You might know of heroic figures during WW2 eg Irena Sendler, Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, Varian Fry and Nicholas Winton but 1921 seems very early for heroic gestures. Many thanks to my South African friends for bringing this story to my attention.
Group passport photo
In despairing letters smuggled through enemy lines, Jews begged their cousins in South Africa for help. These pleas immediately stirred South Africa's Jewish communities. People asked at meetings across the country if at least the children could be rescued from the Ukraine. Before any organisation could step in, generous offers of financial and other assistance were made by Russian-born Cape Town businessman Isaac Ochberg.
Two questions became critical: How could the orphans be rescued from a war-torn region, and would the South African government create any difficulties in admitting them? Ochberg quickly met Jan Smuts, prime minister between 1919–1924, who gave the children entry visas. Smuts could have sunk the rescue plan in an instant, had he chosen to. His support was essential and warmly welcomed.
As reports of the Jews' plight continued to arrive in South Africa, the size of the tragedy became clearer. 100,000-150,000 Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered by Ukrainian nationalists and another 400,000 Jewish orphans were starving. The next step was for someone to travel to Eastern Europe and make arrangements on the spot. Ochberg agreed to go. For two months Ochberg travelled by train, wagon and on horseback around the Pale, looking for orphaned children. The Ukrainian children knew only that "The Man From Africa" was coming and he was going to take some of them away to a new home, on the other side of the world.
Ochberg's worst problem was how to select which children to take and which he had to leave in Eastern Europe. So he decided to choose eight children from each institution, until he reached a total of exactly 200. Since the South African government required that the children had to be in good physical and mental health, careful selection was essential. In addition, only those who had lost BOTH parents were accepted.
In Pinsk alone, so many children had been orphaned that 3 new orphanages had to be opened. At first, Pinsk was so isolated by the fighting that the children were dependent solely on their own resources. There were no blankets, beds or clothes. Typhus broke out in one of the orphanages and the pogroms raged for a week at a time. As order was restored, food supplies began to trickle in, first from Berlin and then from the Joint Distribution Committee.
Isaac Ochberg 1879–1938
Three months later, with the 200 children in London, he wrote to the leadership in South Africa: "I have been through almost every village in the Polish Ukraine and Galicia and am now well acquainted with the places where there is at present extreme suffering. I have succeeded in collecting the necessary number of children, and I can safely say that the generosity displayed by South African Jewry in making this mission possible means nothing less than saving their lives. They would surely have died of starvation, disease, or been lost to our nation for other reasons. I am now in London with the object of arranging transport and I hope to be able to advise soon of my departure for South Africa with the children."
A tremendous reception awaited the orphans when they came ashore in Cape Town. So large was the group of children that the Cape Jewish Orphanage was unable to house them all, so 78 went on to Johannesburg.
Ochberg died in 1937 while on an ocean voyage, 59 years old. He was buried in Cape Town at one of the largest funerals ever seen there. Ochberg left what was then the largest single bequest to the Jewish National Fund. The JNF used it to redeem a piece of land in Israel called Nahalat Yitzhak Ochberg - which included the kibbutzim of Dalia and Ein Hashofet.
An Ochberg dedication ceremony will take place at Kibbutz Dalia on 19th of July this year, 90 years after the rescue project. For the thousands of descendants of his orphans, he is the reason they are alive. The original orphans' children and grandchildren will honour Ochberg’s memory by the establishment of a JNF Memorial Park and museum that will bear his name. As the Blair film suggested, Ochberg's legacy is a reminder that a small group of people can, through their actions, make a big difference.
Ochberg orphans disembarking in Cape Town, 1921
The names of the orphans have been published in Tracing the Tribe: The Jewish Genealogy Blog. It is recognised that the list is not yet complete and that the spellings may be imperfect.