The Jerusalem of Volhynia

Stand for Israel  |  October 2, 2023

Berdichev -
(Photo: wikicommons)

Before 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 Volhynia region of Ukraine—its Choral Synagogue seen in happier, simpler pre-war days above. And because of this vibrant faith community, Berdichev’s Jews quickly became a target for the murderous Nazi regime, which captured the city on July 7, 1941. Luckily for some Jewish people 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, Lea gave birth to her fifth child, Pyotr, with the help of Stanislava and Emilia. As the two Christian women assisted with the childbirth in their dark cellar, above ground the Nazis destroyed the city’s Jewish community—forcing Jews into a ghetto, plundering their property, and killing thousands of them outright, including the rest of Lea’s family.

Hiding the large Jewish 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 other caring neighbors, 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 five children survived the Holocaust—some of only a few survivors from the “Jerusalem of Volhynia. Their faithful devotion and Christian love were rewarded when Yad Vashem recognized the members of both the Gutovski and Goncharenko families as Righteous Among the Nations in 2000.