. Believe me when I tell you that it was the greatest day
in my life," he replied.
"I think I know how you felt," Yankeleh said. "Yesterday
when I walked into the shul the shammas called out, 'Now we
can begin, here comes our tenth man.' I turned to look be-
hind me...and then the men called to me, and I realized that
I was the tenth man."
The two friends laughed, reliving it all with pleasure.
"I have to admit something to you Moshe. I hope you'll
forgive me," Yankeleh said. "But these past few months -I
have been terribly jealous of you. There I was seated next to
my father, a little boy, and there you were, my older friend
Moshe, important, counted in the minyan. I can't tell you how
miserable I felt."
Moshe grinned sheepishly. "Six months older isn't that
much older," he chided. "Besides, you don't have to apolo-
gize, Yankeleh. I felt the same way when Leibel Krinsky was
bar mitzvah last year. After he was bar mitzvah, Leibel hardly
looked at me. I guess he figured he didn't want to have any-
thing to do with a little boy."
"To tell you the truth, I was afraid that you would ignore
me, too, after you were bar mitzvah," Yankeleh admitted
shyly, "that you wouldn't want to be friends with a 'little
"Not be your friend?" Moshe exclaimed, his brow wrin-
kling in astonishment. "But Yankeleh, I am honored that you
count me as your friend. I mean, you...you are anilui and the
son of the Rebbe."
Yankeleh shook his head. "I am no different from anyone
else. And I don't like to be called an ilui" he said, his tone re-
proving. "Aren't we friends because we like each other?"
"Of course. But you are still very special, and well..." He
threw his hands up in exasperation, amazed at his friend's
Their conversation was halted by the sound of shrieks
coming from the home of Avrum the cobbler. They ex-
"What was that?" Moshe asked.
Yankeleh swallowed hard. His hands suddenly felt
clammy. "It sounds like something terrible is happening.
Maybe we should get some help?"
"But it could be just a family argument: We would look
foolish. Let's go see first."
They rushed in the direction of the shouts, then crept
into the dark alley behind the cobbler's house.
"Can you see anything?" Yankeleh whispered breath-
"Yes. I see the outline of men and a cart. Maybe they're
"Shh, not so loud. If they see us..."
"Let's get closer," Moshe urged.
"I still can't see..."
A blow to his head left the sentence unfinished. The last
words Yankeleh heard were, "Yoineh, we've got two more."
The sergeant never hid his feelings of repugnance for the
khappers Yoineh Kloptschik the ganav, Velvel Shmuckler
the horse thief, and Shmulik Shlagger the gambler. But the
kahal had hired these men, and they were useful and had to
be tolerated. He stood in front of the barracks, hands on hips,
eyeing the three men suspiciously.
"What d'ya got there today? No more sick babies, you
hear? The two yids you brought in last week died before I
could even spit on them."
Velvel Shmuckler snickered. "Ah, come on Ivan, we get
you some goodschoirah, real good stuff. Listen, these kids are
frail. What d'ya expect?"
"All right, all right, so what's in the cart today?"
The khappers had been so busy drinking, in celebration of
their unexpectedly good catch, that they hadn't bothered
looking at the boys since tying them together the night
before. It was Yoineh who first realized their error: When he
opened the cart and recognized the frightened boys, he
grabbed his head, stuttering and gesticulating wildly.
"Gevalt, what did we do? We made a mistake, a terrible
"What are you blubbering about?" Ivan barked. "What
"Listen, Ivan, take those two boys, the one with the curly
hair and the one with the cross eye. The other two we gotta
take back. But we promise you on our mothers' heads to-
morrow you get four in their place."
"What the devil is this all about?" the sergeant shouted,
his face florid with rage. "What kind of a game you got going
here? Leave the goods like always and get out of my sight!"
The three khappers fidgeted nervously, exchanging
gloomy looks. Shmulik Shlagger, the wiliest of the three,
threw an arm around the sergeant.
"Ivan, we have a little problem here. It was pitch black,
and we couldn't see who we grabbed. Now these two boys,
well, their fathers are men of prominence. We don't want to
get in trouble in the village. You understand?"
The sergeant leered at Shmulik, thrusting a finger in his
face. "We ain't fussy here. We take all comers. You got prob-
lems with your Jews, that's your headache. I ain't sending
"My noble friend, let me explain," Shmulik pleaded.
"That tall boy, the one with the dark eyes, he's the son of the
Kronitzer Rebbe. And the redhead, he's the son of the gab-
bai, also an important person."
Shmulik realized that his words were making no impres-
sion on the sergeant. After a moment's thought, he took the
"You leave it to us and we'll fill your pockets with rubles
for these boys. What do you say?"
The sergeant screwed up his face in thought. "You bring
the money and then we'll see. In the meantime, they stay
"Sure, you'll have it tomorrow. First thing. I promise."
By morning the entire village of Kronitz Podolsk was in
turmoil. As the news of the kidnapping spread, pande-
monium broke loose. The wails of the Rebbetzin could be
heard throughout the village, piercing the hearts of even the
most hardened. The Rebbe was haggard from a sleepless
night spent reciting tehillim with only the gabbai at his side. He
remained secluded in his home, swaying and rocking in
prayer, his eyes raw with his own personal pain and with the
pain he felt for all the children of Israel. Not a word had been
exchanged between the two men throughout the long,
The narrow lanes of the village were soon choked by men
wrapped in prayer shawls, their eyes turned heavenward, as
they beseeched the Ribono Shel Olam to show mercy. Their
prayers were matched by those of their wives, who stood
wringing their hands and weeping, as children clutched their
skirts, frightened by the strange doings. Though the years
had brought anguish and evil decrees to these Jews, the news
that their Rebbe's only son their future leader, of whom
they were already so proud had been snatched away lent a
sharper edge to their suffering.
It was a menacing crowd that greeted the terrified khappers
when their cart rumbled into the village. Baruch Fein-
silver, a prosperous merchant and representative of the
kahal, was the first to step forward. The khappers clambered
down from the cart, prepared to disclaim any involvement.
But Feinsilver's angry face weakened their resolve.
The men began pleading, explaining that it had all been
a mistake, a terrible error, and that all would be resolved with
a few rubles. The quick-thinking Shmulik even promised to
contribute money from their own pockets toward the freeing
of the boys. All that was needed, he assured Feinsilver, was
enough money to soften the heart of the sergeant in charge.
Feinsilver looked hard at the men. "You'll have the
money within the hour," he barked. "And for your own
sakes, you had better hope that no harm comes to our
Yankeleh pulled the ragged blanket about him, but the
damp straw he was lying on provided no warmth, and he con-
tinued to shiver. They had been issued rough, olive-colored
uniforms after their own clothes were thrown into a heap and
burned before their eyes. It had been a day of threats and
beatings, all to the cadence of Sergeant Ivan Zinoviev's
shouted commands. By nightfall they were bruised in body
and spirit, and their stomachs grumbled from gnawing
hunger. Yankeleh licked his dry lips as he fought to contain
his fear. Though exhausted, he tried to avoid closing his eyes
and seeing the specter of his parents' tortured faces. Know-
ing their grief distressed him far more than anything he had
endured that day. When sleep finally did come it was filled
They were awakened at first light by shouts and the butt
if a rifle bruising their bare feet. The boys were shoved into
a courtyard and ordered to undress and wash in the icy water
of the outdoor cistern. Yankeleh took a deep breath and
plunged his head into the water. Whoever hesitated for even
one moment was lifted bodily and thrown into the cistern,
feet and hands flailing from the shock of the bruising cold.
There were twenty boys in all, most of them thin, under-
nourished waifs from impoverished homes. Now their
purple lips matched the veins drawn starkly on their shiver-
ing bodies. They huddled together in fright as the butt of the
corporal's rifle urged them back into the barracks. Yankeleh
saw from their size and appearance that the boys ranged in
age from eight to twelve. The two boys from his own village,
Itzik Shusterman and Shaya Melitzky, the cobbler's son, he
knew to be no more than nine or ten.
He realized that he and Moshe were the oldest.
Once in the barracks, Yankeleh pulled the rough uni-
form over his damp body, glad for whatever warmth the cav-
ernous room offered. He and Moshe quietly but fervently
davened Shacharis, When he reached to tighten tefillin straps
hat weren't there, Yankeleh felt a pain in his heart; for the
"rst time his courage almost failed him. Only the words of the
lema saved him from breaking down and weeping.
Aery of relief echoed through the room when a cauldron
f steaming liquid was finally rolled in. Their teeth chatter-
,ig, the boys pressed against each other, eager to be first in
ine to receive a ladle of gruel and a piece of stale black bread.
Only Yankeleh held back. This food was undoubtedly
cooked by a non-Jew in treif pots. How could he eat such a
thing? But if he refused, he would starve. It was clearly a mat-
ter ofpikuach nefesh, life and death. He would eat, he decided,
but only enough to sustain him. And he would never, never
let actual treifmeat pass his lips, not if his ordeal lasted a life-
time. With set lips and determined brow, Yankeleh slowly
put the spoon to his mouth,
After gobbling down his meager portion, Moshe made his
way over to Yankeleh. "What are we going to do? How can
we run away from here?" he blubbered, the tears rolling
down his cheeks.
Yankeleh's jaw tightened. He had to encourage his
friend, to give him hope. "Listen to me, Moshe. We're older
than the other boys here and we have to set an example for
them. We have to be brave, to give them courage not to sur-
render to the beatings and threats. If they see us cave in, all
is lost," Yankeleh said grimly.
"I...I don't know," Moshe stuttered. "I'm not as brave as
"No one is born brave, Moshe, but we have to pretend
that we aren't afraid of them. The bruises will heal, but if we
bend to their will then our souls will never recover. We will
be torn from our faith, from our people. It will be the end of
everything we believe in, everything that we hold sacred.
You know what they have in mind for us, Moshe. Chas
ve'shalom that we should lose our emunah. We must be pre-
pared to offer our very lives for kiddush Hashem. Try to re-
member Rabbi Akiva," he said.
Moshe gasped at the specter of martyrdom. His voice be-
came an agonized plea. "Maybe our families will ransom us?"
Yankeleh cast an apprehensive glance at his friend.
"Yes," he said, "I am sure they will try."
It was mid-afternoon by the time Baruch Feinsilver's car-
riage rolled into the courtyard of the Nikolayev canton, the
three khappers accompanying him on horseback. Huffing, he
pulled his thickset body from the well-appointed carriage
and entered the barracks.
A surly Sergeant Ivan Alexeivich Zinoviev awaited them.
Seated pompously behind a weathered desk, he scoured the
faces of the men before him with contempt. Only Baruch was
offered a chair. The khappers stood awkwardly behind him.
The introductions were swift and lacking in courtesy.
"What brings so honored a guest here?" the sergeant
grunted, affecting ignorance of the purpose of the visit.
Baruch cleared his throat. "We understand, sir, that a
grave error has occurred and that two boys from our village,
both from prestigious families, were accidentally brought
here. The arrangement we have with these men," he con-
tinued, indicating the three standing at uncomfortable atten-
tion, "is as you know, to...to..." he stammered in search of a
euphemism, "to supply the Czar with boys from poor fami-
lies who would benefit from the free education provided in
the cantons," he concluded with a sigh, pleased with his tact-
ful turn of phrase.
The sergeant grinned ominously. "We know nothing of
your internal arrangements, Mr. Feinsilver. Such arrange-
ments are left completely in your hands. Our concern here is
only that each community provide the cantons with the quota
of boys assigned to it," he said, his phrases polished for the
sake of his guest. "The Czar has complete faith in the kahals,"
he said with a cynical smirk, "and he knows that you will not
disappoint him and that the quotas will be met. Now you tell
me that you want two lads returned to the village?"
Baruch fidgeted nervously. He nodded, and drew out a
packet, which he placed in front of the sergeant. "Naturally
we wish to show our appreciation for your cooperation. We
are aware that this is an unusual request."
The sergeant eyed the packet hungrily, but Baruch Fein-
silver and the khappers could not know that Sergeant
Zinoviev's shrewdness far exceeded even his personal greed.
He had already reported the incident to a senior officer, who
had then discussed the matter with Bishop Feodor Gargarin.
The sergeant opened the packet without ceremony and
counted out the rubles, his face devoid of expression. Replac-
ing the rubles in the packet he nodded to the corporal.
Within minutes a whimpering Moshe Vohlman was pre-
sented to the waiting delegation.
Baruch felt his chest tightening. "Where is the other
boy?" he asked in a guttural whisper.
"You get only this one," the sergeant snarled. "Take him
or leave him."
Baruch shuddered. His eyes narrowing, he surveyed the
faces of the khappers. "But I was led to understand...that is, it
was made clear that the ransom was for two boys. There is a
small fortune in that packet," he hissed.
The sergeant jumped to his feet, his face growing livid.
"If you know what's good for you, Jew, you'll leave now. I can
change my mind about this one, too."
They stalked from the room, Baruch mumbling curses
under his breath. Without so much as a word of sympathy,
he led Moshe into his carriage. He sighed deeply, mopping
the beads of perspiration running down his face and neck.
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