As World War II dawned, Antonina Gordey spent her days as the nanny of two Jewish children in Minsk, Belarus. Six-year-old Rafail and three-year-old Raya were the son and daughter of Mordukh Ledvich, a civil engineer, and his wife Fanya, who ran a kindergarten.
On the very day the war began, Mordukh was drafted into the Red Army, leaving his family to fend for themselves. But as the violence began, Fanya also had her kindergarten students to care for. Early one June morning in 1941, bombing began and Fanya evacuated her pupils. But young Rafail and Raya were not brought to the meeting point in time, and were left behind, two Jewish children in a city soon occupied by the Nazis.
The Ledvich family's apartment building was destroyed, so the children and their nanny had nowhere to go. Antonina took Rafail and Raya to stay at a friend's home, but soon the two youngsters were taken to the orphanage in the Minsk ghetto.
Antonina often visited her two charges in the ghetto orphanage, bringing them food and promising to take them from the horrible place once she was able to. Tragically, that day never came for little Rafail. One day when Antonina came to the ghetto for a visit, she could not find the boy. She learned that the Nazis had been drawing blood samples from him, which ultimately caused his death. The nanny feared she would lose Raya, too, and stole the little girl from the ghetto that very day.
Raya had no winter clothes and was starving. The nanny had no job or income so she brought the girl to her own sister's home, where Raya was hidden until Antonina was married.
Antonina did not divulge Raya's true Jewish identity to her husband, letting him believe the girl was her illegitimate child. Antonina's husband believed the lie, but snooping Nazis required a birth certificate as proof that the girl was not a Jew. So when Germans came around, Antonina hid Raya from them. In 1943, Antonina gave birth to her own son, but still loved and cared for Raya as her own, sheltering the girl until war's end.
And after the war was over, Mordukh and Fanya returned to Minsk and found their daughter still alive. Antonina told the parents the few details she knew of Rafail's tragic death, and kept in contact with Raya until the girl's nanny died in 1978. In 2007, Yad Vashem posthumously named Antonina Gordey Righteous Among the Nations for her selfless years of devotion to Raya Ledvich, the Jewish girl whose life she saved.