There Were Actually Jewish Soldiers in the Russian Empire

By Ann Rabinowitz

Many times researchers either hear or read comments about the many Jews who fled conscription in the Tzar’s Army.  However, there were Jews who did serve both then and later.  There were records of Jews serving Napoleonic times as well.  Some were conscripted and others volunteered.  What prompted my interest of late was a photograph of a Jewish POW who served in the Russian Army during World War I.

             Joe Furmanovsky, POW (seated far right)

The photo, at first glance, is of a group of soldiers, all with black arm bands which state in Russian that they are POWs.  When one looks carefully there are many things worth noting.  For one, most of the soldiers are dressed in a wide variety of uniforms or combination of parts of uniforms from various countries.  However, generally, they are all wearing a Russian Army visored peaked cap with its oval Tzarist eagle badge which would have been in the Romanov colors. 

In 1909, the Army changed its basic look and one can see that in the soldier standing, fourth from left in the photo, who is wearing the typical high-collared jacket.  A photo of the Tzar in the new kit is shown below.

Tzar Nicholas II in the new Army Kit, 1909

Some of the uniforms in the photo are for artillery, others infantry, cavalry, and one is naval in origin.  The soldier standing, last on the right, is wearing a typical short summer tunic which would have usually been accompanied by a distinctive rolled great coat across his left shoulder which was a known Russia Army affectation.  Several of the men in the front row of the photograph are wearing their great coats.  This leads one to surmise that it is fall or winter.  The trousers also have the strip of a cavalry soldier.  All of the soldiers appear to have boots in shined and good condition.  Many of them are smoking cigarettes.

An unusual item to be noted is the chain which crosses the chest of Joe Furmanovsky.  The chain would ordinarily have had a whistle hanging from it.

There are other photos of Russian POWs in Lithuania such as the one below where the men look very much similar to the original photograph.  The exception is that none of them are wearing a great coat which may indicate that it was spring or summer rather than a colder time of the year.  Looking closely too, none of the men are wearing boots, but most are wearing the ubiquitous cap.

                   Russian POWs in Lithuania

Apart from the POWs, there were also many photographs of Lithuanian Jews who were serving in the army.  One such photograph is the following one taken in Kupiskis, Lithuania, during the winter which shows a group of Jewish soldiers being blessed by the official State Rabbi who may have been Rabbi Ephraim Oshry’s father.

In addition to group photographs, there are individual photographs such as the following ones for V. Rudavicius taken in Anyksciai, Lithuania, in 1930 (on the left) and Joseph Shneiberg, taken in Vilkaviskis, in 1904 (on the right):

There are also photos found in Yizkor Books on JewishGen such as those in the Dusetos Yizkor Book and also in the JewishGen database of 1,200 Jewish Conscripts 1900-1914.  In addition, the JGS (NY) has a membership only perk of a database of the Memorial Database of Jewish Soldiers, Partisans and Workers Killed in Action During Nazism.  Another resource is the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum Tolerance Center in Vilnius, Lithuania, which presented an exhibit on Jewish volunteers for Lithuanian independence (1918-1923) which included a listing of sixty soldiers who were killed during those times. 

One has only to look and there are photographs and so many resources to be found, especially on JewishGen.  It is worthwhile doing a search to locate these resources.


  1. My grandfather was in the sole Jewish cavalry contingent in Pinsk probably before 1900.

  2. Dear JP:

    Do you have a photo of your grandfather in his military uniform? It would be interesting to see.

    For those interested in Jewish military participation in Lithuania, at a later date, there is a new book out by Dorothy Leivers entitled "Road to Victory, Jewish Soliders of the 16th Lithuanian Division, 1942-1945".

  3. I don't have a photo of him in uniform, but years ago I happened to leaf through a volume of photos of Jewish life in Russia dating back before 1900, and there was a photo of the Jewish cavalry--maybe 10 or 12 men, among them one I recognized (and could match with another photo I have) as my grandfather.

  4. My great grandfather served in the czar's army in the early 1890s. In his area of ukraine they were conscripted for three years at the age of 19. I believe my great grandfather was stationed in warsaw for a time.

    As to the mismatched uniforms, one of his stories he passed down was that the jewish soldiers were only given the bare basic uniform, and were told to go get warm clothes from the local jews.

  5. Hello,my granfather was a high ranking officer, possibly a Major, In the Russian army after ww1. I have little information on him and I am hoping that by being able to access his military recors I can learn more. He was Janis Grasis, born 1875, died 1950.
    Does anyone know if it is possible to get these records, or even a photo?
    thanks Margret


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