The man from Africa

Now that 'The Ochberg Orphans' has been passed over for an Oscar, who will remember one South African businessman's courageous rescue of Jewish children?

Ochberg 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ochberg 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Our knowledge of history is often lazily shaped by Oscar-winning movies. How many people gained their understanding of Jewish life under the Romans from the 1960s blockbuster Ben Hur, or the rebirth of modern Israel from Otto Preminger's Exodus? But what about the movies that don't quite cut it at the Oscars? Have significant chunks of the past been relegated to the abyss of the unknown? Such may be the case of a recent documentary by director and producer John Blair, who won the Best Documentary Feature statuette for his 1995 Anna Frank Remembered. Blair's recent entry, The Ochberg Orphans, which deals with the rescue of Jewish children in 1921 from the war-torn Pale of Settlement and their resettlement in South Africa, failed to make the final five nominees at this year's Academy Awards, and an inspiring chapter of Jewish history may now never reach a wider audience. An aside to this little-known story is that the documentary also brought a 90-year-old former South African residing in Haifa out of obscurity. In 2005, before Blair had begun making his documentary, The Jerusalem Post ran an appeal from the London-based director for information about South African philanthropist Isaac Ochberg, who helped finance and personally participated in the rescue. Metro 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, to ascertain whether he had any personal insights to impart to the director. Levin recalled meeting some of the rescued children at the Cape Town Jewish Orphanage, where his parents had been active volunteers. "One particular boy I will never forget," said Levin. "His arm was cut off below the elbow. The Cossacks had murdered his parents in front of him and when they were about to finish him off, he raised his arm to protect himself from the thrust of the sword. They sliced off his arm and left him to die." In an article that appeared at the time, Levin surmised that it was unlikely that there were any Ochberg orphans alive today, particularly in Israel. So you can imagine the surprise when this writer received a phone call from a Cecilia Harris in Haifa, who revealed in a wavering voice: "I was an Ochberg orphan." A few months later, Harris was on a flight to London, where she joined the film crew en route to Eastern Europe, where she starred in the documentary. Today, a giant poster of the movie hangs on a wall in her small Haifa apartment. In the early 1920s, reports filtered through to South Africa of dreadful pogroms taking place in the Ukraine. Cataclysmic forces were in 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 Jews' condition deteriorated. Famine was followed by epidemics of typhoid and other diseases, and into this amalgam the most toxic of ancient antagonisms exploded to the surface - anti-Semitism. Ukrainian and Polish peasants joined forces with reactionary officers and troops to massacre Jews wherever they found them. Pogroms were being reported daily - full details and exact numbers of Jews killed are unknown to this day. The Pale of Settlement became an open hunting season for Jews. In despairing letters smuggled through enemy lines, Jews pleaded to their kinsman in South Africa and elsewhere for help. These pleas galvanized South Africa's Jewish communities like nothing 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 and spread like wildfire. Before any organization could step in, generous offers of financial and other kinds of assistance were made. With abounding energy and enthusiasm, Cape Town businessman Isaac Ochberg embraced the plan. Two further questions arose: How could the orphans be rescued from a war-torn region, and would the South African government create any difficulties in admitting them? Ochberg quickly met with then-prime minister Jan Smuts, who granted permission. As reports of the Jews' plight continued to leak out, the dimensions of the tragedy became clearer. No fewer than 400,000 Jewish orphans were known to be destitute, so that whatever was done would only amount to a drop in the ocean. That did not deter the community, who were determined to save whomever they could. The next step was for someone to travel to Eastern Europe and make arrangements on the spot. Without hesitation, Ochberg offered to undertake the mission. Fanny Frier, who would later become chairwoman of the Cape Jewish Orphanage, recalled being an orphan in Brest-Litovsk, waiting for "the man from Africa" to arrive. "He was going to take some of us away with him and give us a new home on the other side of the world," Frier said. Understandably, the youngsters had mixed feelings. 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 off 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." Ochberg's most traumatic problem was how to select whom to take and whom to leave behind. In the end, he decided to choose eight children from each institution - a total of 200. Since the South African government had stipulated that the children had to be in good physical and mental health, this required very careful selection. Only those who had lost both parents were accepted. 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 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. Another contributor to the documentary was Liebe Klug from Cambridge, who spends part of the year in Beersheba, where her husband Aaron - a 1982 Nobel Laureate for chemistry - is on the Board of Governors at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Her father, Alexander Bobrow, was a key player in the drama that unfolded. "He had been an analytical chemist in a sugar factory," Klug told Metro. During the Great War, he changed professions to social work, joining the "Curatorium, which had been formed to help Jewish refugees in Pinsk. At 26, he accompanied the 200 rescued orphans on the ship to Cape Town, where he settled and met my mother," she recounts. In testimony recorded 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." Bobrow relates how typhus broke out in one of the orphanages and how in the course of his duties he had to walk through the streets as shells were exploding. Balachou, the notorious Ukrainian, had descended on the city with his gangs 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, first from the Juedischer Hilfsverein in Berlin and then from the Joint Distribution Committee - cocoa, condensed milk, cooking oil and clothes. One of the American relief workers Bobrow recalled meeting was "Henry Morgenthau, who would later become Secretary of the Treasury under president Franklin Roosevelt." Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Ochberg moved from town to town, visiting cities - Minsk, Pinsk, Stanislav, Lodz, Lemberg and Wlodowa - as well as villages, collecting orphans. Three months later, with the 200 children in 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, 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," Frier recorded. So large was the group of children that the Cape Jewish Orphanage was unable to house them all. A considerable number went to Johannesburg, including Harris and her two sisters as well as many others whose children now live in Israel. One was Phyllis Ratzer, whose daughter, Rene Simpson, lives in Tel Aviv. "She often spoke of 'Papa Ochberg' and died in Johannesburg at the age of 94," Simpson said. Another descendent of an Ochberg orphan is Yvette Shiloh of Haifa, whose mother, Andja Avin, was rescued in Warsaw and made aliya in 1960, settling initially on kibbutz Kfar Blum before moving to Kiryat Gat. When Ochberg died in Cape Town, he left "what was then the largest single bequest to the Jewish National Fund," Sam Levin told Metro. "[The JNF] used it to redeem a piece of land in Israel called Nahalat Yitzhak Ochberg - which included the kibbutzim of Dalia and Ein Hashofet. In the course of years, the name Ochberg dropped off the signs and it's now known as Nahalat Yitzhak. I am certain there is hardly anyone in Israel today who would know which Yitzhak it was."