Best Friends for Life

The Fellowship  |  February 20, 2019

Black and white image of two close friends with their children in front of greenery.

After the death of her husband, Nadezhda Osipchuk lived a lonely life in Ukraine, with only her daughter Luiza to keep her company. But then the Christian widow struck up a friendship with her Jewish neighbor, Anna Burdynskaya. Anna’s husband had also died, so the two women helped and supported one another, becoming close friends in the process.

But life for Anna grew harder with the arrival of the Nazis. The Germans entered the families’ town of Letichev in July of 1941, cordoning off a ghetto where the area’s Jews were to stay until they could be deported and murdered. Anna and her young children — six-year-old Masha and four-year-old Volodya — were among the Jews forced into the ghetto, where they faced disease, starvation, and cruelty at the hands of the Nazis. But the Burdynskaya family had a friend on the outside.

Nadezhda would sneak food to her three friends each night, meeting Anna at a secret spot near the barbed-wire fence with the potatoes and bread that kept the family alive for more than a year.

But in January of 1943, Anna learned that the ghetto would soon be liquidated — its Jews would be sent to extermination camps where the Nazis would murder them. The Jewish mother decided she had to save her children.

One night, Anna helped little Masha and Volodya crawl under the barbed wire and into the waiting arms of Nadezhda. Anna was not able to join her children, and would be murdered by the Nazis on January 30.

But Nadezhda took her friend’s two precious little ones home and hid them in her home. Each day, the children were hidden under hay and corn stalks in a cattle trough or in a large chest meant for clothing. And each night, they slept in Nadezhda’s home. Luiza, who was the same age as Masha, kept the two Jewish children fed and entertained. Each evening, she would teach them whatever it was she had learned at her own school during the day.

After the area was liberated in March of 1944, Masha was able to join Luiza’s class. The two girls would remain the best of friends for the rest of their lives, each of them also choosing to become teachers.

The children continued to live with Nadezhda and Luiza even after the war, as all of their relatives had been murdered by the Nazis. Despite being impoverished herself, Nadezhda never thought to send them to an orphanage, raising and teaching Masha and Volodya as if they were her own children, which they considered themselves to be.

Nadezhda Osipchuk passed away at the age of 89 in 1997. Eleven years later, this Christian friend of the Jewish people was named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem.