David Ben-Gurion Square—site of the no longer existing house where Ben-Gurion was born, Płońsk, Wspólna Street.
House at town square in Płońsk, Poland, where David Ben-Gurion grew up
David and Paula Ben-Gurion, 1 June 1918.
Childhood and education
David Ben-Gurion was born in Płońsk in Congress Poland – then part of the Russian Empire. His father, Avigdor Grün, was a lawyer and a leader in the Hovevei Zion movement. His mother, Scheindel (Broitman), died when he was 11 years old. Ben-Gurion's birth certificate, when rediscovered in Poland in 2003, indicated that he had a twin brother who died shortly after birth. At the age of 14 he and two friends formed a youth club, Ezra, promoting Hebrew studies and emigration to the Holy Land.
From left: David Ben-Gurion and Paula with youngest daughter Renana on BG's lap, daughter Geula, father Avigdor Grün and son Amos, 1929
In 1905, as a student at the University of Warsaw, he joined the Social-Democratic Jewish Workers' Party – Poalei Zion. He was arrested twice during the Russian Revolution of 1905.
Ben-Gurion discussed his hometown in his memoirs, saying:
"For many of us, anti-Semitic feeling had little to do with our dedication [to Zionism]. I personally never suffered anti-Semitic persecution. Płońsk was remarkably free of it ... Nevertheless, and I think this very significant, it was Płońsk that sent the highest proportion of Jews to Eretz Israel from any town in Poland of comparable size. We emigrated not for negative reasons of escape but for the positive purpose of rebuilding a homeland ... Life in Płońsk was peaceful enough. There were three main communities: Russians, Jews and Poles. ... The number of Jews and Poles in the city were roughly equal, about five thousand each. The Jews, however, formed a compact, centralized group occupying the innermost districts whilst the Poles were more scattered, living in outlying areas and shading off into the peasantry. Consequently, when a gang of Jewish boys met a Polish gang the latter would almost inevitably represent a single suburb and thus be poorer in fighting potential than the Jews who even if their numbers were initially fewer could quickly call on reinforcements from the entire quarter. Far from being afraid of them, they were rather afraid of us. In general, however, relations were amicable, though distant."
Ottoman Palestine and Constantinople
In 1906 he immigrated to Ottoman Palestine. A month after his arrival, he was elected to the central committee of the newly formed branch of Poalei Zion in Jaffa, becoming chairman of the party's platform committee. He advocated a more nationalist program than other more leftist or Marxist committee members. The following year he complained about the Russian domination of the group. At the time the Jewish population in Palestine was around 55,000 – of whom 40,000 held Russian citizenship.
Ben-Gurion worked picking oranges in Petah Tikva, and in 1907 he moved to the kibbutzim in Galilee, where he worked as an agricultural laborer and withdrew from politics. The following year, he joined an armed group acting as a watchmen. On 12 April 1909, following an attempted robbery in which an Arab from Kafr Kanna was killed, Ben-Gurion was involved in fighting during which one guard and a farmer from Sejera were killed.
On 7 November 1911, Ben-Gurion arrived in Thessaloniki in order to learn Turkish for his law studies. The city, which had a large Jewish community, impressed Ben-Gurion, who called it "a Jewish city that has no equal in the world". He also realized there that "the Jews were capable of all types of work". Some of the city's Jews were rich businessmen and professors, while others were merchants, craftsmen and porters.
In 1912, he moved to Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, to study law at Istanbul University together with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and adopted the Hebrew name Ben-Gurion, after the Jewish leading figure Yosef ben Gurion from the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans. He also worked as a journalist. Ben-Gurion saw the future as dependent on the Ottoman regime.
World War I
Ben-Gurion was living in Jerusalem at the start of the First World War, where he and Ben Zvi recruited forty Jews into a Jewish militia to assist the Ottoman Army. Despite this he was deported to Egypt in March 1915. From there he made his way to the United States where he remained for three years. On his arrival he and Ben Zvi went on a tour of 35 cities in an attempt to raise a pioneer army, Hechalutz, of 10,000 men to fight on Turkey's side.
After the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, the situation changed dramatically and in 1918 Ben-Gurion, with the interest of Zionism in mind, switched sides and joined the newly formed Jewish Legion of the British Army. He volunteered for the 38th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, one of the four which constituted the Jewish Legion. His unit fought against the Turks as part of Chaytor's Force during the Palestine Campaign.
Ben-Gurion and his family returned permanently to Palestine after World War I following its conquest by the British from the Ottoman Empire.
Marriage and family
Settling in New York City in 1915, he met Russian-born Paula Munweis. They were married in 1917. The couple had three children: a son, Amos, and two daughters, Geula Ben-Eliezer and Renana Leshem. Amos Ben-Gurion would become Deputy Inspector-General of the Israel Police, and also the director-general of a textile factory. He married Mary Callow, a gentile who converted to Judaism; Joachim Prinz, a German rabbi who claimed to have converted her to Judaism, stated in 1946 that Mary was from the Isle of Man. Amos and Mary Ben-Gurion had two daughters and a son, and six granddaughters. Geula had two sons and a daughter, and Renana, who worked as a microbiologist at the Israel Institute for Biological Research, had a son.