How South Africa became a home to Jewish orphans

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Nearly one hundred years ago, one man — with the support of the SA Jewish community — brought 167 Jewish orphans from Russia to South Africa, safe at last from brutal pogrom attacks, desperate poverty and widespread disease.

After World War I and the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II in 1917, Eastern Europe was fraught with conflict. Jews were hated and they were repeatedly and relentlessly the victims of horrifying, brutal massacres. The Pale of Settlement, where there were approximately four million Jews living at the time, was the area that stretched from Latvia to Ukraine and Galicia. This area was the site of particularly cruel and harrowing pogroms. Thousands of Jews were killed and it was estimated that at least 300 000 to 400 000 Jewish children had been left orphaned and destitute. Their parents had either been murdered, or they had died of starvation or disease. The flu epidemic and typhus claimed thousands of lives. No Jew, old or young, was safe. Those children who did find their way to orphanages suffered further as the conditions in the orphanages were dismal. Often there were neither beds nor bedding. Flour bags were used as clothes.

David Sandler’s book More ARC Memories describes in detail the experiences and recollections of many of those orphans:
“Somewhere along the line the parents disappeared…they survived as street children, in rags with broken shoes and very little food…when the German troops arrived they were friendly and gave the children chocolate… took them to work on the farms picking potatoes…one day they would eat potatoes and the next day the skins.”

Jewish orphans were under constant threat as they continued to be the target of senseless anti-Semetism and murderous hatred. Poverty, famine and illness claimed the lives of many of these children, particularly those who roamed the streets and forests without anyone to take care of them. Knowledge about the tragedy in Southern Russia filtered through to the South African Jewish community, many of whom had recently escaped near death themselves by fleeing to this country.

South Africa stepped in to help
Isaac Ochberg, himself a Ukrainian immigrant, was a Cape Town businessman and the president of the Cape Jewish Orphanage, now known as Oranjia Children’s Home. Oranjia had been in existence since 1912 and Ochberg was one of its founders. In 1920, he spearheaded a plan to rescue as many orphans from Russia as possible, and house them at Oranjia and Arcadia (the Jewish Orphanage in Johannesburg), with a view to finding homes and families for the children where possible.

Funds were raised by the Jewish community for the mission, totalling 25 000 pounds. Ochberg obtained permission from the then prime minister, Jan Smuts, and Interior Minister, Patrick Duncan, to bring in an unrestricted number of orphans to SA. The government’s proviso was that the children who were brought here were in good health, reasonably intelligent and would not become a burden on the state. In 1921, Ochberg sailed for Europe to find his orphans.

Ochberg’s mission
Selecting which children to bring home to SA was not an easy task for Ochberg. Apparently his criteria were that both their parents had died, they should be under 16 years of age, and they needed to show willingness to be relocated to SA. Ochberg was determined not to separate siblings and often older sisters went along as unpaid helpers or ‘nurses’ so as not to tear apart what was left of their families. Sadly though, this was not always the case and there were heart wrenching stories of siblings having been left behind.
The children were both excited and terrified about their new home in SA. An orphan quoted years later in Sandler’s book said, “We heard stories of robbers and wild animals and we feared we might be eaten by lions or cannibals or sold off as slaves”. The children were given group passports with photos of about 30 children on each passport. Some children got sick or ran away out of fear before the rescue. Their names were crossed out and their faces marked with an X on the passport photo to show that they were no longer part of the group.
They started off their journey in cattle trucks. The late Solly Jossel who was seven years old at the time is quoted in Sandler’s book: “We were packed into cattle trucks, with only room enough for standing. The smell inside those trucks will live with me forever! The fetid aroma of cattle bound for the slaughter house, mingled with the sweat and urine of my travelling companions seemed to inflitrate every pore of my body…we were packed…like sardines and were given one meal a day, which was a plate of soup.”

Later they travelled by boat to Danzig and then they boarded a steamer for London. The journey to London took six weeks. On 2 September 1921 Ochberg and the children sailed for Cape Town on the Edinburgh Castle. In Solly’s words, “I don’t remember feeling bad. We didn’t go through any hardships we didn’t already know. We were only too pleased to sleep and to eat whatever they gave us.” Finally, they were welcomed into the Cape Town harbour by a crowd of weeping, cheering people.

The Ochberg orphans in South Africa
The children were taken to either the Cape Town or Johannesburg Jewish orphanages and many undoubtedly placed into foster homes or adopted. They were undoubtably safe and much ‘better off’ in South Africa, but not all of them were happy. Some were homesick and extremely traumatised after having lost their parents, their homes and to some extent their identities. These children were refugees. They owned nothing and were totally reliant on the charity of strangers. They were faced with major challenges once they arrived in SA, like having to learn English, and having to integrate into a strange and foreign community. Tragically, sometimes brothers and sisters were separated when SA families well-meaningly adopted one but left the other in the orphanage.

According to Lauren Snitcher, herself a granddaughter of an Ochberg orphan, there was a tendency amongst the orphans throughout their lives to be silent about where they had come from and what had happened to them.
Many of them never discussed their childhoods with their families and it is only now, nearly one hundred years later, that the story is being shared and talked about. Lauren believes that the shroud of secrecy might have had something to do with the shame and humiliation that they felt about having been orphans. Trauma can have that effect! In addition, says Lauren, finding the words to describe something as horrifying as what these children went through is impossible. Words could never do justice to their pain, fear and their losses.

Lauren’s late grandmother, Braindel Gezunterman, made the journey to SA with Ochberg when she was about 9 years old. Lauren remembers her grandmother as a wise, positive, insightful, accepting woman, who had the ability to see the bigger picture and would never get caught up in the small stuff of life. In the research Lauren has done, she has been struck by the descriptions of Ochberg orphans as having been, for the most part, emotionally stable, strong characters with an ability to live life with gratitude. They were the survivors. The lucky ones. In the words of one of these survivors quoted in Sandler’s book, “Isaac Ochberg snatched us from the jaws of death… if we hadn’t died then from famine and disease, we would have perished 20 years later in the gas chambers.”

There are now over 2500 descendants of the original 167 orphans rescued by Ochberg and brought to SA. Nine years ago I was fortunate enough to meet the last surviving Ochberg orphan. Molly Cohen was then in her nineties and lived in Cape Town. I was struck by her grace and dignity. Despite a life that began with horror and continued to deliver her harsh blows even in adulthood, Molly was radiant with warmth, kindness and generosity of spirit. She acknowledged how hard it was without parents to back her up and support her. “I wonder how I managed,” she said. Molly had no recollection of her parents or of her two sisters who died of typhus at a young age. The only memories she had of her early years in Eastern Europe were of being shunted from pillar to post and being taken care of by different people about whom she knew nothing. In her memories, there was no home. No permanence. She belonged nowhere and with no-one. But when Molly arrived in Cape Town and went to stay in the children’s home now known as Oranjia, there was a place for her despite having lost her roots, her country and her family.
How Molly’s childhood at Oranjia was described in Connections and Recollections: Remembrances of an Ochberg Orphan, written by Charlotte Cohen, was borne out in an interview I had with Molly and her daughter-in-law, Charlotte.

It reads: “On Sundays, it seemed as if the whole Jewish community came to visit us, to talk to us and ask questions … The community was loving and caring, totally committed and involved with the children and the running of the home. It was never short of funds and we were never short of anything. If a child showed talent and wished to extend his or her capabilities or study further, they were totally and wholeheartedly assisted and given every encouragement…We were extremely fortunate. We had the best of a sheltered, cared-for upbringing. We played, attended school and were given a religious background. We were surrounded by friends and by a devoted community, and never felt unloved…They were happy years. The one thing that remains in my mind is the exceptional generosity of spirit and kindness we experienced. We were adopted by the whole Cape Town community. There were always people visiting the home. They were a part of the home — and we were part of the community. We were taken into their homes – and more importantly, into their hearts…More than anything, the care, concern and outstanding kindness extended to us by the Jewish people of Cape Town is something I have always carried with me. It is something that has sustained me, for which I have been appreciative, grateful and valued all my life.”

Thanks to the people of South Africa and the local Jewish community, Molly, along with 166 other destitute and desperate children had finally found a home.

References: A special thanks to Lauren Snitcher for her photographs and assistance, also to Charlotte Cohen, David Sandler and Molly Cohen. David Solly Sandler More ARC Memories (2008). David Solly Sandler Ochberg Orphans (2010). Jack Goldfarb Odyssey of the Ochberg orphans. (The Jerusalem Post September 1981). David E. Kaplan The man from Africa (The Jerusalem Post April 2008). Lauren Snitcher Ochberg’s Orphans (documentary). Charlotte Cohen Connections and Reflections: Remembrances of an Ochberg Orphan (Temple Rosh Hashana Annual 2006; Jewish Affairs Pesach edition 2007; Ochberg Orphans and the Horrors From Which They Came (David Solly Sandler 2011); and Memories of Oranjia – The Cape Jewish Orphanage 1911-2011 (David Solly Sandler 2014). Bertha Epstein (1974) This was a Man.

1 COMMENT

  1. My mother and her two sisters were Ochberg Orphans and as mentioned in the article my mother never talked about her experiences or her trip to South Africa. All I knew I knew was that she was an Ochberg Orphan and that growing up I had a lot of “uncles and aunts” whom I found out a lot later were also part of the same group. My paternal uncle also married of of the girls and both he and my father both kept up a lifelong connection with Oranjia the orphanage in Cape Town. Thanks for publishing the article. Though all the Ochberg Orphans are now gone the memory of Isaac Ochberg remains forever dear to the more than 2,500 descendants who owe their lives to him.

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