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's zealous obsession to force them to accept baptism. One day he was pulled from his home at the age of 11 and forced to face 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 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.
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 thick 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 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.
They 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 took off.
The 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 gilt 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 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 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.
The 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 and 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.
For 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 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 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 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 Cantonists were due to leave their temporary paradise and return to the misery that had been their lives for so many years. Moisevich was still reciting the Havdalah prayer, which marks the end of the holiday, as members of the community then began arriving bearing gifts, which included clothing items, food and a prayer book. Coins of all values were contributed as well.
The 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 idols. Go on believing in the G-D of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Be firm. "
They replied, "Thank you for your exhortation." 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, and 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 to the dock and bided farewell as though they were family. For that Passover, they were indeed, family.
That 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.
The years passed but he never forgot the kindness displayed to him on that Passover.
Larry Domnitch is the author of " The Cantonists: The Jewish Children's Army of the Tsar," recently released by Devora Publishing.
from the April Passover 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine