Exposing the forgotten history of South African Jews

An Australian-Jewish writer looks at his South African past.

The journey of my compilations (photo credit: DAVID SOLLY SANDLER)
The journey of my compilations
(photo credit: DAVID SOLLY SANDLER)
It all started in 1999 on a holiday to London, Israel and South Africa, where I met up with many of my brothers and sisters from Arcadia, the South African Jewish Orphanage in Johannesburg where I had spent my childhood from age three to 17 (1956-1969). They entrusted me with their photographs of our stay in Arcadia, and on my return to Perth, Western Australia, I compiled a cut-and-paste album that I photocopied and distributed widely.
 
This got the ball rolling, and soon ex-Arcadians from around the world were writing to me to thank me for the album and sharing their memories. The older generation asked, “What about us?” and I encouraged them to send in their photos and to share their memories too. I compiled further cut-and-paste albums and photocopied the Arcadia Memory booklets, and each publication generated more interest.
 
In 2006, with the centenary of Arcadia approaching, I announced that I would be compiling an Arc (Arcadian) Centenary Book, and more memories flowed in, partly through the Internet.
 
100 Years of Arc Memories, a 530-page book with many photos and containing the memories of over 100 children, was published in 2006, and this stimulated another large inflow of memories. Perhaps the skeptics were impressed and now wanted to be part of this coming out.
 
In 2007 I retired, and in 2008 More Arc Memories with almost 600 pages was published. It contained the memories of 96 children and also the details of 17 Ochberg orphans.
 
The Ochberg Orphans were a group of 177 rescued from the horrors of the Pale of Settlement and brought to South Africa in 1921 by Isaac Ochberg, the representative of the South African Jewish community. Originally known as the Ukrainian War and Pogrom Orphans, half were placed in the care of Arcadia and half in Oranjia, the Cape Town Jewish Orphanage.
 
I realized the Ochberg orphans deserved their own book, and I devoted the next three years gathering their stories, mainly from their children and grandchildren.
 
I also discovered and learned of the horrors that Jews faced in the Pale from 1914 to 1922, namely: WWI; the Spanish influenza pandemic; the Russian Revolution; the Polish fight for independence; wholesale pogroms perpetrated by the troops of White Russian General Denikin, Ukrainian hero Symon Petlura and Belarusian president Stanisław Bułak-Bałachowicz; man-made famine in the Ukraine; and hunger and starvation and diseases.
 
This period and the horrors suffered by the Jews is a forgotten part of Jewish history, completely overshadowed by the Holocaust, and has been called “the holocaust before the Holocaust.” Much of its details were covered up and are unknown, so capturing this history is important.
 
Details were published in the Jewish press around the world, together with appeals for help, and the Jewish communities aided their suffering brethren:
 
• The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee entered into an agreement with the American Relief Administration, and with their feeding programs fed almost two million Ukrainians on a non-sectarian basis. The JDC also supported many Jewish communities in the Pale.
 
• Canada rescued 150 orphans, mainly from the Rovno area. They examined over 8,000 to find healthy ones that were sent to Toronto for adoption.
 
• South Africa sent funds and supplies to Poland and the Ukraine, brought children to Kfar Yeladim David in Israel and supported them there. They also rescued 177 orphans, collecting them mainly from orphanages supported by the JDC.
 
These horrors mentioned above are listed as the causes of death of the parents of the Ochberg orphans, and are touched upon in The Ochberg Orphans, published in 2011.
 
This compilation of 650 pages includes memories of over 130 of the 177 children rescued, and also tells of the help given by Jews around the world to their suffering brethren.
 
I included all memories sent in, and these ranged from A to Z in all respects. Generally I sought more information to properly complete each memory, and at times it required many exchanges of correspondence. Some memories I gathered spending hours on the phone, typing and questioning. Many times I had information from the records of the Ochberg orphans that their children, who were writing their memories, were unaware of, and I also had numerous group photos to share.
 
After completing The Ochberg Orphans, I once again had unfinished business: 120 letters in Hebrew and Yiddish, written by the children remaining behind at the three Pinsker Orphanages, to Alter Bobrow, their teacher and the man who had saved them in 1917 and who together with his colleagues helped establish the three Pinsker Orphanages. Alter assisted Ochberg, and accompanied 44 orphans from Pinsk to South Africa in 1921 as part of the Ochberg orphans group.
 
The Pinsker Orphans – the life and time of the children from the three Pinsk Jewish orphanages in the 1920s – was published in 2013. This compilation tells of the establishment of the three orphanages in Pinsk, includes the translation of the 120 letters, gives more details of the 44 children who went to South Africa in 1921, and details the work of the Pinsker Orphan Relief Fund of London, which brought to London 29 children in 1924 and 34 in 1926 for adoption.
 
I made contact with some of the descendants of the orphans saved in London, and included their memories as well as those of some of the committee members of the Fund. This book tells of the assistance given to the orphanages by the JDC, and reveals more of our forgotten history – the horrors of Jewish life in Poland in the 1920s. It also tells of Beis Aharon, a school and orphanage in Pinsk, currently run by Yad Yisroel from Brooklyn.
 
Oranjia celebrated its centenary in 2011, and I knew there were plans to compile a centenary book but it got bogged down. For a short time I worked with the author to jointly produce a book but this encountered problems, so I took it upon myself to collect the memories of the children of Oranjia and in 2014 published Memories of Oranjia, which included the memories of another 75 children.
 
Also in 2014, This Was a Man – the life story of Isaac Ochberg written by his daughter Bertha Epstein – was reprinted with editing by Bennie Penzik and me. It tells of his rise from rags to riches, and his enormous bequest to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Hebrew University.
 
In March 2017 I published The Ochberg Orphans volume two, with the memories or further memories of 20 orphans, more information gathered on the Ochberg orphans and details of modern day events remembering Isaac Ochberg and the children he saved.
 
At Ramat Menashe in Israel there is now a new tourist destination, a park with a monument to Isaac Ochberg and a large limestone mound with plaques to each of the children saved. This was built by JNF to honor Ochberg, and Kibbutz Dalia and Kibbutz Gal’ed were established on the land acquired with his donation. Bennie Penzik, whose parents were Ochberg orphans, urged the JNF to establish the park and founded The Ochberg Heritage Committee in Israel.
 
I had not set out initially to compile these books, and it seemed like an unknown force had drawn me along a path with each compilation creating the momentum for the next compilation. Many of those who shared their memories have passed away, and I am pleased that they left this legacy for their children and grandchildren.
 
I then focused on telling the history of South African Jewry.
 
Like most South African Jews, all my ancestors came from Lithuania. For many years I had been the family historian, collecting details and memories and photos from my older relatives. I was asked by a cousin to write our family history, but because I did not have enough detailed history about my family and because I am not a writer, I decided instead to compile the history of South African Jews in general.
 
After many years of research, Our Litvak Inheritance: The Jewish History of Lithuania was published in February 2016. This history in general is, in fact, the history of all Lithuanian Jews. This was followed in August 2016 by Our South African Jewish Inheritance, which relates South African history and the Jewish contribution. “These two volumes by Sandler successfully tackle an enormous subject, which covers nearly 300 years of unfolding South African History,” wrote Prof. Dr. Louis Z. G. Touyz. “It is a monumental piece of work, and makes an important contribution to the recording of Jewish accomplishment in South Africa.”
 
South Africa’s 800 – The Story of South African Volunteers in Israel’s War of Birth in 1948-1949 by Henry Katzew was reprinted in 2016 at the request of Joe Woolf, one of its editors.
 
The Rakishok Yizkor book was published in English in September 2017. I assisted with the coordination of the translations, and in 2014, I published The Memorial Section of the Rakishok Memorial Book, a part of the book.
 
In June 2018, I published The Keidan Yizkor Book in English, with the translations edited by Aryeh Leonard Shcherbakov and Andrew Cassel.
 
In 2017, I republished in English Krakenowo – A town in Lithuania, the story of a world that has passed, and Keidan – Our Town in Lithuania, two South African booklets with some articles in Yiddish or Hebrew. These booklets will form part of South African Landsmannschaften (Benefit Societies), my latest project.
 
The full proceeds of all my compilations go to Arcadia or Oranjia, which still take care of Jewish children in need in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and all royalties for online purchases go to the JDC.
 
For any publications mentioned above please contact me, and also let me know if you have any publications of benefit societies or of communities in South Africa.

After being orphaned in 1956 at the age of four, David Solly Sandler was raised in Arcadia, the South African Jewish Orphanage, where he remained for 13 years. He qualified as a chartered accountant in 1976, married in 1979, migrated to Perth, Australia, in 1981, and is the father of two daughters. The writer may be contacted via sedsand@iinet.net.au