In Ben-Gurion’s Polish hometown, residents dance the hora ahead of Israel’s 70th
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In Ben-Gurion’s Polish hometown, residents dance the hora ahead of Israel’s 70th

Hundreds of citizens of Plonsk, the birthplace of the first Israeli prime minister, gather with Jewish leaders in a show of solidarity and support for the Jewish state

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

  • Polish residents of Plonsk, along with numerous dignitaries, gather in honor of Israel's 70th anniversary of independence, April 15, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Limmud FSU)
    Polish residents of Plonsk, along with numerous dignitaries, gather in honor of Israel's 70th anniversary of independence, April 15, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Limmud FSU)
  • Mayor Andrzej Pietrasik of Plonsk, foreground, right, marches with dignitaries including Limmud FSU co-founders Chaim Chessler, center, and Sanra Cahn, at the head of a procession in honor of Israel's 70th year of independence. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
    Mayor Andrzej Pietrasik of Plonsk, foreground, right, marches with dignitaries including Limmud FSU co-founders Chaim Chessler, center, and Sanra Cahn, at the head of a procession in honor of Israel's 70th year of independence. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
  • Local children hold Polish and Israeli flags in Plonsk, Poland, the birthplace of first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, in celebration of Israel's 70 years of independence, April 15, 2018.  (Yossi Zeliger/Limmud FSU)
    Local children hold Polish and Israeli flags in Plonsk, Poland, the birthplace of first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, in celebration of Israel's 70 years of independence, April 15, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Limmud FSU)
  • The house of first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion's uncle, where Ben-Gurion lived for 20 years before emigrating to Israel. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
    The house of first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion's uncle, where Ben-Gurion lived for 20 years before emigrating to Israel. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
  • Mayor Andrzej Pietrasik of the city of Plonsk dances the hora along with notables and attendees Sunday, April 15, 2018, in honor of Israel's 70th year of independence. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
    Mayor Andrzej Pietrasik of the city of Plonsk dances the hora along with notables and attendees Sunday, April 15, 2018, in honor of Israel's 70th year of independence. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
  • From left: Limmud FSU co-founder Chaim Chessler, deputy chair of March of the Living Aharon Tamir, and Mayor Andrzej Pietrasik lay wreaths at the onetime home and birthplace of first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion in Plonsk, Poland, April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
    From left: Limmud FSU co-founder Chaim Chessler, deputy chair of March of the Living Aharon Tamir, and Mayor Andrzej Pietrasik lay wreaths at the onetime home and birthplace of first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion in Plonsk, Poland, April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
  • Polish children in colorful costumes dance a traditional dance at an event marking Israel's 70 years of independence in David Ben-Gurion's birthplace of Plonsk, Poland, April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
    Polish children in colorful costumes dance a traditional dance at an event marking Israel's 70 years of independence in David Ben-Gurion's birthplace of Plonsk, Poland, April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
  • A marching band leads a procession in Plonsk, Poland, the birthplace of Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, ahead of Israel's Independence Day. April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
    A marching band leads a procession in Plonsk, Poland, the birthplace of Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, ahead of Israel's Independence Day. April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
  • Costumed children dance the hora in Plonsk, April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)
    Costumed children dance the hora in Plonsk, April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

PLONSK, Poland – Hundreds of townsfolk, local dignitaries, young dancers dressed in traditional brightly-colored peasant garb, and a marching band assembled Sunday to celebrate the life of Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion in his Polish birthplace, Plonsk, ahead of the Jewish state’s 70th birthday.

The event was organized by Limmud FSU, the March of the Living, and the municipality of Plonsk, and included a long list of notable attendees, including Israel’s ambassador to Poland Anna Azari, Plonsk city mayor Andrzej Pietrasik, and Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich.

Beginning at the town hall, the crowd marched through the narrow streets of Plonsk first to David Ben-Gurion Square, where they laid wreaths at the spot where the prime minister was born in 1886.

The home is no longer standing, as it was made of wood and deteriorated naturally over time.

From left: Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chessler, deputy chair of March of the Living Aharon Tamir, and Mayor Andrzej Pietrasik lay wreaths at the onetime home and birthplace of first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion in Plonsk, Poland, April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

The assembly then continued on past several memorable spots in Ben-Gurion’s life, ending up in front of the home that once belonged to his uncle, and where the prime minister lived for 20 years before emigrating to Israel.

The house of first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s uncle, where Ben-Gurion lived for 20 years before emigrating to Israel. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

Ben-Gurion is a source of great pride to the people of Plonsk, a small town of 22,000 situated 67 kilometers (41 miles) northwest of Warsaw. Since 1996, the city has been twinned with Ramat Hanegev, the region in Israel’s south where Israel’s first prime minister quietly spent his last years.

“He has an important role in Polish history, as in Israeli history,” mayor Pietrasik told The Times of Israel. “David Ben-Gurion’s establishment of the State of Israel makes him a very important figure here for us.”

The march culminated in a ceremony at which dozens of local children decked out in full costume danced the polka, as well as the hora, before inviting everyone to join in.

Costumed children dance the hora in Plonsk, April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

Israeli Ambassador Anna Azari compared Ben-Gurion to the father of modern Poland, Józef Piłsudski, who picked up the pieces of a shattered kingdom after World War I. Azari said that the event marked her first celebration of Israel’s independence this year, and that there was no more appropriate place to do so than in front of Ben-Gurion’s old stomping grounds.

Mayor Andrzej Pietrasik of the city of Plonsk dances the hora along with notables and attendees Sunday, April 15, 2018, in honor of Israel’s 70th year of independence. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

The event fell between Yom Hashoah, or Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the Jewish state’s Independence Day, which begins on Wednesday evening and continues through Thursday night.

Plonsk was once the home of a vibrant Jewish community, which was devastated during the Holocaust.

“Before World War II, half of the residents of Plonsk were Jews. By the end of the war, there remained only a few. Plonsk, in which Jews and Poles had been living together for hundreds of years, and accepted this town as their home, had become evidence of our most brutal history,” said Pietrasik.

The mayor said the city of Plonsk honors the memory of its Jewish citizens by maintaining the few institutions that remain and celebrating the legacy of Ben-Gurion.

He said Plonsk continues to back initiatives to foster warm relations with the Jewish community around the world and in Israel.

Mayor Andrzej Pietrasik of Plonsk, foreground, right, marches with dignitaries including Limmud FSU co-founders Chaim Chessler, center, and Sanra Cahn, at the head of a procession in honor of Israel’s 70th year of independence. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

“Coming from the March of the Living, where we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, to Plonsk, where we dance the hora in the streets together with the mayor, the Israeli ambassador, the chief rabbi, and the chief priest, couldn’t be more symbolic,” said Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chessler.

Israeli-born Chessler added, “From the Holocaust to revival.”

A marching band leads a procession in Plonsk, Poland, the birthplace of Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, ahead of Israel’s Independence Day. April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

Clouded celebrations

The celebration came amid strained relations between Poland and the greater Jewish world – including both the Israeli government as well as communities across the Diaspora – due to vague language in newly-passed legislation that appears to impose restrictions on speaking or teaching about Polish complicity during the Holocaust.

The language of the bill is currently being examined by the Polish constitutional court. Its original formulation could be read to mean jail time for people who use the term “Polish death camps,” or accuse Poland of participating in the Holocaust.

Academics and Jews around the world are concerned that this could open the doors for a whitewashing of history in which Poles could soon divest themselves of any responsibility during the decimation of 90 percent of Polish Jewry in the Holocaust.

Since the pushback, long-dormant anti-Semitic voices have made themselves heard in mainstream Polish politics and media, causing the issue to snowball.

Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich told the crowd that on the whole, however, relations between Poland and Israel, and Poland and the Jewish people, remain strong despite this setback.

Local children hold Polish and Israeli flags in Plonsk, Poland, the birthplace of first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion, in celebration of Israel’s 70 years of independence, April 15, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/Limmud FSU)

“With everything going on in the media, you might not get the full picture,” Schudrich said in his public speech. “Here in Plonsk, we can celebrate Israel openly, without worrying about anti-Semitism or protests. Such a thing is almost impossible today in Britain, Austria, France.”

“This event really reflects what Polish-Jewish relations should be about,” Schudrich said. “There are problems, we have to deal with the problems, but we also have to keep it in the context that while there are problems today, there are also solutions. Today is part of the solution.”

The writer was a guest of Limmud FSU’s Global Leadership Summit.

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