“A daughter has been born to us, a new instance of life, culture in the heart of desolation” – these words marked the big day for the community of Miztpeh HaYam towards the end of December 1943, the day they struck root in the lands of their kibbutz. Their settlement would soon receive a new name: Yad Mordechai, after Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis.
They had started out as two separate settlement groups in training in Poland in the early 1930s. Upon arriving in the Land of Israel, they settled a tiny plot of land on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea near the city of Netanya. This site gave the group its first name, “Mitzpeh HaYam” literally meaning “overlooking the sea” or “sea observation point.”
But now that they had finally received the lands for their permanent home, far to the south – a great hope could be felt among the smiles and handshakes – the hope that here, now, the exhausting journey was at an end. They were home.
Did any of them fear for the future? Could they envision what they were about to build, what they were risking, what they were about to lose?
Here’s what a kibbutz member back then wrote about those early years, in a document preserved in the Yad Mordechai Archive for future generations:
“We were raised on the great pioneering, volunteering movement, envisioning the rebuilding of Israel and the liberation of the working man. As those faithful to this vision and its realization, we founded our settlement at the end of 1943, which grew and flourished within a few years within a sea of hatred from the Arab villages around [us]. We knew that the question of security would be one of the most serious for us, for we sat on the main highway – the main road between Jaffa, Gaza, and Egypt.”
(Yitzhak Waldman, Yad Mordechai, 1950)
But neither the weighty question of security nor the unceasing harassment of nearby Arabs prevented them from establishing a model settlement and community. In the first few years, significant efforts were made to ensure good, neighborly relations with nearby Arab villages.
A “mukhtar” or local village leader was appointed for the kibbutz, who was tasked among other things with maintaining official ties with the surrounding villages. The kibbutz doctor provided medical care to neighboring Arabs. The small local school taught mandatory Arabic classes.
Upon hearing the news of the approval of the UN Partition Plan, the kibbutz members understood their fears were realized – Yad Mordechai would be included in the Arab state, not the Jewish one. The security situation deteriorated. The kibbutz, entirely surrounded by Arab settlements, was effectively cut off from the main Jewish settlement concentrations. The only way to reach it or leave it was with armed convoys organized by the Negev Brigade of the Palmach.
In early April 1948, when it was clear to everyone that there was tough fighting ahead no matter what, the kibbutz members sought to evacuate the children. Negev Brigade command opposed this move, arguing that an early evacuation would unnecessarily burden the civilian home front and harm troop morale.
So, the children remained in the kibbutz, where they were exposed to Egyptian bombardments and where they made friends with the young Palmach fighters who came to reinforce local defenses, under the command of Gershon Dubenboim.
It was only in mid-May, after Israeli independence had been declared and after intelligence came in of an imminent, large-scale attack by the Egyptian Army, that a decision was taken to carry out the evacuation.
During the night between the 18th and 19th of May, the children were pulled from their beds, wrapped in blankets, and led via trenches to the eucalyptus grove that served as an assembly area for the evacuees. There, “Butterfly” armored cars were waiting to take them to safety.
The parents who weren’t on guard duty at their defensive positions accompanied their children and tried to put on a happy face and fill them with courage. But the hugs that were a little too strong and the tears of the fathers told the real story of how they felt. They didn’t know if they’d ever see their kids again.
Most of the mothers remained on the kibbutz. The women were an inseparable part of the defensive plan, and the decision of the members was to stay and fight as families, knowing that this could mean their children could lose both their parents. Among those who stayed behind was a pregnant woman who was responsible for the young calves in the dairy. She would survive and later gave birth to a healthy baby.
The trip away from the kibbutz was long, exhausting, and mostly – cramped. Children were packed into armored vehicles which drove at a nerve-rackingly slow pace along dirt roads, and which tried as much as possible to avoid Arab villages and stay off the easily targeted main road.
In the morning, when they reached Kibbutz Gvar’am, a siren went off. This was the siren announcing the beginning of the Egyptian attack on Yad Mordechai. Had the departure been delayed for even a few hours, it would not have been possible to leave the kibbutz.
From Gvar’am, they headed to Kibbutz Ruhama, and then split up. Some remained in Ruhama for a day or two and others continued north to Kibbutz Gan Shmuel near Haifa. A few days passed until everyone was united, temporarily, in the original settlement site of the group that founded Yad Mordechai – Mitzpeh HaYam, on the coast near Netanya.
They were later joined by the remaining adults after the kibbutz fell to the Egyptians. 26 soldiers were killed in the battle for Yad Mordechai and around 40 wounded. The soldiers left when they realized that reinforcements were not coming. They announced their decision to retreat despite being told by brigade command and the state leadership not to do so without approval. The ammunition was running out, the wounded were in bad shape, and they knew that they would not be able to repel another attack, no matter how willing they were to die for the cause.
The wounded were extracted in armored vehicles loaned to them by the Palmach platoon led by Gershon Dubenboim – who had also overseen the evacuation of the children. As for the rest, anyone who could stand up and walk did so, taking the trek along long dirt roads strewn with mines and crawling with enemy fighters.
Exhausted and mournful, they arrived at Mitzpeh HaYam to see their children. But not all of the children were able to reunite with their parents. “Know that anyone who doesn’t get off the bus, anyone who hasn’t made it, is a hero,” the care workers told the children while trying to hold back tears.
“The children didn’t understand that the father who fell would not return. ‘When will daddy’s wound heal?’ ‘What does that mean he fell?’ ‘What does that mean he’s gone?’ ‘He has to come because he’s a hero.’ We heard from the young ones many things like this. Their little brains did not internalize the fact of death and loss.”
(Yitzhak Waldman, 1950)
After this, the members of Yad Mordechai went into exile, which lasted a long time.
First, they split up the children: the older kids went to Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, while the babies and the mothers resided in Kibbutz Ma’abarot.
The people at Gan Shmuel tried to get the children back on something resembling a routine. A school was established, and a new teacher was assigned instead of the previous one who was wounded in battle. They quickly grew to love their new teacher, but the Gan Shmuel children didn’t always welcome the newcomers and often picked on them.
School. Playground scuffles between children. A wartime routine.
Later, they all moved to the Ali Kassem farm, where they began rebuilding the agricultural facilities and maintained a new kibbutz routine.
Kibbutz Yad Mordechai was liberated during Operation Yoav. The soldiers of the Givati Brigade’s 55th Battalion entered the kibbutz on November 5 after the withdrawal of the Egyptian Army.
Upon hearing of the liberation, the kibbutz members set out. They had to see what was left of their beloved home. Most of them made the last leg of the journey on foot.
But the sight of their ruined homes and destroyed farms shocked them. They made a decision – they wouldn’t bring the children back to this. They would rebuild the farms, and only then, once the place again began to resemble a happy home, would they bring back the women and the children.
In a shared effort, not just physical but also emotional, they rebuilt the kibbutz, making it even more beautiful than it was before.
The children returned – to houses with new red roofs, accommodating almost everyone from before the war, except for the fallen, who were buried on the northern hill.
75 years later, everything turned upside down once again. The events of October 7, even if they didn’t physically harm the kibbutz members, shocked them to the very core of their soul. Every one of them has friends, relatives and loved ones from neighboring communities who will never come home again. The kibbutz members are clearly feeling the aftershocks of that great upheaval, and the future of the kibbutz is once again filled with questions waiting for answers.
Pictures appearing in this article are kept at the Kibbutz Yad Mordechai Archive and are made available thanks to the collaboration between the archive, the Ministry of Heritage and the National Library of Israel
This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”