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“WE’D SWIM AND SPEAK HEBREW”
About forty-five miles west of Warsaw flows a small and picturesque river, the Plonka; it also runs through the town of Plonsk. On one of the last days of summer in 1903, three friends went to swim there. The oldest of them, Shmuel Fuchs, was almost nineteen years old. Shlomo Zemach had just celebrated his seventeenth birthday; he was a few months older than David Yosef Gruen, who would later take the name Ben-Gurion. The three of them spent a lot of time together, bound in an intimate friendship that began in their early adolescence. “We’d swim and speak Hebrew,” Ben-Gurion related many years later.1 Sometimes they were accompanied by another young man, older than they were, Shlomo Levkowitz.
Like many members of their generation, Jews and non-Jews, they were given to gloom and overcome with existential doubts, and they were all in love. Shlomo Levkowitz and Ben-Gurion were in love with the same girl; Shmuel Fuchs was in love with Shlomo Zemach’s sister, and Zemach was in love with Fuchs’s sister. Zemach and Ben-Gurion were also in love with Shmuel Fuchs. It was a tormented camaraderie, but it endured throughout their lives; Fuchs and Levkowitz, who in the meantime changed his name to Lavi, died before Ben-Gurion; Zemach died a year after him. For seventy years, Ben-Gurion and Zemach remained joined by bonds of love and envy, just as they were on that late summer day in 1903, on the banks of the Plonka.
They had taken along the latest issue of Hatzefirah, a Hebrew-language newspaper published in Warsaw. Reading it on the riverbank, they learned that the Zionist movement was seriously considering the establishment of a Jewish state in East Africa, instead of in Palestine. The idea of establishing at least a temporary shelter there for European Jewry was known as the Uganda plan. Theodor Herzl, the venerated founder of the world Zionist movement and its first leader, refused to reject the idea out of hand; after a bitter debate, the Zionist Congress, the movement’s supreme body, decided by majority vote to send an exploratory delegation to the area. Dozens of Jews had been slaughtered a few months earlier in the city of Kishinev, then part of the Russian Empire. The willingness of many Zionists to consider the Uganda proposal grew out of their sense that the Jews of Russia urgently needed a refuge, even if it meant one in Africa. The three boys from Plonsk had closely followed the news from Kishinev. They felt humiliated and helpless, Lavi later wrote, “disheartened in both body and spirit.”2 But the three of them were shocked by the Uganda plan. Zionism, they felt, was betraying itself; they broke into tears. On the spot, their emotions rising and their bodies wet with river water, they took an oath to leave Poland and settle in Palestine. It was a seminal moment in their lives.
* * *
It is almost certain that most of the people that Ben-Gurion and his youthful friends knew at that time identified themselves first as Jews rather than Poles. In the eight hundred years since Jews had settled in Poland, they had suffered from discrimination and persecution, but their numbers rose into the millions and they became one of the world’s most important Jewish communities. They had solid economic and cultural foundations there, self-governing bodies, and a lively political discourse.3 Jews first settled in Plonsk about four centuries before Ben-Gurion and his friends were born. In 1815 the town came under Russian imperial rule. All government officials, including policemen and judges, served the czar; some of these were Russians themselves. Children were required to learn Russian, and young men were drafted into the Imperial Army. But just as the town’s Jews did not see themselves as Poles, neither did they see themselves as Russians.
When Ben-Gurion was ten years old, Plonsk had eight thousand inhabitants, more than half of them Jews. According to Ben-Gurion, he never encountered outright anti-Semitism there, and he saw no reason to fear a pogrom.4 Years later, long after leaving, some of its former Jewish inhabitants remained proud of being Plonskers, but they were first and foremost Jews; they felt no need to define their Jewishness beyond that. It was a small and fairly insular community. Everyone knew everyone else, and about everyone else. Most of them engaged in trades and crafts; a few were wealthy.
Zemach was the son of a businessman; his family had numbered among the community’s aristocracy for several generations. Fuchs’s family was also well-off. But many of Plonsk’s Jews lived in poverty and hardship. Levkowitz grew up in a dark alley where sewage flowed, among stinking muddy pits. When he was twelve, a cholera epidemic raged through the town. His father worked for the Zemach family, and he himself was an apprentice in a bakery. He had little schooling and Ben-Gurion described him as a “savage.”5 Levkowitz’s low station seems not to have bothered Shlomo Zemach’s father; he did not try to interfere with the friendship between the two. He did, however, forbid his son to visit David Gruen’s home, and when the boy disobeyed, his father slapped him. “The Gruen family did not have a good name in Plonsk,” Zemach wrote, and another Plonsker said that “their name was not spoken in the city, neither for good nor for ill. As if they had been condemned to oblivion.”6
Ben-Gurion’s father, Victor (Avigdor) Gruen, made a living providing a range of paralegal services. Most of his clients were Poles, many of them illiterate. He filled out forms, wrote requests, and arranged affairs with the authorities. He sometimes engaged in brokerage, arbitration, and conflict resolution. Zemach wrote that the Gruen family’s income was low and unstable. Not well-off, neither were they poor. They had a two-story wood-frame home in Goat Alley, which later became Wspolna Street; it led to the market square. Ben-Gurion’s eldest brother and his family lived in an adjacent house; the two homes were separated by a small, fenced-in garden containing apple, pear, plum, and cherry trees. The complex had been the dowry of Ben-Gurion’s mother, Sheindel; it lay just next to the Catholic church and the priest’s garden.
Coming and going among inspectors and policemen, bureaucrats and judges, Gruen befriended them, sent them felicitations on their holidays, and consoled them when they mourned. He presumably also bribed them. Quite naturally, his own community looked askance. Gruen was not the only Jew in Plonsk who worked and traded with Christians, but unlike the others he did not “dress Jewish.” Flaunting convention, he wore a short jacket, as opposed to the traditional long coat; he sometimes sported a top hat, which the Jews of Plonsk simply did not do. In the eyes of his neighbors, he was frivolous and clownish, and the gossip was that cards were played in the house. He had a hand in local politics, and sometimes got into fights.7
* * *
Dubche, or Dovidel, as the boy was called at home, was born on October 16, 1886, the third of three sons; he had an older and a younger sister. The family’s language was Yiddish, but they also heard a lot of Polish and Russian. A government school for Jews was established in the town a few years before Ben-Gurion’s birth, but most of the town’s Jews preferred to give their children a Jewish education. They thus sent their sons to a heder, a one-room school in the home of an instructor who kept the boys under his charge in his house throughout most of the day, teaching them to read and write in Hebrew and Yiddish, and, even more important, to study Torah and Talmud. Some children in Plonsk began school at the age of three; Ben-Gurion began when he was five. He attended several such schools, one of them a modern version where Hebrew was taught by a new immersion technique, “Hebrew in Hebrew.” He also spent a few hours each day in the government school, as the law required.8
Shlomo Zemach had other teachers, with better pedigrees and higher tuition fees. He also studied history, geography, and Greek mythology. He remembered Ben-Gurion as a skinny kid, short and a bit sickly looking. Ben-Gurion himself recalled that he suffered frequent fainting spells. The doctor recommended spending the summer with his mother’s family in one of the nearby villages, and it was there, he related, that he first came into contact with agriculture. Zemach and Levkowitz also spent time in these villages.9
Copyright © 2019 by Tom Segev
Translation copyright © 2019 by Haim Watzman