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by Yankl Stillman
FIFTY YEARS AGO, when Jewish Currents was called Jewish Life, the Jewish Young Folksingers, in association with the magazine, commissioned poet Aaron Kramer to write "The Ballad of August Bondi." This was their contribution to the celebration of the 300th anniversary of Jewish life in the United States. The current year marks the 350th anniversary, and we again honor the memory of staunch abolitionist August Bondi, who fought alongside John Brown in Kansas some 150 years ago.
First, the origin of his name. According to family tradition, an ancestor of his, Yom-tov Landshrayber (yes, males were sometimes named Yom-tov, the word for holiday in Yiddish), who lived in Prague in the 16th century, made a trip to Italy, where he changed his name to Bondi, the Italian translation of his Hebrew name Yom-tov — both names meaning "good day."
IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY, written towards the end of his life, Bondi described his birth: "I was born on July 21, 1833 in Vienna, Austria. My Jewish name is Anshl. I opened my eyes shortly after the French and Polish revolutions of 1830, at a time when reactionaries dominated the world." His parents were Naftali-Hertz Bondi and Marta Frankl-Bondi. Bondi's father was a small-time manufacturer of cotton goods who gave his son a religious and secular education.
At age 14, he was enrolled in the Academic Gymnasium of Vienna, run by the Piarist monks (Catholic). There he first encountered uncompromising democrats and fighters against absolutism, monarchy and feudalism. When he was in the fifth class of the gymnasium, a mathematics teacher slapped one of the students. In protest, 500 students, including Anshl, boycotted classes for a week and refused to go back until the teacher apologized publicly.
In March 1848, he joined the Academic Student Legion, a revolutionary organization that was working with Hungarian revolutionary Louis Kossuth (1802-1894) in his attempt to free Hungary from Austrian control. Shortly thereafter, democratic revolutions broke out in major cities throughout Central Europe, including Vienna. By the end of May, the Viennese revolt had failed and the younger student members of the Academic Legion, including Bondi, were expelled from school. Older students either fled the country or were imprisoned. In September 1848, Bondi left the country with his family to escape the Austrian counterrevolution. In November, they arrived in New Orleans. Two days after arriving there, he had his first encounter with the conditions in which black slaves lived, on a sugar plantation. "The men and women were dressed in old coffee sacks, torn on both sides and tied around their loins," is how he described this first impression.
The Bondi family settled in St. Louis, where his father wrapped cigars and his mother worked in a shirt factory. August tried various trades. He worked in a grocery store, was an apprentice printer, a partner in a saloon and a teacher in a village school. In 1850, he became a sailor on a Mississippi freighter that rode up and down the river and in the Gulf of Mexico. In December, the boat stopped in Galveston, Texas. He wrote in his diary that "the screams of the slaves, who were whipped with leather straps every morning, woke me up before dawn at four in the morning." He had many similar experiences in Texas, which drove him back to St. Louis. "I could have married the most beautiful woman in Texas," he confided in his diary, "but I felt I could not marry a woman who owned slaves, because my father's son could never be a slave-driver."
He was not in St. Louis long before the question arose of admitting the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to the Union as states. The real question was whether they would be allowed to permit slavery. This issue was supposed to have been resolved in 1820 by the Missouri Compromise, in which the slave states of the South had gained admission of Missouri as a slave state at the same time that Maine was admitted as a free state. The Compromise banned slavery from the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of Missouri’s southern boundary, the "36th parallel." Now, in 1854, with both the Kansas and Nebraska territories lying north of the 36th parallel, the South was nevertheless agitating to permit slavery in the new states. Congress caved in by passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed the inhabitants of the new states to decide, in an 1855 plebiscite, whether or not slavery would be permitted.
PRO-SLAVERY MISSOURIANS then poured into Kansas in an effort to create a majority there. In addition, bands of "Border Ruffians" began raiding the anti-slavery "Free Staters" who lived in Kansas. New immigrants who came to Kansas to take advantage of the acreage offered gratis by the government were harassed by the "Ruffians" if word got out that they were anti-slavery. Still, the anti-slavery forces appeared to have the upper hand until election day, when 5,000 heavily armed Missourians invaded the territory, captured the ballot boxes and installed a pro-slavery legislature. Once they controlled the state, they felt free to continue their violent attacks on the Free State settlers.
Five of John Brown’s sons had settled in Kansas in 1854. John Brown joined them there in 1855 and became a conspicuous figure in the border warfare. That same year, August Bondi read an editorial in the New York Tribune urging freedom-loving Americans "to hurry out to Kansas to help save the state from the curse of slavery." In April 1856, Bondi reached Ossawatomie in the free area of the state, received a parcel of land, and established a trading post for the region, together with two other Jews — Theodor Weiner from Poland and Jacob Benjamin from Bohemia.
They did not have to wait long to be welcomed. One morning, several Ruffians appeared at the trading post and warned the three to get out if they wanted to stay alive.
Bondi and his partners did not scare easily. They joined the "Kansas Regulars" that John Brown and his sons had organized both to protect the people settling in the new territory and to keep it out of the hands of the pro-slavery forces.
At the end of May, the Ruffians burned down Bondi's cabin, stole his horses and cows and trashed the trading post. In his diary, Bondi noted that "all this took place in the presence of federal troops." Brown was outraged by the way the Border Ruffians mistreated the anti-slavery majority. In 1856, at Pottawatomie Creek, he led a raid on a company of Border Ruffians and killed more than a dozen of their leaders. The next day, June 2nd, 1856, Bondi and his Jewish partners were part of Brown's unit battling the pro-slavery bandits at Black Jack Creek.
In Bondi's papers at the American Jewish Historical Society, there is his account of the battle.
When we followed Captain Brown up the hill to the Border Ruffians' camp in Black Jack — I behind Brown and behind us Weiner — we walked with bent backs, almost crawling, so that last year's tall dead grass would at least shield us from the Ruffian marksmen. But the bullets kept on whistling. Weiner was 57 years old and weighed 250 pounds and was puffing like a steamboat, crawling behind me. I called to him, 'Nu, was meinen Sie jetzt?' (Well, what do you think of this now?) He answered, 'Was soll ich meinen? Sof odom moves' (What should I think? Man’s life ends in death).
Kansas was saved from the "curse of slavery" when, in 1857, a constitution was adopted in the city of Topeka that turned Kansas into a Free State. But Bondi's anti-slavery activity did not end there. In 1860, he married Henrietta Einstein of Louisville, Kentucky and his house became a stopping station on the Underground Railroad.
In his autobiography, Bondi wrote about his experiences in those pre-Civil War years.
Southern Kansas regarded John Brown as an emissary from God and an instrument of His revenge. Brown regarded the institution of slavery as the biggest roadblock in the march to civilization... We were united in a fraternal bond by love, reverence, and devotion to a man who, with tender words and wise counsel, prepared a handful of young men, in the depths of the wilderness at Ottawa Creek, to lay the foundation of a free Commonwealth. He always preached against slavery and hammered home to us that we should never accept existing laws and institutions if our conscience and reason told us that they violate human rights. [This excerpt and others from Bondi's diary or autobiography are quoted in Rabbi Abraham Bick's Veker un Kemfer ("Wakers and Fighters," subtitled "American Jews in the Abolitionist Movement"), in my translation from Bick’s Yiddish — Y.S.]
IN OCTOBER 1859, Brown and a group of volunteers attacked the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, despite warnings, even by anti-slavery leader Frederick Douglass, that this was a foolhardy venture. Their objective was to obtain arms to establish a commonwealth where fugitive slaves could find a haven and fight against their pursuers. They went so far as adopting a Provisional Constitution and filling offices of the new commonwealth. Two days later, a contingent of marines led by Robert E. Lee overcame Brown and his fellow fighters. On December 2nd, Brown was hanged in Charlestown, in what is today West Virginia, for "treason, and conspiring and advising with slaves and other rebels."
Abolitionists in the North regarded him as a martyr in their cause. Shortly after his death, a popular song became widely sung in the North: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,/ But his soul goes marching on.”
August Bondi had remained in Kansas with his wife and, shortly, a baby daughter. In 1861, the South seceded from the Union and the Civil War was on, with the North suffering one defeat after another. Bondi left his home, his wife and year-old baby, his grain fields and cattle and enlisted in the Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. His mother, Martha, encouraged him, saying, Bondi wrote, that “as a Jew I am obliged to protect institutions that guarantee freedom for all faiths.” She added that since “I must defend my homeland, she would take care of my wife and child. She kept her word for the entire period that I was in battle.”
After a few months of fighting, he was promoted to first sergeant. In 1863, after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Bondi noted in his diary that this was a historical event — “no more Pharaohs and no more slaves.” He also noted encounters with other Jews in his diary, including some who would not admit to being Jewish. In his Kansas detachment, he ran into a Marcus Wittenberg, who was badly wound-ed. His response to being asked if he was Jewish: "I am a Hungarian. My parents live in Kansas, near the city of Lawrence." Wittenberg contracted blood poisoning and died. "A few days later, my friend John Emil gave me a letter addressed to Wittenberg in a language he couldn’t understand. It was a letter from his parents in Yiddish informing him of the dates for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.”
Bondi himself was fully aware of his Jewishness. In his diary, he mentioned helping two Jews recover their horses, which soldiers had abducted. He also described being a guest in a Jewish home for Rosh Hashana, 1862.
AFTER 37 MONTHS in the Union army, Bondi returned to Kansas and settled in Leavenworth, where he opened a grocery store. Ten years later, after Ulysses S. Grant was elected President, he moved to Salina where he was appointed postmaster. But he was also busy with farming, real estate, and the study of law. In the early 1880s, after he graduated from law school, he was elected as a county judge.
Bondi began to write his autobiography in 1903 and finished it in 1905, when he was 71. In the introduction, he wrote:
Even as a child, I decided to dedicate my life to the ideals of progress and freedom. I never deviated from this decision during the course of my long life, a life rich in stormy events. I have remained faithful to the principles that I swore to uphold during the stormy days of the 1848 revolution.
Yankl (Gerald) Stillman, a member of the Jewish Currents editorial board, is a Yiddish translator and editor of Mendele Mokher-Sforim: Selected Works in Translation.