Our knowledge of history is often lazily shaped by Oscar-winning movies. How many people gained their understanding of Jewish life under the Romans fashioned by the 1960s blockbusters “Ben-Hur” and “Spartacus” or the rebirth of modern Israel by Otto Preminger’s “Exodus”?
All won big time at the Academy Awards. More significantly, they won “big time” in educating ensuing generations.
And so it is that too few would have known about the South African Isaac Ochberg and his heroic rescue of nearly 200 Jewish orphans in 1921 from Eastern Europe were it not for a 2008 documentary by Oscar-winning film director Jon Blair.
The South African-born writer, film producer and director of documentary films had previously won the coveted statue for his 1995 Best Documentary Feature, “Anna Frank Remembered” and came close with his 2005 “Ochberg’s Orphans.”The Jerusalem Post
can claim some credit. Prior to making the documentary, the Post
in 2005 carried an appeal from the film director in London for information about the South African philanthropist, Isaac Ochberg, who helped finance and personally participated in the rescue. Blair appealed to anyone connected to the story – particularly a surviving orphan – who was alive in Israel to please contact him.
Reading the notice, this writer contacted Sam Levin, a former director of the South African Zionist Federation in Israel (Telfed) who, in the 1920s, had been a youngster in Cape Town. Levin recalled playing as a kid with some of the rescued children at the Cape Town Jewish Orphanage, where his parents had volunteered. “One particular boy, Harry Stillerman, I will never forget,” said Levin. “His arm was cut off below the elbow. The Cossacks had ridden in on horseback into his shtetl and shot his parents in front of him. One horseman, brandishing a sabre, sliced at Harry, who raised his arm to protect himself. The Cossack sliced off his arm and left him to die in the mud.”
Little Harry did not die!
Isaac Ochberg, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who was crisscrossing this vast region by train, car and horse-drawn cart clutching orphans – picked up Harry and brought him to South Africa. Due to one man, thousands of Jews – descendants of the 1921 “Ochberg Orphans” – are alive today.
In recent years, the descendants have stepped out of the pages of history; there is an Isaac Memorial Park in the Megiddo region, adjacent to Kibbutz Ein Hashofet and in Israel, an Isaac Ochberg Memorial Committee, currently chaired by Hertzel Katz, who took over the initial chairmanship from Haifa resident, Bennie Penzik.
“I am indebted to Ochberg’s epic mission to the hell of Eastern Europe to rescue those poor children,” says Penzik. “Two of those kids became my parents.”
Following The Jerusalem Post
notice in 2005, I penned an article in the South African communal magazine “Telfed,” where Sam Levin surmized that it was unlikely that there were any Ochberg orphans alive, particularly in Israel.
“Do the math,” he reasoned.
So, you can imagine my surprise when this writer received a phone call from Haifa and in a wavering voice the caller revealed that she had just read my article and said, “My name is Cissy Harris and I’m an Ochberg orphan!”
A few months later, Cissy was on a flight to London, where she joined the film crew en route to Eastern Europe, where she starred in the documentary that was submitted for an Oscar. Today, on a wall in her bedroom in Modi’in hangs a giant-sized poster of the movie.
Cissy turned 100 in April 2018 and is the last surviving Ochberg orphan.
IN THE early 1920s, reports filtered through to South Africa of dreadful pogroms taking place in the Ukraine. Cataclysmic forces were at play and, unsurprisingly, Jews were caught in the middle. Following the collapse of the old Czarist Empire in 1917, rival armies, the Reds and the Whites, were fighting for control. Poor at the best of times owing to centuries of oppression, the condition of Jews deteriorated. Famine was followed by epidemics of typhoid and other diseases and into this amalgam of chaotic forces, the most toxic of ancient antagonisms exploded to the surface – antisemitism. Polish and other peasants joined forces with reactionary officers and troops to massacre Jews wherever they found them. Pogroms were being reported daily – the full details and exact numbers of Jews killed are to this day still unknown. It became open hunting season of Jews in the Pale of Settlement in western Russia.
Caught in the middle were over 350,000 vulnerable Jewish orphans. In despairing letters smuggled through enemy lines, Jews implored their kinsmen throughout the world for immediate help to save the orphans. One such letter made its way to Cape Town in South Africa.
The plea galvanized the Jewish communities in South Africa like nothing had before. “Why not try and mount a rescue operation and bring at least some of the children out?” people asked at meetings across the country. Overnight an idea took shape, spreading like wildfire. Generous financial offers were made and then, with abounding energy and enthusiasm, Cape Town businessman and community leader Isaac Ochberg formulated a plan and volunteered himself to go alone and rescue the children.
The big question remaining was would the South African government agree to admitting any rescued orphans? Ochberg quickly met with Prime Minister Jan Smuts, who granted permission but with three conditions: Children must have no living parent, be under 16 years of age, and be 100% physically healthy.
Ochberg agreed to all three conditions – and defiantly ignored them all!
Cases in point were young Harry Stillerman missing an arm, and Cissy’s eldest sister, who was 16.
The late Fanny Frier, who would later become chairlady of the Cape Jewish Orphanage, recalled, as an orphan in Brest-Litovsk, waiting for the “Man from Africa” to come. This was how the waiting children referred to Ochberg until he acquired another name after the rescue, now permanently embedded in history.
“He was going to take some of us away with him and give us a new home on the other side of the world,” she said. While they were excited about “going to a beautiful new country, we also heard stories of robbers and wild animals, and we feared we might be eaten by lions or cannibals or sold as slaves. However, when he appeared with his reddish hair and cheery smile, we all took a great liking to him and called him ‘Daddy.’ He would spend hours talking to us, making jokes and cheering us up.”
Thereafter, the “Man from Africa” became forever known as “Daddy Ochberg.”
The most traumatic problem facing Ochberg was how to select whom to take and whom to leave. In the end he decided to choose eight children from each institution making a total of 200, although an estimated 187 made the final journey to South Africa. (The exact figure is not known, with some saying there were only 171).
Cissy Harris, who was three-years-old at the time, was selected together with her two older sisters. As no photographs survived, she has no knowledge of what her parents ever looked like. She does remember being sick on the ship to South Africa – the Edinburgh Castle – and her sister Lisa having to look after her.
Alexander Bobrow, the father-in-law of the recently deceased former South African, Sir Aaron Klug, the 1982 Nobel laureate for chemistry, was a key player in helping Ochberg. An analytical chemist, he joined the Curatorium during the Great War to help Jewish refugees in Pinsk. At 26 years of age, he accompanied the rescued orphans on the ship to Cape Town.
In recorded testimony before he died, Bobrow relates that “so many children were found that we set up three orphanages. At first, Pinsk was so isolated by the fighting that we were dependent solely on our own resources. We had neither beds, bedding nor clothes, and I recall using flour bags to make clothes for the children.” Typhus broke out in one of the orphanages and in the course of his duties Bobrow relates how he had to walk through the streets as shells were exploding. Balachou, a notorious Ukrainian fanatic had descended on the city with his gang of marauders and the pogroms raged for nearly a week. Bobrow recalled how an old lady tried to pacify the terror-stricken children by calling out: “The Almighty will keep us and save us – now repeat after me.”
As order was restored, supplies began to arrive, mainly from the Joint Distribution Committee. One of the American relief workers Bobrow recalled meeting was “Henry Morgenthau, who would later become Secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin Roosevelt.”
After three months of ferrying children from town to town, Ochberg arrived by ship in England with his children. From London, he wrote to the leadership in South Africa, who were eagerly waiting for news.
“I have been through almost every village in the Polish Ukraine and Galicia and am now well-acquainted with the places where there is at present extreme suffering. I have succeeded in collecting the necessary number of children, and I can safely say that the generosity displayed by South African Jewry in making this mission possible means nothing less than saving their lives.
They would surely have died of starvation, disease, or been lost to our nation for other reasons. I am now in London with the object of arranging transport and I hope to be able to advise telegraphically soon of my departure for South Africa with the children.”
“Never to my dying day,” records Fanny Frier, “shall I ever forget our first sight of the lights of Cape Town and then the tremendous reception when we came ashore with half the city apparently waiting on the quay for us.” So large was the group of children that the Cape Jewish Orphanage was unable to house them all and a considerable number went on to the Arcadia Orphanage in Johannesburg.
WHILE A black-and-white framed portrait of Isaac Ochberg has been hanging in the South African Telfed’s offices since 1948, too few knew who Ochberg was or what he had done. Over and above the rescue, which stands as one of the proudest chapters in South African Jewish communal history, Ochberg left the largest bequest to Israel through the JNF. It remains a record.
While a part of the bequest went towards education – the fledgling Hebrew University of Jerusalem – the major share went to reclaim land to establish agricultural settlements in the Galilee for new immigrants – Kibbutz Dalia in 1939 and Kibbutz Gal’ed in 1945. Actuaries have calculated the current value of the bequest in excess of $60 million dollars. As was revealed at the launch of the KKL-JNF Isaac Ochberg Memorial Park in 2011, “no single individual from the US, UK, Europe, South America or South Africa has to this day donated more!”
At the official opening, South Africans from across Israel joined the families of the orphans and the families of the late Isaac Ochberg to participate in a two-day program, which included photo exhibitions, presentations, workshops, and an evening of speeches, musical performances and the screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary, “Ochberg’s Orphans.” For many in the audience, unrelated to the Ochberg saga, it was overwhelming.
Participants saw and heard in horrific detail how the orphans were literally snatched from the ‘jaws of death’ and brought to the safety of South Africa. It was heart-wrenching listening to Charles Migdal’s chilling recollections of trying to survive in freezing conditions with little clothing and no food. “I lived like an animal, not a human being.”
That was until Isaac Ochberg arrived!
“How come we did not know about this? Why had we not been taught or told?”
That Ochberg’s achievements were largely forgotten was epitomized when the stone memorial to him at the Elyakim Junction was removed some years ago – to make way for the new highway – and later discovered lying abandoned in a local kibbutz shed! Today, that memorial stands at the Isaac Memorial Heritage Park, next to Kibbutz Ein Hashofet.
That 2011 “Ochberg experience in Israel” was best summed up by Issa and Henry Werb when they wrote to the Ochberg Committee on returning home to Cape Town.
“Our 18-year-old granddaughter was with us and I made her promise to come back to the forest with her own children one day to honour those who now rest in peace in such a beautiful and tranquil place. I see the memorial as the hull of a ship with the names on the plaques as portholes gazing on a wonderful vista. I know that the Ochberg children have finally all come home.”
In the ensuing years since 2011, there have been articles, a book titled Ochberg Orphans and the Horrors from Whence they Came by David Solly Sandler, presentations in schools in South Africa and Israel, and in 2019, essay competitions on “Isaac Ocherg – the man and his legacy” are being held at select schools in Israel.
“We not only need to preserve Ochberg’s legacy but also the message he conveys to future generations,” says Hertzel Katz, who is spearheading the essay competitions in Israel. “It is so important that we reach out through schools, in Israel and abroad.”
Imbued with this mission, the writer in 2016 addressed all the Jewish day schools in Johannesburg. When asked during a presentation at King David School whether anyone had heard of Isaac Ochberg, a youngster stood up and said, “Yes, I am alive because of him. He saved my great-grandfather, Solly Jossel.” His fellow students sat stunned.The questions never stopped.
The following day at Hirsh Lyons School for Boys, the headmaster and rabbi concluded with: “Tomorrow, next week, next month, next year – go out and do a good deed. You never know, like Isaac Ochberg, when or where into the future what impact your deed will have on people’s lives.”
The rabbi had it right. Due to one man, thousands of Jews – descendants of the 1921 “Ochberg Orphans” – are alive today.
One of this writer’s most memorable moments was at the Torah Academy for Boys before leaving for the airport to return home to Israel.
Before parting, one young student came forward and asked, “Would you like to hear me blow the shofar?”
“Of course,” I replied.
Listening to those ancient sounds that date back to the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, I reflected that the shofar blower was probably of the same age as many of the orphans that Ochberg had saved nearly a century before.
I thought of Isaac Ochberg hearing those sounds from his celestial perch and smiling.
David E. Kaplan is a founding member of the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee (Israel) and editor of the Hilton Israel Magazine, Inbal Jerusalem Magazine and Lay Of The Land (LOTL), an online multimedia platform covering the Middle East and Africa and can be followed on https://layoftheland.online
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