Righteous Gentile living in New Zealand

October 26, 2015 by Keren Cook
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Taisia Kharchenks is now in her late 80’s and living out her twilight years in a rest home in Wanganui, New Zealand.

As a teenager, Taisia Melnik risked her own life to save 13 Jewish people.

Tasia

Taisia Kharchchenks

Taisia, previously from the Ukraine, later moved to Israel – before residing in the North Island. Her life is an incredible journey of both courage and friendship.

Taisia’s name, along with her mother Aleksandra Melnik and brother Viktor Melnik – is inscribed on the wall of the Garden Of The Righteous in Israel, memorialising the three as Righteous Among The Nations.

This is an award given to non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews persecuted by the Nazis during World War II.

Taisia received the righteous award in 1994, for hiding, providing forged documents for, and smuggling to safety 13 Jewish people.

Taisia is not well enough to conduct her own interview, and speaks virtually no English. However, one of her daughter’s Natalia Brown is happy to share her mother’s brave story.

Taisia was born in 1926 in a small village in western Ukraine (then the USSR). By the time she was 12, her father was declared “an enemy of the people” by the Stalin regime, and put to death.

Natalia said her grandmother found “it very hard because she had never worked before.” She recalls her grandmother was left with four children, and no ability to earn any money.

Locals helped the family – but because of the political associations surrounding her father’s death, it was not relatives or Ukrainian friends who came to their rescue, it was the Jewish community.

“Vidoshnya was a very Jewish place; it was more Jewish than Ukrainian. The Jews felt very sorry for my grandmother because of what happened to my grandfather, and they helped her,” Natalia said.

In 1941, the scene changed when the Germans began moving into western Ukraine, and Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars, immediately identifying them as Jewish, and their valuables were to be handed to the Germans.

A ghetto near the town of Proskurov was a place where the Jewish population were forced to and made to do hard labour. Of course, many died immediately and others died through overwork. In November 1941, several thousand Jews from the ghetto were taken outside the city and murdered by the Germans.

“My mother had a Jewish friend called Sonya Bershtein. She was the same age as my mother’s older sister, but she was friendly with my mother and with the whole family. My grandmother said, ‘Sonya, please come to us and we will hide you from the Nazi’s.’

“Sonya said, ‘I cannot go without my mother.”

In December 1941 Taisia and her brother, who were 15 and 12 years old at the time, were able to rescue Sonya and her mother Faina and bring them safely to the family home where they stayed hidden for 11 months.

Natalia says the family was very aware of the consequences of their actions.

“If they had been found, (the Nazi’s) would have killed the Jewish family and the Ukrainian family – everybody. A Ukrainian family had hid Sonya’s cousin’s family, but they were found and all of them killed. They were taken to the town square and killed in front of everybody. Another family was burned alive in their house when Jews were found there.

“It was a warning that this is what will happen if you are found with Jews in your house.”

Yet, the family was undeterred, and welcomed four more Jews: Faina Bershtein’s sister Polya Kreizman, and her three small children. The family stayed a month and Taisia obtained false Ukrainian papers for them. Polya ended up finding secure employment on a kolkhoz, or collective farm.

At the end of 1942, Nazi efforts against Ukrainian Jews worsened and house searches were common and frequent. The Melniks contacted 2 Russian men who were smuggling Jews out of the Ukraine, and they agreed to take Sonya and Faina into Romania.

As a German ally, Romania was a safer place to smuggle Jewish people. Taisia arranged for smugglers to use Romania as a destination over the years.

Incredibly, all 13 Jews Taisia and her family helped survived the war. Most, immigrated to the United States.

The Nazis between 1941 and 1945 killed more than 1 million Ukrainian Jews. The most widely known massacre of Jews in the Ukraine was at the Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in one operation on September 29, 1941.

By the late 1950’s, the Jewish population in the Ukraine had declined by 70 per cent compared to population numbers before World War II. Many Jewish immigrated to Israel after the war.

Sonya Bershtein was among whose who made Aliyah and Taisia maintained a life long friendship with her, eventually joining Sonya and her husband in Israel in 1996. This was made possible, as Taisia had been given Righteous Among the Nations status. Taisia stayed in Israel for just over a decade, sadly losing her husband only one year after emigration.
Taisia found like easier in Israel as the Ukraine was going through difficult times separating from Russia – and was a poor country.

Natalia immigrated to New Zealand from Russia in 1995 after the death of her only son, and it was decided that Taisia would leave Israel and join her daughter in New Zealand.

Her life long friend Sonya died earlier this year.

“Even after Mum came to New Zealand they talked on the phone every week. They were very old, and they couldn’t remember anything, but they were always talking on the phone,” Natalia said.

During Natalia’s childhood she was not aware of the political climate or the story of her Mother. She says that Communist power meant that people couldn’t talk much.

She believes her mother has always been haunted by the fear and terror of Nazi occupation: “She told me once when I visited her in Israel once, that sometimes she couldn’t sleep because of all the memories. And she said she didn’t understand how she and Sonya survived. Life was so dangerous.”

Taisia has one descendant – a granddaughter, Natalia’s niece, Polina, who lives in Russia and has a keen interest in family history.

“Polina is making a family tree and wants to know as much as she can about her Grandmother’s experiences during the war,” Natalia said.

“She wants to know the stories so that she can pass them on to her children, when she has them, so that they are never forgotten.”

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