The Jerusalem of Volhynia

The Fellowship  |  September 5, 2018

The Jerusalem of Volhynia

The Gutovski and Goncharenko Families

By the time World War II began, the Ukrainian city of Berdichev had become known as “the Jerusalem of Volhynia,” as it was a center of Jewish life and faith in the Eastern European region. And because of this, Berdichev’s Jewish community quickly became a target for the murderous Nazi regime, which captured the city on July 7, 1941. Luckily for some Jews in the area, their Christian neighbors were there to help.

After the Nazis had overtaken Berdichev, a desperate and pregnant Jewish woman named Lea Bakmayev brought her four children to the home of her good friends and neighbors, Nikolay Gutovski and Stanislava Yanishevskaya, a Christian couple who lived with their 16-year-old daughter, Emilia. Only days after arriving at the home, Lea gave birth to her fifth child, Pyotr, with the help of Stanislava and Emilia. As the two Christian women assisted with the birth in their dark cellar, the Nazis destroyed the city’s Jewish community, forcing Jews into a ghetto, plundering their property, and killing many of them outright, including the rest of Lea’s family.

But hiding the large family was difficult for Nikolay and Stanislava, who had no jobs and supported themselves by selling vegetables from their meager garden. Leaving her three older sons with the family, Lea and her two youngest children then went to live with another caring neighbor, a widow named Melania Goncharenko and her son Nikolay. The Goncharenko family also lived in extreme poverty, and the war had left them with little food for themselves, much less three extra mouths. But young Nikolay would not let them starve, traveling to nearby villages to barter his own family’s possessions for food.

The constant stress of the war and living in hiding left Lea unable to nurse her baby, so her rescuers also worked to find fresh milk for little Pyotr. Because of the devotion of these two Christian families, Lea and her children survived the Holocaust, and this devotion was rewarded when Yad Vashem recognized them all as Righteous Among the Nations in 2000.

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