Updated: Jan 14, 2021
The United Nations estimates 7,000 children in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have lost one or both parents to Ebola.
Horrible as that is, that number pales in comparison to the millions of children orphaned between 1914 and 1922 when war, famine, and disease left some 16 million people dead in the new Soviet state. More than 300,000 were Jewish children.
News of the horrors in Eastern Europe spread around the world, reaching South African philanthropist Isaac Ochberg. He mounted an effort to rescue 1,000 children but received permission from the South African government for just 200. In 1921, after an arduous two-month journey plucking children from devastated Russian villages, he managed to rescue about 180 and take them to Cape Town. These children became known as the Ochberg Orphans.
Nestled in an Ochberg Orphan scrapbook in the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town is a child’s poem written sometime during their six-week journey. That poem was translated into English and published in 1971 as part of a 50-year reunion celebration. It was attributed to “an anonymous Jewish child from the Ukraine.”
But the poem is not anonymous. In fact, we recently discovered, it was written by three boys.
Orphan Poem Authors
During our recent My Dear Children shooting trip in South Africa, we plumbed the archive with retired librarian Dr. Veronica Belling — the person most familiar with the Ochberg archive at UCT. As a Yiddish scholar, we asked to record Belling reading the poem in its original Yiddish. But as she read the poem prior to recording, she realized the original did not match the translation. And, to her great surprise, a line at the end of the poem reads: “Sof kumt di dikhter fun di lid,” which translates to “Finally come the names of the poets.” The authors: Girsh Lidwinitski, Shmuel Garbuz, and Avraham Raichman, all 11 or 12 years old.
Belling describes the 1971 translation as more sophisticated and free, perhaps chosen for the adult audience at the reunion. But, Belling says, the original poem, handwritten in Yiddish in Hebrew cursive script, reflects the youth and religious background of the authors. It uses the first 10 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a method often used in Hebrew prayers known as piyutim, or liturgical poems, that were meant to be sung or chanted during religious services.
“Nonetheless,” says Belling, “the sentiments are not that childlike but reflect their dire situation during the pogroms.”
Belling also says the names of the three boys were very difficult to decipher, and she was only able to do so using a full list of the orphans she had compiled researching the archive. That list wasn’t available to the original translator.
The timing of the new translation was fortuitous for Belling. She had been working on a book celebrating 100 years of Oranjia, the Cape Town orphanage that became home to about half of the Ochberg Orphans, the other half going to Johannesburg. Belling was able to slip the new translation into the book just prior to printing. That book will be released November 27th in Cape Town.
THE SONG OF THE AFRICAN ORPHAN
Alef is for Av/ our Merciful father who dwells up on high Then woe to the pain of the little children who were left orphans.
Beys is for beys/ the home we were pitifully forced to leave Then Daddy Ochberg arrived to make us African citizens
Gimel is for God may He bless us So that we should find ourselves among good people
Dalet is for dayges/ worries without end When a letter arrives I am a rich man
Hey is for the hundreds of children Who will remain together just like brothers
Vav is for vunder/ the wonder of when we grow up We will be good to poor people
Zayin is for zindike/ sinful people That we were Now God will bless us.
Khet is for khurbn/ the destruction that there was When we were parted From our friends
Tet is for tomer/ perchance should we be bad We will be tossed about like a pike
Yud is for Yudn/ Jews that we will be And we will surely enter into Zion
Finally come the names of the poets: Girsh Lidwinitzki Shmuel Garbuz Avraham Raichman
THE POEM OF THE ORPHAN ON HIS WAY TO SOUTH AFRICA
Merciful Father in Heaven Who in His mercy toward children left orphans Forced to leave their homes Has sent father Ochberg to make us citizens of South Africa God blessed us that we found ourselves among good people Our worries ended when we received the letter. Our group, hundreds of children, would not be separated we would live as brothers! A miracle will happen and when we grow up and stand on our feet We will never forget the poor and needy. Sins we have known We will pray and ask blessings from heaven We left behind us ruins when we started on our way We took leave of our friends And hoped that fate would allow That we would lives as Jews To reach Zion is our dream. Father Ochberg came to rescue us… And we will live as Jews And to Zion come…
So wrote an anonymous Jewish child from the Ukraine…
ORPHAN POEM IN YIDDISH:
ALEF Makht Av ha-rakhamim shokhen meromim Az okhen vey tsu di kleyne kinder vos hobn gebliben yesoymim.
BEYS Makht Beys a shtub a shod avek tsu varfen Kumt tsu geyn der tate Hokhberg vel unz Afrikaner makhen
GIMEL Makht Got zol unz benshn Az mir zoln opkumen mit gute menshn
DALET Makht Dayges on a shir Az es kumt a brivele ver ikh a gvir
HEY Makht Hunderter kinder Veln mir zikh nit tsesheydn azoy vi eygene brider
VAV Makht Vunder vet zayn ven mire veln vern layt Veln mir guts ton oreme layt
ZAYIN Makt Zindike menshn Zaynen mir geven Itster vet Got unz benshn
KHET Makht a Khurbn iz gevezen Ven mir hobn opgeforn Fun unzere khaveyrim
TET Makht Tomer vet unz zayn shlekht Veln mir zich tsaplen vi a hekht
YUD Makht Yudn veln mir zayn Un mir veln zikher zayn in Tsiyon arayn
Sof kumt di dikhter fun di lid: Girsh Lidwinitzki Shmuel Garbuz Avraham Raichman
ORIGINAL ORPHAN POEM FROM THE OCHBERG ARCHIVE AT UCT