Oldest Soldier in the World, Served Czar and in Civil War (1918)

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.

The Gless House

The Gless House was the early location of the Hebrew Sheltering and Home for the Aged, located at 131 S. Boyle Avenue.

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 be 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.

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  • The Cantonist Saga – A horrific era when Jewish boys were forced into 25 years of Russian military service. (Aish)
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The Japanese Diplomat and the Yeshiva Bochurs of Shanghai

As we are ending the observance of Yom ha-Shoah – the Hebrew date for the observance of Holocaust Memorial Day, I would like us to consider this inspirational story.The Bnei Brith Messenger in July of 1946 made this announcement for an upcoming event to be held in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles:

“Ex-Yeshiva Students Shanghai Refugees Awaited Here

“Fleeing the death chambers and concentration camps of Poland, only to find hardships and misery in Shanghai, as prisoners of war, about thirty former students of the Lubavitcher Rabbi, Joseph I. Schneerson, have been enabled, through its efforts to come to the United States.

“About seventeen of them will arrive in Los Angeles on the 16th or 17th of July, and a reception is being planned in their honor by Los Angeles Jewry.

“At a meeting held in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Max Wecksler, Monday night, a group of distinguished rabbis and laymen laid plans for the forthcoming reception, and for the maintenance of these refugees until steps can be taken for their future welfare in the country.

“RECEPTION SUNDAY

“Arrangements have been made for a reception in their honor by a committee headed by Harry Altman and Max Weksler, to be held Sunday evening, July 21, in the Jewish Home for the Aged, 325 South Boyle Ave, at a dinner.

“Others on the committee are…”

Then it gives the names of the people on the committee.

Lastly, it lists this amazing line-up of entertainment for the fete:

“Among those who will be entertain at the program will be Cantors Itzikel Schiff and Joseph Czycowski, accompanied by the world renowned composer Cantor Paul Discount.”

Bnai Brith Messenger, Friday, July 19, 1946; Page: 17

The students had been studying at the Chabad-Lubavitch Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in Otwock, a suburb of Warsaw, when Nazi troops invaded Poland in September of 1939.

Refugee yeshivah students arrive in Shanghai

Refugee yeshiva students arrive in Shanghai, China.

Together the group of yeshivah students, managed to make it to Lithuania, where they obtained transit visas from diplomat Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul in Kaunas (Kovno), enabling them to cross the Soviet Union and spend the war years in the relative safety of Kobe, Japan and Japanese-controlled Shanghai, arriving in 1941.

There they would suffer much hardship – the exhaustion of the journey had worn them down. And then they faced years of being held as prisoners of war, suffering from everything from the extreme change in climate to food poisoning. They were then liberated finally after the end of the war in the Pacific.

Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in Shanghai during WWII

Students and rabbis at the Chabad-Lubavitch Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in Shanghai during World War II

After the war they would come to America by way of Los Angeles in 1946, to be welcomed and given support as they came to establish themselves in this country.

Though one of those refugee students would play an important role in establishing the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Los Angeles. In 1948, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Raichik would be sent by the sixth Rebbe – Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory – sent the newly-married scholar to Los Angeles as his representative in California.

Notably, Rabbi Raichik would be one of the disciples of the sixth Rebbe who would plead with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, to become the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Rabbi Raichik would be given the mandate by the rebbe to not just focus on building up one synagogue in the city of Los Angeles, but to spread out across the entire city and surrounding area.

Today Chabad-Lubavitch is one of the most widespread Jewish movements in greater Los Angeles.

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Now let us take a look at the life of the Japanese diplomat who came to the rescue. And also take a peek at a monument in downtown Los Angeles which honors the hero of this story.

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara Memorial
(January 1, 1900- July 31, 1986)
Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles

The Talmud states: “He who saves one life, saves the entire world.” This verse is written on the base of this monument to Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara – you will find it right next to a Starbucks off Central Avenue in Little Toyko, just over the river in downtown Los Angeles.

Chiune "Shempo" Sugihara Memorial, Little Tokyo

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara Memorial, Little Tokyo, Downtown Los Angeles.

The statue was a gift of public art from the Neman Foundation and Levy Affiliated Holdings, LLC, honoring this hero.

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park wrote a wonderful biography about this hero:

“Sempo Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania who issued thousands of transit visas to Jewish refugees of the Holocaust. Though he did not have authority from the Japanese government to do so, Sugihara is said to have saved approximately 7,000 Jewish refugees though his efforts.

“Sugihara was posted in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1939. At the time, the Japanese government required that transit visas only be granted to those who had sufficient funds, and who had also procured an exit visa from Japan.

“Seeing the desperate condition of the men and women who came to his office, Sugihara, a low-level bureaucrat, disobeyed orders dispatched from the Japanese Foreign Ministry and issued visas anyway.

[Including those given to the Lubavitch yeshiva bochurs who ended up in Shanghai.]

“From August to September, 1941, Sugihara worked 18-20 hours per day, creating the same volume of visas each day that would have ordinarily been issued over the course of a month. Even as his office was shut down and he was leaving Kaunas, he threw visas to refugees waiting on the train platform.

“After the war, Sugihara was asked to resign from his post by the Japanese Foreign Office. It is unclear whether this was a punitive action, but nonetheless Sugihara spent the rest of his life working menial jobs, and settled in the Soviet Union for many years. He was eventually recognized for his efforts in 1985, and named ‘Righteous Among the Nations‘ by Yad Vashem. Chiune Sugihara died in 1986, largely unknown in his native Japan.

“When asked why he risked his career to save other people, he cited an old samurai proverb: “Even the hunter cannot kill a bird which flies to him for refuge.””

This is some deep history here.

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara faced great danger. He didn’t just follow orders when he saw Jews suffering, he did everything he could to save them. He came to the rescue of so many Jewish people whose lives hung in the balance, even though it endangered him and his family. And on account of his defiant act, he would lose his career in the end.

And though when he died he was virtually unknown in his own country, he became well honored posthumously by the Jewish people all around the world.

Every time I am in Little Tokyo I see people pass this statue. Even Jewish people I know, even those who are normally in the know historically, they often miss this one. So I regularly find myself point it out to friends.

And now each time you pass, I ask you to remember how a righteous act by this Japanese diplomat half a world away would help Jews fleeing the Nazi find shelter in Japanese territories. And consider how his act of salvation of just one of these fleeing yeshiva students would benefit chassidic orthodox Judaism in Los Angeles so much.

Imagine what stories might be told of the other thousands of people Sugihara rescued!

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