Research query:Maiming to Avoid Russian Draft?

Jeff Marx's picture

I am exploring the question of whether the deliberate maiming of draft-eligible Jewish boys to avoid conscription into the Russian army in the last decades of the 19th century actually took place (i.e. cutting off a finger or crushing a foot) or whether it was a powerful myth within the Jewish community. Are any of you familiar with any rabbinic responsa discussing this, incidental mention in a “saving from conscription” Chasidic story, or critical article on this issue?


Jeff Marx

Categories: Query, Research

Hi Jeff,

This is not directly related to Russia, but my mother's uncle drank large quantities of vinegar to get out of the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I (he was a Galician Jew). This supposedly weakened one's heart and made one unfit for service. I know that after the war he was considered a partial invalid. I have no knowledge of whether this was medically true.

Good luck,
Dr. Susan Nashman Fraiman
Rothberg International School
The Hebrew University

Valerii Dymshits' contribution to "Photographing the Jewish Nation: Pictures from S. An-sky's Ethnographic Expeditions," entitled "The First Jewish Museum" records that An-sky also collected "relics of national memory."

"Some of the items on the lists of expedition acquisitions - 'crumbs of matzo from the caftan of the Kaidansk tsadik,' a skull of a victim of the Khmelnitski uprising, the amputated finger of a Jewish recruit who wanted to avoid army service - were relics in the literal sense." (p. 192)

I do not know how rigorous An-sky's methods were in verifying the sources of his "relics."

Dr. Shalom Z. Berger
Co-Editor, H-Judaic

Dear Jeff,

See Mordechai Zalkin, "Between the 'Sons of God' and 'Human Beings': Rabbis, Yeshiva Students, and Conscription in Nineteenth-Century Russia" [Hebrew], in Shalom u-milhamah ba-tarbut ha-Yehudit [Peace and War in Jewish Civilization], ed. Avriel Bar-Levav, Jerusalem, 2006, 165-222; Michael Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1825-1855, Philadelphia, 1983; Olga Litvak, Conscription and the Search for Modern Russian Jewry, Bloomington; Indianapolis, 2006; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, Jews in the Russian Army, 1827-1917, Cambridge, 2009; "Text #158: Self-Mutilation to Evade Military Service [1835]," in Everyday Jewish Life in Imperial Russia: Select Documents, 1772-1914, eds. ChaeRan Y. Freeze and Jay M. Harris, Waltham, MA, 2013, 520-521; Derek J. Penslar, Jews and the Military: A History, Princeton; Oxford, 2013, 27-34; and cf. Dick Dowes, "Reorganizing Violence: Traditional Recruitment Patterns and Resistance against Conscription in Ottoman Syria," in Arming the State: Military Conscription in the Middle East and Central Asia, 1775-1925, ed. Erik J. Zürcher, London, 1999, 111-127; Khaled Fahmy, "The Nation and Its Deserters: Conscription in Mehmed Ali's Egypt," in Arming the State, 59-77; idem, All the Pasha's Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army and the Making of Modern Egypt, Cambridge, 1997, 101-102, 260-263.


Liran Yadgar (Monterey, CA)

"Mr. Kahn" at the Jewish Center of Unionport, Ellis Avenue, Bronx, NY, showed me his cut-off finger which, he said, was self-inflicted to avoid statist service. This was around 1959-60. I know this is not "academic documentation," but real life.
Zvi Gitelman
Professor Emeritus of Political Science
Tisch Professor Emeritus of Judaic Studies
University of Michigan

In connection with your research on avoiding conscription into the Russian army, see the references in the index under "Draft evasion" in my edition of my grandfather's memoir: A Jewish Life on Three Continents: The Memoir of Menachem Mendel Frieden (Stanford Univ. Press, 2013).

Lee Shai Weissbach
Prof. Emeritus of History
Univ. of Louisville

My grandfather, Udem Lejbowicz (later on transliterated in Argentina as “Leibowich”), was born in Siemiatycze, province of Bialystok, Eastern Poland, in 1896. The area was then part of the Russian Empire and, as such, he had Russian documents. In 1915, being 19 years old, was recruited to fight in the Czar army against Germany. During the war he was about to be sent to the front. To prevent that, he injected himself kerosene in the left knee. The knee got “the size of a watermelon”, as he described, and was sent to a military hospital for months. Upon discharge from hospital, he served in the mission of transporting German prisoners from Eastern Russia to Siberia, but not in battle front. Captured by the Germans three times, was released from soldier’s concentration camp in October 1917, upon Russian Revolution. When I asked him about the kerosene episode, he told me, speaking about the Czar: “I did everything not to die for the glory of that evil anti-Semite”. I hope this chapter of his life contributes to the understanding of what Jews thought about serving the Russian army.

Jaime E. Bortz
Professor of History of Medicine
Department of Medical Humanities
Buenos Aires University
Buenos Aires, Argentina

My great grandfather Sol Katz was born Sol Godofsky but "adopted" by a childless couple, the Katz's. I am not certain
which area of the Pale they lived in but he would have been born ca. 1860. According to my grandfather, this was a common
practice in their shtetl to avoid the Russian army. I know that within the Jewish community it was known because his adoptive father was a kohen and he and his descendants never claimed to be kohanim but kept their status as "yisrael."

Meryll Levine Page
Minneapolis, MN

In the late nineteenth century, my great grandfather Boruch Sanders had his eye removed to avoid conscription into the Russian army. He left Russian after WW1. My mother remembers how her grandfather would keep his glass eye in a jar by his bedside. I have family members who may know more of the details of this, should it be of interest. Rachel Frankel


My father used to tell this family story, from Russia and during the Crimean War. When he received the citation for the Russian Army, one of my father's grandfathers, or perhaps an elder uncle, asked a dentist to flatten his teeth. Then he went to the physical check-up, and because of lack of teeth he got out of the draft. Later on he got dentures, moved to Argentina and begun a new life.

Hope it helps,
Ana Schaposchnik



I can only tell you that my maternal grandfather Izak Rosenkrantz, who was born in 1896, did not have the middle finger in his right hand. Instead of a finger there was just a short stump. It was not only the upper part that was cut off, it was the entire finger, i.e. both knuckles. He was born and raised, and married, and had his first daugther, my mother, in the little town (mostly Jewish, a real East European 'classic' shtetl) of Piusk, some 200 miles south of Warsaw. He left Piusk for South America in 1929.

When I asked him why the finger was missing on the left hand, he told me that he had shot it with a gun "by accident" in order to avoid conscription into the Polish army during the First World War. Most probably, I believe, he had it cut surgically by someone in the village, since the short stump in his left hand was very clean. I.e., there were no visible scars around it. I would imagine that the practice did not get invented just for him at that moment; rather, there was a tradition in the entire Jewish 'pale' of what young Jews did, and how they did it, when they got orders to present themselves to the Russian or later the other national armies. I just got to witness with my eyes the physical signs of that Jewish tradition.

Yuval Warshai
Ann Arbor, MI