In search of David: TFN travels to the town of Płońsk to discover the birthplace of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion
Every year the somnambulant northern Mazovian town of Płońsk with its 22,000 inhabitants welcomes fleets of air-conditioned coaches ferrying Israeli teenagers to poke around its environs.
The reason is one man – David Ben-Gurion, the father and founder of Israel and the country’s first prime minister, who was born David Grün in Płonsk.
The centre of gravity for any trip to Płońsk is the house on the market square in which David Grün lived as a child before he left for Ottoman-controlled Palestine in 1906 at the age of 20.
The house stands in riotous colour on the corner with Warszawska street and is badged on both sides with the name ‘Kaprys’, a restaurant that served traditional Mazovian fare for many years.
The building known locally as the Bengurionówka [the Ben-Gurion place] dates back to 1780, which is trumpeted from the peak of the building’s front-facing gable.
The attractive house is now fully dormant. A Ben-Gurion museum that used to be in the basement has long since closed.
Though it has obvious potential to celebrate the life of Ben-Gurion and host the thousands who travel to the town each year, it is currently in private hands and attempts by the local authority to acquire it have failed.
A plaque outside the light-blue house states that Ben-Gurion lived there, but it was not the place where he was born.
That is just round the corner in a wooden house on the former Kozia street, now Wspólna street, which was demolished in 1988 because of its dilapidated condition.
The site was redesigned into a modest green square and named after Ben-Gurion. It features a simple monument made from three stones imitating Jewish matzevah gravestones, which commemorates the martyrdom of the Jewish nation.
Also on the square is the wrought iron Tree of Remembrance, on which delegations from Israel hang symbolic metal leaves during official commemorations.
Next door is the site of the former synagogue, which dates back to 1670, an important year for Jews in Płońsk . It was badly damaged during the war and was torn down overnight in 1956 along with its neighbouring midrash school and ritual bath house. Standing on the site now is a ZUS social security office.
Jews began to settle in Płońsk in 1446. But it was only after the Swedish Deluge in the mid-1600s and privileges to Jews granted by King Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki in 1670 that the community grew.
In 1808, Płońsk was among the towns in the Russian Empire with the highest percentage of Jews, who made up over 70% of the community at that time. Before World War II, the populations were almost equal, with 7,000 Poles and 6,000 Jews living in Płońsk.
After the Germans arrived, they established a ghetto for the town’s Jews and for those from the surrounding district. On December 15, 1942, they transported the last Jews from the Płońsk to death camps. 12,000 Jews from the Płońsk ghetto were murdered by Germans in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The town, like the rest of Poland, is doing well now, but the sense of absence is palpable, and when Jews come to visit there is little for them to see.
Going some way to address that is the Historical Documentation Centre of Płońsk, which through painstaking work has restored the memory of thousands of people, not only Jews, who lived in the town by gathering in one place records, certificates, photographs and testimonies.
Head of the centre Mirosława Krysiak says that, “many people, Jews, visit Płońsk but they don’t know exactly what they are looking for.
“Local people literally pull them off the street and send them to us. We can then look through our records and see if we know anything about their family.”
This often leads to shocking and moving discoveries. “One women came here and she recognised her uncle, Moshe Borensztejn, from a photograph we showed he,” she added.
On the subject of Ben-Gurion, Krysiak said: “Of course we know about much of his life in Płońsk and we have helped researchers who have visited us, but we don’t have many personal reflections or anecdotes from people who knew him.”
Born as David Grün in 1886, he came from a traditional Jewish family. His father, Avigdor Grün, was a lawyer and a leader of an organisation that supported the emigration of Jews to Palestine.
His grandfather, Arie Grün had a great influence on the young boy, and it was because of him that David started learning Hebrew at the age of three. His mother died when he was 11.
David was educated at a Jewish school established by his father, and in addition to religious studies, the cheder also taught secular subjects.
When he was 14 years old, David and his two friends founded Ezra, a club for young people, which encouraged Jews to emigrate to the Promised Land and also supported the rebirth of the Hebrew language.
Grün was passionate about the Hebrew language, and it is said that he would talk back to neighbours in Hebrew to encourage the language’s adoption.
The boy left Płońsk in 1906 as part of the second wave of Jewish immigration. He never came back to the town.
In 1912, he moved to Istanbul, where he began studying law at the University of Istanbul. It was then that he took the Hebrew name of Ben-Gurion in honour of the medieval Jewish historian Józef Ben Gorion. in 1935, Ben-Gurion became chairman of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency, a role he kept until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
He lead the State of Israel until 1963 with a short break in 1954-55. The last twenty years of his life he spent in Ramat Hanagev, a desert region in the south of Israel, which is twinned with Płońsk. He died there in 1973 and is buried there next to his wife Paula.