Ben Buchenbacher, an artist who specializes in documenting and researching wall paint, couldn’t believe his eyes. Actually, his nose. Earlier this month, as he peeled off the layers of paint from the walls of Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, a pungent odor filled the room.
“It was unmistakable – cigarettes!” he said this week, his excitement palpable. “It’s like the smell that would greet people at bars back in the days when we all smoked.”
What were cigarettes doing at David Ben-Gurion's old abode? Archival research revealed that the Old Man had been a smoker at least until 1940, eight years before Israel’s establishment. But could the cigarette odor have been preserved in the walls for 80 years, like a time capsule? It turns out, yes.
“There’s no smoke without a cigarette,” Alice Dias says with a smile – she’s a conservation expert whose company is doing the work at the site, a museum after Ben-Gurion's death in 1973. “We use all our senses to discover as many details as possible about the objects we conserve. I put my nose close and sniff the object.”
From her rich experience she knows that an odor can linger for hundreds of years, as she has sniffed in 16th-century holy arks that she has conserved.
Ben-Gurion House, which was built in 1931 on the boulevard that would be named after the first prime minister, has been renovated several times since. In the past year, it has been undergoing extensive conservation work under its new management, headed by Nelly Markman.
“We’re discovering a great many interesting things,” says Markman, who then gives the floor to Aurora Lattarulo, who’s in charge of conservation work at the house.
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“We have to preserve its appearance, both physically and in terms of the content,” she notes. “We want to understand what color the walls were in the period the Ben-Gurions lived there.”
In addition to the walls’ colors, a range of items – carpets, curtains, sofas, vases, china and of course the thousands of books – will also undergo conservation.
What about the cigarettes? Buchenbacher emphasizes that, beyond a good story for the grandchildren, this is a finding of historical and documentary importance.
“What does it actually give me? Thanks to the odor of the smoke I’ll be able to date the layers of paint and get an idea of the house’s appearance over the years,” he says.
He explains that if Ben-Gurion really did quit smoking in 1940, it’s possible to date the layer of paint from which the cigarette odor emanated, and also date the layers above and below.
The Israeli press took note of the prime minister’s smoking habits. The newspaper Davar, reporting in 1966 about Ben-Gurion’s “shortcomings,” wrote: “Amassing books is, it seems to me, his only overt vice. He doesn’t smoke (after a promise to his son Amos in 1940 that if Amos didn’t smoke, he would also quit), doesn’t drink, doesn’t play cards, and as for women – to me, anyway, they don’t count among the vices.”
In a 1975 interview with the Maariv daily, former Justice Minister Dov Yosef said: “Ben-Gurion decided from the outset that for the sake of the government’s dignity, smoking would be barred at [cabinet] meetings. Two ministers who couldn’t control themselves – Zalman Aran and Golda Meir – would stand in an adjacent room, with the door of the cabinet’s conference room open, and smoke.”
The historian Yossi Goldstein, author of a recent Hebrew-language biography of Ben-Gurion, confirms the story about how the Old Lion and his son kicked the habit.
“Indeed, the two of them quit smoking together to avoid Paula’s punishment,” Goldstein says, referring to Ben-Gurion’s wife and Amos’ mother.
As to how much Ben-Gurion smoked, Goldstein says, “He smoked, but meagerly. Mostly he scrounged from people around him. Paula was really on his case about it, and later so was Renana, his daughter. She also accused him of poisoning Amos, who was Ben-Gurion’s chief supplier, along with Shimon Peres.”
But Goldstein is cautious regarding the source of the odor from the wall. “The odors in the house, I think, are more from Paula’s kitchen,” he says.