There is a portal to Israel in Poland. The Jewish State was conceived on the Płonka River
David Ben-Gurion, one of the founders and the first prime minister of Israel, was born and grew up in Płońsk. Here, by the Płonka River, together with his friends, he was dreaming about the Jewish state.
You can find genuine treasures in Płońsk, less than an hour’s drive north of Warsaw. And that’s true both figuratively and literally. The ones we have in mind concern a single man. For it was here that David Grün, together with his friends, dreamed of the Jewish state that, years later as David Ben-Gurion, he was to make real.
First of all – in Płońsk you can learn about the early years of David Grün, who was born and raised here. Secondly, there’s the Russian coin from tsarist times that he gave to the town when he was already known as David Ben-Gurion. In 1906, the twenty-year-old David (“back in Płońsk they called me Dubcze” – he recalled) left his hometown for Palestine. Though he didn’t have money for the carriage ride, the kind driver agreed to give him a lift to the station for free. Years later, as the prime minister of Israel, he was still grateful for that gesture and, feeling nostalgic about his childhood and youth in Płońsk, he decided to symbolically repay his debt to the town.
The coin he sent is kept in the local bank to this day.
For years the Historical Documentation Centre in Płońsk has been collecting documents and photographs associated with its world-famous citizen, and those materials reach far beyond the first two decades of David Grün’s life in Poland. For example, just this summer a family living in Haifa, in northern Israel, donated a set of private photos showing the elderly Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. It’s no wonder why they were preserved so carefully – after all, as the title of his biography (published in Poland in 2018) says, they portray the “father of modern Israel” – indeed, the Israeli Piłsudski or Washington.
However, there is another, perhaps more important reason why the family from Haifa preserved these pictures with such reverence.
In one of them you can see the smiling face of a charming elderly woman. It’s Rachel Nelkin, the love of David’s youth. It was with her, among other friends, that he decided to move to the land of his ancestors, i.e., to leave for Palestine, which at the time, in 1906, was still part of the Ottoman Empire. However, as things played out, the couple travelled to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, accompanied by… a chaperon. “Rachel’s and David’s feelings for each other were evident, so the girl’s mother made sure to sleep between them aboard ship [from Odessa to Jaffa] to avoid gossip” – writes Professor Anita Shapira, Ben-Gurion’s biographer. And although, as fate would have it, Miss Nelkin became Mrs. Beit-Halachmi, their youthful bond never weakened. These two people from Płońsk remained dear to each other to the end.
The centre of a child’s world
David Grün was born in October 1886. He spent his childhood in a wooden home typical for the residents of Płońsk at the time. Right next-door was the main synagogue, and within just several dozen metres were houses of prayer known as batey midrash that served the needs of the Jewish community in Płońsk. Thanks to the inheritance received by David’s mother, Sheindel née Fridman, his parents in fact owned two such houses right near the market square (on today’s Wspólna Street). The Grün family lived in one and rented the other. In his memoirs written much later in Israel, Ben-Gurion fondly remembers the time he spent in the garden between the two homes. A small orchard, really, as growing there were “pear, apple, plum, and cherry trees”, as he writes. Today, neither of the houses is in existence. However, at the site where the future Prime Minister of Israel was born is David Ben-Gurion Square, boasting a small monument and a Tree of Remembrance.
Monika Kopańska of the Historical Documentation Centre in Płońsk states that “we just don’t know under what circumstances the Grün family home ceased to exist. In the mid-1920s, the Grüns sold their property in Płońsk and moved to Palestine. No more extensive information on this topic has survived”.
In the early 20th century, many Jews lived in this part of Poland. Often they constituted the majority in small towns. This was also the case in Płońsk, a town then of about 8,000 residents, of which some 5,000 were Jewish. Although none of the pictures showing the part of the town where the Grün family lived has survived, it is known that it was densely built-up. We also know that Avigdor Grün, David’s father, owned the family houses – and that Aron, the future Israeli Prime Minister’s older brother, lived in one of them after getting married. Some of the rooms in the two-storey homes were rented to tenants. Avigdor left Płońsk in 1925 to make Aliya to
Israel, and the new owners demolished the buildings some time later.
In his memoirs Ben-Gurion emphasises the impact that his grandfather, Zvi Arie Grün, had on his upbringing. Zvi Arie’s job was providing legal advice for local clients struggling with the tsarist bureaucracy. It was on the knees of his grandfather that the
three-year-old David learned his first words in Hebrew. The Jewish community in Płońsk mainly spoke Yiddish, and things were no different in the Grün home. Nevertheless, Zvi Arie “knew Hebrew, Polish and German perfectly,” Ben-Gurion cites from his father’s memoirs. Moreover, “[…] in the 1870s, when the Tsar announced that Russian was to become the official language in state offices, despite his age, [Zvi Arie] managed to learn Russian to such an extent that he was able to write motions to the court and other offices”. His son, Avigdor, continued the family’s legal tradition, which meant that aside from Yiddish and Hebrew, he also knew Polish and Russian. And his grandson? As a five or six-year-old, David already knew Hebrew well enough to speak with his grandfather in the language that would become one of the pillars of the state he later founded.
David’s grandfather and father instilled in him the idea of Zionism, i.e., the Jews’ return to the land of their ancestors after nearly two thousand years of living in the Diaspora. In the mid-nineteenth century, that ancient idea began to be translated into concrete activities and social movements. Orthodox rabbis dreamed of returning to the Holy Land, prominently among them Zvi Hirsh Kalischer of Toruń, who published his ground-breaking work entitled Derishat Zion (Seeking Zion) in 1862. Samuel Mohilever, the rabbi from Białystok who was a generation younger, continued Kalischer’s thought and became one of the most influential leaders of the first Zionist movement, known as Hovevei Zion (the Lovers of Zion), which coalescedin 1881-1882.
Indeed, Zionism as a movement (and not only as an idea or efforts) emerged on two occasions. Superficial familiarity has it that Zionism began with Theodor Herzl’s activities and his publication of Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) in 1896. However, the large-scale settlement of Jews in Palestine commenced over a dozen years earlier as part of Hovevei Zion – and is known as the First Aliya.
Hovevei Zion was a strongly, but not purely religious movement. Mitnagdim, i.e., religious Jews opposed to Hasidism’s rejection of the idea of establishing a new Jewish state in Palestine, joined the movement in significant numbers. Inevitably, Avigdor Grün, a Mitnaged, was not only one of the first Lovers of Zion in Płońsk, but also a key local leader. Members of Hovevei Zion therefore met in the home where the future leader of modern Israel was born only a couple of years later.
Within a few years the Lovers of Zion movement weakened due to the Sultan’s strong resistance to Jewish immigration to Palestine. However, the movement was later revived thanks to Herzl, widely known today as the Father of Zionism. Through to his efforts, the First Zionist Congress was held only a year and a half after the publication of Der Judenstaat, which re-kindled the imagination of Jews. This time the mass movement drew the attention of crowned heads in Europe to the Diaspora’s increasingly strong aspiration to create their own state in the cradle of Hebrew civilisation.
In several Jewish homes, Herzl was regarded as a “messiah” – as Ben-Gurion himself describes him in his memoirs – and thus the messianism of Herzl’s time appealed to members of traditional religious communities. This also included people such as Avigdor Grün, who – as his son adds – was a religious man who prayed at the synagogue daily. Therefore, it is not surprising that in 1902 David’s father addressed Herzl as “the king of the Jews” when writing to ask him for a scholarship for his “talented and hardworking son”, as he was unable to cover the cost of his son’s studies. The content of the letter did however surprise the person concerned –
but not until he found out about it a half-century later…
Not incidentally, Ben-Gurion inherited his father’s attachment to religion. And this is why he understood Zionism as the fulfilling of profound, even messianic Jewish aspirations.
A land of youthful dreams
Just a few hundred metres from David Ben-Gurion’s family home flows the Płonka river, where in the summer he would swim with his friends. Regulated in the 1930s, the river meandering between the buildings in contemporary Płońsk greatly differs from the overflowing stream surrounded by meadows where the young Jews once dreamed of the future.
Monika Kopańska explains that “today’s Płonka river is nothing like it was a hundred years ago when it was famous for its purity, width, and depth. Today it’s difficult to imagine that you could once somersault into the river. David’s friend Yitzhak Gruenbaum”, Kopańska continues, “who was later a member of the Polish parliament and also signatory of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, remembers that it was possible to drown in the Płonka! All four of Płońsk’s most important Zionist activists under David’s leadership learned how to swim here. They loved this place, as did the other residents of Płońsk, who also spent their free time here on the
riverside pastures and meadows”, Kopańska recounts.
As David was growing up, he zealously nurtured his dreams of living in a new Israel. To such an extent that in 1900 or 1901 as a thirteen or fourteen-year-old, he and his closest friends in Płońsk, ones who remained so for the rest of their lives – Samuel Fuchs, Solomon Zemach, and Solomon Lewkowicz – established a club they called “Ezra”. With their future in Eretz Yisrael in mind, they decided, among other matters, to speak with each other only in Hebrew. Over time, they gathered several dozen young colleagues around them and held classes at the synagogue on the language of the future Jewish State.
The name “Ezra” requires no explanation for people versed in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. After all, the Book of Ezra, along with the Book of Nehemiah that follows it, is highly Zionist in nature. Together they describe the return of the Jews to Palestine from the Babylonian captivity and the subsequent rebuilding of the state and restoration of Judaism focused on the Temple in Jerusalem.
Hence, it is easy to understand the great disappointment and outright anger the young Zionists later felt when in 1903 they heard the news from the Zionist Congress that Theodor Herzl was considering the creation of a Jewish State not in Palestine, but in Uganda! This idea caused a split in the Zionist movement. Ben-Gurion and his friends from Płońsk had no doubts: the homeland of the Jews must emerge in the historical Land of Israel – and not in Africa. During one of their get-togethers on the Płonka river late that summer, they solemnly vowed that as soon as possible they would move to Ottoman Palestine in order to build the new Israel. And that’s exactly what they did. Importantly, Ben-Gurion wrote years later that “significantly more [Jews from Płońsk] than any other city in the Russian partition” of Poland decided to leave for Palestine.
The New Płońsk
In front of the entrance to today’s town hall in Płońsk is a concrete mast with an archangel with a shield (the town’s coat of arms) and the emblems of twelve partner towns and municipalities. Among them, the emblem of Ramat HaNagev, the region in southern Israel, is found first, in the place of honour. This part of Israel’s Negev desert is closely associated with Ben-Gurion. He lived there at the kibbutz Sde Boker – and there he was buried. On the walls inside Płońsk’s town hall are huge, blown-up photos of the town from a century ago, and many of them portray Jewish residents of the time.
Andrzej Pietrasik, the longtime mayor of Płońsk, says, “Ben-Gurion is the most outstanding figure in the history of this town. The whole world knows him. His place in Płońsk is simply indelible”, going on to warmly recall his many official visits to Israel. Pietrasik adds, “we want to show how important this figure is for both Płońsk – and for Poland as a whole. Ben-Gurion is not showcased across our country, but in Płońsk we showcase him as often as we can. And that’s never too often”.
The mayor emphasises that the only street, or rather square, named after Ben-Gurion in Poland is found in Płońsk. The town is currently in the process of creating a new museum on the corner of the main square. It will include collections bearing witness to the five hundred years of Poles’ and Jews’ shared existence in Płońsk. And of course, a large part of the exposition will be dedicated to Ben-Gurion and the “Ezra” organisation.
Pietrasik explains that “we would like to present him as a young man of incredible strength and imagination who was already busy creating the foundations of Zionism right here in Płońsk. After all, he started that process together with his friends in Płońsk.” The mayor then adds, “he did this as a boy, before he was even twenty. Already then he knew what he wanted in life. He knew that he wanted to create a Jewish state. He left Płońsk with enormous resources of enthusiasm, knowledge, and energy – and that would last him for his entire life, allowing him to achieve his dream”.
The mayor stresses that David Ben-Gurion’s youth in Płońsk opened up the world for him, inspiring him to seek what connects people on different levels, in different religions, across cultures and traditions. In his memoirs, Ben-Gurion repeats that it was a positive “love for Zion” that drew him to Palestine, underlining that he had not experienced antisemitism in Płońsk: “[…] we lived in complete harmony with our Polish neighbours”. He also stressed that he left Płońsk out of love for Zion and the Hebrew language – and not out of fear or desire to flee. The fact that he did not hesitate to send his wife Paula and their daughter Geula (with means ‘redemption’)
and son Amos to Płońsk fifteen years later reflects this. From April 1921 to April 1922, they lived here for a year in Avigdor’s home on today’s Wspólna Street. Despite the positive message and publicity that one of the most important figures of twentieth-century world politics could have brought to the town a long time ago, Płońsk has only recently begun to make use of Ben-Gurion’s legacy. The market square near his family home is a parking lot overgrown with weeds, with a sculpture of an archangel in the middle. The town’s authorities have announced that the buildings along it will be renovated, and symbolic references will be made to Jewish history, especially since the vast majority of homes on the market square once belonged to Jewish families.
The mayor says that “in revitalising the market square, we want to show our past. This means marking every building that was owned by a Jewish family with their last name. We will show who lived here before the Holocaust”.
The person who created what became one of the most modern states in the world and a regional power, lived, grew up, and was educated in Płońsk. Today, a memorial plaque in Polish and Hebrew, mounted in 1995, can be found on the wall of a building where that person might have briefly lived (although it’s not at all certain). This building is known as ‘Kaprys’, and it is one of the oldest in the town, built with very interesting arcades at the end of the eighteenth century. Today… its pale turquoise facade is dilapidated and crumbling. It is clear that the building has witnessed over two hundred years of Płońsk’s history. But it is also a witness to Israel’s history, as that history sprang from here. Moreover, in David Grün’s past in Płońsk – as in his later life as David Ben-Gurion – there are no false or grating notes on the ears – whether for the residents of Płońsk, or of Poland at large. On the contrary, it’s a beautiful and positive story of a man who decided to change the world. And that’s exactly what he did.
“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”.
From the book: Ben-Gurion: A Political Life – David Landau Speaks with Shimon Peres, 2011, p. 125
Jaroslaw Kociszewski is the editor-in-chief of new.org.pl, a Middle East expert and a former Polish media correspondent in Israel.
Philip Earl Steele is an American historian long-based in Warsaw. Before turning to the history of early Zionism in 2012, he had done ground-breaking work on the Christianisation of Poland in the 10th century.