Philip Earl Steele

Ben-Gurion’s 50th jahrzeit in his hometown, Płońsk

The newly opened "Memorial House" in Płońsk. Entrance free! Photo thanks to the kind permisson of Piotr Dąbrowski.
The newly opened "Memorial House" in Płońsk. Entrance free! Photo thanks to the kind permission of Piotr Dąbrowski.

The anniversary of David Ben-Gurion’s passing, now half a century ago (Dec. 1, 1973), was commemorated last week in his Polish hometown with a lecture, concert, and workshops. A very special event, as the city honored his jahrzeit at the brand new museum devoted to Płońsk’s onetime Jewish neighbors. Most prominently among them, of course, is Israel’s founding father.

The elegantly restored “Memorial House” stands on Płońsk’s newly refurbished market square. Right around the corner from Ben-Gurion Square, where the city has long celebrated its famous son on the site where his family home once stood.

Many Polish cities may boast a father of modern Israel. After all, there’s rabbi Kalischer from Toruń, Nahum Sokolow from Wyszogród and Płock, David Gordon from Ełk, rabbi Mohilever from Białystok, Leon Kellner from Tarnów – and Menachem Begin, who completed his law studies in Warsaw.

Yes, many Polish cities may boast an Israeli founding father, but only Płońsk meaningfully does. And as Ben-Gurion’s hometown is just a 70-km drive northwest of Warsaw, it’s very easy to include on a trip to Poland.

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It’s no saccharine invention to stress David Ben-Gurion’s warm, lifetime bond with Płońsk, where he was born as David Grün in 1886. As he himself enjoyed repeating, he never experienced antisemitism while growing up: “We lived in complete harmony with our Polish neighbors”, he recorded in his memoirs. Rather, it was out of the love for Zion and Hebrew language his father and grandfather instilled in him that Ben-Gurion, along with a group of friends from Płońsk, made aliyah in the late summer of 1906. True, Ben-Gurion did not apply himself to literary Polish, but as the author of his intellectual biography, prof. Shlomo Aronson z”l, once told me, “he spoke Hebrew with a very heavy Polish accent”. Aronson can be trusted in this appraisal, as his mother was from Mława, just to the north.

Ben-Gurion returned to Płońsk at least four times after having settled in Eretz Yisrael. For instance, he visited his family here in 1914 at the time WWI was beginning. In April 1921 he left his wife Paula and their two small children Geulah and Amos at his father’s home in Płońsk for an entire year, before bringing them to Mandate Palestine to rejoin him. He was here again in 1926, a year after his father Avigdor had sold the family home and made aliyah with his second wife and several adult children. It seems Ben-Gurion’s final trip to Płońsk occurred in 1933, and he recalled it as quite unpleasant. As he explained, this was because Betar was now predominant – Betar being the youthwing of his bitter rivals, the Revisionists led by Jabotinsky. Ben-Gurion even claimed that Betarists threw rocks at him in Płońsk! And as we know, he would later return the favor…

Also relevant is that several of Ben-Gurion’s dearest friends till the close of his life were childhood friends from Płońsk: Shlomo Zemach, Shmuel Fuchs – and Rachel Nelkin. Indeed, the youngsters Rachel and David were in love and left Płońsk together for Ottoman Palestine. With Rachel’s mother, it must be added. As prof. Anita Shapira writes in her biography of Ben-Gurion: “Rachel’s and David’s feelings for each other were evident, so [aboard the ship from Odessa to Jaffa] the girl’s mother made sure to sleep between them … to avoid gossip”.

Though Rachel’s married name was to become Beit-Halachmi, Shimon Peres, Ben-Gurion’s protégé, in his own biography of the man shared this about the lasting bond between the twosome from Płońsk:

I admire you and have always admired you, and feel close to your family”, Rachel wrote in 1968. “The whole world knows that David brought us our state, our independence.”

I don’t have to tell you what your letter means to me”, he replied, inviting her to Sde Boker. He visited her and her two daughters at her home in Givatayim, near Tel Aviv. They talked over old times, and evidently both enjoyed it; later on she went to visit him “at your oasis in the desert”.

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Anita Shapira has claimed that nothing in the young David Grün – neither his lineage, schooling, or hometown – whispered his coming greatness. Yet those who knew him then would hardly agree. His father Avigdor, a paralegal, was no fool: he well knew how easy it is to be dismissed by those in power. And yet when David was 15, Avigdor was so convinced of his son’s promise that he wrote to Theodor Herzl himself seeking a scholarship from the Zionist Organization. When handing over to a publisher aged personal letters from Ben-Gurion, Shmuel Fuchs was asked why he had kept them over 50 years. He answered that everyone “had always known Ben-Gurion was destined for greatness”.

This is readily believed in Płońsk today, where mayor Andrzej Pietrasik describes Ben-Gurion “as a young man of incredible strength and imagination who was already busy creating the foundations of Zionism right here in Płońsk”. The mayor adds “he did this as a boy, before he was even twenty. Already then he knew what he wanted in life. He knew he wanted to create a Jewish state. He left Płońsk with enormous resources of enthusiasm, knowledge, and energy – and that would last him his whole life, allowing him to achieve his dream”.

About the Author
Philip Earl Steele is an American historian based in Poland, specializing in the history of early Zionism. His recent book on Theodor Herzl, published by the Polish Academy of Sciences, is available in Open Access:
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