Menachem Begin – a Pole “born in Jerusalem”
Menachem Begin never practised law, though he graduated from the University of Warsaw’s Law Department in 1935. However, the unyielding attitude he acquired in Poland never left him. He insisted that Jews must fight for their own state, and not wait for it, trusting others. His militancy aroused controversy and opposition even among activists politically close to him. And yet it was none other than Menachem Begin who went on to forge peace with Egypt in 1978, an accomplishment that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
The biophysicist Ephaim Katzir entered politics only once – when he became the fourth president of Israel. This happened as a result of tragedy. In May 1972, Japanese terrorists murdered 26 random people and injured threefold as many more at what is today Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. One of those killed was Aharon Katzir, also a biophysicist. The head of the Israeli Academy of Sciences was to have become president of Israel in the following year, according to Prime Minister Golda Meir’s plan. She now asked Aharon’s two-years younger brother Efraim to agree to seek that office.
Ephraim Katzir was president of Israel from May 1973 to May 1978. And so it was he who, in accordance with Israeli law, asked Menachem Begin in May of 1977 to form a government after Likud’s historic victory known in Hebrew as mahapakh – ‘the upheaval’.
In 2000, the 84-year-old Ephraim Katzir, who had made aliyah with his family when he was just six, recalled Begin with deep respect. Chuckling before the camera, the former president spoke of Begin’s Polish manners: “I will never forget his visits during my presidency. He always greeted my secretaries first, kissing each of them on the hand… As a person who grew up virtually as a sabra [born in Israel], I thought, now that’s something!”
The examples of Begin’s Polishness are countless. A photo from his time as prime minister comes to mind. In it Begin bows deeply before the fifth president of Israel, Yitzhak Navon and his wife at his inauguration after Likud’s second parliamentary victory in the summer of 1981. Examples more powerful still include that of his attachment to Poland’s national bard, Adam Mickiewicz, and to the writer Maria Konopnicka. There is also of course his militant ethos owing much to the history of Polish insurgencies and the Polish Legions of the WWI era. It should be emphasised here that when the Anders Army, which Begin had joined in Margilan, Uzbekistan, reached British Palestine in 1942, Begin, a Polish citizen and soldier, did not desert. “I have sworn an oath,” he explained to his colleague, Israel Eldad. Begin received an honorary discharge.
Begin’s Polishness would outright lend itself to myth-making. There is again a long list of examples. One relates to Camp David in September 1978, when during the negotiations between Egypt and Israel, Begin and Zbigniew Brzeziński spent an evening playing chess, purportedly speaking to each other in Polish. However, Brzeziński makes no mention of this in his memoirs (Pride and Principle, 1983), although he did underline the psychological aspect of the verbal exchange that accompanied the rivalry on the chessboard. Brzeziński also reported that things ended in a draw: Begin won the first game, while he himself won the second.
A much greater myth, one repeated literally everywhere in Poland, is that Begin’s original name was ‘Mieczysław Biegun’, which he later adapted into his Hebrew name. This plays to the widely known fact that many Israelis changed their names to Hebrew forms. Grün became Ben Gurion, Scheinermann – Sharon, and Katchalski – Katzir. However, none of Begin’s biographers (Eric Silver, Ned Temko, Avi Shilon, Yehuda Avner, Ofer Grosbard, Daniel Gordis) mention anything about any “Mieczysław”. Nor does his file at the University of Warsaw, as research by dr. Piotr Gontarczyk has shown. On the contrary: his official student’s book from 1931, the year he began his law studies, shows him as Menachem Begin. The same is true for the Report of the Directorate of the Romuald Traugutt State High School in Brest-on-the-Bug for the 1929/30 school year: the sixteen year-old appears there as Menachem Begin.
Full clarification was received in correspondence with the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem:
[…] 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.
Menachem Begin was born one year before the outbreak of the Great War, on August 16, 1913, in Brest-Litovsk, a town on the Bug river with a population of some 50 thousand. Three quarters of its inhabitants then were Jews. Grosbard describes how Begin’s name was chosen: “Menachem was born on the Saturday of ‘Sabbath Nahamu’. In Jewish tradition, every Saturday a chapter from the Prophets is chanted after the Pentateuch reading. The chapter read on the Saturday after Menachem’s birth begins, ‘Nahamu, nahamu ami yomar eloheikhem’ (Isaiah 40:1), ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God’. So Menachem, which derives from the same root as ‘nahamu’, is someone who comforts, who consoles”.
The story of how the names of Menachem’s older siblings were chosen is also significant. Ze’ev Dov Begin wanted to name the first child he had with his wife Hassia after… Theodor Herzl. But as fate would have it, Hassia, 23 years younger than her husband, gave birth to a girl. Should they name her Herzliyah, the Zionist father wondered aloud? Hassia vetoed the idea and named the baby girl after her maternal grandmother, Rachel. Three years later, in 1910, Hassia gave birth to a boy – Herzl Begin. Three years after that, Menachem Begin was born. All three were born in Brest-Litovsk.
Chekhov’s axe on the wall
Ze’ev Dov was also born in Brest, 50 years before his second son and three years after Herzl, whom he fervently supported. The father of the future prime minister of Israel could be described as a mitnaged, a deeply religious person who combined faith and modernity. He therefore spoke not only Yiddish and Hebrew, but also Polish, Russian, and German. As a young man Ze’ev Dov had wanted to become a doctor, but – against his will – he wound up with his father in the lumber trade. The only thing he enjoyed about his work was the regular travel. Nonetheless, Ze’ev Dov kept his home in Brest, where he became a social activist well before he met Hassia in 1906. Above all, however, he would increasingly find his purpose in promoting Zionism.
The chief rabbi of Brest at the turn of the century was the famed Chaim Soloveitchik. Ze’ev Dov studied at his yeshiva. However, Zionism would come to divide the two men. The rabbi was openly hostile to the movement, while Ze’ev Dov was committed to it. Longer accounts of the young Menachem Begin all relay the story of how this disagreement came into open conflict. Following Theodor Herzl’s premature death in July 1904, rabbi Soloveitchik refused to conduct a service in Herzl’s memory. Ze’ev Dov Begin and his neighbour Mordechai Scheinermann therefore broke into the synagogue with an axe (according to one version – according to another they broke into the rabbi’s home and took the keys to the synagogue) in order to lead prayers of mourning. A doubly Chekhov-esque scene in the life of Menachem Begin, for besides the presaging of his fierce Zionism, Mordechai was the grandfather of Ariel Scheinermann, the future Ariel Sharon. In fact, Ariel’s grandmother was the midwife at Menachem’s birth in Brest.
The First World War separated the Begin family. Ze’ev Dov was expelled from Brest by the Russians in 1915 (supposedly because of his German sympathies). In September that year, two days before Brest was set ablaze, Hassia escaped the town alone with her three children to cousins in Drahichyn, some 100 km eastwards. Soon the German-Russian front shifted there, but Hassia managed to take the children to Kobryn, half the way back toward Brest. There they found refuge in an old house in the forest. Begin had idyllic memories from that period with his siblings: “They ran barefoot, picked mushrooms and adopted a lonely raven they named Hans” (Grosbard). It was not until 1919 that Ze’ev Dov managed to reassemble the family back in Brest.
Just like his brother Herzl, Menachem would first go to a traditional Jewish school (cheder) to then to a modern humanist Jewish school called Tachkemoni, which operated under the auspices of the religious Zionist movement Mizrachi, whose patron was rabbi Samuel Mohilever of Białystok. When Menachem turned 14, he enrolled at the Polish state-run Romuald Traugutt High School, named after the insurrectionist leader of the Poles’ January Uprising (1863-64) against Russian rule (Traugutt had fought important battles in nearby Kobryn).
“Nationalist sentiments were strong in Poland, and Menachem, at the Polish high school, was influenced by this spirit. The students learned how Poland had suffered from foreign invasions and occupations and how the Poles had bravely fought for their independence. Feelings of nationalism, love of homeland, pride of belonging and faith in the nation’s eternal survival were then in the air. It went well with what Menachem had learned from his father about the aspiration to build a Jewish state in Palestine” (Grosbard).
Zionism – first steps
From early on, Menachem’s Zionist upbringing under his father’s wing was more important to him than his school education. When Menachem was 12, Ze’ev Dov formalised the inculcation of Zionist ideals by sending all his children to the Hashomer Hatzair youth organisation, where he himself was chairman of the committee. “With his sister Rachel, in a leadership role, [Menachem] danced, sang Zionist songs, and even at a young age spoke excellent Hebrew during the meetings”. A year later Ze’ev Dov took his children out of Hashomer Hatzair. “Their father had decided that the group was overly committed to socialism, to the detriment of an explicitly Jewish, Zionist agenda. It was time for the children to join Betar, he felt, the movement being spearheaded by the powerful intellectual firebrand Ze’ev Jabotinsky” (Gordis).
“Menachem Begin’s first political steps were in Hashomer Hatzair. It was a youth movement that was becoming increasingly tied to the socialist vision of Zionism”, says dr. Dominik Flisiak, a Polish historian of the Zionist movement in Poland. “After a year, Begin opted for a more radical political grouping. Namely, he became a supporter of Betar, meaning he became an activist following the ideas of the revisionist Zionism created by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky”.
A few years later Begin had the chance to listen to Jabotinsky with his own ears: “The first time I saw Jabotinsky was when he spoke at a conference in Brest. I was 16 years old. My life changed. You sit there, down below, and begin to feel in every fiber of your body that you are being lifted up, borne aloft, up, up… Have you been won over? No, more than that. You have been consecrated to the ideal. Forever”.
“Shifts in political sympathies, especially among young people searching for a path and ideology, have never been uncommon”, says Flisiak. “Take the example of Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He began his activism with Betar, that is, right-wing Zionism, only later to change his political views and become an activist of Hashomer Hatzair, where he stayed until his tragic death in 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising”.
“Brest will always remain in me”
Menachem Begin often referred to his youth in Brest (“Brisk”, as Jews often know the city) – and to the destruction of the Jewish town and murder of his mother, father, and brother by the Germans. In 1954 he wrote: “Not once I asked myself, if I could travel to Brisk as one can travel to Johannesburg or to New York, would you go to the town in which you spent your sunny youth years? Whenever I ask myself this question I feel deep sadness and the bitter answer: You will not go to the town in which you grew, studied, dreamt, suffered and were also happy — because it does not exist anymore… No, I will not go after the shadows, they are within me… No, I will never return to Brest, but Brest will always remain in me”.
18 years later in 1972, the Israeli opposition leader was attending a meeting of fellow Brest natives. Until the late 20th century there were many such organisations in Israel that gathered people who shared their places of origin, mostly in the lands of Central and Eastern Europe. During a speech at times moving, at times blood-curdling, Begin bespoke his pride in the town he described using the Biblical term “a mother of Israel”. He repeated the legend of the Jewish king of Poland, Saul Wahl Katzenellenbogen, who was to have ruled for a day during the interregnum after the death of King Stephen Báthory in 1586. He spoke of how when the townspeople would pray for rain, it was not for rain on the lands along the Bug river, but for rain in Eretz Yisrael. Now – in Israel among Brest natives – it was the reverse: before their eyes they all again saw Brest’s festively illumined synagogue, and could hear the prayers sung by the butcher’s son, Berele, who had the voice of a nightingale. Begin then drew upon to the words of Shmuel Yosef Agnon, spoken in 1966 when he accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature: those present at the gathering, Begin intoned, came from Brest-Litovsk, but they were born in Jerusalem. “Gratitude to our fathers, gratitude for their love of the Land of Israel, gratitude for their prayers, gratitude for their faith in the coming of the messiah… Our parents did not have the opportunity, but their children after them conquered the ‘beginning of redemption’. And so with love of Israel, with love for the Land of Israel and for Jerusalem, we will sanctify their scattered ashes, elevate their souls in holiness and purity, and carry in our hearts the memory of their love from generation to generation.”
On the wall near the entrance to the Auditorium Maximum at the heart of the University of Warsaw is a large plaque that commemorates one of the institution’s most famous alumni, even though his accomplishments were connected neither to his studies, nor even Poland for that matter.
“Menachem Begin – Israeli statesman, prime minister of the State of Israel, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, alumnus of the Law Department at the University of Warsaw in 1935.”
Menachem Begin moved from Brest to Warsaw in 1931, when he began his studies at the University of Warsaw. In fact, all three siblings studied there: Rachel – history, Herzl – mathematics, and Menachem – law. Begin was shaped by the stormy 1930s which he spent studying law in Warsaw, but also honing his oratory skills. These were times of radical nationalism and fascism, with antisemitic riots also occurring at the University of Warsaw.
“We have various groups of thugs, like those representing Młodzież Wszechpolska (All-Polish Youth), Obóz Wielkej Polski (Camp of Great Poland) or Stronnictwo Narodowe (National Party). One of their main goals was nationalist-based terror directed against the Jewish community”, stresses Flisiak. “Unfortunately, these were students and not people we might conveniently dismiss as the dregs of society. Thus, Jewish self-defence groups were organised in order to protect students in larger cities like Warsaw, Vilnius, and Lviv. Such groups also coalesced in smaller places”, he adds.
Dr. Flisiak makes it clear that up until 1935, when Józef Piłsudski died, Poland’s ruling authorities (Sanacja) were not antisemitic and hoped to foster positive Polish-Jewish relations. At the same time, he says that Jewish political life was “very feverish”. There were many different visions of Zionism in pre-war Poland, along with parties that opposed the call for the return of the Jews to Palestine.
Disagreement over the struggle against the British
There is a building at 7 Sierakowska street in Warsaw’s Praga (right-bank) district not far from the Warszawa Wileńska station. The five-storey grey and unkempt building was originally built as a Jewish dormitory in 1926. Today the entrance is shut tight , but on either side there are plaques that remind of the incredible and at the same time tragic history of the place. The plaque to the right of the main entrance states that Menachem Begin, later Israeli prime minister and Nobel laureate, had lived in the dormitory. The second plaque states that the building housed the provincial branch of public security after the war – meaning it was a Stalinist torture chamber.
The third international congress of Betar took place in the auditorium inside the dormitory in September 1938. Here unfolded the scene of open conflict between Menachem Begin and Vladimir Jabotinsky over the text of the Betar oath. Begin demanded that to the duty to defend the yishuv (Jewish settlements in Mandate Palestine) be added the pledge to fight for the creation of the state. Begin was convinced that the road to realising the aspirations of independence led through armed resistance and an uncompromising attitude towards London, which had not fulfilled its promises stemming from Lord Balfour’s declaration in 1917 that the United Kingdom would establish “in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Vladimir Jabotinsky, who adhered to a more conciliatory spirit, did admit of course that the United Kingdom was not acting justly, but he was worried that an open conflict would lead to civil war in Palestine. In the end, the issue was brought to a vote. The majority sided with Menachem Begin’s vision.
As prime minister, Begin denied that he had had any significant quarrel with Ze’ev Jabotinsky (who died in 1940). A case of plausible deniability, if only when we recall that in May 1939 Jabotinsky made a special trip from Paris to Menachem and Aliza’s wedding in Drohobych, the bride’s hometown in today’s western Ukraine. Many years later their son Benny shared a family story of how his mother had dropped her ring during the wedding dinner, and that she and Jabotinsky then crawled around on their hands and knees looking for it under the table.
“In Israel it’s said that Begin was very Polish. He was the only politician in Israel who would kiss women’s hands in the Knesset”, explained Zvi Rav-Ner in 2017, then Israeli ambassador to Poland, when speaking at the premiere of the Polish translation of Begin’s book White Nights, which tells of his experiences when he was a captive in the hands of the NKVD.
“Begin was undoubtedly Israel’s most Jewish prime minister, and at the same time the most Polish one. He was the only Israeli prime minister who had graduated from a Polish university”, added dr. Laurence Weinbaum, an Israeli historian of revisionism.
“Menachem Begin was raised and educated in independent Poland”, Weinbaum continued. “Until the end of his life he remained under the influence of the history of the struggle for the rebirth of Poland – and of the way Polish statehood manifested itself. For Begin, Poland was an ideal of the struggle for independence. Among all Israeli leaders, he was the one who knew Polish language and literature the best. And he was the only prime minister to serve in the Polish army. He also no doubt knew the mentality of Poles the best.”
Contrary to other fathers of Zionism who hail from and were active in the lands of today’s Poland – like rabbi Kalischer or David Ben-Gurion – Menachem Begin’s story is not only one of positive dreams to restore the Jewish people in their original homeland. Begin grew up in a world of combative nationalisms. During his time as a student, he witnessed how Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. He watched the United Kingdom reneging on its promises to the Jews – and even blocking them from immigrating to Palestine at a time of mortal danger. The Jews were being trapped in a vice – and this could only have terrified Begin. He also saw the nationalist militias on the streets of Warsaw and on the campus of his own university. This convinced him that the Jewish people had to fight for its place on Earth. The experience of the gulag, exile, and searing awareness of the Holocaust would influence his actions and policies as a Jewish leader and the first right-wing prime minister of Israel.
Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht
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.
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