Sam Bonar’s birthplace, Kishinev


Kishinev (Chișinău) in Bessarabia, New Russia was the hometown of Samuel Bonar. The area around Chișinău is now part of modern Moldova.

Kishinev lies close to the Black Sea and its great harbor of Odessa. During the early 19th Century, many Jewish families, under pressure from the Russian Imperial government,  relinquished the occupations they had followed for decades and left the northern Pale of Permanent Jewish Settlement (now Belarus) to settle in the lands to the south of the Pale acquired during the Russo-Turkish War of  1787-1792 and known as New Russia. Here they became farmers, an area of expertise which had heretofore been denied to  Jews in Europe for centuries. Most likely,  the family named Bonar (Bean Farmer) was among these new settlers.

Jewish Wine Makers in Kishinev

Jewish Wine Makers in Kishinev

Besides being encouraged to go into farming, there was another advantage for the Jews of New Russia: public education. Unlike the situation in most of the Pale of Permanent Jewish Settlement where the only structured education available to boys  (girls received none) was  the  purely religious-legal information taught in Yiddish and Hebrew in the heders and yeshivas, the boys and girls of Kishinev learned secular subjects: mathematics, history, languages, and the sciences in the Russian language.

In 1901, a law was enacted making it very difficult for Jewish children to go beyond middle school (Pro-Gymnazium). Unless there was a Jewish vacancy, there was little chance for Jewish boys and girls to attend Gymnazium (high school). That is to say, by 1904 when Sam was 14,  his chance for formal educational opportunities were restricted. But the fact that Sam gained proficiency in English grammar and syntax, as manifested in the three letters in his hand from Australian period, indicates that he did in fact, attend high school in Kishinev.

To be sure, the Kishinev Massacres of 1903 and 1905 must have convinced Sam that in time he would do well to leave Russia. According to Merrill Bonar, Sam went to sea as a helper on ships. This would have occurred c. 1908, when the new and glamorous city of Odessa with its famous port beckoned him to go forth and see the world.


Map of New Russia showing the location of Kishinev and Odessa.

Jewish Kishinev

By 1774, Kishinev, Bessarabia was home to 540 Jews, representing 7 percent of the town’s population. A burial society was founded in 1774 with 144 members. Zalman ben Mordekhai Sharogrodski was Kishinev’s first rabbi, and in 1812 Ḥayim ben Shelomoh Tyrer laid the foundation for the Great Synagogue. During the same period a Jewish hospital opened, and in 1838 a Jewish school with a secular curriculum was started on the initiative of local Maskilim. In 1858, the Jewish educational system included two state secular schools, a private school for girls, and 46 heders. A Hasidic yeshiva, one of the first in the south of the Russian Empire, functioned from 1860.

Kishinev was a multiethnic city where Jews lived alongside Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Poles, Germans, Armenians, Greeks, and Roma (Gypsies). During the nineteenth century, the Jewish population rose from a small percentage to almost half of the city’s inhabitants: in 1847, there were 10,509 (12.2 %); in 1867 the numbers had increased to 18,323 (21.8%); and in 1897 to 50,237 (46.3%). In 1897, 22 percent of all Bessarabian Jews were living in Kishinev, where Jews had come mainly from Ukraine and Belarus, attracted by economic opportunities.

Data from the Jewish Colonization Society show that in 1898, Jews owned 29 of Kishinev’s 38 factories, 6 of the 7 steam flourmills, 5 of the 7 plants for curing tobacco, and 4 of the 5 printing presses. Most of the employees in these enterprises were also Jewish. The same source indicates that 2,470 Jews traded in agricultural produce, more than 1,000 worked in the garment and textile industries, 850 were teamsters and coachmen, and more than 500 were seasonal grape pressers and harvesters.

Many of the Jews in Kishinev lived in poverty. In 1898, two separate welfare organizations joined to form the Society in Aid of the Poor of Kishinev. From 1886, a group of Ḥoveve Tsiyon (Zionist) members, led by Me’ir Dizengoff, functioned in Kishinev and from 1897, yet another a group of Zionists was headed by Yakov Bernstein-Kogan. By the end of the nineteenth century, the city had become a major center for Yiddish and Hebrew printing and journalism. Among Yiddish newspapers and periodicals were Dos besaraber lebn, Erd un arbet, Undzere tsayt and Der yid. In 1912, the Russian Zionist weekly Evreiskaia khronika was published there.

On 6–7 April 1903 and 19–20 October 1905, two major pogroms occurred in Kishinev. The first was preceded by a series of vicious anti-Semitic articles in the local newspaper Bessarabets, in which Jews were accused of a lengthy variety of crimes. Among the authors were the editor Pavolachi Krushevan (who was later active in spreading The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and agents of the local secret service. Before Passover 1903, the newspaper accused Kishinev’s Jews of the ritual murder of a Christian child. Though it was shown that the child had not been killed by Jews, a violent mob attacked them anyway, killing 49 people, maiming 586, and destroying 1,350 Jewish houses and 588 shops. Local authorities and Russian police were incapable of stopping the pogrom. Some of the perpetrators were tried by the Russian courts but received light sentences.

Immediately after the Czar Nicholas’ October 1905 Manifesto, 19 Jews were murdered and 56 wounded in the second Kishinev pogrom. Jewish self-defense groups put up resistance to the violence. In this period, Jewish emigration was increasing, particularly to the United States and Argentina: between 1902 and 1905, the number of Jews in Kishinev dropped from approximately 60,000 to 53,000. By 1910, there were 52,000 Jews living there.

Odessa & Kishinev (Chisinau)

Odessa & Kishinev (Chișinău)


Map of Odessa from 1850 showing the port

Port of Odessa c. 1900

The Port of Odessa c. 1900 from whence Sam sailed around the world, eventually reaching Sydney Australia in 1910 via Vancouver Canada.

Port of Odessa

The Port of Odessa c. 1900


Odessa as Sam knew it in 1908


Odessa: Opera House

Odessa in New Russia

The site of Odessa was once occupied by an ancient Greek colony. Archaeological artifacts confirm links between the Odessa area and the eastern Mediterranean. In the Middle Ages successive rulers of the Odessa region included various nomadic tribes, the Golden Horde, the Crimean Khanate, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Ottoman Empire. Yedisan Crimean Tatars traded there in the 14th century.

During the reign of Khan Hacı I Giray of Crimea (1441–1466), the Khanate was endangered by the Golden Horde and the Ottoman Turks and, in search of allies, the khan agreed to cede the area to Lithuania. The site of present-day Odessa was then a town known as Khadjibey (named for Khan Hacı I Giray). It was part of the Dykra region. However, most of the rest of the area remained largely uninhabited in this period.

Khadjibey came under direct control of the Ottoman Empire after 1529 as part of a region known as Yedisan, and was administered in the Ottoman Silistra Province. In the mid-18th century, the Ottomans rebuilt a fortress at Khadjibey (also was known Hocabey), which was named Yeni Dünya. Hocabey was a sanjak centre of Silistre Province.

During the Russo-Turkish War of 1787–1792, on 25 September 1789, a detachment of Russian forces under Ivan Gudovich took Khadjibey and Yeni Dünya for the Russian Empire. One part of the troops came under command of a Spaniard in Russian service, Major General José de Ribas. Russia formally gained possession of the area as a result of the Treaty of Jassy in 1792 and it became a part of the so-called Novorossiya (“New Russia”).

The city of Odessa, founded by order of Catherine the Great, Russian Empress, centers on the site of the Turkish fortress Khadzhibei, which was occupied by Russian Army in 1789. De Ribas and Franz de Volan recommended the area of Khadzhibei fortress as the site for the region’s basic port: it had an ice-free harbor, breakwaters could be cheaply constructed and would render the harbor safe and it would have the capacity to accommodate large fleets. The Governor General of Novorossiya, Platon Zubov (one of Catherine’s favorites) supported this proposal, and in 1794 Catherine approved the founding of the new port-city and invested the first money in constructing the city.

However, adjacent to the new official locality, a Moldavian colony already existed, which by the end of 18th century was an independent settlement known under the name of Moldavanka. Some local historians consider that the settlement pre-dates Odessa by about thirty years and assert that the locality was founded by Moldavians who came to build the fortress of Yeni Dunia for the Ottomans and eventually settled in the area in the late 1760s, right next to the settlement of Khadjibey (since 1795 Odessa proper), on what later became the Prymorsky Boulevard. Another version posits that the settlement appeared after Odessa itself was founded, as a settlement of Moldavians, Greeks and Albanians fleeing the Ottoman yoke.

In their settlement, also known as Novaia Slobodka, the Moldavians owned relatively small plots on which they built village-style houses and cultivated vineyards and gardens. What became Mykhailovsky Square was the centre of this settlement and the site of its first Orthodox church, the Church of the Dormition, built in 1821 close to the seashore, as well as of a cemetery. Nearby stood the military barracks and the country houses of the city’s wealthy residents, including that of the Duc de Richelieu, appointed by Tsar Alexander I as Governor of Odessa in 1803.

In the period from 1795 to 1814 the population of Odessa increased 15 times over and reached almost 20 thousand people. The first city plan was designed by the engineer F. Devollan in the late 18th century. Colonists of various ethnicities settled mainly in the area of the former colony, outside of the official boundaries, and as a consequence, in the first third of the 19th century, Moldavanka emerged as the dominant settlement. After planning by the official architects who designed buildings in Odessa’s central district, such as the Italians Franz Karlowicz Boffo and Giovanni Torricelli, Moldovanka was included in the general city plan, though the original grid-like plan of Moldovankan streets, lanes and squares remained unchanged.

The new city quickly became a major success. Its early growth owed much to the work of the Duc de Richelieu, who served as the city’s governor between 1803 and 1814. Having fled the French Revolution, he had served in Catherine’s army against the Turks. He is credited with designing the city and organizing its amenities and infrastructure, and is considered one of the founding fathers of Odessa, together with another Frenchman, Count Andrault de Langeron, who succeeded him in office. Richelieu is commemorated by a bronze statue, unveiled in 1828 to a design by Ivan Martos. His contributions to the city are mentioned by Mark Twain in his travelogue Innocents Abroad: “I mention this statue and this stairway because they have their story. Richelieu founded Odessa – watched over it with paternal care – labored with a fertile brain and a wise understanding for its best interests – spent his fortune freely to the same end – endowed it with a sound prosperity, and one which will yet make it one of the great cities of the Old World”.

In 1819 the city became a free port, a status it retained until 1859. It became home to an extremely diverse population of Albanians, Armenians, Azeris, Bulgarians, Crimean Tatars, Frenchmen, Germans, Greeks, Italians, Jews, Poles, Romanians, Russians, Turks, Ukrainians, and traders representing many other nationalities. Its cosmopolitan nature was documented by the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who lived in internal exile in Odessa between 1823 and 1824. In his letters he wrote that Odessa was a city where “the air is filled with all Europe, French is spoken and there are European papers and magazines to read”.

Odessa’s growth was interrupted by the Crimean War of 1853–1856, during which it was bombarded by British and French naval forces. It soon recovered and the growth in trade made Odessa Russia’s largest grain-exporting port. In 1866 the city was linked by rail with Kiev and Kharkiv as well as with Iaşi in Romania.

The city became the home of a large Jewish community during the 19th century, and by 1897 Jews were estimated to comprise some 37% of the population. They were, however, repeatedly subjected to severe persecution. Pogroms were carried out in 1821, 1859, 1871, 1881 and 1905. Many Odessan Jews fled abroad, particularly to Ottoman Palestine after 1882, and the city became an important base of support for Zionism.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: