This article was published 100 years ago today:
“OLDEST SOLDIER IN THE WORLD TO UNFURL FLAG
“The oldest soldier in the world, an inmate of the Hebrew Sheltering and Home for the Aged Association, will raise the American flag over the Home at 131 S. Boyle avenue, Sunday, April 14. He is Mr. B. Corn, 110 years of age, who served 35 years for Czar Nicholas I. He was taken from him parents’ home when a mere child of eight years and was forced into the army training school where he suffered for many years and was forced to abandon the Jewish religion. He finally escaped to the United States where, under the protection of the Stars and Stripes, he shared in the liberty to worship in the Jewish faith. He became a soldier in the Union Army and served under General Grant.
“To his pride, once again, in the last of his life, he will raise the American flag over the Home for the Aged while the children of the Jewish Orphans Home will participate by singing “America.” All are invited to witness the grand scene.”
– – Bnai Brith Messenger, Friday, April 12, 1918
There are many Jewish people who came to the United States as veterans of the czarist army. There were also many people who came to avoid being drafted by the Russians army. At the time that Mr. Corn was drafted, any male between the age of 12 and 25 years old could be conscripted for a standard service of 25 years.
On account of the extremely long conscription, some Russian Jewish young men cut off their trigger finger to avoid being drafted. I have several friends who clearly remember their grandfather thus having one shorter finger; though people rarely mentioned the reason why.
However, Mr. Corn was like many Jews who did service in the czarist Imperial Russian Army, where he suffered greatly.
It’s amazing that after all that, while advanced in years he served in the righteous ranks of the Union Army, to put down the Confederate slave-state rebellion and defend the freedom of the United States.
It’s also very touching that as Mr. Corn raised the flag over the Jewish Home for the Aged, which at the time was located at the old Gless House, where he had become a resident. While the choir was led by children from the Jewish Orphans Home, which at the time was located in a boarding house across the street from Hollenbeck Park. The children in the choir would have been around the age he was when he was taken into the czar’s army.
The Russian Cantons: The Draft of Jewish Boys
And one of the common Eastern European Jewish family stories is the epic of how their family members or ancestors were sent away lest they be taken by the czarist Russian army.
Today, I ask us to consider the life of a Russian Jewish boys who were subjected to the czar’s draft in the 19th century.
This was a real and terrifying concern.
Czar Nicholas I ordered that the Russian draft into the Imperial army also apply to the Jewish communities in 1827. At that time the scare of conscription was extended to potentially affect every single young Jewish boy.
Though it is important to note that it wouldn’t have been the Russians who would have selected and taken the young Jewish boys… it’s a bit more complicated than that. The terrible task of selection was done by the “kahal,” by the Jewish community body. And it was them who handed the young boys of their community over to the Russians.
And because of this authority of selection being in the hands of the men of the community, it happened that a disproportionate amount of those selected were children. This was further justified based on the idea that these boys didn’t yet have a family and dependents to support. So the younger ones were often sent instead of the more mature youths.
And when young men could not be found to fulfill the quota, they would start to take boys as young as eight years old, and sometimes even younger. Taking these boys from their families, the kahal would often employ their own informants and send “khappers” (kidnappers), to steal these Jewish boys before they could be hid or sent away by their family.
They were then taken by the community and handed over to the army for 25 years. Some 30,000 to 50,000 Jewish children were taken to be conscripted into the cantonist army schools and prepared for service in the Imperial army.
Though Jews were drafted into the army, they were limited in the roles they could serve. Only 8 people are known to have risen above Russian racial nationalistic policies.
Most often the boys were deprived of their Jewish practice and pressured to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church. And some did – as much as one-third of the young Jewish boys converted to Christianity – for better treatment and opportunities. Though many more struggled to maintain their Jewish identity under impossible circumstances.
In 1856 this policy would be abolished by Czar Alexander II, thought it would take a few years to entirely abolish the canton policy. All unconverted young men under 20 years old were then given back to their parents. All those who had converted were given to their Christian godparents.
The liberation of the Jewish boys drafted into the cantons would have been undone just a few years before Mr. Corn would have joined the Union Army and served under General Grant during the American Civil War.
A lot of people have history of their ancestors suffering from, or fleeing conscription.
Though the family story of fleeing conscription is common, it should be noted that Jews are not to be characterized as draft dodgers, as YIVO states:
“Between 1874 and 1914, there were more Jews in the Russian army than non-Jews in proportion to the general population. For example, in 1907, Jewish soldiers constituted almost 5 percent of the entire military but only 4 percent of the population of the empire. These figures make obsolete any vociferous right-wing criticism of the “Jewish draft dodging” that after 1882 and especially after 1905 was considered a collective crime of Jews in Russian political discourse.”
Then later on Jews would also have to deal with fears of Russian Army conscription during the communist revolution. And at that time would send Jewish young men abroad, some of which would come here to America.
We would start to get a lot more Jewish Russian army veterans here in Los Angeles in the first couple decades of the 20th century.
- The Cantonist Saga – A horrific era when Jewish boys were forced into 25 years of Russian military service. (Aish)