This Day in Jewish History / Abolitionist August Bondi Is Born

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July 21, 1833, is the birthdate of August Bondi, who joined and fought with the abolitionist militia set up in Kansas by anti-slavery crusader John Brown in the period before the Civil War. The Austrian-born immigrant to the United States survived the war to lead a long, productive life in his adoptive home, and left behind extensive autobiographical papers, so that he is still remembered today.

August, or Anshl (his Yiddish name), Bondi was born in Vienna to Naftali-Herz Bondi, a manufacturer of cotton goods, and Marta Frankl-Bondi. As he wrote in his autobiography: “I opened my eyes shortly after the French and Polish revolutions of 1830, at a time when reactionaries dominated the world." He had both Jewish schooling and attended a liberal Catholic high school in Vienna, where he imbibed the democratic principles then in vogue. Bondi joined an organization working with Louis Kossuth, the Hungarian revolutionary, to secure independence from Austria. When the revolt of 1848 failed, and faced with the changed political atmosphere in Vienna, the Bondi family left Europe for the U.S. They arrived in New Orleans on November 10 of that year.          

Just a brief stay in New Orleans, before the family headed up the Mississippi River for St. Louis, afforded August the opportunity to see the conditions under which slaves lived. “The men and women were dressed in old coffee sacks, torn on both sides and tied around their loins,” is how he described his first encounter with the phenomenon (quotations from Bondi’s Yiddish-language memoirs are by Yankl Stillman, from a 2004 article by him in Jewish Currents magazine).

In his first years in the U.S., Bondi worked in a number of different jobs, including as an apprentice printer and as a teacher in a small-town school. A posting as a sailor on a Mississippi river boat that plied the route from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico brought him into contact with slavery again. He recalled how “I could have married the most beautiful woman in Texas, but I felt I could not marry a woman who owned slaves, because my father’s son could never be a slave-driver.”

By 1856, the territory of Kansas was a battleground, first on the political level but eventually in terms of actual armed conflict, between pro-slavery activists and abolitionists. Partisans of both groups poured into the state after Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, in 1854, which allowed for a plebiscite in both territories to determine whether they would enter the Union as slave states or not. (This followed the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which had declared that all territories north of the 36th parallel would be free of the institution.)

After a rigged vote led to a decision for Kansas, previously a free territory, to allow slavery, and increasing attacks on so-called Free State settlers by slavery advocates, Bondi responded to a call for abolitionists to come to Kansas to defend like-minded settlers there. Together with two other Jewish immigrants – Theodor Weiner, from Poland, and Jacob Benjamin, from Bohemia – he received a parcel of land in Ossawatomie, Kansas, and set up a trading post.

That was in April 1856. By the end of May, Border Ruffians – pro-slavery vigilantes – attacked the trading post and burned down Bondi’s cabin. He and his partners, now enlisted with John Brown, the famed abolitionist from New York who had joined his five sons in Kansas a year earlier, participated in the June 2, 1856, encounter with Ruffians at Black Jack Creek.

Bondi described being caught in fire from the Ruffians as he and Theodor Weiner crawled up a hill, behind the senior Brown, toward their opponents’ camp: “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].”

In fact, the two men survived. In 1860, Bondi married Henrietta Einstein, of Louisville, Kentucky. Together, they turned their home into a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves heading north. He was not with John Brown's militia in October 1859, when it attacked a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (today part of West Virginia). That was fortunate, since Brown and his men were stopped by troops led by Robert E. Lee, and those who weren’t killed in the raid were later hung by the state of Virginia.

When the Civil War began, in 1861, Bondi joined the Union forces in the Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. When President Lincoln presented the Emancipation Declaration in 1863, Bondi wrote in his diary, “No more Pharaohs, and no more slaves.” He served for 37 months, and when he returned to Kansas, his family settled in Leavenworth, where he opened a store. He and Henrietta had 10 children.

Later, they moved to Salina, where Bondi was appointed postmaster. Simultaneously, he studied law and became a lawyer, eventually being elected a county judge. He held a number of other public positions, including school board member and director of the state board of charities, and he was also a member of the fraternal organizations the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, as well as being a 32nd-degree Mason.

August Bondi died on September 30, 1907, at the age of 74. A rabbi from Kansas City officiated at his funeral, which was held at the Masonic Hall in Salina.

'Tragic Prelude' depicts John Brown and the clash of forces in Bleeding Kansas.Credit: Wikimedia Commons