Celebrating the centenary of Isaac Ochberg’s 1921 daring rescue of orphan children from war-torn Eastern Europe
By David E. Kaplan
Chairman of the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee (Israel)
Motorists in the Megiddo region could once have been excused when driving past signs marked “EVEN YITZCHAK”, designating a picturesque plateau of rolling green hills in Israel’s Lower Galilee, and wondering:
Is it the Isaac from the Bible or the late Prime Minister, war hero and pursuer of peace – Yitzchak Rabin? Apart from local residents, few would have known it honoured the South Africa businessman, philanthropist, saviour of Jewish children and Zionist visionary – Isaac Ochberg.
No more …..
Finally, one of South Africa’s greatest Jews, Isaac Ochberg (1878-1937), received the recognition he deserves when an estimated 13,000 people across the world linked on through Zoom and YouTube on the 14 March 2021 to participate in the South African Jewish Report webinar marking the centenary of his heroic rescue of Jewish orphan children from Eastern Europe in 1921.
It did not matter that it was 4.00am in Sydney, 2.00am in Perth, 5.00pm in the UK, 7.00 pm in South Africa and Israel or 12.00 pm noon in New York City, the descendants of those rescued children joined a global viewership, enthralled by the wonders of a man that to this day, impacts the lives of so many thus embodying the dictum from the Talmud:
“He who has saved one life is as if he has saved the entire world”
With the Covid pandemic preventing a planned centenary celebration at the Ochberg Park – inaugurated at the 90th anniversary in 2011 with visitors attending from all over the world – the Centenary instead was brought into the homes of thousands across the world. Initiated and organized by the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee, the Megiddo Regional Council and supported by the JNF-KKL that had originally sponsored the creation of the Ochberg Park, the Centenary webinar was hosted by the SA Jewish Report with Howard Sackstein moderating a panel of speakers ranging from historians, members of the Ochberg family to descendants of the Ochberg orphans. This was followed by a ceremony from the Ochberg Park filmed by Dr. Les Glassman in Megiddo with addresses from the State President in Israel, Reuven Rivlin, the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, Chairman of KKL, Avraham Duvdevani, the Mayor of the Megiddo Regional Council, Itzik Kholawsky, Megiddo Planning & Development, Ayal Rom, Member of the Knesset, Ruth Wasserman Lande, the Chair of Telfed, Batya Shmukler and the Chairman of the Isaac Ochberg Committee, David Kaplan. These addresses were interspersed with singing from youth choirs from Megiddo and the event concluded with the national anthems of Israel and South Africa, signifying the bridge built by Ochberg between his two pursuits – helping South Africa and helping the creation and development of a future State of Israel.
Apart from the daring rescue of 187 Jewish orphans and bringing them safely to South Africa, and whose names are embedded on plaques on the ‘Hill of Names’ at Megiddo’s Ochberg Park, what was largely forgotten was his substantial support for a Jewish state, in the days when it was still a farfetched dream. The bequest he left in 1937 through Keren Hayesod to KKL- JNF – the largest to date ever made by an individual – was used to acquire the land that became two large kibbutzim in this area, Dalia and Gal’ed, both established before Israel’s independence and by Jewish youth movements, and both absorbed survivors from the Holocaust – precisely fulfilling Ochberg’s legacy of Jewish salvation. If Ochberg personally saved lives of children in 1921, his legacy ensured that next generations of Jews were saved in the turbulent years that followed. Is it little wonder as Megiddo Mayor Kholawsky reminds us why huge swathes of this region was called ‘Even Yitzchak’ – Hebrew for the ‘Stone of Isaac”. How appropriate that the Ochberg saga is solidly embedded in the topography of Megiddo.
The Megiddo Regional Council and the Ochberg Committee are planning an expansion of the park with a promenade and facilities to perpetuate the Ochberg legacy and attract tourism – a message that Ochberg himself conveyed way back in 1926. In an interview with South Africa’s The Zionist Record following his visit to Palestine with his beloved wife Polly that year, Ochberg urged all South Africans to spend their holidays in Eretz Yisrael, saying:
“Even outside of political and national reasons it is well worth while. The glorious scenery, the fine climate, and its many historic places make a visit to this land a most enjoyable and certainly an unforgettable experience.”
What is quite fascinating is the entrepreneur and visionary characteristics of Ochberg’s personality being revealed in this same 1926 interview when he says:
“I came away with a feeling of confidence that the Jewish problem can and will be solved ultimately in Eretz Yisrael and in Eretz Yisrael only.”
He then continues:
“As a commercial man, I could not help but be genuinely impressed by the fine progress of industrial development in so young a country. There is every prospect of most important industrial development in Palestine as the country grows.”
For 1926, prophetic words indeed!
Always a man of action, Ochberg puts his words into action following his visit to Palestine, where he was deeply moved by the new Hebrew University taking shape on Mount Scopus, and set about financially supporting practical education in Palestine by sponsoring Chairs of Agriculture – which he felt was essential for an emerging Jewish state – at the new Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute.
Still on education, it was most revealing to note that in his will, the £10,000 bequest he left to the University of Cape Town for a trust in which the income was to provide scholarships, there was a condition that “there be no differentiation between the students by reason of colour, creed or race”. Clearly reflecting his character and his values, Ochberg specified that “should this policy ever be changed, the £10,000 would then devolve upon the Isaac Ochberg Palestine Fund.”
Forgotten Man Remembered
If my first article 20 years ago on Ochberg which was titled ‘Righting a Wrong’, today I can safely title an article on the same subject – ‘A Wrong Righted’.
Books, articles, a documentary “Ochberg’s Orphans” submitted for an Oscar, essay competitions, addressing conferences, lecturing students at schools in South Africa and Israel and the opening of an Isaac Ochberg Park in Megiddo that emblazons in plaques along its ‘Hill of Names’ the names of all the children Ochberg saved, have all contributed to ensure that “The man from Africa” as he was called before he arrived to save them and “Daddy Ochberg” ever after, is known to future generations.
The Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee apart from the writer of Bennie Penzik, Hertzel Katz, Ian Rogow, Peter Bailey and Joel Klotnik (both on the advisory board to the Megiddo Regional Council), Leon Segal, Rob Hyde and Lauren Snitcher (Cape Town) and Lyanne Kopenhager (Johannesburg) are committed to preserving the legacy with the take away message that:
‘One good deed today can impact on the lives of many tomorrow’
You have only to ask the over 4000 descendants of the orphans Ochberg rescued in 1921 or heard what some of them said on the SA Jewish Report webinar. Many with tears in their eyes, like Lauren Snitcher, Paula Slier and Andi Saitowitz said:
“If it weren’t for this one man, I would not be here today.”
With his ‘family’ having expanded into the thousands, with Palestine being a Jewish State of Israel absorbing Jews from all over the world, its universities in the vanguard for superlative education, and thriving kibbutzim in Megiddo due to his vision and generosity, Isaac Ochberg can look down from his celestial perch and smile.
His legacy will always be identified with:
“He who has saved one life is as if he has saved the entire world”
While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves. LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)