You might remember heroic figures like Oskar Schindler (the famous “Schindler’s List”) who rescued groups of Jews from certain annihilation during World War 2. But did you know Jan Smuts also played a significant role in rescuing 200 Jewish orphans from the “Pogroms” in the Ukraine in 1921? Here’s a little bit of little known history involving an unlikely South African hero, Isaac Ochberg, and it’s one we can all stand proud of.
In the early 1920s, reports trickled through to South Africa of tragic forces occurring in the Ukraine. Following the collapse of the old Czarist Empire in 1917, rival Red and White armies were fighting for control. Although the battles did not start out as particularly anti-Semitic, the Jews’ condition deteriorated.
Famine was followed by typhoid epidemics for the entire population, but it was made worse for the Jews by pogroms. Ukrainian and Polish peasants joined forces with reactionary military forces to massacre Jews wherever they found them inside the Pale of Settlement.
In despairing letters smuggled through enemy lines, Jews begged their cousins in South Africa for help. These pleas immediately stirred South Africa’s Jewish communities. People asked at meetings across the country if at least the children could be rescued from the Ukraine. Before any organisation could step in, generous offers of financial and other assistance were made by Russian-born Cape Town businessman Isaac Ochberg.
Two questions became critical to Issac Ochberg: How could the orphans be rescued from a war-torn region, and would the South African government create any difficulties in admitting them?
Ochberg immediately contacted the Prime Minister, General Jan Smuts, and Mr. Patrick Duncan, the Minister of the Interior. Smuts granted permission to land, without restriction, as many youngsters as could be saved.
A South African Relief Fund for Jewish War Victims had already come into operation, when, at a special meeting called in his office on August 19, 1920, Ochberg proposed that the Cape Jewish Orphanage “take all the responsibilities of bringing the children out, and taking care of them.” In addition it should act as a clearing-house, whence they could be distributed among charitable people for adoption.
By January 1921, the South African Relief Fund for Jewish War Victims had persuaded Smuts and his government to give on a pound for pound principle to the Pogrom Orphan Fund, and it was felt that not 200 but 250 children could be brought to South Africa.
As reports of the Jews’ plight continued to arrive in South Africa, the size of the tragedy became clearer. 100,000-150,000 Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered by Ukrainian nationalists and another 400,000 Jewish orphans were starving.
The next step was for someone to travel to Eastern Europe and make arrangements on the spot. Ochberg agreed to go. For two months Ochberg travelled by train, wagon and on horseback around the Pale, looking for orphaned children. The Ukrainian children knew only that “The Man From Africa” was coming and he was going to take some of them away to a new home, on the other side of the world.
Ochberg’s worst problem was how to select which children to take and which he had to leave in Eastern Europe. So he decided to choose eight children from each institution, until he reached a total of exactly 200. Since the South African government required that the children had to be in good physical and mental health, careful selection was essential. In addition, only those who had lost BOTH parents were accepted.
In Pinsk alone, so many children had been orphaned that 3 new orphanages had to be opened. At first, Pinsk was so isolated by the fighting that the children were dependent solely on their own resources. There were no blankets, beds or clothes. Typhus broke out in one of the orphanages and the pogroms raged for a week at a time. As order was restored, food supplies began to trickle in, first from Berlin and then from the Joint Distribution Committee.
Ochberg moved from town to town, visiting Minsk, Pinsk, Stanislav, Lodz, Lemberg and Wlodowa, collecting orphans. How did he get the children out – on wagons.
Three months later, with the 200 children in London, he wrote to Jan Smuts’ government in South Africa
“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 soon of my departure for South Africa with the children.”.
The story of getting to South Africa and horror is remembered by one of the orphans in an interview years later, Fanny Shie (Lockitch). She became orphaned after her father, who was in the Russian Army, had died in a gas attack and her mother passed away during the 1918 Influenza.
In a Orphanage in Brest-Litovsk, she recalled “Although the war was over, we were suffering from lack of coal, from lack of clothes, from lack of food and from lack of care. To give an idea of conditions, I can remember how we had the Russians in the city at one moment, and a few days later the Poles. Looking out of the Orphanage windows, one could see some of the hand-to-hand battles with bayonets, and the corpses lying in the street that led up to the fortress.”
“One day we heard that a ‘Man from Africa’ was coming. He was going to take some of us away with him and give us a new home on the other side of the world. Nearly all the orphans had lost both parents, many of them in pogroms, on the Ukrainian border, at Minsk, Pinsk and other places. One poor little boy, who afterwards came to South Africa and is now a successful man in Johannesburg, had his hand hacked off by some ruffian.”
“Among us children the news aroused mixed feelings. We all liked the idea of going to a beautiful new country, but we also heard stories of robbers and wild animals, and that we might be eaten by lions. However, when Mr. Ochberg appeared, with his reddish hair and cheery smile, we all took a great liking to him and soon called him ‘Daddy’.”
The Children were issued very unique passports, they were “In quantity”, a multiple named passport with a group photograph with as many as 30 children sitting in rows.
“We set off for Africa,” recalled Mrs. Fanny Lockitch, “each with a tiny package of the clothing that had already been sent to us from overseas, and a few pitiful trifles like photographs or dolls”
Travelling from Warsaw to London, the Orphans and carers then boarded the Edinburgh Castle to Cape Town.
“Never until my dying day,” said Mrs. Fanny Lockitch, “shall I forget our first sight of the lights of Cape Town”.
A tremendous reception awaited the orphans when they came ashore in Cape Town. So large was the group of children that the Cape Jewish Orphanage was unable to house them all, so 78 went on to Johannesburg.
Special English speaking classes were organised for the children, and the warmth, friendship and the hospitality of South Africa showed itself when numberless orphans found new homes.
Ochberg died in 1937 while on an ocean voyage, 59 years old. He was buried in Cape Town at one of the largest funerals ever seen there. Ochberg left what was then the largest single bequest to the Jewish National Fund. 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.
An Ochberg dedication ceremony took place at Kibbutz Dalia on 19th of July 2011. For the thousands of descendants of his orphans, he is the reason they are alive.
Over the years various projects and films have been compiled, many of the original orphans’ children and grandchildren have been traced and have honoured Ochberg’s memory, South Africa’s very own “Oskar Schindler”.
Content and article sourced from The Jerusalem Post from an article by Lionel Slier 07/18/201 and The Issac Ochberg Story on-line website. Researched by Peter Dickens.