An Unforgettable Passover by Larry Domnitch

Judaism –> An Unforgettable Passover by Larry Domnitch

One particular Passover for the young Cantonist Chaim Merimzon must have seemed like a dream. Merimzon was one of thousands of Jewish children who were victims of Tsar Nicholas’ zealous obsession to force them to accept baptism. One day he was pulled out from his home at the age of eleven and forced to faced years of persecution and torment as a Cantonist. Despite years of incessant pressure to accept baptism, he stubbornly resisted all efforts and remained a committed Jew.

After years of ‘service’, Merimzon, already a seasoned servant of the Tsar, was being replaced to another battalion. Along with another Cantonist, Mikhail Zaks, he waited for a group to arrive to be transported together down the Volga River to Saratov. Merimzon and the other Cantonist, who also stubbornly held on to his faith, became friendly and began to converse. It was the day before Passover. The two Jews walked and commiserated. Tomorrow their parents would sit at the Seder while they would be traveling down the Volga. They reminisced about their lost childhoods and wept.
Suddenly, an elderly man approached. He was the paradigm of a genuine Russian merchant. He wore a long coat of dark blue broadcloth. Belted with a red sash, along with a thigh reddish beard.

He stopped the men and questioned them. From whence had they arrived? Where were they being sent? He did not ask their nationality since he saw they were Jews. He only asked whether they had converted. Merimzon and his companion responded that they had not.

“I find that hard to believe,” said the merchant. “You were in the Cantonists and were able to remain Jews? He bid them not to leave and told them he would return. Merimzon and his friend stood there in bewilderment. Who was this man? They wondered. “We’ll see” Merimzon said to his comrade. They remained at the assembly point and waited.

They waited for one hour and then another. Suddenly the man returned with a cab, and they climbed in, the cabby yanked on the reins and the cab took off.

The merchant led Merimzon and Zaks up a dark stairway to the very top floor. He opened the door of a large and lavishly appointed chamber. From the ceiling hung a bronze chandelier and pictures and mirrors hung from the walls. At the large table, a middle-aged man in a long frock coat was reciting from the Hagaddah. The Jew got up and offered the Cantonists his hand, “Shalom Aleichem” he said. ‘Aleichem Shalom’, they replied. Merimzon asked him, “Who are these people, who appear Russian but seem as Jews?” The Jew smiled, “They are converts to Judaism. They are Subbotniks who enthusiastically practice Judaism. The government persecutes them cruelly but they have found a place in my landlord’s home to observe religious rites. This evening they will gather here to sell their Chamitz, and tomorrow evening they will gather to pray”.

The two were asked to stay for the holiday. It was an offer they would not even consider refusing.

The next night at the Seder, the room was brightly lit by chandeliers and candles burning in silver candelabras? The table was adorned with a magnificent bottle of wine, small goblets at each place, and a large goblet set aside for Elijah the prophet. At each end of the table was a china plate with three matzos wrapped in new silk napkins.

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The Cantonists: The Jewish Children’s Army of the Tsar by Larry Domnitch

The glasses were filled with wine and their host, who had found them, Avraham Moisevich, placed his glass upon his right palm and recited the Kiddush in the traditional melody. Then he invited the soldiers to recite the Kiddush. Merimzon remembered how he used to do it at home and he chanted the words, with joy, clearly and distinctly. His friend Mikhail followed suit. And then the children present asked the traditional ‘four questions’ which were answered by the adults.

For the meal, Matzo balls were served with tasty soup and a large portion of goose. After the food, the Seder continued and everyone sang merrily. The final song of Chad Gadya was sung to the tune of a Russian Kamarinskaya (folk dance) The Seder lasted until long after midnight. Exhausted Merimzon and his friend slept in soft beds until the morning, when Moisevich called them for morning prayers, it was quite a change from the wake up calls they had heard over the past several years. For the next several days, life was like a dream, another Seder, festive meals, in a relaxed Jewish communal atmosphere. They had not experienced anything remotely like this for years. The guests were fortunate to spend the holiday with their gracious hosts. They were content, well fed, and at peace. When the final day of the holiday arrived. The cantonsist were due to leave their temporary paradise and return to the misery that had been their lives for so many years. Moisevich was still chanting the Havdalah prayer, which marks the end of the holiday when members of the community began arriving bearing gifts which included clothing items, food, a prayer book. Coins of all valuables were contributed as well. The hosts gave the Cantonists a ruble each. “Listen boys. Hold on to your holy faith. Don’t be tempted when someone else promises you riches or rank. Don’t put your trust in idols. Go on believing in the Gd of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Be firm” Thank you for your exhortation: They replied. Merimzon’s heart ached at the thought of his departure. But the time had come to leave. The guests bid their farewells to members of the community. In the morning, their benefactor, Avraham Moisevich and his wife delivered them back to their commander, just as parents see off their beloved sons on a long journey. They were escorted right to the dock and bid farewell as though they were family. For that Passover, they indeed were family. That Passover helped sustain the strength of two heroes to continue a long struggle and a long journey. Several years later, Merimzon would be released from the military and he would make his way back to his home and family. The day of his return was one of complete shock to his parents and community.

The years passed but he never forgot the kindness displayed to him on that Passover.

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