Smuts and Weizmann

My great-grandfather’s love of Israel and South African Jews

December 13, 2017 16:08
Chaim Weizmann and Jan Smuts, circa 1915

Chaim Weizmann and Jan Smuts, circa 1915. (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)


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 IN THE early 1920s, South Africa got to hear of a tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, affecting in particular the Jews. In the aftermath of the fall of the Russian czar, battles for control took place between the Red and White armies, and while these battles were not antisemitic by objective, it was the Ukranian Jews who bore the brunt of battle casualties. The situation was exacerbated by famine and typhoid, but took a turn for far the worse with the pogroms, where Ukranian and Polish peasants joined with the military forces to kill Jews wherever they found them, the final estimate being between 100,000 and 150,000 deaths. One of the tragic results of these pogroms were thousands of orphans whose numbers were estimated at 400,000.

Letters begging for assistance were smuggled to amongst others South Africa, and meetings were held across the country to muster support and assistance. Before any organized relief could be effected, a Russian-born resident of Cape Town, Isaac Ochberg took matters under his wing and approached my great-grandfather, Gen. Jan Smuts, who served as prime minister of the Union of South Africa from 1919-24, and the minister of the Interior, Patrick Duncan.


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