Ochberg’s orphans

In 1921, Isaac Ochberg heroically rescued 200 Jewish children from Eastern Europe – in the midst of a raging civil war.

Isaac Ochberg (photo credit: www.ochbergorphans.com)
Isaac Ochberg
(photo credit: www.ochbergorphans.com)
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.
Most of 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.
Thousands of Jews had died or been dispersed in World War I as the battles raged on.
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.
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.
However, it 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.
Further, 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 themselves.
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.
The 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 African world.
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 30s.
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 protected]