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The Night of the Burning : Devorah's Story
Wulf, Linda Press; The Night of the Burning : Devorah's Story. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2006. $16.00, ISBN 0374364192.

Note: Still sad and frightened after living in Poland through World War I and the Russian Revolution, twelve-year-old Devorah Lehrman, her younger sister, and other Jewish orphans travel with Isaac Ochberg to South Africa and make a new start.


Libraries are filled with stories and memoirs that detail the great migrations from Europe to the United States between the 1880s and 1930s. The stories of emigrants who made their lives in South America, southern Africa, Australia, and elsewhere are less well known. Linda Press Wulf tells a story of Jewish flight from Eastern Europe, mainly Poland and Lithuania, to South Africa. Based on what is known about her mother-in-law and her sister, Wulf crafts an affecting and absorbing story of the rescue of two Jewish orphans, Devorah and Nechama, following a pogrom in the Polish village of Domachevo. This story is not widely known and deserves to be.

In the first half of the book, through the memory of their journey from post-World War I Poland and scenes of their family life in Domachevo, the orphans' story emerges in a series of flashbacks. Rescued by a gentile neighbor, they arrive in the city of Pinsk and are placed in an orphanage. They soon have the opportunity to begin lives in Africa. Philanthropist Isaac Ochberg has been sent on the heartbreaking mission of choosing 200 displaced children from the orphanages of Poland to emigrate to South Africa. Among the chosen are Devorah and Nechama. Ochberg explains that South Africa is "a beautiful country and a safe place for Jews" (8). A brief historical note at end of the book fills in some details of Ochberg's life and sense of philanthropic purpose. He inspired Jewish communities in the Cape and Johannesburg to raise the funds needed to find and sponsor the children who would become known as the Ochberg orphans. These funds were apparently matched by the prime minister of the time, Jan Smuts.

The second half of the story plays out in Cape Town. The orphans are welcomed by a crowd at the dock festooned with streamers. Half of the group leave for Johannesburg, and Devorah and Nechame are plunged into life and school at the Cape Jewish Orphanage in the heart of Cape Town. They attend Miss Rosa van Gelderen's school and are soon adopted. Nechame is picked out for her looks by a well-to-do Jewish family and Devorah, heartbroken and wracked by an orphan's feelings of loyalty for parents she remembers, is taken into a family of modest means and education. The story is fast-paced and emotionally dramatic as Devorah struggles with the separation from her sister, exacerbated by the gulf of class in their new lives. Nechame, now Naomi, attends a fancy private school and her adoptive family employs an extensive domestic staff, including a uniformed driver.

Through Devorah's eyes, the reader is introduced to the ways in which the whites in Cape Town accept the lopsided relationships between masters, madams, and domestic servants. Unsure of what to call her adoptive parents on the first morning in her new home, Elizabeth, the domestic servant, explains to "Miss Devorah" that "the master is working in his dark room, and the madam has gone to buy more milk and bread" (153). Devorah is confused and embarrassed by the ways in which her new mother, an otherwise kind woman, speaks callously and thoughtlessly about black street children. "I hated it when Mrs Kagan spoke that way near Elizabeth. . . . [she] never seemed to worry about whether Elizabeth was in earshot and might be offended" (159). In the historical note, Wulf places these details of Devorah's story in the context of the system of racial separation "set in motion beforehand by the British" (207) and formalized into the law of apartheid after the Afrikaner victory in 1948.

My father, his mother, and sisters fled Latvia in the thirties and settled in Cape Town. My mother, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland, attended Miss Rosa van Gelderen's Girls' Central school in Cape Town in the twenties, and my family lived a few blocks from the Cape Jewish Orphanage. I walked past it every day on my way from home from school. The Night of the Burning is filled with satisfying nostalgic detail of schoolyard chants (We walk straight, so you'd better get out the way), descriptions of comfort foods and desserts, and the beauty of The Gardens, "a gracious, long, wide pedestrian avenue through the heart of the city" (171) where one could buy packets of peanuts to feed squirrels and pigeons.

My father loved Cape Town, and although I left the city thirty years ago, I loved many aspects of the place too. At the very beginning of Devorah's story, when Mr. Ochberg coaxes the traumatized child with the assurance that "South Africa . . . is a beautiful country and a safe place for Jews," I could hear my father's voice in these words. In 1963, my father also told me that "South Africa was a place where you could go to jail for being good." Linda Press Wulf's Cape Town seems to be built on a mix of the textures of the twenties and the sixties. In Devorah, she captures the frustration and feelings of helplessness that some whites felt in the compromised paradise at the tip of Africa.

Copyright 2007 Africa Access All rights reserved.

Rating: HR Grade: M / H Type: Book

Reviewed by: Gillian Berchowitz, Ohio University Press

Subject: South Africa / Historical Fiction