By Tali Feinberg
Advocate Hertzel Katz comes from South Africa and lives in Israel, but for most of his life he had never heard of Isaac Ochberg. That is, until he met Bennie Penzik, whose parents had both been ‘Ochberg orphans’ rescued from Russia and brought to South Africa by Ochberg.
Ochberg was a very successful businessman in South Africa who undertook the hazardous journey to Eastern Europe in 1921 to rescue 173 orphans from the pogroms after the First World War.
He travelled by truck and a horse-drawn cart for two months, visiting orphanages, small Jewish towns and villages in eastern Europe while making the difficult decision of who will he take and who will be left behind.
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 in September 1921. Half of the orphans were settled at Oranjia, the Cape Jewish orphanage, and half at Arcadia, the Jewish orphanage in Johannesburg.
Ochberg continued to visit the children and took a great interest in their well-being. One of the orphans, Becky Greenberg, recalled, “He was like a father to us. There was no difference from one child to another. He was just wonderful.”
He was an ardent Zionist and donated to the Jewish National Fund even before the Jewish State was created. He died at the young age of 59. He remains the largest single donor to the JNF. Today there are more than 4000 descendants of the ‘Ochberg Orphans’.
Hertzel Katz was so astonished by the story that he began to investigate how Ochberg was being remembered in South Africa and Israel. He discovered that although Ochberg’s monetary donations had been used to purchase large tracts of land in the north of Israel, there was no memorial there commemorating him (a small memorial stone had been removed during the building of roads in the area). Essentially Ochberg, had been forgotten. So “I set out to right a wrong,” says Hertzel.
Together with the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee, he played a key role the creation of the Ochberg Memorial Park in 2016. “It’s a beautiful memorial near Megiddo, with all the names of the rescued orphans. We hope that people will visit in when they go to Israel.”
But what about the next generation? Hertzel realised that both younger and older Israelis had no idea who Ochberg was, and that this had to be corrected fast. Hertzel volunteers as an English tutor with Israel’s English-Speaking Residents Association (ESRA) at the Alon High School in Ramat Hasharon. He proposed that a creative writing competition be held at the school, where learners could uncover the fascinating story of Isaac Ochberg and then write essays, poems and stories about his life.
At first the suggestion was not taken up, but when a new principal at the school took over, she immediately backed the idea. “I was on a cloud when she gave us the go-ahead!” remembers Hertzel. Led by English teacher Denise Cohen, the Isaac Ochberg Creative Writing Competition came into being.
English teachers invited pupils from Grades 10 to 12 to submit a piece of creative writing explaining the meaning of the Talmudic saying, “Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world,” and illustrate how it can be applied to Ochberg.
About 150 pupils working either individually or in teams, voluntarily researched or submitted more than 70 contributions, either as a poem, essay, letter, piece of prose or interview. The entries were submitted by, 27 January 2019, which marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The competition was judged by The Jerusalem Report editor Steve Linde, and all pupils who participated in the project will be recognized. The winning entries will be published in The Jerusalem Report.
Now that the creative writing competition has been so successfully implemented, Hertzel hopes it will be replicated across Israel. ESRA is planning to take this initiative to a much higher level with the support of the Education Ministry, and introduce it into other Israeli schools.
“Israel is emerging as an international power house in school and university English debating, notably winning a major international debate at the University of Cape Town in South Africa,” says David Kaplan of Telfed and a member of the Ochberg Committee.
“This creative writing competition and its publication in The Jerusalem Report augur well for the future. May other schools follow Alon’s lead. The Ochberg saga is about children, and maybe Alon’s children will take the message into the future.”
Hertzel hopes that if anyone takes the lead, it will be Jewish day schools, shuls and youth groups in South Africa, and most importantly in Cape Town. After all, this is where Ochberg came from, and if our younger generation does not know his story, it will be lost.
He proposes that community leaders in South Africa take up the call and establish formal opportunities for young people to learn about Isaac Ochberg. “We must do something to recognise this Cape Town hero. It would be great if this initiative can spread to other Jewish communities but Cape Town should be number one, and leading the way.”
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