The infamous Cantonist Decree by the Russia Czar was awful by itself. The decree was that Jewish children—some as young as eight years old, most at the age of 12—were taken from their homes and inducted in training camps in order to prepare them so that at the age of 18 they could begin the 25 years of service in the Russian army. But then the Czar did something which was emulated later by Hitler. He would have the Jews themselves choose their own victims, so that in effect he would morally destroy the Jewish people as well.
Every Jewish community had a quota to fill. If the quota was not filled, there were various methods to ensure that it would be filled. One method was that members of the families of the community leaders would be taken, or that they would be exiled to Siberia, which in many cases was certain death. Or, the entire town would be exiled and destroyed.
These draconian measures put the authority of the Jewish establishment in that town in a dilemma from which there was no escape. Imagine a decree which ordered the local authorities to deliver 300 children. Which 300? How does one choose them?
Certain communities chose them by lot, as terrible as that sounds. Other communities sent the sick, infirm, orphaned or the children of the poor—those who had no defense. There arose within the Jewish community an underworld of gangsters who were called chappers (“grabbers”). They were kidnappers who would take children off the street to fill the quota. If parents sent a child to school in the morning, they were not sure if the child would return home at night.
Wealthy Jews of the towns, even if their children were taken, would bribe the Russian officials to have their children released. The Russian officials always were corrupt. The poor people, though, had no way out. Therefore, the division in the Jewish community between the poor and the wealthy was no longer just a question of money, but of blood.
Now, most of the establishment people were religiously observant. Therefore, the poor families whose children were taken away developed hatred toward the people who ran the community, and eventually a hatred of the religion itself. Many great rabbis resigned their positions and left town because they could not bear to watch what was happening. Many great rabbis were driven from their towns because they spoke up against the injustices being done. And many just remained quiet.
Among other terrible outcomes, this created a Jewish underworld. The chappers were Jews. Many times they were also killed by other Jews. The Chofetz Chaim related the story about a chapper in his town in Radin. The Chofetz Chaim waited 40 or 50 years to see how God would get even with him. Then, during the First World War, a plague hit the town, and the entire family of this chapper was wiped out and he had to bury them all himself.
The human tragedy was simply monstrous. That decree, plus the decree of the Pale of Settlement alone, would have been sufficient to break the Jews. But that was just the beginning.