Philip Earl Steele

Poland’s urban legend about Menachem Begin

Where did Poles get the idea that Israel's Nobel-winning prime minister was once called Mieczysław Biegun – and why does the belief persist?
The 18 year-old law student, Menachem Begin
The 18 year-old law student, Menachem Begin

Here in Poland, even the barest mention of Menachem Begin is always followed up with the reminder that his original name was “Mieczysław Biegun”.

The only trouble is that it wasn’t!

No-one knows who coined the name “Mieczysław Biegun” – or when, though suspicions point to the time when Begin was serving in the Polish Army of General Anders in British Palestine, 1942-43. Be that as it may, we’re left to make only wild guesses about what lay behind the invented name. An endearment making him one of Poland’s own? An April Fools’ reverse-engineering of Menachem Begin?

I have no personal memory of any Israeli Prime Minister before Menachem Begin, but I do well remember (for a 14 year-old) when Begin took the helm. Thereafter he was a figure I followed regularly, even closely at times – Camp David and other visits to America, the First War in Lebanon – until his resignation in 1983. Begin again commanded my attention when I first came to Poland, with his roots here often being stressed: his hometown of Brześć/Brisk, law studies at the University of Warsaw, the epic trek during WWII with Anders’ Army out of the Soviet Union to the Holy Land – and his purported original Polish name.

Like virtually everyone else – from Norman Davies and President Duda to the museum POLIN and the judges of the Polish game-show “Millionaires” this September (“Mieczysław Biegun won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 together with the president of which country?: A. Poland B. Israel C. Egypt D. the Czech Republic”) – I never doubted the veracity of “Mieczysław Biegun”. Why would I? Not only is the name intoned whenever Begin is referred to – it’s widely known that very many Jews, in beginning new lives in Eretz Israel, adopted Hebrew names. David Grün became David Ben-Gurion; Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir; Ariel Scheinermann became Ariel Sharon.

But this year, preparing to write a series on “fathers of modern Israel” from today’s Polish lands, I began reading deeply into Begin’s life – particularly his life in Poland. At once I noticed that none of his many biographers (Eric Silver, Ned Temko, Avi Shilon, Yehuda Avner, Ofer Grosbard, Daniel Gordis) had anything whatsoever to say about any “Mieczysław”. On the contrary, I found much in those works on the choice of “Menachem” for the boy born in 1913. Further digging soon disclosed many of Begin’s university documents, all showing him – from 1931, the year he became a law student in Warsaw – as Menachem Begin. I then came across an interview on Polskie Radio with dr. Piotr Gontarczyk, the leading authority in Poland on revisionist Zionism, of which Begin was a prominent figure from the time of his student years. In that interview Gontarczyk had a slightly allergic reaction, it seemed to me, to a question about “Mieczysław Biegun” – “I’ve heard such accounts, but in the documents of the revisionists and in the press back before the war, he always appears as [here there were some interruptions]. I have a copy of his student file, and there he uses the name ‘Menachem Begin’ throughout”.

So what about Begin’s years at Romuald Traugutt High School in Brześć? Perhaps then Begin went by the name “Mieczysław Biegun”? Soon I found annual reports, ones dozens of pages in length, published by the school’s administrators. And there, lo and behold, was the 16-year-old Menachem Begin at the top of his class, and participating with his brother Hercel (sic) Begin in the German-language club. That solved things for me sufficiently enough to declare “Mieczysław Biegun” a myth in the piece I co-wrote for the Polish long-read magazine Plus Minus on Begin a week ago. After all, since he went by Menachem Begin at the Polish state-run high school, what were the chances he went by “Mieczysław” at the two private Jewish schools he had previously attended? I reckoned them slimmer than none.

In following things up from there, I managed to enlist the support of my friend, Bartłomiej Kachniarz, a lawyer in contact with a Belarusian archivist in Brześć/Brisk (Nikolai Aleksandrov) who had examined Begin’s surviving records there. The archivist responded to Kachniarz that, no, he had never seen the name “Mieczysław Biegun” on any documents related to Menachem Begin. Kachniarz also contacted dr. Gontarczyk, who told him “In my opinion he never used that name [Mieczysław Biegun]”.

The clincher came from the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. In response to my question addressed to the Center, I received the following answer:

Dear Mr. Steele,

In reply to your inquiry regarding the name “Mieczysław Biegun”, I can inform you that the Menachem Begin Heritage Center has reviewed all its documents regarding Menachem Begin’s early life and in addition, we contacted the archivist of the Brisk Jewish Community.

There is not one document that bears that name. Moreover, all of them display the personal name “Menachem”.

Indeed, it is a myth and a forgery.

The mystery, however, remains as to how the name “Mieczysław Biegun” became so ubiquitous here in Poland. I think the simplest explanation is the one I shared with Jewish friends – namely, that “Mieczysław Biegun” is by no means used unkindly in Poland. It crops up literally everywhere, regardless of politics and other affinities, making him Poland’s own. After all, Begin (as friends and foes alike often stressed) was genuinely very Polish. So much so that it’s easy for Poles to overstate things. Like the story that he and Brzezinski were speaking Polish to each other over chess at Camp David in 1978. Not true, but – here in Poland – one wishes it were!

And yet when I flash on President Duda speaking of Mieczysław Biegun in 2017 (here), and doing so not only in Jerusalem, but at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center itself, I do sense another mystery. Namely, why the matter was not sorted out then.

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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