Updated: Jan 14, 2021
Chances are you’ve never heard of Isaac Ochberg. Yet thousands of people are alive today because he undertook a remarkable and dangerous rescue mission more than 90 years ago.
While others raised money for relief efforts in the aftermath of WWI, Ochberg took action. Two decades before Oskar Schindler employed 1,000 Jews to keep them from concentration camps, Isaac Ochberg plucked 200 children out of war torn Eastern Europe and took them to South Africa. Had Ochberg not rescued those children, they, too, likely would have died years later in the gas chambers.
Rose and Mannie Shamis, two of the subjects of Feiga’s Choice, were amongst those rescued. Their siblings who remained behind did, indeed, die in the Holocaust.
Ochberg was born in 1878, the oldest son of devout Jewish parents living in the central Ukrainian town of Uman. Isaac’s father left Uman in 1893, hoping for greater opportunity in South Africa, where he had heard others before him were prospering. Two years later, Isaac joined his father and was apprenticed to a jeweler to learn watch making. But this was not for Isaac, and he set out on a series of business ventures that ultimately built him a fortune.
“Whether it was property speculation, the opening of new estates, a brickfield, building projects, derelict ships to be raised from a watery grave, farming, scrap-metal dealings, Government contracts or financial schemes,” his daughter Bertha Epstein wrote, “he had the pluck and pertinacity to undertake them all in turn.”
Ochberg became a South African citizen in 1899, married a woman from Uman, and had five children. Despite his success, Epstein says they lived modestly. He was, however, incredibly generous.
“He was always ready,” says Epstein, “to proffer help whenever and wherever it was needed, no matter what the creed, race or colour of those needing it.”
Cape Jewish Orphanage
While active in an array of Jewish causes, Ochberg had a soft spot for children. He was a founder of the Cape Jewish Orphanage and later became its long-serving president.
Veronica Belling, former Jewish Studies Librarian at the University of Cape Town, painstakingly read through years of Cape Jewish Orphanage minutes while researching her centennial book about the orphanage.
“One thing that comes out of the minutes,” says Belling, “is that Ochberg is passionate, passionate about the orphanage. I think he actually once said ‘the orphanage is my whole life.’ Because he came from the Ukraine himself, when he started to hear about the unrest and the pogroms, I mean he was just devastated, and he just wanted to rescue as many children as possible.”
Ochberg’s Pogrom Orphan Scheme
The end of the Great War did not bring peace to Ochberg’s homeland. Revolution, civil war, and pogroms prolonged what had already been years of suffering. Ochberg had read reports of at least 300,000 Jewish orphans in Eastern Europe. He desperately wanted to help, but not with mere aide. He knew aide would do little to alleviate the suffering there. His plan – evacuate children to South Africa, and he would lead the effort. By August 1920, he had won support in both London and South Africa for his scheme.
Ochberg then launched a four-month campaign to raise money, support, and promises of adoption. He traversed the country, raising funds that the South African government had agreed to match. In March, at his own expense, he left for London to begin the complicated and challenging arrangements.
By June, he had secured permission to enter Russia and gather 200 children. For two months he traveled by truck and horse-drawn cart, visiting orphanages and shtetls and making the difficult decision – who to take and who to leave behind.
“I had a horrible time,” Ochberg wrote to the Cape Jewish Orphanage. “In fact I think I got grey recently not only of my own worries, troubles and discomforts but mostly for the reason of having seen the people who were so terrible prosecuted and ill treated. Will not attempt to describe what I have heard or seen. That will almost take books, however, the position is desperate. Thousands of Jewish Orphans are in need of immediate and urgent assistance and although my health has suffered much by being here, yet, I feel that no sacrifice can be too great for any Jew if through that, some of this (sic) unfortunate children of our race can be helped.”
By early August, Ochberg had gathered the children in Warsaw and set out on the long journey first to London and then on to South Africa. They arrived in Cape Town to a tumultuous welcome on September 19, 1921.
By the time they reached South Africa, the children had become attached to the man they now called “Daddy Ochberg.”
“Isaac was a honey,” recalled Becky Greenberg, one of the orphans. “He was like a father to us. There was no difference from one child to another. Every child was a darling. Everyone was lovely, and everyone he patted. He was just wonderful.”
Ochberg continued to visit the children and took a keen interest in their well-being. But he remained haunted by what he had seen in Ukraine and returned in the winter of 1922, hoping to rescue more children. The Soviet government refused this time on the grounds that no more Russian children should come under bourgeois influence. Instead, he distributed food, clothing, and medicine and set-up soup kitchens supported by the Cape Jewish Orphanage.
Ochberg and Palestine
In the years following the Ukraine rescue, he turned his efforts to Palestine, spurred by a visit there in 1926.
“I came away with a feeling of confidence that the Jewish problem can and will be solved ultimately in Eretz Israel and in Eretz Israel only,” Ochberg is quoted in an interview with the Zionist Record. “There is every prospect of most important development in Palestine as the country grows.”
Having seen the famine from which landless Jews in Eastern Europe suffered, he dreamed of Jews settling on the land in Palestine. To that end, he donated considerable funds to a Chair of Agriculture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in his will bequeathed funds to the Jewish National Fund for the purchase of “a large tract of land suitable for agricultural settlement by Jews.” It remains the largest bequest made by an individual. Today it is home to a park in his honor and a kibbutz.
In 1933, Ochberg’s youngest daughter Ruth died suddenly of a heart ailment shortly after her 17th birthday. He was devastated by her death, and according to his older daughter Bertha, never seemed to recover. His already poor health deteriorated from then on. Later, he was discovered to have been suffering from stomach cancer. He died at sea on December 11th, 1937, just two days before reaching Cape Town. He was 59.
His funeral cortege was believed to have been one of the largest ever seen in Cape Town, with hundreds of cars following the funeral hearse. Amongst the mourners were many now-grown orphans who had come to know him as “Daddy Ochberg.” For many years, as if he were a relative, the Ochberg orphans recited the Mourner’s Kaddish on the anniversary of his death.
Belling, Veronica, “Issac Ochberg and Sholem Schwartzbard: The Cape Town Connection to the Pogroms in the Ukraine,” Jewish Affairs, 2009: 28-32.
Boiskin, Jonathan, “The Ochberg Orphans: An Episode in the History of the Cape Jewish Orphanage,” Jewish Affairs, 49(2), 1994: 21-27.
Epstein, Bertha, This Was a Man: The Life Story of Isaac Ochberg, Cape Province, 1974
Kaplan, David, “Righting a Wrong,” Telfed, Israel, November 2011: 30-32.
Sandler, David Solly, The Ochberg Orphans and the Horrors from Whence They Came,” Australia, 2011
Wulf, Linda Press, The Night of the Burning,” New York, 2006