Religious Life in Plonsk Before WWII
The religious life of the Jews of Plonsk incorporated a Zionist outlook. At the end of the 19th century, Rabbi Yehezkel Michelson, author of Beit Yehezkel, Chidushei Yitzhar and Dagan Shamayim, was named as chief rabbi of the city. In 1922 Rabbi Michelson moved to Warsaw, but until his final days in the Warsaw ghetto he was known as "the Rabbi from Plonsk." He was replaced by Rabbi Yisrael Halevi Bornstein, author of Kerem Yisrael and Chavat Yair, who was also a public businessman and charitable speaker. He was the head of "Mizrachi" in the city, and represented the movement at the Zionist Congress of 1925. He visited Eretz Israel in the 1930s, and aspired to emigrate there, as five of his children eventually managed to do. His wife, Chaya Perl, was known in her youth as a swimmer. After hours of work she would read and sometimes play chess with her husband. Rabbi Bornstein, the last rabbi of the community of Plonsk, died in the Warsaw ghetto.
Plonsk was the birthplace of Rabbi Yehoszua Mordechai Cukierkorn, who founded the "Mizrachi" branch in Plonsk with Rabbi Avraham Grün, the older brother of David Ben-Gurion.
In the face of the intense dispute and difficult war transpiring between the two factions in the Orthodox camp – "Agudath Israel" and "Mizrachi" – which has turned it into two systems that hate each other, and each of which does not care about the way they fight, and the burning controversy has already taken over every Jewish home, and none of us knows where we will be led in this state – let go! We must find a middle ground where we can all go hand in hand to work, despite all the differences and contradictions among us, and then God will show us the spirit from above that can lead us to the unity of our people.
Rabbi Cukierkorn, "Hamizrachi," 1922, from Sefer Plonsk Vehasviva, p. 246
Rabbi Zuckerkorn served as rabbi of many communities in Poland. Jewish communities in Western Europe and the United States offered him Rabbinic positions but he refused to leave his mother and stayed in Poland. He was imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto with his friend, Rabbi Bornstein, and died during the Holocaust.
The Great Synagogue in Plonsk
The Great Synagogue in Plonsk, on "Synagogue Street," was built at the end of the 18th century. The artist Shmuel Goldbaum took seven years to carve its ark. Next to the synagogue were three batei midrash, the oldest of which was built in the style of Spanish synagogues before the expulsion from Spain; it was built partially underground, so that its height would not attract too much attention. The newest one was used by the city's wealthy residents, traders and intellectuals. The Great Synagogue was desecrated during the German occupation.
The Hassidim prayed in their shtiebels. The rest of Jews worshipped at the Great Synagogue, as well as at the three adjacent batei midrash. The Plonsk Synagogue was renowned for its wonderful and beautifully decorated Holy Ark, considered one of the most exquisite in Poland. The Plonsk artist Joseph Budko painted the Ark, and a copy of the drawing is preserved in the sheds at Sde Boker. Opposite the synagogue, to the north, stood the "Old" Beit Midrash, where most of the city's craftsmen and poor went to pray. Behind the synagogue, to the east, was the "Lower" Beit Midrash, where the lower middle class worshipped. To the east, the "New" Beit Midrash was built in the 1880s by the wealthy, childless Yitzhak Cohen, where maskilim and the Zionist leaders of the city prayed. My father also prayed there, and in my childhood – I did too.David Ben-Gurion
Great Synagogue Street in Plonsk
The street was narrow. The houses, too, on each side were not large, one or two stories only, attached to each other. The courtyards were small as well, and the alleyways adjoining the street even narrower, the houses, lower than one storey, with tiny windows.
Here, on this street and these alleyways, lived hundreds of families of workers and day laborers, chicken vendors and market stall owners, butchers and fruit vendors, peddlers and wagon-drivers, as well as "klei kodesh" (religious officiants) in terrible overcrowding. And at the center of their lives – the synagogue and batei midrash, the community center and its institutions. Here were several cheders, the "Chinuch Yeladim" School, the yeshiva, and the local beit din (religious law court).Shmuel Meiri, Plonsk: Kehillat Yisrael Begola, pp. 14-15