Maiming to Avoid the Russian Draft?

Jeff Marx

Dan Leeson’s thoughtful JewishGen Info File, “Military Conscription in Russia in the 19th Century” (find by clicking on “Get Started” button at top of JewishGen homepage, then click “InfoFiles,” and then click “Military”), raises the question as to whether the maiming of Jewish males (i.e. cutting off a finger or crushing toes) to avoid the Russian draft in the last decades of the 19th century, actually occurred or was a Jewish myth, like the myth about name changes at Ellis Island. I have such a story in my own family. My grandfather wrote in his autobiography: “My uncle [b.c.1847 from Kupel, Russia] avoided the draft by chopping off his right thumb. As a child, while sitting on his lap [c.1896], I noticed the missing thumb.  It was years later that I heard the story from him.”  I’d like to hear from any of you if you have a story in your family about such maiming occurring.

Jeff Marx

Jack Berger

The story about maiming circulated in my family as well. When my great-uncle was examined by a doctor, back in Russian Poland the doctor told my great-grandmother (his mother) that he could maim my great-uncle if she so desired. She refused the offer and made it possible for him to emigrate to America. Because of this my great-uncle eventually brought the remainder of his family (including his mother) to America, and is why I can write this to you today.

Jane Foss

My paternal great uncle was said to have given himself a hernia and so avoided the draft but my gf, his brother, was drafted..sent to fort in Lvov

Sarah L Meyer

My family story does not involve maiming, but buying false papers to avoid the draft, and then using that name to leave Russia and come to the US.  In 1884 my ggf Fishel Meyer (born Perchik) came to the US.  I believe that this story is more common than the maiming one.  My mother (z"l) was once approached by a woman at the Temple asking if there was a possible relationship because her maiden name was also Meyer.   After hearing Mom's story about how my father's grandfather purchased the name, the woman said "Oh, we have that same story in my family".  In those days, pre-internet and pre-DNA testing, no further exploration of potential relationships was done.

Harry Auerbach

Similarly, in my maternal line, the story is one of the sons changed his surname from Markell to Marget to avoid the draft. I am descended from Marget.

Harry Auerbach
Searching Marget (Vilna)
Rice/Grynfeld/Lewkowicz (Poland)
Korobov/Nahinsky (Ukraine, Belarus)

sharon yampell

My grandfather’s step-grandfather actually DID cut off one of his fingers and when he was buried in the US, the finger was buried with him…



Sharon F. Yampell

Voorhees, NJ USA/ suburb of Philadelphia PA


Sent from Mail for Windows 10


From: Harry Auerbach
Sent: Friday, January 17, 2020 4:10 PM
To: main@...; sarahlmeyer@...
Subject: Re: [] Maiming to Avoid the Russian Draft?


Similarly, in my maternal line, the story is one of the sons changed his surname from Markell to Marget to avoid the draft. I am descended from Marget.


Harry Auerbach

Searching Marget (Vilna)

Rice/Grynfeld/Lewkowicz (Poland)

Korobov/Nahinsky (Ukraine, Belarus)




My husband's family has written stories about people cutting off a finger.   I think is was the pointer finger, not the thumb.   There was also a story of them making themselves weak and sick by drinking something bad.  

Joseph Laden

Yes, my great grandfather injured one of his eyes to avoid the Russian Army draft during the Russo-Japanese War which started in 1905. He eventually emigrated to the USA in 1925.
Joseph Laden
Ladyzhinski from Geisin


My paternal GF was from Austria (he always said Vienna). My father always said that his father was deaf in one ear because he punctured his ear drum to avoid being drafted into the Russian army.

Avi Lichtenstein

I don’t know what the cause was, but my great-great grandfather was missing a part of his forefinger.  It is visible in pictures and is noted in his WWI draft card.  His brother-in-law was also missing several fingers on his right hand (noted to n his draft card as “lost fingers”).

Eva Lawrence

I also knew someone who had lost the top joints of two fingers on one
hand. He was born around 1905 in Posen. We were told that he had lot
them in the war, but I've always wondered, after hearing these sorts of

Eva Lawrence
St Albans, UK
Eva Lawrence
St Albans, UK.

Ettie Zilber

My grandfather, from Grodno (Poland then Belarus) told the story of smuggling eye drops to his older brother which would create symptoms in his eyes, which would exempt him from the military. I have no idea what was in those eye drops but I read elsewhere about someone else doing the same, so it was obviously an 'easy' medical solution.
Anyone heard of this?

Toby Blake

My Grandfather from Tomaszow Lubelski, Poland told us that he drank Sauerkraut juice to
upset his stomach and avoid the draft. He suffered from stomach issues his entire life.

Toby Blake
Portland, Oregon

Art Hoffman <arthh@...>

Family folklore is that my Uncle Morris (Goichmann) Hoffman was drafted into the Czar's army in 1905 and was on a train to the far east when the Russo-Japan war ended.  He returned to his family in Golovanevsk and was discharged.  My Grandfather Aron then obtained an exit passport for the family (6 children), a copy of which I still have. The entire family emigrated to America in 1906.  I suppose timing is everything, then and now.  Maiming wasn't necessary for Uncle Morris.

Arthur Hoffman
Boynton Beach, FL USA

Researching HOFFMAN, GOICHMANN, GOYKHMANN, WHITE, Golovanevsk, Annopol  


My maternal grandfather was sent to the front in the Russo-Japanese War where conditions were beyond terrible for Jews.  He shot off the top of his pinkie finger so he could return to his wife and family.  Once home though, he soon left to immigrate to the US.  His family followed soon afterwards.


My paternal uncle changed his name to come to the U.S. to avoid being drafted.  He was only 14.  My father left when he was 16.  I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to travel so far alone at such young ages.  It had to be horrible for their mother, especially since the boys’ father had died many years before.  Clearly such behavior was done to preserve their lives and freedom.





Kenneth Packer

I think many of us with family from Russia have stories like this.  My Great Uncle, Aaron Packer, was born in Russia near Kiev and left Russia in 1917 as a result of the Russian Revolution.  He punctured his eardrum to become deaf and avoid being drafted into the Russian Army - one of many harrowing stories in his life.
Ken Packer
Washingtonville, NY

Jack Berger

I confirm Boris, comment on the error in the original message.

The original initiation of maiming came about as a result of  ukase issued by Czar Nicholas I pejoratively known as “Fonyeh Goniff” by Jews. That ukase ordered that every third Jewish child, when reaching the age of 12 would be forcibly impressed into the Russian Army for 25 years. The objective was to diminish and ultimately assimilate the Jews, causing them to disappear.

History shows that this failed on both counts. Many of the Yizkor Books I have translated make reference to “Nikolaievsky” soldiers that returned to their home towns after 25 years.

The death of Czar Nicholas I resulted in the weakening and eventual abandonment of the ukase.

This sort of unprofessional persiflage is why I place no faith in, and have no credibility regarding anything I see in this thread.

also: the e-mail service itself is execrable.



My Great Grandfather was a butcher in Yampol, Ukraine and he chopped off his thumb to avoid being drafted. We have a photo to show it.
Judy Wolkovitch


My grandfather Zacharia Marcus,originally from Sveksna,Lithuania chanaged his age from younger to older and visa-versa to avoid the draft. Therfore his exact age was not known.When he died, he was 74 according to his documents; but my mothe velived tht he was really older.His cousin (the father o Edgar and GilbertSimon) cut of 2 of his fingers. There was a butcher Moshe in Crown Heights, Brooklyn NY, who was drafted; but managed to escape.

Bruce Drake

In doing the weekly Yizkor book excerpts for the JewishGen Facebook page, I have come across many chapters about avoiding the Russian draft, including pretending to be crazy. In researching my own finally, my trecords show that he and other family members were assssed fines for not showing up. I am not sure whether they left (1904) before these could be enforced, or if some actually paid the fines to avoid serving. (Cheaper than a finger)