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[Page 152]

Impressions from a Visit to Ratno in 1937

by Mordechai Gefen

Translated by Jerrold Landau

It was the time of the British Mandate in the land of Israel. The aliya restrictions imposed by the Mandatory Government were at their height, and the national institutions in the land attempted all types of means and tactics to circumvent the decrees and bring Jews to the Land. One tactic was arranging fictitious weddings between citizens of Palestine and girls from the Diaspora. In brief, we referred to these as “fictions.” I was also obligated to fulfill the commandment of a “fiction.” I received money for the trip and was supposed to bring a girl from Maciejów after I would “get married” to her. This was a golden opportunity to visit my family and the town that I had left in 1929. I do not feel obliged to describe my feelings about this upcoming trip, especially as I approached Ratno.

When I arrived in Kowel, I met two girls from Ratno who were studying in Kowel. I asked them to inform people in Ratno about my arrival, for I knew that the entire town, that is -- the Jews of the town, would come to meet me at the bus station. I deliberately got off next to Marsyk's house and walked to my home in a roundabout fashion. However, Shachna, the owner of the bus upon which I was traveling, did not keep a secret, and told people that I had got off the bus near Marsyk's house. This caused crowds of Jews to congregate at the house. I was not able to have time alone with my sister and family, for many Jews streamed to the house. The joy and emotions overflowed. The meetings in various houses, in the chapters of “Hechalutz” and “Hashomer Hatzair” and the many parties in my honor began the next day. I did not tire of speaking, and they did not tire of listening. They wanted to know everything that happened to me in the Land, with details and minutiae. I had the feeling of being on a mission. I was one of the pioneers who had traveled to the Land of Israel from Ratno. I was bound to the townsfolk with thousands of strands, and I felt like an emissary. What did I not tell them about? I did not hide any thing, even small matters. I told about my first three years in Givat Hashelosha, about my work in the Dead Sea Brigade, and about our valuable work on the Kalia-Jericho Road, about our hikes from Givat Hashelosha to Kfar Giladi, about my visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, about the notes that I removed with great curiosity from the walls of the Western Wall to find out what Jews were requesting from the Creator of the World, about my work in digging wells, about the building of a new settlement -- Kfar Sirkin, about my roles in defending the settlement during the disturbances of 1936, about my work with defective buildings, etc., etc. I saw that my listeners were drinking up my words with thirst. I saw tears in the eyes of some of them, and if my memory does not mislead me, my eyes were also not dry as I was telling and telling. I remember that many people

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asked to see my hands -- the hands of an Israeli worker -- to see if there were any calluses on them or perhaps just to see what the hands of a worker in the Land look like. Even the Ukrainian residents of Ratno who remembered me well did not take their eyes off of me. They looked with awe upon the grandson of the merchant Liber Kirsch who had become a farmer in the Holy Land. I told them as well about my work in the orchards, about my various attempts at agriculture, and about the differences between the work from here and there. They would wink their eyes and express astonishment. (Who could imagine that within a few years, many of them would become involved in the murder of Jews?)


Chanuka party with the participation of a guest from the Land of Israel -- M. Gefen. 1936

My visit to the home of David-Aharon Shapiro is etched in my mind. As is appropriate for an honorable guest such as myself, refreshments were offered, and, among other things, oranges were served. They was not, Heaven forbid, whole oranges, but rather orange slices. Only a wealthy Jew such as Shapiro would have allowed himself to purchase oranges. When the orange slices were served, I took the opportunity to tell them how we grow oranges in the Land, and how we eat oranges (entire ones, not slices). Among other things I told them that I worked as a harvester in an orchard during my first years in the Land, and my job was to transport the fruit on a plank that contained four crates of freshly harvested fruit. Along the way to the packing plant, my friend who was my partner with the plank and I would take oranges from the crates, cut them into four pieces with a pocketknife, squeeze the juice directly into our mouths, and bury the peel in the ground. Once, the orchard keeper noticed that we were delayed in arriving at the packing plant. He came out to meet us and caught us in the act of burying the peel of the fruit that we ate. He shouted in Hebrew, “Gefen, don't bury the peels. This wastes time. Leave them as is.” I told them that after this event, we continued

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to squeeze the juice directly into our mouths, but we did not bury the peel because it would be a waste of time... Everyone laughed at this story.

Despite the fact that my task for this visit was the “fiction,” that is, to marry the girl from Maciejów, I felt the need to explain to the youth and adults, anywhere that I found myself, what was taking place in the Land, what was the purpose of the struggle that we were undertaking, what was the character of the youth who grew up in the Land. In one word: I saw myself as an official emissary for all matters.

The three months that I remained in Ratno were like a “seminar” for me. I learned about the realities and conditions of the Jews in Poland, as was revealed to me. The economic situation had declined since the time I left Poland due to the taxes of Grabski that sucked the marrow from the bones of the Jews, decrees and oppressions that renewed themselves each morning, and worst of all -- the lack of prospects of a better life in the future. The pioneering movement was also in the straits. The lack of certificates lead to a situation where many youths had already gone on hachsharah or were still on hachsharah kibbutzim, but had given up hope completely and did not believe in the possibility of aliya to the Land. It was therefore natural that many of them immigrated to America, Canada, Argentina, and other countries with the help of their relatives who had previously immigrated to those countries. For all the time that I was there, I had the thought that it was all sitting on nothing, that there was no foundation or purpose for Jewish life there, and who knew what would happen there. I was particularly troubled about the youths who were fluent in the Hebrew Language, had received a Zionist education at the Tarbut School or through the youth groups, and who now found themselves in a downtrodden and oppressive situation without any possibility at all of actualizing their hopes and dreams.

In the eyes of my spirit, I can see my farewell to the Jews of Ratno. Their eyes said everything, as if they were pleading with me to take them to the Land. How different was this departure from my departure when I made aliya in 1929. At that time, many of them expressed their surprise at such a radical step: to travel to the Land during the time of pogroms (the disturbances of Av 5689 / 1929). It appeared as if they were nodding their heads in astonishment regarding Mottel Weinstock[1], who was leaving a family and a stable economic situation to endanger himself with this journey.

At this time -- tears flowed from the eyes of many; but those were tears of jealousy because I had merited what I had merited.

I could not have realized that this would be the final farewell.

Translator's Footnote

  1. Mordechai Gefen is the Hebraised version of Mottel Weinstock. Return

[Page 155]

The Mission

by Zeev Grabov

Translated by Jerrold Landau

(A story based on experiences from the time of the First World War)

Mother said, “Father is going to the war.”

“And where is this war?” I asked mother, “And when will he return? So many days have passed, and father has not yet returned. The High Holidays are approaching, I want Father.”

Tears flowed from Mother's eyes. She felt sorry for me. “Don't cry, Mother,” I pleaded with her. Mother caressed the hair of my head, and gave me a peace of bread smeared with oil.

Every Friday, I went with my two younger brothers to the bathhouse. My brothers did not even know that Father had gone to war. Even Yosele the orphan was going to the bathhouse himself, without his father. “Yosele's father had died,” said all the children. All summer, his father had coughed and expectorated, with green phlegm. They brought him on a wagon to Kowel, and many Jews accompanied him. He did not return, for he died. Yosele was left as an orphan. He recited Kaddish, and he went to the bathhouse himself.

Every morning, we heard the sound of the shofar. The month of Elul had arrived. The water in the river was cooling off, and it was impossible to bathe. Everyone was preparing to greet the Day of Judgment. My father was going to return before the holiday. I would stand beside him in the synagogue and pray from the large Machzor[1]. After the services, we would go home. Father would recite Kiddush over wine, and give everyone a taste of the sweet, red wine. The house would be happy and pleasant.

I waited for Father to return, but he did not return. One day, I returned home, and saw many people in the house. Mother was sitting a low stool, with a light cloth around her head. Her eyes were red from weeping. What had happened? Perhaps father had already returned from the war? No, this is not how one greets a returning father. I fell at Mother's feet and asked, “Mother, where is Father?” Mother said, “My orphan, Father will never be returning.” This was the first time that I had heard the word “orphan.” After that, I heard the word many times. Now it was clear to me: I was an orphan. I was not a lad like the other lads, but an orphan who must bear the yoke of the house, and assist with the livelihood of the household: three brothers, my mother, and I, the eldest.

It was winter. The marshes were frozen, and a thin, white frost covered the windows. The days became very short, and we went to bed early, for we had to conserve the kerosene in the lamp. At times, we went to sleep hungry. The cries and pleas of Mother reached my ears: “Oh, Dweller on high, please help a widow and four orphans!” My heart ached. I wanted to cry; I

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closed my eyes and saw Father. -- -- --

Neighbors came to help out Mother. Acquaintances even came from the nearby village of Wydranica to advice Mother to move to the village until the wrath of the accursed war would pass. They said that in the village, the orphans would have what to eat, they would not freeze from the cold, and they would even have a teacher.

One morning, we got up, loaded our baggage on a wagon hitched to a gaunt horse, and set out for the village of Wydranica. In the evening, we arrived at a small house whose roof was covered with straw that had darkened with age. Gittel (we called her the Good Gittel) stood in the doorway. She took some sweets out of her apron and treated us: “Eat children, so you will be healthy.”

Good Gittel hugged and kissed Mother. They both wept. Gittel helped Mother take off our clothes. The aroma of boiled potatoes reached our nose. A grey, earthenware plate of potatoes stood on the table. There was also cheese, and a great deal of bread.

Things got easier for us. We had some space in the house. The days passed very quickly, for we were not hungry. A year passed. During our second winter in the village, difficult days came once again. We again tasted the taste of hunger. The war was dragging on. It was hard to obtain bread. My two younger brothers and my sister cried when they were hungry. I tried not to cry. From time to time, Good Gittel came to our house and took out a piece of bread or some potatoes from her apron. The Good G-d should repay Gittel for the goodness of hear heart.

One day, Gittel came with news: “Tomorrow, they will be distributing grain kernels in Ratno. Perhaps Velvele[2] will get up early and go to Ratno?” Velvele was I - the eldest. Mother asked, “Will you go, Velvele?” I answered, “Yes mother, I will go.”

I set out on the journey at dawn. The sky was still full of stars, which for some reason looked to me like the eyes of the dogs of the shkotzim[3]. They were threatening. I held the fringes of my Tallis Katan[4] as a portent against fear. I went to do a good deed, to bring grain kernels to my widowed mother and all the orphans. G-d will help me. I passed through the grove and went up to the road that led to Ratno.

I stood in line to receive the grain kernels. The cold was literally penetrating the bones. The sun was shining, but the winter sun only warms those who are wearing a good fur and leather boots. A person wearing torn clothes and worn out shoes is not warmed by the winter sun. I learned this from experience, just as I learned that the day drags on and on if you are hungry. That day, I was very hungry. I went out early in the morning, and I had not even tasted a drop of water. I advanced in the line. I found myself standing beside a large pile of grain kernels. The evil inclination incited me to sin. I quickly tied my pants below my waist, and took a handful of kernels and placed them in my torn pant pocket when nobody was looking. The Good G-d should forgive me - I thought to myself, and took another handful and another handful. There will be some bread for Zeldele, for Shabtaile… Mother will not weep.

My turn finally came. A man wearing an official hat and wearing a coat with

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shiny buttons asked me, “Child, how many are you?” I answered, “A mother, four children, and my father did not return from the war.” The man filled up the sack in my hand with kernels. I loaded the sack on my shoulder and began to walk toward home. A good feeling accompanied me throughout the way. A sack filled with kernels that I was bringing to Mother, and there was also an abundance of kernels in my pants tied at the pockets. Mother would certainly be very happy when she sees everything that I have brought. My brothers and sister would also be waiting for me with baited breath. Now they will not starve. We will have bread to satiety.

The strong wind was liable to blow away the sack on my shoulders, but I held it firmly with my right hand, as I held my left hand next to my body to warm up a bit. The wind whistled, and snowflakes blew about. The trees at the side of the road were bare. They too were cold. I continued on with my remaining strength, but I felt my energy depleting. My feet became so heavy, and the sack on my shoulders was so heavy. My eyes closed. Mother was far away. Father was no more. They are waiting there for me and for the kernels. I must arrive. I must. I put a few kernels in my mouth and chewed. I prayed to the Good G-d to help me. Perhaps he was angry about the kernels that I stole? Thoughts of regret afflicted me. I sat down on a cut off stump, only to rest a bit, not to fall asleep. To rest a bit, and then to continue along the way - I must not fall asleep. Mother is waiting -- -- Here she is grinding the kernels that I brought, white flour was piled on the table. Mother kneaded dough, put it in the oven, and white cakes came out of the oven. Father was also there. He returned from the synagogue completely covered in white snow. I suddenly felt pricks in my hands and feet. I opened my eyes with great difficulty. Where am I? Where is Mother? Someone is massaging my hands and feet. Now I recognized an elderly farmer woman standing next to me, as well as the picture of an icon - a picture that I am forbidden to look at, as I learned. I felt for my Arba Kanfot [3] with my frozen hands. Mother! Where is Mother? A sob broke forth from my throat. The farmer woman massaging my frozen hands calmed me, “Don't cry. My husband went to call your mother. He was returning from the forest toward evening with a wagon laden with twigs of wood, and found you frozen and sleeping. We made great efforts to revive you. Thank G-d, you are alive and well, and we even have the kernels.” The good farmer woman offered me warm milk to drink.

Then I realized what had happened to me. I was lying oven in the house of the farmer who saved me. Then the door opened and my mother entered in a huff. She came up to me on the oven, hugged and kissed me, and wet me with her tears. I also cried, and our tears blended. The tears were warm and salty. Then I breathed calmly. I had fulfilled the mission that I had been given. I brought bread to the mouths of my brothers and sister, and the mouth of my widowed mother.

[Page 158]

A gathering of town mayors of the region of Ratno with the participation of the rabbinical judge Shlomo-Tovya Friedlander and the teacher Noach Kotzker


The “Tel Chai” troupe of Hashomer Hatzair with the counselors Golda Droog (standing) and Zeev Grabov (seated)

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Festival prayer book. Return
  2. Velvel (diminutive Velvele) is the Yiddish form of the Hebrew name Zeev. Return
  3. A derogatory term for gentiles. Return
  4. The tallis (fringed garment) worn as an undergarment at all times. Also known as Arba Kanfot. Return


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