Getting A Second Chance in Life

"This site is a living testimony to the redemption of our land and the redemption of orphaned children that is the legacy of Isaac Ochberg.

July 24, 2011 17:01

KKL_240711_A. (photo credit: KKL-JNF)


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"This site is a living testimony to the redemption of our land and the redemption of orphaned children that is the legacy of Isaac Ochberg. It is eminently appropriate that KKL-JNF is responsible for a project in honor of Isaac Ochberg, since this organization and this man are inscribed for all eternity in the history of our unique region." Hanan Erez, head of the Meggido Regional Council, was speaking at the dedication ceremony of the Isaac Ochberg Scenic Lookout Memorial that took place on Wednesday, July 20. The audience included descendents of "Ochberg Orphans" from Israel, the UK, the United States and South Africa. The families, all of whom were wearing t-shirts printed especially for the occasion, took pictures of themselves next to the names of their parents or grandparents inscribed on ceramic signs on the striking memorial created by KKL-JNF.

"There could be no better place for the Ochberg Lookout Memorial than the Ramot Menashe biospheric park, which was recently officially KKLrecognized by UNESCO," Erez continued. "I would like to thank all the people who were involved in realizing this project, especially everyone at KKL-JNF, who worked tirelessly and made certain that the plan was executed to perfection. This site will be a place where people can come to appreciate the magnificent view as they stroll its paths."

The Story of Isaac Ochberg
Isaac Ochberg was born in Uman, Ukraine in 1878. At age 17, he emigrated to South Africa, where he became an extremely wealthy entrepreneur and highly respected businessman. In 1921, when Ochberg learned that Jewish orphans were facing hunger, disease and pogroms in the wake of World War I, Ochberg traveled to the Ukraine, and, with the permission of the South African government, returned a few months later to Cape Town, accompanied by 187 Jewish orphans.

Ochberg was a proud Jew and eminent Zionist who was also a representative at the 16th Zionist Congress held in Zurich in 1929. "I deeply believe that the Jewish problem will find its ultimate solution only in the Land of Israel," he said. The most munificent bequest in Ochberg's will was designated to acquire land for the purpose of the creation of new settlements by KKL-JNF. This bequest remains the largest personal donation received by KKL-JNF to this day. It enabled KKL-JNF to redeem a tract of land on which Kibbutz Dalia and Kibbutz Gal-ed (Even Yitzhak), stand today.

Honoring a Great Man
Mr. Andy Michelson, KKL-JNF Chief of Protocol, who emceed the moving ceremony, introduced Ms. Elizabeth Smith, the charge d'affaires of the South African Embassy. Ms. Smith remarked that the world is not changed by events, "but rather by individuals who change immediate circumstances. Not always are their deeds known or celebrated, but sometimes, like today, recognition is given to an individual who changed lives for the better.
"Everyone knows that children are the most vulnerable in times of war and turmoil. We need to be confronted with personal suffering to be reminded that situations are first and foremost personal, and only then general. Orphans have a difficult road to self-discovery and to dealing with the singular circumstances of their childhood. Each child who was rescued by Isaac Ochberg received a second chance in life. His example reminds each of us to emulate him, and person by person, we might help change the world. In the words of an African saying, "The body of man is very small compared with the spirit of the man that inhabits it."

Mr. Maish Isaacson, the past president of Telfed, the South African Zionist Federation in Israel, said that Telfed would be planting trees in a KKL-JNF forest as a gesture of the South African Jewish community's appreciation of Isaac Ochberg: "Isaac Ochberg has been a source of inspiration for us. Since 1948, the South African Jewish community has been involved in building new communities in Israel. We have also made 600 scholarships available for young people to learn in Israel's universities, and by doing so, we feel that we are continuing in the tradition of this remarkable man."

Mr. Avinoam Binder represented KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler at the ceremony: "Isaac Ochberg was a dreamer who made dreams come true. When he purchased the land here, the scenery was nothing like what we see from the lookout today. The land was barren and desolate. Ochberg dreamt that the Jewish people would come here and establish a Jewish state. This project in his honor is to educate future generations of Israelis not to take our many blessings for granted. KKL-JNF is honored to take part in this project in memory of a man who believed in the future of Israel."

"In my capacity as chairman of the Ochberg Committee," said Mr. Bennie Penzik, "I would like to thank KKL-JNF for this magnificent site in honor of a man who we will always remember as 'Daddy Ochberg'. In a movie clip about Isaac Ochberg that KKL-JNF made in 1950, the KKL-JNF chairman says that 'a man can save his memory from oblivion by linking his name to the land of Israel.' The amount of money that Issac Ochberg bequeathed KKL-JNF in his will, something like one hundred million dollars in present-day value, is still the largest donation ever given to KKL-JNF by one person.

"The seemingly erratic design of the plaques inscribed with the names of the Ochberg orphans symbolizes the plight of the Eastern European Jewish community in the years 1919-1921, when pogroms decimated entire communities. However, the sequence is not by chance. We have retained the structures of the original families, although names may have changed due to adoption or marriage. The names of the Ochberg orphans are now enshrined for all eternity, along with the memory of the man to whom many of us owe their very existence."

After Bennie Penzik concluded his comments, a Torah scroll was brought to the speaker's podium, a donation of the Segal family. Speaking on behalf of the donors, Mr. Segal said that he "was proud to be part of the descendents of the orphans of Isaac Ochberg. There could not be a finer gentleman." The inscription on the Torah scroll's mantle read: "In memory of Yitzhak and Pauline Ochberg, for saving the lives of Jewish orphans from the horrors of famine and pogroms."

Towards the end of the ceremony, Andy Michelson invited David Kaplan and Sharon Katz to read the Planter's prayer in Hebrew and English before the symbolic planting of a tree. The ceremony concluded with the unveiling of the original plaque honoring Isaac Ochberg, which had been stored for years in a KKL-JNF warehouse after it was removed during construction. Andy noted that the site being dedicated was part of an ongoing project, which will eventually include a restored lookout tower, a small amphitheater, access roads, bicycle paths, picnic areas and wheelchair accessible paths. He invited the guests to help perpetuate the story of Isaac Ochberg by contributing towards these future stages of the project.

Remembering "Daddy"Ochberg 
The "star" of the event was undoubtedly 93 year-old Cissy Harris, the only remaining Ochberg orphan living in Israel, and one of three KKLOchberg orphans who are still with us. When asked if she knew Isaac Ochberg, Cissy replied, "I didn't know him, he knew me. I was only three years old at the time. I was in Kostopil, a little village in northern Ukraine. There had been an outbreak of dysentery, from which both my parents died. My siblings and I were starving orphans, and Ochberg was going from village to village collecting Jewish orphans. Kostopil was a tiny village with only a couple streets, and we lived there in a little house with my grandmother, who had no means of providing for us.

"We left for South Africa with Daddy Ochberg. On the way to train station, there was a bridge over a river we had to cross, and I remember my grandmother saying that she wouldn't be going any further with us. 'It's too painful for me,' she said. 'I will never see you again.' I was eventually adopted by a couple without children in South Africa.

"My sister Lisa moved to Israel, and when her husband died, she begged me to come stay with her. I thought I would only be coming for a year or so, but she passed away in 2003 at the age of 102, and I have been here ever since. I am very happy to see that Isaac Ochberg is finally getting the recognition he so deserved."

We also spoke with Yvette Shiloh and Michael Avin, the daughter and son of Andja Avin/Derlowitz, one of the Ochberg orphans, who told us their mother's story: "After the First World War, our mother was in an orphanage in Warsaw that was managed by her grandmother. Ochberg was going from orphanage to orphanage, looking for Jewish children, and my grandmother begged him to take our mother, because she saw no future for her in Europe. It wasn't so simple, because one of Ochberg's criteria was that the child had to be orphaned from both parents, and our mother's father had fled to Argentina.

"Ochberg eventually agreed, and our mother arrived in South Africa when she was ten years old. At her wedding, she was given away by 'Daddy Ochberg', as was his custom for all the girl orphans. She was the last orphan he gave away, because unfortunately, he died soon afterwards."

We also had the privilege to meet Cynthia Zukas, the daughter of Bertha Epstein, Ochberg's granddaughter, who came to Israel especially for the ceremony together with her sister. "My grandfather died when I was four or five years old," Cynthia said. "My mother spoke about him a lot, and in fact, she wrote a book about him entitled, 'This is a Man.' Truthfully, it was only when I grew older that I really began to understand and appreciate what my grandfather had done. This trip has been a very moving experience for us all. The last time I visited Israel was 25 years ago."

Phyllis Friedlander from Cape Town, Ochberg's niece, remembers her uncle vividly: "He was a wonderful human being, who was very close to both my mother and also to my father. On weekends, he would go with my father, whom he made the executor of his will, for a thirty kilometer walk. Although I was his niece, I felt like his granddaughter. He was a friendly, loving and affectionate man. Whenever he brought his grandchildren presents, he would also bring something for me. I especially remember a music box chair that thrilled me as a child. I still have it to this day, and now my own grandchildren sit on it."

Those grandchildren, along with everyone else who will visit the Isaac Ochberg Scenic Lookout Memorial, now have a place to learn about the story of this remarkable man, whose life is a testament to the triumph of good will, wisdom and right action over adversity.

For Articles, comments or use please contact
Ahuva Bar-Lev
KKL-JNF – Information and Publications
Phone: 972-2-6583354 Fax:972-2-6583493

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