Remembering Isaac Ochberg, father of orphans
“He who saves a life, saves a universe,” according to the Talmud, and today there are over 4,000 descendants of the Ochberg Orphans.
Descendants of Issac Ochberg Photo: Daniel Goldfine
2011 was the year when Ukrainian-born Isaac Ochberg, the great South African
philanthropist and Zionist, was brought back from obscurity. Ochberg is best
known for his journey to war-ravaged and disease-ridden Eastern Europe in 1921,
from where he took 187 desperate and despairing orphans and brought them to
“He who saves a life, saves a universe,” according to the
Talmud, and today there are over 4,000 descendants of the Ochberg Orphans living
around the world.
Last July a memorial was established in Israel, near
Kibbutz Dalya, in commemoration of Ochberg’s great effort. When Ochberg passed
away in 1937, his bequest to the JNF was, at the time, the largest ever made by
a single person.
Hundreds of descendants and their families came to
Israel to pay homage at the two-day event.
Now I must declare an
interest. My mother was one of the girls rescued by Isaac Ochberg. She was 11
years old at the time. She never knew what happened to her parents.
year, my daughter Paula and I went to Brest in Belarus, my mother’s birthplace,
after the ceremony in Israel. She was taken, along with two sisters and a
brother, to South Africa.
There we had as our guide, Belarusborn Bella
Velikovskaya, a walking history book of the Jews of Belarus and, indeed, all
Yet strangely, Bella knew nothing about the Ochberg story; in
fact, neither did Regina, the curator of the Brest Jewish Museum. There and then
they determined that the story was part of Brest’s Jewish past and that a
permanent exhibit of it should be created.
First of all, they needed to
create an exhibition in Brest and then take it to other relevant places in
Belarus, such as Minsk and Pinsk.
Now David Sandler comes into the story.
He is a South African living in Perth, Western Australia. Sandler was at
Arcadia, the Jewish orphanage in Johannesburg. He became an accountant and at
some stage emigrated to Perth. There he started a weekly circular newsletter
which he mailed to ex-Arcadians (Old Arcs, the call themselves) living
throughout the world. Old Arcs were encouraged to contribute stories and
experiences to his newsletter.
He received a wonderful
The name “Ochberg” cropped up from time to time and Sandler,
intrigued, researched this man. He uncovered the amazing story.
decision was taken to have an exhibition, Sandler was approached for assistance.
He is the author of three books about Arcadia and had just brought to print a
massive book called The Ochberg Orphans and The Terror From Which They Came.
Sandler made an enormous contribution with digital material.
So the dream
that was born at the Brest Jewish Museum became a reality at the Brest Cultural
Center on Friday 19, October 2012. It was planned to coincide with a concert and
celebration of the 20th anniversary of the reemergence of the Jewish community
in Brest after the “Great Patriotic War,” as the Second World War in referred to
in Belarus and Russia.
There were over 200 people present and short
speeches were given in the foyer in front of the exhibition panels, by myself
and Tania Jacobson of Cape Town, whose mother and father were both Ochberg
orphans. Belarus Television were present to film the opening
The story of Isaac Ochberg, a great son of the area, will now
never be forgotten there and it remains one of the great events in the annals of
South African Jewish history.