I recently came across the story of the Ochberg orphans, nearly 200 Jewish children rescued in 1921 from the ravages of the Russian Civil War, pogroms and the subsequent typhus epidemic and famine. The rescuer was Isaac Ochberg, a Ukrainian Jew who had emigrated, penniless, to South Africa in 1895 and went on to become a successful entrepreneur. By 1920 he was one of South Africa’s richest men and leader of the Cape Town Jewish community.
Horrified by the news of the pogroms, which together with war, disease and hunger left an estimated 300,000 Jewish children orphaned, Ochberg turned to the South African Jewish community for help in financing a rescue mission to bring Jewish children to South Africa for adoption.
Ochberg left for eastern Europe in March 1921, travelling by road and rail through Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland in search of the neediest children, visiting synagogues where orphans had gathered and orphanages funded by Jewish foreign aid.
This was no easy journey. Civil war was still raging in some areas, pitting against one another numerous marauding bands of soldiers – from Ukrainian Nationalists to Communists and Anti-Communists, Germans and Poles to Anarchists and local warlords – all of them anti-Semitic to a degree.
The area was filled with people on the move – refugees, the hungry, the sick and the weak. As well as war and pogroms, typhus and famine had ravaged the population.
By August 1921 he had assembled a group of 233 children in Warsaw, ready for the train journey to Danzig (Gdansk) and onward journey to London then Cape Town. Some of the group fell ill and were forced to stay behind. Others ran away, scared off by stories of Africa and its wild animals.
The task of selecting the children must have been heart-breaking, given the number he had to leave behind. The South African government, under Prime Minister Jan Smuts, had matched the funding Ochberg managed to raise, but laid down certain conditions. Two hundred orphans could come, but no sick children, nor any with mental or physical disabilities. No child could be selected if there was a living parent, nor any child over the age of 16. Under no circumstances could families be broken up; if one member of a family did not qualify, the siblings had to remain behind.
But Ochberg had no qualms about ignoring these rules. Siblings aged 16 or over became accompanying ‘nurses’, and several whose parents were still living, but had chosen to give up their children in the hope of offering them a better life, were included in the group. Some 165 children and 25 accompanying adults made the journey to South Africa, where they were divided equally between Jewish orphanages in Cape Town and Johannesburg and offered for adoption.
A 2008 film made by South African film maker Jon Blair entitled Ochberg’s Orphans tells the children’s story, interspersed with harrowing images of the pogroms, and interviews with some of the last remaining orphans still alive at that time. “When we arrived we thought we were in Fairyland,” one recalled. And of Ochberg, the same old lady said, “We called him Daddy, because for most of us children he was the only daddy we ever knew”.
The film includes footage shot by UK camera crews while the group spent two weeks at an orphanage in London before heading to Southampton to board the ship for Cape Town. The children briefly became minor celebrities, having captured the imagination of the British media.
The story of the Ochberg orphans also features in a new film by US filmmaker LeeAnn Dance, My Dear Children. I have not managed to see the film yet, but it has been broadcast on TV across the US and at film showings at Jewish centres. I have been in touch with the filmmaker and look forward to seeing it at the first opportunity.
The film centres on Judy Favish’s 2013 pilgrimage to trace her grandparents Feiga and Kalman Shamis’s route from their shtetl in Ukraine to Warsaw with their 12 children.
Two of Feiga’s children, Mannie and Rose, joined the group that travelled from Warsaw to Cape Town with Isaac Ochberg. Feiga’s other children were dispersed – two were sent to New York, while five survived the pogroms only to die later in Nazi concentration camps, and one ended up in Palestine.
Mannie was adopted from one of the Jewish orphanages in South Africa, but Rose refused to let herself be taken by another family, never giving up hope that her mother would come for her. But she never did.
Feiga did maintain contact with her children, however. Years later she settled on a kibbutz and Mannie was able to visit her there while serving as a soldier in North Africa during World War II. She gave him two copies of a 40-page letter, handwritten in Yiddish, which contained the story of her life.
Neither Mannie nor Rose could read or speak Yiddish, and although Mannie eventually had the letter translated, he couldn’t bear to read it. It wasn’t until after he died that one of his children had it properly translated and edited, and made into a small book, a copy of which she gave to each family member.
Although both Mannie and Rose felt that their mother had abandoned them, for Feiga it was a case of doing what she could to ensure her children would survive. Little could she know that for those who escaped from Europe, her decision also spared them the horrors of the Holocaust twenty years later.
More information about My Dear Children is available here: www.mydearchildrendoc.com/
The film of Ochberg's Orphans is available to view here:
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. As my research for a new book set in Ukraine continues, articles published here will focus on three tumultuous periods in particular: the Second World War, the Russian Civil War and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14.