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Ochberg Orphans on the Menashe Hills

The Isaac Ochberg Memorial Promenade and Park, Menashe Hills. Story and main photo by Lydia Aisenberg

The Menashe Hills are alive with the musical sounds of young Israeli children whooping for joy as they ride their bikes, scooters and roller blades around a site dedicated to a man who in 1921 rescued almost 200 Jewish orphans from a more than bleak future in the war-ravaged, famine-struck and anti-Semitic-fuelled pogroms of Eastern Europe.

Under a wintry blue Israeli sky, with a slightly chilly wind playfully kicking up loose earth here and there, the energetic kinder on wheels pedal or push themselves along the promenade and attractive picnic areas of the Isaac Ochberg Memorial Park which is perched on one of the many undulations which top the expansive Menashe Hills. Comprising four kilometers of tarmac track with attractive picnic areas surrounding recently-harvested kibbutz wheat fields, no matter where one stands at the site the views are superb.

An innovative lengthy wall of rough rocks studded with pale blue and light purple ceramic tiles bearing the names, dates and places of birth in Eastern Europe of the children saved by Ochberg – a Ukrainian-born South African philanthropist and ardent Zionist who literally snatched these children from the jaws of violence, hunger and disease, binging them – via Britain - to safe havens in Jewish orphanages in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The children, whose well being and development he closely followed, all called him 'Daddy Ochberg'. Photographs and text (in Hebrew and English) tell just a small part of the daring and courageous story of this man from Uman who changed the fate of so many fellow Jews. The Ochberg Memorial Park was dedicated in 2011, and the ceremony was attended by extended family members of those saved by the South African humanitarian. 

Set in stone: The memorial to Isaac Ochberg. Photo: Yael Meyer

Some of the Ochberg orphans stayed in South Africa and others eventually made aliyah or settled in different countries, including Britain. Around 4,000 men, women and children throughout the world today are direct descendants of those who received a new lease of life from Isaac Ochberg.

"He who saves a life, saves a universe,"to quote the Talmud.

Born in 1878, Ochberg followed his father to South Africa when he was sixteen.His father planned for young Isaac to be a jeweler and watchmaker but this did not appeal to the teen who proved to be a talented entrepreneur and businessman. He eventually accumulated great wealth but lived modestly and was an ardent Zionist, philanthropist and dedicated leader of South African Jewry. He bequeathed the largest contribution ever made to the Jewish National Fund by any individual at the time of his death in 1937. The JNF purchased tracts of land on the Menashe Hills where the kibbutzim of Dalya and Galed-(officially named Even Yitzhak after Isaac Ochberg) were founded and, in more recent times, the memorial park bearing his name was created very close to those and to other kibbutzim on the Menashe Hills plateau.

In the center of the wheat fields, on a prominent small mound surrounded by large white rocks strategically placed to give the appearance, from afar, of a miniature Stonehenge, one can find stone benches and tables. It provides a veritable feast for the eyes, a true appetizer before tucking into the goodies in one's picnic hamper lugged across the plowed field.

Let me take you on a spin, literally, of the view. On the left is Kibbutz Ein Hashofet and then moving to the right in the near distance, sprawled across the plateau and slopes of the Amir mountain range, the Israeli Moslem city of Umm al-Fahm rises up like a phoenix over the lower portion of the Menashe Hills. Swinging around gently to the right and over the rooftops of Kibbutz Dalya, one sees the coastline and the four seemingly sky-high chimney stacks of the Hadera Power Station standing boldly contrasted against the sea, as the sun caresses the water gently, colorfully, just a short distance behind them.

Shuffling to the right, Zichron Yaacov comes into view, sitting atop the Carmel Mountains close to the shoreline.Gently turning further to the right, you find the Carmelite Order Mukrakha monastery (hovering497 meters above sea level) and two large Druze villages, all standing out against the sky line. Then another tight shuffle to the right and one is back where the circle started, Ein HaShofet.

As I am trying to explain to my small grandchildren why, 100 years ago, so many youngsters needed to be rescued from Eastern Europe and why Isaac Ochberg personally travelled to areas fraught with danger in order to save as many as he could, a few motorized hang-gliders making a real din buzz overhead, flying so low that one can see the color of the pilots' jackets.

The children begin, excitedly, to jump up and down, waving to the pilots sitting in their open and somewhat delicate-looking flying machines. Just a few meters behind them an image of a smiling Isaac Ochberg, dressed in suit, shirt and tie, overlooks the scene from an information board.

I quietly salute this gentleman who risked so much to save so many as the boisterous Sabra kids continued to climb, play and bike around the memorial park in his name; and hopefully, when they are older, will learn more about the very special man from Uman. 



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Wednesday, 07 June 2023

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