The Story of Mordechai Gefen
Translated by Jerrold Landau
The Ratno natives in Israel regard me as the first of the olim from Ratno. I will not contradict this, for it is a great honor for me, and I have a great privilege in being Nachshon the son of Aminadav with respect to aliya to the Land. Nevertheless, from a true historical perspective, I am unsure if this privilege is valid for me. We must not forget that four years before I made aliya, a Jew from Ratno named Yaakov Srochok made aliya to the Land of Israel. He was a tailor. He spent a brief time in Tel Aviv and then returned to the Diaspora. Yaakov Tuker, who fell along with Trumpeldor and his comrades in the defense of Tel Hai, was a Ratno native who certainly earned the rights of being the Nachshon. We cannot forget my friend Moshe Stern who made aliya to the Land of Israel at that time.
On the other hand, I am also prepared to accept the title that the natives of Ratno bestow upon me, for I did not first make aliya to Israel in 1929, the year that I made aliya in reality, but actually much before that. When I was a five-year-old child, I already thought of the Land of Israel as my future home. I absorbed my longing and desire for the homeland from my teachers in the cheders and certainly later from my teachers in the Tarbut School. I recall how my father was moved with emotion at the news of the Balfour Declaration, which he saw as the beginning of the redemption. The words that he said when he read in the newspaper that the Jew Herbert Samuel was appointed as the High Commissioner of the Land of Israel, as a King in Judah, still echo in my ears: If I was now a twenty-year-old, I would not hesitate for one moment to make aliya to the Land of Israel! There is no doubt that he was the first to impart Zionism to me, despite the fact that he himself was not an official Zionist, but rather one of the worshippers of the Trisk Shtibel, who believed in G-d and trusted his Rebbe.
The second factor that influenced me and hastened my aliya was the Jewish reality in our town. I would say with the words of Bialik, My father is the bitter exile, and my mother is dark poverty. I saw with my own eyes how the Jews became disparaged and downtrodden. I saw the hooligans of Petliura and still recall the pogroms of Bulak Balachowicz and his gang of murderers. Although only a few Jews were murdered in Ratno itself, we knew that about 100 Jews were murdered in nearby Kamin Kashirsk. Even after the rise of the new Polish republic, I saw how the fine declarations of national equality were carried out in actuality. I saw what Grabowski and other ministers of the reborn Poland did to the Jews. They literally squeezed them to the bone. I had closer contact with the realities and lot of Polish Jewry after the death of my father in 1925, when I assisted my mother
in the store and became familiar with business in a Jewish town, the competition for every Ukrainian customer, the weak foundations of Jewish economy, etc. I recall that, shortly before my father died, a fire broke out in the home of Avraham Ides in Ratno. The house went up in flames after all of the family members were murdered by the Polish commandant who did not want his act of pillage to become widely known. They spoke a great deal about this at home, and when I dared to ask father, Why are we quiet?, he responded tersely, We are in exile, my son. Perhaps you will understand the reason for our quiet and restraint when you grow up
I was 16 years old when I joined the ranks of Hechalutz. I would declare and announce at every opportunity that I see no reason and no permanence in Diaspora life, and I firmly decided to make aliya to the Land of Israel. Many difficulties came my way after the death of my father. My mother was widowed, and three orphans remained at home: my two sisters, and I, who was the eldest. I had to take the place of my father and assist in the livelihood of our family by maintaining a metal material and locksmith supplies store. However, as I have said, I was unable to come to terms with the reality and the detachment of the Jewish town. At the first opportunity, and this was
at the beginning of 1929, I arose and went out to hachshara in Klesowa, which was at that time a beacon to the entire chalutz movement.
I had only been on hachshara for six months when I received a permit for aliya. Many were forced to wait for a year, two years, or more to receive the awaited permit. Apparently, I had passed through the proletariatization process in Klesowa in a satisfactory manner; I had become accustomed to work with detonators, rock exploding, and the like. Aside from all this, I had apparently found favor in the eyes of Maharshak, who, as is known, was the living spirit and moving force in Klesowa. The fact was that I was authorized for aliya after only six months of hachshara. When I returned home for my final preparations for aliya, I endured such pressure that I was only able to withstand it through a miracle. Nobody believed that I would indeed make aliya, especially in that tidings of Job came from the Land one after another. I recall that when I was in Brisk after hachshara, I met two people who knew my family - Gutman and Naftali Gloz - and I told them that I was about to travel to the land of Israel. Gloz raised his finger over his head in a gesture that the lad - that is me - has taken leave of his senses It was specifically my grandfather who placed the greatest pressure upon me. Grandfather constantly complained in my ears, Upon whom will your mother and sisters rely? You are the oldest, where is your responsibility? When he realized that his words bore no fruit, he tried another method, You want to go, go. Within two months I can get you an immigration permit to Canada or Denver, Colorado where we already have relatives. You will go, and the entire family will follow. When he realized that my motivation for aliya was much stronger than his practical reasons, he began to use an entirely different method against me, by trying to prevent my aliya by reporting to the authorities that I was avoiding Polish Army service That is the extent to which things went.
Without any feelings of misery, I can dare to say, that if I look back now with a retrospective glance, with all the obstacles, difficulties and pressure that I withstood, I am full of respect for that 18-year-old lad Mottel Weinstock, as I was called then, who succeeded in overcoming all the difficulties and actualizing his aspiration.
On sleepless nights when doubts and worries overcame me, when the admonitions of my grandfather regarding my rebellion and stubbornness with respect to aliya echoed in my ears, when I saw the tears of my mother and the faces of my sisters - I found support and comfort in the memory of my late father. He was the one who fortified me for the difficult struggle. I comforted myself that my father would certainly have wanted for me to make aliya to the Land of Israel. He understood the spirit of the new generation. He, the Hassid of Trisk, was a progressive man. He always claimed to those who opposed his efforts to set up a Hebrew School, The world is advancing, and we must advance along with it. He was a Zionist in his heart and soul, and I, his only son, was actualizing the theory of his Zionism.
I will not even attempt to describe what went on at home when I received
the certificate, and the day of parting came. There was an atmosphere of Tisha Be'Av, and I can still hear the weeping of Mother even now, as I write these lines. Who could have realized then that on account of my stubbornness, through my aliya to the Land of Israel, I would succeed in saving Mother and my sisters from the bitter fate that was awaiting them?
In October 1929, when I arrived in the Land on deck of the ship that transported many chalutzim such as I, the Yishuv, as the Jewish population of the Land of Israel was known then, was suffering from the after effects of the disturbances of the summer of 5689 (1929). The restrictions of aliya were in full force, and, above all, the kibbutzim required additional manpower. I set out directly for Kibbutz Givat Hashelosha, as I had already decided when I was in Klesowa. I did not have many difficulties in absorption. My hachshara in Klesowa was not in vain, and it contributed greatly to my rapid acclimatization. I thought that that they would give me work in building (something which apparently enchanted me from the time that I was a volunteer firefighter in Ratno, when I excelled at climbing over roofs and unstable objects). However, instead, I was assigned by the work office to work at hoeing and porting in the orchards. This was not easy work, and, after a short time I was the only one of my four friends in the kibbutz who remained in this job. I was not a tradesmen and this led them to peg me as a hired worker in the orchard.
I did not find satisfaction in this work. My heart carried me to greater things than these. I derived no satisfaction from continuing on a path forged by others. I wanted to be among the path forgers. After a brief period as a hired worker outside the bounds of the kibbutz, I found the opportunity to actualize this ideal of mine, when I was among the forces behind the founding of Kfar Sirkin. This was not an easy task. I dedicated myself to the establishment of this village and my kibbutz with my entire being. It can be said that I attained what I attained with my ten fingers, and of course with the assistance of my wife and family members. We did not receive grants or subsidies, but the village that sprouted up splendidly is a living testimony to
the great pioneering efforts that the first settlers imbued in it.
I have been living in this town for approximately 50 years, and even now, close to 80, I still work the land despite the various restrictions imposed by old age. I had thought that my children would continue in my path, but they did not want to do so, and fate did not have it such. Other paths and other lands enchanted them more, but I have remained a lover of this land. When I survey my path and my achievements here - I have nothing to be ashamed of, Heaven forbid. I do not look backward in anger.
Bottom: Pnina and Moshe Droog, Mordechai Gefen
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