By Larry Domnitch
About the Author
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’s zealous obsession to force them to accept
baptism. One day, at the age of eleven, he was literally snatched from his
home and forced to face years of persecution as a Cantonist. Despite the
incessant pressure to accept baptism, he stubbornly resisted all efforts and
remained a committed Jew.
years of “service,” Merimzon, already a seasoned servant of the
Tsar was being transferred 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 the province of Saratov. Merimzon and the other Cantonist,
who also held stubbornly on to his faith, became friendly and began to
converse. It was the day before Passover, and the two 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.
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 thick reddish beard.
stopped the men and questioned them. From where 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.
find that hard to believe,” said the merchant. “You were in the
Cantonists and able to remain Jews?” He bid them not to leave and told them
he would soon return. Merimzon and his friend stood there in bewilderment
wondering; who was this man? “We’ll see,” Merimzon said to his comrade.
They remained at the assembly point and waited.
waited for one hour and then another. Suddenly the man returned
with a cab, and they embarked. The cabby yanked on the reins and the horses
merchant led Merimzon and Zaks up a dark stairway to the top floor.
He opened the door of a large and lavishly decorated chamber. From the ceiling
hung a bronze chandelier, and pictures hung from the walls along with mirrors
in gild frames. Velvet armchairs stood around the room. At the large table, a
middle-aged man in a long frock coat was reciting from the Haggadah. The Jew
arose 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,” he said. 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 practices. This evening
they will gather to sell their Chometz, and tomorrow evening they will gather
two were asked to stay for the holiday. It was an offer they would
definitely not refuse.
next night at the Seder, the room was brightly lit by chandeliers
and 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.
glasses were filled with wine and the host who had found the
Cantonists, 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; he
chanted the words with joy, and clarity. His friend Zaks followed suit. Then
the children present asked the traditional “four questions” which were
answered by the adults.
the meal, matzo balls were served with a tasty soup and a large
portion of goose. After the meal, the Seder continued and everyone sang
merrily. The final song of Chad Gadya was sung to the tune of a Russian folk
dance. The Seder lasted until long after midnight.
and his friend slept in soft beds until Moisevich called them for
morning prayers. It was quite a change from the wake up calls they had heard
over the past many years. For the next several days, life was like a dream;
another Seder and more festive meals, in a relaxed Jewish communal atmosphere.
They had not experience anything remotely like this for years. The guests were
were content, well fed, and at peace.
the final day of the holiday arrived, the Cantonists were due to
leave their temporary paradise and return to the misery that had been their
lives for so long. As Moisevich was still reciting the Havdalah prayer, which
marks the end of the holiday, members of the community began arriving bearing
gifts, which included clothing items, food and a prayer book. Coins of all
values were contributed as well.
hosts gave the Cantonists a ruble each. “Listen boys,” they
implored. “Hold on to your holy faith. Don’t be tempted when someone else
promises you riches or rank. Don’t put your trust in such idols. Go on
believing in the G-D of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Be firm. ”
replied, “Thank you for your words.” 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, 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 to the dock
and bided farewell as though they were family. For that Passover, they were
Passover helped sustain the strength of two heroes to continue a
long struggle and journey. Several years later, Merimzon would be released
from the military and he would make his way back to his home and family. His
unexpected return completely astonished his parents and community.
years passed but he never forgot the kindness displayed to him on
Domnitch is the author of “The Cantonists: The Jewish Children’s Army of
the Tsar,” released by Devora Publishing.