The Cantonists were child-recruits in the Russian military. The Russian Tzar, Peter the Great, devised the system in which young men were drafted to serve in the military for prolonged terms. Tzar Nicholas Pavolovich (1827-1855) used this system as a vehicle to force Jewish children to accept Baptism. The children were literally stolen from their homes in the shtetles and forced to serve long extended terms as trainees and then as soldiers when they reached the age of eighteen. They faced severe pressure by all means including torture to accept baptism. Prior Russian Tzars may have repeatedly failed to induce the Jews of the Pale Settlement to abandon their faith, but Nicholas was determined to enforce his will upon the children.
The fact that this particular Cantonist entered a shul on Yom Kippur indicates that he most probably had never succumbed to the enormous pressure to accept Baptism. Had he undergone Baptism, he would have been officially listed as a Christian and prohibited from ever entering a synagogue during the reign of Nicholas.
Levin relates that the congregation appointed the Cantonist to lead the Neilah (concluding) prayers — the most hallowed moment of the year. This was a great honor, especially for a guest. The gesture clearly demonstrated one of great admiration for the man who tenaciously held on to his faith at all costs.
The soldier of Tzar Nicholas made his way to the front of the shul. Having forgotten almost all the religious training he had received as a child including the ability to read Hebrew, he could not recite, nor lead the Neilah prayers. However, before the congregation, he expressed a powerful prayer from the heart, which shook the entire congregation. He proclaimed, “Father in Heaven, what shall I pray for? I can not pray for children for I never got married and have no hope to raise a family, I am too old to start anew. I can’t pray for life, for what value is such a life? It would be better for me if I died. I can not pray to be able to make a living since Nicholas provides for my daily food. The only thing I can pray for is, “Yisgadal VeYoiskadash Shmei Rabah” meaning “May your name be blessed forever” (from the Kaddish).
When hearing these words, the entire congregation wept. They wept over the plight of the poor individual and his difficult life of travail. They also wept for the tens of thousands of other Cantonists who were forced to endure the same hardships, as well as their families, and communities who were forced to endure the losses of so many of their sons and brothers. Many Cantonists had died from the rigors, or had accepted Baptism, others were simply lost in Siberia hundreds of miles away from their homes. All Jewish communities of Russia were faced with the Tzars’ quotas of providing recruits.
The Tzar issued the orders, the leaders of each town’s Kahal (Jewish communal organization) which for the most part perceived non-compliance as not an option, provided the recruits, and the Chappers (kidnappers) did the dirty work of the Kahal for a fee. Many Kahal leaders could not simply argue that they had no choice. It was the poor, who were the recruits, and many Kahal officials profited from payments from the wealthy for their sons’ exemptions. How demoralizing and traumatizing that era was for the Jews of Russia! That too was no doubt part of Nicholas’ strategy. All Jews who lived under the Tzar’s rule were no doubt effected by the horrors of this era.
On Yom Kippur, at the moment of Neilah, a congregation was confronted with the horrors of that era by the heartfelt words of a true hero. A hero who was one of thousands who stood against Nicholas and displayed a type of heroism unusual for adults, let alone children. In his own words, he added untold significance to that moment of Neilah. He reminded the congregation of the sinners, and the many heroes of that era. On that Yom Kippur day, the moment of Neilah was truly one of reckoning and regret for all those present.