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It Had Its History

The Jews of Russia

Exemption from conscription was granted to merchants of all guilds, artisans connected with the guilds of their trades, rabbis, school-teachers, apprentices who had been apprenticed to Christian artisans for at least three years. An increasing number of young Jews fled the country, or maimed themselves, or paid bribes to evade the draft.

Kidnappers roamed the Pale Settlement looking for unattended or defenseless Jewish youths and children called Khappers in Yiddish. Their reputation for infamy was a central theme in Russian Jewish folklore and history.

The Russian historian Alexander Herzen wrote in mid-1830’s, “Pale, worn out, with frightened faces, they stood in thick, clumsy soldier’s overcoats, with standing collars, fixing helpless, pitiful eyes on the garrison soldiers, who were roughly getting them into the ranks. The white lips, the blue rings under the eyes looked like fever or chill and the sick children without care or kindness, exposed in the icy wind that blows from the Arctic Ocean, were going to their graves. Boys of twelve or thirteen might somehow have survived, but little fellows of eight or ten... No painting could reproduce the horror of that scene.” The Yiddish folk song of the period aptly described the situation:

“Tots from school they tear away 

And dress them up in soldiers’ gray.” 

Censorship had been in force in Russia since 1826, but Nicholas I felt that the Jews needed extra censorship. On 27 October 1836, a ministerial committee decided to close all existing Hebrew printing presses, except two - one in Kiev and the other in Vilna.

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