From Holocaust to Revival: How Kibbutz Yad Mordechai has Become a Symbol of Resilience and Continuity

October 7 was a painful echo of the kibbutz’s past battles for survival. Historically preserved trenches from 1948 were reused while a Hamas terror rocket destroyed a replica of a Warsaw Ghetto bunker – an ironic yet tragic reminder of the Jewish People’s millennia-old fight against hate.


By Tania Shalom Michaelian


If the events of October 7 taught us one thing, it’s that the “Black Sabbath” was far from an isolated incident. Instead, they underscore the fact that the massacre was part of a long chain of events that began long before the modern State of Israel. One place in Israel where this realization is so painfully highlighted is Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in Southern Israel, which lies a mere 2 miles (3.2 kms) from the Gaza Strip. October 7 was a painful echo of the kibbutz’s past battle for survival, and many of its leading figures from 1948 still play a key role overcoming the challenges at hand.


Founded in the 1930s by the secular Jewish Zionist youth moment, HaShomer Hatzair in Poland, the core commune of Yad Mordechai first settled in Mitzpe Yam near Netanya. However, it soon became clear that the 150,000 square feet allocated to them was insufficient for their needs. As part of the Yishuv’s policy to settle the Negev, the kibbutz was moved to its current location in 1943. It was named after the individual who symbolized the ultimate in bravery and resistance in modern-day Jewish history – Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization in the Warwas Ghetto uprising.


Jews Still Under Attack 80 Years Later

One of the most poignant photographs coming out of the war is the damage caused to the “Yad Mordechai: From Holocaust to Revival Museum” by a Hamas terror rocket. The projectile caused a gaping hole in the ceiling, ripping through the exhibit replicating the bunker used by Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw ghetto. It’s hard to ignore the irony of this incident, serving as a reminder that 80 years later, Jews are still under attack.


But it’s not just the museum, which falls under the umbrella of Jewish National Fund-USA affiliate the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites (SPIHS), that is there to remind us of our history. Yad Mordechai, as a kibbutz and community, demonstrates that history continues to repeat itself and that people, landmarks, and events that played a part in its story before independence are linked to the events of October 7.


Yael Shtauber, managing director of the Yad Mordechai Museum, recalls that on that horrific day in October, motorbikes and pick-up trucks carrying Hamas terrorists attempted to enter the kibbutz twice. It was only because of the presence of several border patrol soldiers on the kibbutz and the quick action of the first response security team that these attempts were thwarted.


“It was by a sheer miracle that our kibbutz didn’t meet the same fate as our friends in other kibbutzim such as Nir Oz,” said Shtauber, chillingly.


Hamas rocket damage to the Warsaw Ghetto bunker (Courtesy Yad Mordechai Museum)


On October 7, the kibbutz was immediately evacuated and it was only a week later that a member of the security team discovered that a rocket had hit the museum, causing extensive damage to the water pipes and a replica of Mordechai Anielewicz’s bunker.


“Anielewicz’s bunker in the ghetto is the embodiment of civilian resistance. You can’t get more symbolic than that,” says Shtauber. “It’s like literally shooting us in the heart. It is heartbreaking.”


The Battle for Yad Mordechai: Then and Now

After the declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, an advancing Egyptian force reached the kibbutz’s doorstep and planned a massive attack against the settlement of just 200 people.  On the night between of May 18, it was decided to evacuate around 100 children, their carers, and nursing mothers. The remaining members, 20 women among them, remained behind to fight, supported by two squads from the Palmach (an elite unit of pre-state Israel’s army).


For several days, kibbutz members managed to repel their attackers despite constant shelling, but on May 23, the Israelis withdrew from the kibbutz, and the following day, it was occupied by the enemy. Only six months later, the IDF retook Yad Mordechai, and its members could return home.


While kibbutz members could not keep the enemy attackers at bay during the War of Independence, they still shared the same fighting spirit and determination to protect their home with their very lives, as echoed by members of the security teams on October 7, 2023.


“In fact,” reveals Shtauber, “some of the members of the Yad Mordechai first response team that thwarted the Hamas are grandchildren of those who fought in the War of Independence, and even those who were killed protecting the kibbutz.”


IDF soldiers reuse trenches from 1948 (Courtesy Yad Mordechai Museum)



Stories told by the original kibbutz members reveal that even when they knew they were outnumbered and had little chance of keeping the Egyptians at bay, they continued to be inspired by Mordechai Anielewicz and his spirit of resistance against the Nazis.


Even more substantial evidence of the connection between 1948 and today’s events can be seen in the trenches dug by the original kibbutz members to hide in and protect themselves from the advancing enemy. Several years ago, the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites undertook a preservation project on these trenches to provide visitors with tangible displays of the Battle of Yad Mordechai. Remarkably, these same trenches are now being used by the security forces protecting the kibbutz due to their strategic positions.


Twice Evacuated from Yad Mordechai

Vered Bar-Semech was just three years old when she was evacuated with her older brother and 90 other children from Yad Mordechai in 1943. She has few memories of the night they were slipped out of the kibbutz and driven in convoy through the dark fields to take refuge on Kibbutz Ruhama, guarded carefully by young men and women from the Palmach.


Both her parents – founding members of the kibbutz who came from Poland - stayed behind to fight, and she remembers crying a lot through the ordeal. By the time the adults joined their children, there were 19 new orphans.


Eighty years later, Vered Bar-Semech was once again forced to evacuate the kibbutz. She is staying with her community in a hotel in Hadera, just one of an estimated 200,000 Israelis who are refugees in their own land.


She is conflicted about her status as an evacuee for the second time in her lifetime. On the one hand, she longs to go back to the kibbutz, but pressure from her adult children who live out the kibbutz and fear of Hamas keep her in the hotel for now.


Shlomit families enjoy a meal



“I’m not a particularly scared person,” she says. “We’ve lived under rocket attacks for years. If it were just rockets, I’d be home already. But the fear of being massacred by Hamas is great. We saw what they were capable of. We need to be sure we’re returning to a secure home.”


Rebuilding Southern Israel

Determined to meet the immediate and future needs of the southern Israeli communities that it has worked with for decades, Jewish National Fund-USA launched its “Israel Resilience Campaign” in the hours after the October 7 tragedy. Since then, the Campaign has created a strategically focused “Build Together” plan, a strategic initiative to rebuild communities in the Israel Envelope. Powered by American philanthropists, the plan includes honoring the memory of those lost and giving hope for the survivors when they return home by creating a secure, beautiful haven that all residents will want to return to, thus helping to increase the population in this critical region.


From Holocaust to Revival

Schtauber doesn’t know when visitors will return. But there is also no doubt in anyone’s mind that the kibbutz, and the museum, will be rebuilt as soon as possible.


“We will rehabilitate the museum,” promises Shtauber. “The museum is Holocaust and Revival. Up until now, we’ve spoken about ‘revival’ in terms of 1948, but now we’ll also speak about the revival of the Western Negev. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go, but we will eventually get there. We’ll be partners in the rebuilding of the Negev and the country.”

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