From “Paper Life,” by Louise Goldstein

In the Tsarist Russian Empire, eldest and only sons were deferred from the draft.  Many Jewish families tried to obtain draft deferments; one method was that families with more than one son “adopted out” the younger sons to other families where they would be either the only son or the eldest.  As a result, Jewish genealogical research can be complicated by brothers with different last names.  Not registering a birth with the local municipal authorities was another way to avoid the draft (on the theory that they can’t draft you if they don’t know you exist), leaving any number of male ancestors without documentation of their births, though sometimes a man registered his birth when he married.

In general, Jews tried to stay out of sight of the authorities.  Remember the blessing the rabbi gives in “Fiddler on the Roof?”  “May God bless and keep the Tsar – far away from us.”  While humorous in the context of the musical, it was no joke in real 19th century life in the Empire.  As a result, some Jewish marriages were never registered with the authorities, leaving the wife and husband with different last names and the children with their mother’s name.  Generations later, genealogically-minded descendants wonder if their great-great-grandma was ahead of her times, but alas, she was merely trying to hide in plain sight.  Married men were deferred, so children were often married off very young.  They stayed with their own families and had a normal childhood, until they were old enough to live together.  Rabbis who were caught doing this were fined.

As an only son, Lev had a deferment from the draft.  However, as noted in the quote below, that turned out not to be sufficient protection.  The “protracted separation” to which he refers is the length of service, six years plus nine years of reserve duty; thus the intense pressure to emigrate as soon as possible.

Lev to Fenya

Fenichka, if we don’t go abroad, it’s a little troublesome. Next year I’ll be called up, though I have a deferment, but I know ahead of time it won’t help, because recently they don’t pay attention to the deferments, so I’ll have to serve, and be without you again for a long time. And such a protracted separation…[1]

According to the eminent historian Simon Dubnow, “The family of a Jew guilty of evading military service is liable to a fine of three hundred rubles ($150).  The collection of the fine shall be decreed by the respective recruiting station and carried out by the police…”[2]  “Family” was meant to include parents, brothers, grandparents, sisters.

Louis to Fenya 

But my sister had to pay a fine because first of all my parents were sent out of Voronezh and [? illegible.] doesn’t know where they are.[3]

 Louis to Fenya 

… you already probably already know that I sent for my sister since she had to pay a 300 ruble fine for me so that it was impossible for her to stay there any longer…I expect that she will be here by New Year’s and maybe even earlier I haven’t yet received a letter from her so I don’t know what she’s (done) whether she’s already left or not…[4] 

His parents having been “…sent out of Voronezh…,”[5] they were not around to pay the fine, and his married sisters had expenses a single person didn’t have.  For some reason his sister’s ability to write seems to have had something to do with either the family or the authorities pestering her.  Sarah, the first sister to emigrate after Lev, did so at the age of 18 on March 22, 1913; it is likely that she paid the fine; perhaps she earned enough as a seamstress to be able to pay.

Somewhere I heard a story, possibly from Stanley Chernak, that Rose Battalen’s husband Ruben Chernack was actually in the Russian Army, but deserted, came and got her and their baby son and left the country, but I have no corroboration.


 [1] Voronezh, undated

[2] Simon Dubnow, “History of the Jews in Russian and Poland,” (Avotaynu Press) p. 382.

[3] New York, undated letter, “Sister paid a fine”

[4] Louis to Fenya, New York, Nov 4 1912, Election tomorrow

[5] Louis to Fenya, New York, January 8 “…because they were given to leave Voronezh. They had to leave on short notice. In a word, they went broke, but I happened to be making good money then. I sent them 50 dollars [smudged]. I paid to my sister, so it turns out that I satisfied one side and offended the other. Whatever can I do?”


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