Brest, Belarus



By LIONEL SLIER 11/04/2012 Jerusalem Post  - with thanks to Lionel

“He who saves a life, saves a universe,” according to the Talmud, and today there are over 4,000 descendants of the Ochberg Orphans.

2011 was the year when Ukrainian-born Isaac Ochberg, the great South African philanthropist and Zionist, was brought back from obscurity. Ochberg is best known for his journey to war-ravaged and disease-ridden Eastern Europe in 1921, from where he took 187 desperate and despairing orphans and brought them to South Africa.

“He who saves a life, saves a universe,” according to the Talmud, and today there are over 4,000 descendants of the Ochberg Orphans living around the world.

Last July a memorial was established in Israel, near Kibbutz Dalya, in commemoration of Ochberg’s great effort. When Ochberg passed away in 1937, his bequest to the JNF was, at the time, the largest ever made by a single person.

Hundreds of descendants and their families came to Israel to pay homage at the two-day event.

Now I must declare an interest. My mother was one of the girls rescued by Isaac Ochberg. She was 11 years old at the time. She never knew what happened to her parents.

Last year, my daughter Paula and I went to Brest in Belarus, my mother’s birthplace, after the ceremony in Israel. She was taken, along with two sisters and a brother, to South Africa.

There we had as our guide, Belarus born Bella Velikovskaya, a walking history book of the Jews of Belarus and, indeed, all Russia.

Yet strangely, Bella knew nothing about the Ochberg story; in fact, neither did Regina, the curator of the Brest Jewish Museum. There and then they determined that the story was part of Brest’s Jewish past and that a permanent exhibit of it should be created.

First of all, they needed to create an exhibition in Brest and then take it to other relevant places in Belarus, such as Minsk and Pinsk.

Now David Sandler comes into the story. He is a South African living in Perth, Western Australia. Sandler was at Arcadia, the Jewish orphanage in Johannesburg. He became an accountant and at some stage emigrated to Perth. There he started a weekly circular newsletter which he mailed to ex-Arcadians (Old Arcs, the call themselves) living throughout the world. Old Arcs were encouraged to contribute stories and experiences to his newsletter.

He received a wonderful response.

The name “Ochberg” cropped up from time to time and Sandler, intrigued, researched this man. He uncovered the amazing story.

After the decision was taken to have an exhibition, Sandler was approached for assistance. He is the author of three books about Arcadia and had just brought to print a massive book called: The Ochberg Orphans and The Terror From Which They Came. Sandler made an enormous contribution with digital material.

So the dream that was born at the Brest Jewish Museum became a reality at the Brest Cultural Center on Friday 19, October 2012. It was planned to coincide with a concert and celebration of the 20th anniversary of the reemergence of the Jewish community in Brest after the “Great Patriotic War,” as the Second World War in referred to in Belarus and Russia.

There were over 200 people present and short speeches were given in the foyer in front of the exhibition panels, by myself and Tania Jacobson of Cape Town, whose mother and father were both Ochberg orphans. Belarus Television were present to film the opening ceremony.

The story of Isaac Ochberg, a great son of the area, will now never be forgotten there and it remains one of the great events in the annals of South African Jewish history

L-R Zinky Agulnik, Kfar Saba (ex SA); Susan Jacobson, Cape Town; Jack Slier, Shanghai; Hayley Slier, London; Lionel Slier, Johannesburg; Paula Slier, Modi'in; Tanya Jacobson, Cape Town; Phillipa Jacobson, Baltimore; Leanne Jacobson, Amsterdam; Daniel Goldfine, Tel Aviv; Alicia Slier, Johannesburg

Lionel Slier in front of the exhibits