Strange connections from South Africa, to Israel to the Ukraine

The combatants fighting under Allenby’s command were the men of the First Battalion, Cape Corps, composed of mixed-race soldiers recruited in South Africa, the vast majority from Ochberg’s Cape Town.

he Isaac Ochberg Memorial Park’s bicycle trail (photo credit: YAEL BRYGEL)
he Isaac Ochberg Memorial Park’s bicycle trail
(photo credit: YAEL BRYGEL)
Kibbutzim Dalia and Galed in the Megiddo region of northern Israel, a tract of parkland housing the Isaac Ochberg Memorial Park, which opened in July 2011, and the Battle of Megiddo 101 years ago are all closely connected with South Africa and Ukraine. Strange as it may seem, we have to go back 125 years and more to connect all the dots.
Isaac Ochberg was born in 1878 in the city of Uman in Ukraine, at that time a province of the Russian Empire. He left Uman in 1895 to make a new home for himself in Cape Town, South Africa, where he joined his father, who had settled in the city a few years prior. During the next four years, Isaac managed to accumulate sufficient funds to return to the Ukraine to fetch his mother and siblings, disregarding  many inherent potential dangers, including military conscription in the Russian Army.
He managed to evade military conscription and, as fate played its hand, met Pauline Woldiner, known as Polly, whom he married on June 28, 1900, with the family making their home in Cape Town where Ochberg became an extremely successful and wealthy businessman.
Fast forward 18 years to September 1918 and you find the British-led Egyptian Expeditionary Force under the command of Gen. Edmund Allenby about to engage the Turco-German army in the Ottoman Palestine theater of World War I. One of the important engagements in the greater Battle of Megiddo became known as the Battle of Square Hill, fought from September 19-21. The combatants fighting under Allenby’s command were the men of the First Battalion, Cape Corps, composed of mixed-race soldiers recruited in South Africa, the vast majority from Ochberg’s Cape Town.
These men, referred to colloquially as Coloreds, had fought gallantly in East Africa and were transferred to Palestine to augment Allenby’s army after many of his troops had been transferred to France to strengthen the hard-pressed British forces engaged in the infamous trench warfare against the German army. Allenby’s victory at Megiddo, which ended 400 years of Ottoman rule, was one of a series of events converting the promise of a Jewish homeland inherent in the Balfour Declaration into a reality, the State of Israel.
The Cape Corps soldiers covered themselves in glory during the Battle of Megiddo, with 14 awarded medals for gallantry in combat. During the course of the battle, 54 members gave their lives in the fight against the Turco-German forces. The fallen were all buried in Jerusalem where their graves are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Sadly, no monument or memorial dedicated to the brave men has ever been erected in South Africa or in Israel.
This glowing epitaph delivered and signed by Field Marshal Viscount Allenby in 1919 says it all: “I heard you are creating a Roll of Honour containing Cape Corps names. I had the honour of serving with many of the Cape Corps in Palestine and I should like to add my tribute of appreciation. The record of those of the Cape Corps who fought under my command is one what any troops might envy. Especially on September 19 and 20, 1918, they covered themselves with glory, displaying a bravery and determination that has never been surpassed.”
Back to Ochberg. Two years after World War I had ended, the political turmoil in eastern Europe following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia sent shock waves throughout the region. One of the results of the turmoil was the Ukrainian War of Independence from 1917 to 1921, which resulted in the establishment of the Ukrainian Republic within the Bolshevik sphere of influence.
Much of the Ukraine was incorporated  into the Soviet Union, becoming the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, which lasted from 1922-1991. From a Jewish perspective, the military turmoil and conflict resulted in a series of anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine and adjoining territories that cost up to 250,000 Jewish lives. These deaths, in turn, meant that more than 300,000 Jewish children became orphans. The Ukranian-born Ochberg in far-away Cape Town reacted to the news of these disastrous events by formulating a plan to return to Ukraine and rescue as many orphans as possible. Ochberg obtained permission from South African prime minister Gen. Jan Smuts to return to Ukraine and bring 200 orphaned children to South Africa. Using his own financial resources, together with assistance from the Joint Distribution Committee, Ochberg returned to Ukraine where he succeeded in gathering 200 children to bring to a new life in South Africa. He eventually returned to Cape Town with 187 orphans, half of whom were housed in the Oranjia Jewish Orphanage in Cape Town, while the remainder found a new home in the Arcadia Jewish Orphanage in Johannesburg.
Some 12 years later, Helen Southern-Holt founded the EOAN Group, a choral and music group that functioned as a cultural and welfare organization in District 6, a suburb of Cape Town, home to many of the city’s mixed-race community. The group had its first office in the Isaac Ochberg Hall in District 6, with Ochberg providing the seed capital to fund the group, which strove to bring culture and a new dawn to many of the underprivileged and at-risk youth, whose other choice was a life of gang-related activities. The same District 6 Colored community, which had provided an overwhelming number of the recruits for Cape Corps during the early years of World War I, was thus a benefactor of Ochberg’s philanthropy.
Ochberg passed away at sea, just two days before reaching Cape Town in 1938, bequeathing the significant sum of 250,000 pounds to the Jewish National Fund. This sum equates to about $25 million in 2019, the largest private bequest ever made to the JNF – a record that still stands.
The funds bequeathed by Ochberg were used to purchase tracts of land on which Kibbutzim Dalia and Galed as well as the Isaac Ochberg Memorial Park now stand. Kibbutz Galed was initially named Even Yitzhak, in memory of Ochberg, with the name later changed to Galed and now officially known as Kibbutz Galed-Even Yitzhak. The memorial to Ochberg came about as the result of the efforts of the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee in Israel, chaired initially by Bennie Penzik, unique among Ochberg orphan descendants, as both his parents were brought to South Africa as Ochberg orphans. The chairmanship was then taken over by Hertzel Katz and is currently chaired by David Kaplan.
While many thought the full Ukraine-South Africa-Israel circle had been completed when the memorial to Ochberg was consecrated, new facts about the role of the Cape Corps in the Battle of Megiddo and the connection to Ochberg and Cape Town came to light.
The strangest fact of all is that my research revealed that Cape Town-born Jewish Sgt. Joe Sieradzki served with the Cape Corps in Palestine, the only Jew to have served with the unit during that period. Even stranger was my discovery that Sieradzki was an uncle by marriage to the current Ochberg Heritage Committee chairman, Kaplan.
One of the soldiers of the Cape Corps who fought at the Battle of Megiddo was Private C.H. Carelse, whose great grandson, South African Navy Commander (Res.) Adeel Carelse has written a book titled Hill 2, which recalls the exploits of the Cape Corps in Palestine in 1918. The following is an excerpt from the book about his great-grandfather’s award for gallantry in action.
“688 Pte CH Carelse DCM, 1BN, Cape Corps. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When severely wounded he remained with and kept in action his machine gun until relieved, and when his comrades wanted to carry him out of action he refused their assistance, telling them to remain with the gun.”
Adeel Carelse has dedicated himself to doing his utmost to ensure that a memorial to the fallen members of Cape Corps comes into existence, albeit 100 years later. He has found willing partners for this initiative in the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee and the Megiddo Regional Council.
The Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee is working closely with Izhak Holavsky, Megiddo Regional Council head, and his council to arrange for the erection of a memorial to the fallen men of the Cape Corps on land adjacent to the Isaac Ochberg Memorial Park.
The erection of this monument will result in a tangible link and connect the dots between the Colored and Jewish communities of Cape Town, Isaac Ochberg, the pogrom orphans from Ukraine, Isaac Ochberg’s own beginnings in the Ukraine and the current states of Israel and South Africa. The intention is for all this to be complete and in place in time for the centenary celebration of the Ochberg orphans’ rescue in 2021.
Holavsky is determined to turn the Megiddo region into a sought-after tourist destination, with a memorial to the men of the Cape Corps, one of the many ways he is exploring to enhance the tourist appeal of the region. The area is rich in history with archaeological sites going back 4,000 years – juxtaposed with the vibrant modern industrial development taking place on many of the kibbutzim in his region. The area is also endowed with magnificent and unique scenery, which has resulted in the Megiddo region being declared a UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization biosphere region. The following description from the UNESCO website should excite the interest of those interested in the preservation of nature:
“The [Megiddo] biosphere reserve encompasses a mosaic of ecological systems that represent the Mediterranean Basin's version of the global ‘evergreen sclerophyllous forests, woodlands and scrub’ ecosystem types.”
Additional details on the biosphere reserve can be obtained by visiting
The writer is author of the books, Street Names in Israel and Men of Valor, chairman of the Events Committee of Telfed (the South African Zionist Federation, Israel) and a member of the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee