The Plonsk Jewish Community Before WWI
Jews settled in Plonsk from the beginning of the modern age. Plonsk, which is documented as a fortress in the 12th century and was declared a city in the 15th century; its Jews dealt in loans and commerce at fairs in neighboring towns and cities. At the beginning of the 17th century, King Zygmunt I of Poland provided protection to the Jews against competition from outside traders. The Swedish occupation of the city in the 17th century caused a great deal of damage. When the Polish army returned to Plonsk, the Jews were accused of collaborating with the Swedes. The Jewish community was almost completely wiped out, and Jewish property was plundered and destroyed. The Jews of Plonsk declared an annual day of fasting in memory of the victims on the eve of the month of Shevat, and composed a special selichot service for that fast day, known as "Selichot Plonsk."
The kings of Poland allowed Jews to build their own homes and stores, and conduct their religious lives. In the 18th century, the Jews were allowed to trade in grain, wood, livestock and other surplus agricultural goods produced on the surrounding estates. The Jews leased and managed some of these holdings.
At the end of the 18th century, Plonsk was occupied by Czarist Russia. At the time, the city had some 3,800 residents, three-quarters of whom were Jewish. The city was set up as a Russian-ruled settlement, which led to its rapid development. Most of the trade and labor in the city was run by Jews and a Jewish farming community was established next to Plonsk, known as the Kochari Estate (Achuzat Kochari). During this period, Plonsk had its own rabbi – Rabbi Baruch Harif – and an ornate synagogue was built.
During the 19th century, the Jews of Plonsk began to become involved in politics and to disseminate the "culture of enlightenment". Some Jews from Plonsk participated in the Polish Uprising of 1863. In 1865, the "Dorshei Hatorah Vehachachma" organization was established, in which the maskilim (members of the enlightenment movement) of the city gathered to study philosophy and foreign languages together. Plonsk also gave rise to one of the first branches of "Hovevei Tzion" in Poland. Towards the end of the 19th century, the first group of Zionists was formed, establishing the "Bnei Tzion" movement, which numbered 200 members within only two years. Young people joined the Hebrew language circle, and public libraries in Hebrew and in Yiddish were opened in the city. Author David Frishman wrote, "From the city of Plonsk, the Enlightenment went out to rule."
In the second half of the 19th century, Hassidism took root in Plonsk. Groups of Gur, Alexander and Ciechanów Hassidim lived in the city, and kloizes (study halls) were established for the various Hassidic sects. Towards the end of the century, organizations such as "Kahal Katan" were set up, which aimed to educate the poorer strata of society. Activists organized learning groups for workers and manual laborers, and taught them Hebrew, Mishna, Agada, Jewish history and knowledge of Eretz Israel. The "Ezra" organization worked to disseminate the Hebrew language, and to teach Jewish history to children of the lower classes. Among the organization's founders was David Ben-Gurion (Grün), then 14 years old. Many of the organizations' activists were among the first emigrants from Plonsk to Eretz Israel. Plonsk immigrants were among the founders of the Negba, Ein Shemer, Beit Zera, Ein Hashofet, Sarid, Kfar Masryk and Mizra kibbutzim, among others. Nevertheless, during these years most of the Jewish children of the city continued to receive a traditional education and studied in private cheders and in talmudei torah (Torah schools for young children) run by the community. At the end of the 19th century, the city opened a primary school for Jewish children, where some 80 pupils, mostly girls, studied in Russian.
Plonsk was bordered by great swathes of land, in whose poplar trees storks would nest. On the fringes of the city were the smiths, wagon-fixers and blacksmiths, as well as small farms owned by both Jews and non-Jews, surrounding the city with greenery, flowerbeds, and red and green fences. At the end of the 19th century, one third of all the houses in Plonsk were built from stone, and there were factories, workshops and a weather station. Roads and asphalt pavements were laid and inside the city were avenues of oak and chestnut trees, as well as ornamental gardens. At the turn of the century, there were two elementary schools, a high school, factories, a flour mill, a windmill and sports fields. More than half of the 8,000 residents were Jewish.