There is a sad children’s story about a Czarist Russian soldier who threatened an elderly, terrified Jewish man. The brutal soldier rolled up his sleeve to administer a beating, revealing an ugly scar on his forearm.
The old man looked at the scar and froze. “Yossele?” he said to the soldier.
“Huh? Who’s Yossele?”
Tears streamed down the old man’s face, but not from fright. “You are, my son.”
“What are you talking about?” The soldier was confused. “I’m Grigory.”
“Yossele, when you were a little boy, you loved to watch the Shabbat candles. One day you went too close and burned yourself. Look at the shape of your scar. I can never forget it. Do you remember?”
“It was so long ago. I don’t really—”
“Yes, you were eight years old when the Khapers (“catchers”) took you away to be a soldier. Your mother and I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. Do you remember anything?”
“When I was first taken away I was beaten for being a… I don’t remember what.”
“A Jew, my son. The Czar wants us to be Christian, he wants us to be regular Russians. He took you into the army, my child because he didn’t want you to be a Jew.”
This past October (2021) I hosted (on behalf of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research and Indigenous Bridges) a webinar From Turtle Island to Zion: Native American /Jewish/ Israel Ties Today. The Native American participants touched upon the Residential School system, designed to isolate indigenous children from their heritage. Just as the Czar didn’t want Yossele to be a Jew, the American and Canadian governments didn’t want Cree, Sioux or Navajo children to live as Indians. The horrendous conditions at many of the residential schools only became a public concern in recent years.
I read the Yossele story many years ago, but never thought about it much. Ira Robinson, a Jewish Studies professor contacted me after the webinar. He said the Indian Residential Schools reminded him very much of the Cantonist system of Russia. I looked it up, and found Yossele and his father. Jewish boys from the age of eight, were taken to serve in the Russian army for twenty-five years. Rather than save the child, it amounted to a literal death sentence for many of them. Boys too young to fight (under eighteen) were taken from their homes and families and brought up in the interior of Russia until they were old enough to join a regiment.
“They brought the children and formed them into regular ranks: it was one of the most awful sights I have ever seen, those poor, poor children! Boys of twelve or thirteen might somehow have survived it, but little fellows of eight and ten… Not even a brush full of black paint could put such horror on canvas. Pale, exhausted, with frightened faces, they stood in thick, clumsy, soldiers’ overcoats, with stand-up collars, fixing helpless, pitiful eyes on the garrison soldiers who were roughly getting them into ranks. The white lips, the blue rings under their eyes, bore witness to fever or chill. And these sick children, without care or kindness, exposed to the icy wind that blows unobstructed from the Arctic Ocean were going to their graves” (A. Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, 1 (1968), 219–20), cited in https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/cantonists.
The conscripts were needed to fight wars, but this was not the only purpose of the Cantonist system. Czar Nicholas considered the army to be best residential school in Russia, so Jews were conscripted at twice the rate of Christians. The children were forced to violate the Sabbath, eat non-kosher food, and forbidden to speak their language. They were tortured until they agreed to convert, at which point their names were changed, and they were considered to be children of non-Jewish sponsors. It was a policy of “kill the Jew, save the child.”
It didn’t matter if it killed the child
“The last awful scene connected with that system of recruiting children took place at Orel, when one winter’s night more than a hundred little boys were taken to town on sledges, but on taking them out they were found to be frozen to death, like poultry carried to market.” –From: The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, January 1863
The Residential School system developed in Canada about fifty years after the Russian Cantonist program. It had a similar agenda: to de-culture and integrate an alien population. Some schools were near the native communities. Many were boarding schools that tore families apart, transporting young children halfway across the country.
The pedagogical methods were not particularly effective in promoting literacy or teaching simple arithmetic, but that didn’t really matter. The goal of the schools was not what they could put into the student, but rather what they could remove: a culture, a way of life. Speaking your native tongue, even to your fellow students was a serious offense. My friend Robert recalled the heavy stick hitting his back; punishment for speaking Cree.
Another friend’s grandfather had a mousetrap closed on his tongue for the same offense. In a scenario more appropriate to a prison rather than a school, there were small manacles attached to the walls, to keep the students from running. Often children were shackled to their beds. Many had their faces rubbed in urine and excrement.
Students had to work on the schools’ farms, but the only vegetables given them were animal fodder. They got one egg a year from the farm’s chickens. Covered in lice, weak from malnutrition and the cold, it’s no wonder that in the early twentieth century, a quarter of the previously healthy children died in the schools. It’s estimated that of the children who were sent home because of their illnesses, half to three quarters passed away after being released. It was an odd way to save the child.
Sexual abuse was rampant. Some contemporary religious institutions are infamous for their treatment of people they were responsible for. In the Residential Schools, more so. My colleague Amos described how the teenage boys were lined up after their shower so the missionary’s sister could inspect them. It’s estimated that at some schools upwards of seventy percent of students faced some form of sexual abuse. Rarely were any of the perpetrators punished.
The Czar had his reasons to implement the Cantonist conscription program. He primarily wanted to make the Jews into non-Jews (Christians), force them, ostensibly for their own benefit, to modernize. One of the leading Hassidic rabbis had supported the Czar against Napoleon because he didn’t want Jews to be free to modernize. So instead the Czar ripped tens of thousands of Jewish children from their homes in order to ‘modernize’ them. His policy was to kill the Jew, save the child.
The governments of Canada and the U.S. had their reasons for implementing the Residential School programs. They wanted to make the Native Americans into non-natives (Christians), force them, ostensibly for their own benefit, to modernize. Government officials felt that way of life of many communities (eg. the fur trade) was no longer economically viable and would lead to starvation. But by the time students were eighteen years old, most students had reached no higher than grade five. This gave them little economic advantage in exchange for the torture, abuse, and death they suffered. The policy of kill the Indian, save the child very often killed the Indian and the child.