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The Ochberg Orphans: Saving 197 Jewish Orphans

March 16, 2021 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Marking the 100th anniversary of Isaac Ochberg’s remarkable rescue mission.

Although Peggy Gaby was orphaned at a young age, she always kept in touch with the beloved man she called father.

“It’s difficult to read the letter,” Peggy’s granddaughter, Yael Pritzker of Atlanta, recently explained to as she slowly picked out the faded words of one of her family’s precious heirlooms, a letter her grandmother wrote to the man who saved her life. “Dear Father Ochberg, First a little letter to let you know that we all are well. We received a letter from you. I was very happy to hear that you and your family arrived safely…”

Peggy Gaby was born in Kovel, a town in Ukraine in 1910. Known as Pesha then, she only spoke Yiddish and lived in the most dire circumstances, like hundreds of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe at the time. Her father, brother and sister had died of typhus and starvation; her mother had died from a stroke. Only Peggy and her two sisters survived. They were so poor that one of her sisters only possession was a dress made out of sack-cloth that she wore every day.

The early 1920s was a terrible time for Jewish orphans in Eastern Europe – and their numbers were staggering. It’s estimated that in 1921, over 350,000 Jewish children were orphans across the region. Ravaged by hunger, typhus and other diseases, they were also buffeted by the brutal civil war that was raging in Russia between the Bolsheviks and the White Army. Both sides saw Jews as fair prey, and reports of vicious pogroms were heard daily, as Jews were massacred in parts of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Poland, and beyond.

Desperate Jews sent letters to Jewish communities abroad, pleading for aid. One of these letters reached the Jewish community in Cape Town in South Africa, where it galvanized the community. Many South African Jews at the time were themselves immigrants from Eastern Europe. They knew firsthand the intense Jew-hatred of the places they’d left and they feared for their co-religionists left behind, particularly defenseless Jewish orphans.

One of the Cape Town Jews who debated the desperate plight of Russian Jews was Isaac Ochberg. Born in Ukraine, he’d moved to South Africa in 1894 at the age of fifteen. By 1920, he was a successful businessman and he wanted to help. Instead of merely pledging funds or declaring his concern, Ochberg decided to take concrete action. Instead of delegating responsibility to others, he started making plans to travel to Eastern Europe himself and see what he could do to help rescue Jewish orphans. Other South African Jews pledged funds to help him make his life-saving trip.

Before setting sail, Ochberg arranged a meeting with South Africa’s Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, to ask for permission to bring Jewish orphans back to South Africa. Mr. Smuts’ answer was disappointing: he’d allow no more than 200 Jewish orphans into the country. Moreover, these orphans had to be under sixteen years old, have no living parents, and not be missing any limbs. Ochberg agreed, though in time he’d break all three of those rules.

Isaac Ochberg with his wife Polly and daughters Ruth (left) and Bertha (right

In 1920, Ochberg set off to Eastern Europe. He was accompanied by Alexander Bobrow, a 26-year-old Jewish chemist, who’d previously helped Jewish refugees from the Belarusian city of Pinsk and knew the area. (Alexander Bobrow’s son-in-law, Sir Aaron Klug, would later become widely known for winning the 1982 Nobel Prize for chemistry.) Together, these two men travelled throughout Eastern Europe gathering orphans to take back with them to South Africa – and doing all they could to help those they were forced to leave behind.

The need was endless. While many accounts of Ochberg’s mission describe Jewish children as living in orphanages, “they weren’t really orphanages,” Yael Pritzker explains. "There was often no food to be had. The orphans foraged for mushrooms.”

Yael’s grandmother Peggy was eleven in 1920 when Isaac Ochberg rescued her. She was so malnourished that her growth was permanently stunted. “Because she was malnourished she had tiny feet,” Yael remembers. For the rest of her life, Peggy had to have her shoes and her clothes specially made.

One Jewish orphan rescued by Ochberg and Bobrow was five-year-old Harry Stillerman. Harry was part of a loving Jewish home until Cossacks rode into his family’s shtetl, seeking to kill Jews. The Cossacks shot Harry’s parents in front of him, then a Cossack charged at Harry with his saber drawn, ready to murder the little boy. Harry put his arm up to protect himself and the Cossack struck with his sword, severing Harry’s arm at the elbow. Miraculously, Harry survived and became one of the lucky “Ochberg Orphans” brought back to South Africa.

Ochberg had a wrenching time deciding which orphans to rescue. He made the difficult decision to take eight orphans from each orphanage he visited.

He recorded detailed notes in Yiddish about each of the children he was rescuing. Peggy Gaby was rescued along with two of her sisters, her younger sister Gittel and her older sister Chaya (later known as Clara). Ochberg’s notes about these three girls states that their “father, brother and sister died of hunger and typhus… Their mother died from stroke…. They have lived through many pogroms and suffering…. The children live without any support.”

Later in life, Alexander Bobrow recalled the terrible conditions he and Ochberg witnessed and the steps they took to help the countless orphans they had to leave behind. In the city of Pinsk, “so many children were found that we set up three orphanages. At first, Pinsk was so isolated by the fighting (of the Russian civil war) that we were dependent solely on our own resources. We had neither beds, bedding nor clothes, and I recall using flour bags to make clothes for the children.”

Soon, typhus raged through one of the orphanages and the city came under direct attack, with pogroms raging through the town.

Eventually, the situation in Pinsk improved slightly, particularly when supplies donated by the New York-based Joint Distribution Committee reached Pinsk. Bobrow later recalled that one of the American relief workers who helped give desperately needed supplies to Pinsk Jews was Henry Morgenthau who would later serve as Secretary of the US Treasury under President Franklin Roosevelt.

Ochberg and Bobrow spent three months travelling through the region, gathering together hundreds of Jewish orphans. Towards the end of this period, Ochberg wrote in a letter: “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.”

“Ochberg’s Orphans”, Jewish children orphaned by the pogroms in Eastern Europe, who were brought to South Africa to start new lives.

Officially, Isaac Ochberg rescued 197 Jewish orphans. (Some accounts put that number lower, at 171.) Yael Pritzker, whose grandmother and great aunts were saved, notes that in reality he saved even more. Her Great Aunt Clara was about sixteen when she arrived in South Africa – too old to count towards Jan Smuts’ definition of orphans that Ochberg was allowed to save – so Isaac Ochberg called her a nurse’s assistant and brought her as a staff member accompanying her sisters.

Some of the “orphans” Ochberg rescued weren’t truly orphans according to Smuts’ definition, either, Yael notes. “Some weren’t orphans: their parents couldn’t support their kids any more. Facing starvation and horrific violence, some desperate parents sent kids into the forest to escape pogroms.” Many of the orphans Ochberg rescued were terrified Jewish children he found starving and traumatized, wandering in the forests of Eastern Europe.

One orphan, Fanny Frier, later recalled the that she and the other children were told that Ochberg was going to rescue them. “He was going to take some of us away with him and give us a new home on the other side of the world…. (W)hen he appeared with his reddish hair and cheery smile, we all took a great liking to him and called him ‘Daddy’. He would spend hours talking to us, making jokes and cheering us up.”

The ship carrying the “Ochberg Orphans” travelled to London and then on to Cape Town. Fanny Frier stated, “Never to my dying day shall I ever forget our first sight of the lights of Cape Town and then the tremendous reception when we came ashore with half the city apparently waiting on the quay for us.”

Sadly, the group of orphans was so large that the Jewish orphanage in Cape Town ran out of room and some orphans were sent to a Jewish orphanage in far-away Johannesburg. Some of the orphans were adopted by South African Jewish families, but many grew up in the orphanages. When it came to the Gaby sisters, Yael Pritzker recalls, they all “married out of the orphanage,” moving directly from their orphanages into their new homes with their husbands.

Isaac Ochberg (center) with his rescued orphans in 1921 in Eastern Europe before leaving for South Africa.

At the same time he was rescuing European Jews, Isaac Ochberg was also working to build the nascent Jewish state. His 1937 gift to the Jewish National Fund is the largest donation that organization has ever received, even now 84 years later, and was used to purchase land for Kibbutz Dalia and Kibbutz Gal’ed in Israel’s north. Much of the region used to be informally known as Even Yitzchak, or Stone of Isaac, after Isaac Ochberg.

Isaac Ochberg passed away in 1938, but his legacy continues.

Yael Pritzker recalls that when her father grew up in South Africa, he was always keenly aware who had been rescued from certain death in 1921. Not only did his mother Peggy owe her life to Ochberg’s life-saving mission, so did their downstairs neighbor and many other Jews in the area. “His parents would always comment ‘Oh he’s an Ochberg Orphan,’ and ‘she’s an Ochberg Orphan’,” Yael remembers.

Many of these survivors were traumatized. Some struggled with depression. Some refused to ever wear the color red, Yael recalls hearing, since the color was associated in their minds with the blood of their parents and other relatives they saw flowing during pogroms. Her own grandmother rarely spoke of her earlier life in Kovno, but she was always incredibly grateful to “Father Ochberg” who’d given her – as well as her sisters and hundreds of other Jewish children – a second chance to live. Thousands of Jews around the world today are alive because of the Jewish children Isaac Ochberg saved.

“What Ochberg did was unbelievable,” Yael notes. “He took it on himself. He could have left it to other people, but he went himself to these shtetls and orphanages.”

This month, on the hundredth anniversary of Isaac Ochberg’s life-saving journey, Isaac Ochberg’s legacy is being honored in the hundreds of Jewish homes that exist today because of his actions.

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