One of the most momentous achievements in the annals of the South African Jewish
community is the rescue of 200 Russian orphans in 1921.
It was a time
when civil war was raging between the communist and white armies in Russia;
Poland and Lithuania were chaotic, and Germany was in a shambles.
South Africa’s Jews had come from the areas where this fighting was the heaviest
– Poland, Galicia, Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine. They had left behind
their parents, brothers, sisters and friends, and they looked on aghast at the
terrible losses being inflicted on the civilian populations.
Jews had died or been dispersed in World War I as the battles raged
Many who survived on the eastern front died in the famine of 1919,
and even more died in the murderous influenza epidemic that swept through the
area that year and in 1920.
The Jews in South Africa had no way of
knowing the fate of their loved ones. A few received messages from Eastern
Europe telling of death and devastation, and of horrific stories of orphaned
children abandoned, sick and dying. The American Joint Distribution estimated
between 30,000 and 40,000 orphans were in the area. The community asked itself
whether something could be done.
A spontaneous plan evolved, and a leader
of the Cape Town Jewish community, Isaac Ochberg, contacted the offices of the
Federation of Ukrainian Jews in London, offering them help from South Africa. He
also contacted the South African prime minister at the time, Jan Smuts, and
appealed for permission to bring at least some children to the country,
hopefully for adoption.
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Meanwhile, a Pogrom Orphan Fund was set up to
finance the cost of the operation.
Individual Jews throughout South
Africa, as well as businesses and organizations, including many non-Jews, made
contributions. The government matched the money collected.
laid down certain conditions. No sick children were to be brought along, nor any
with mental or physical defects. No child was to be selected if there was a
living parent, nor could any child over the age of 16 come.
under no circumstances could families be broken up; if one member of a family
did not qualify, the siblings had to remain behind.
Finally the South
African Jewish community was to be entirely responsible for caring for the
children once they were in the country. It was reckoned that 200 children could
be brought over.
Ochberg traveled to Eastern Europe. He was from the
Ukraine originally, so he knew the area and the language. He left on his mission
in March 1921 via London, where he was given papers entitling him to be in the
area. At that stage, civil war was still raging.
It was to be a visit
fraught with anxiety and difficulty.
In Eastern Europe, Ochberg went to
the synagogues where most of the orphaned children had gathered
The task of selecting the children was heartbreaking,
especially as he had to leave many behind.
The children had a hazardous
journey by cattle truck to Warsaw, then by boat down the River Vistula to Gdansk
and on to England, where after a stay of three weeks they sailed on the
Edinburgh Castle for Cape Town. The children loved Ochberg, whom they called
“Daddy Ochberg,” and he made them all feel comfortable and wanted.
children eventually arrived in Table Bay to a joyous welcome. They were
initially taken to the Cape Town Jewish orphanage, but not all of them could be
accommodated there and some were sent to Johannesburg.
They were called
the “Russians” by the children already in the orphanages, and they could barely
communicate in the beginning. As they grew up, they integrated into the
communities and became valued members of both the Jewish and the wider South
For the first time ever, some of these “children” and
their descendants are coming together to celebrate their 1921 rescue . Just
three years later, Adolf Hitler led the Munich Beer Hall putsch, and 10 years
after that, he was chancellor of Germany. One can only speculate about the fate
of those Jewish orphans who could not be taken to South Africa. No doubt many of
them ended up in the death camps in Poland – most of them in their
The Inauguration of the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Center at Kibbutz
Dalia and the stone-setting ceremony of the JNF Ochberg Memorial Site featuring
the re-dedication of the original monument are taking place in Israel on July 19
and 20. For more information, email email@example.com
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