Taisia Kharchenko [nee Melnik] is a small, frail woman in her late 80s, who is living out her twilight years in a rest home in Wanganui. She seems an unlikely hero; but as a teenager Taisia risked her own life to save the lives of 13 other people.

Taisia's name - along with that of 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 Jews.

Taisia is not well enough to be interviewed but one of her daughters, Natalia Brown, was happy to share her mother's courageous story.

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From a young age, Taisia knew that life could be hard.

She was born in 1926, the second of four children, in Vidoshnya, a small village in western Ukraine [then the USSR]. When Taisia was 12, her father was declared "an enemy of the people" by the Stalin regime, and killed.

"It was very hard for my grandmother because she had never worked before," Natalia said.

"She was left with four children, and she had no way to earn any money."

Locals rallied around to help the family - but, because of the political scandal, 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 had happened to my grandfather, and they helped her," Natalia said.

Life became precarious for Ukranian Jews in 1941 when the Germans began moving into western Ukraine. Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars, which immediately identified them as Jews, and to hand their valuables over the Germans. In the town of Proskurov [now known as Khmelnytskyi], near Vidoshnya, the Jewish population was forced into a ghetto and made to do hard labour. Many were killed outright, and others died through overwork. In November 1941, several thousand people 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 Nazis.'

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"Sonya said, 'I cannot go without my mother.'"

SO IN DECEMBER 1941 Taisia and her brother, who were just 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. There they stayed hidden for 11 months.

Natalia said the family knew only too well the consequences of their actions.

"If they had been found, [the Nazis] would have killed the Jewish family and the Ukrainian family - everybody. Sonya's cousin's family had been hidden by a Ukrainian 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."

Undeterred, the family took in four more Jews: Faina Bershtein's sister, Polya Kreizman, and her three young children. The Kreizmans stayed for a month, until Taisia was able to obtain false Ukrainian papers for them. These papers allowed Polya to find safe employment on a kolkhoz, or collective farm.

Towards the end of 1942 the Nazi efforts against Ukrainian Jews intensified, and they began searching houses for hidden Jews. The Melniks contacted two Russian men who were smuggling Jews out of Ukraine, and they agreed to take Sonya and Faina into Romania.

Later, Taisia arranged for the smugglers to take other Jewish people into Romania. As a German ally, Romania was a relatively safe place for Jews.

Natalia Brown with her mother's Righteous Among The Nations award.
Natalia Brown with her mother's Righteous Among The Nations award.

All 13 Jews Taisia and her family helped survived the war, and most of them emigrated to the United States.

Ukraine's Jewish population suffered greatly under German occupation. More than a million of them were killed by the Nazis or their Ukrainian collaborators between 1941 and 1945. The most notorious massacre of Jews in Ukraine was at the Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on September 29, 1941.

By 1959, the Jewish population in the Ukraine had declined by 70 per cent compared to what it had been before World War II. Besides the widespread murder by the Nazis, many Jews emigrated to Israel after the war.

SONYA BERSHTEIN was among those who went to Israel. As for Taisia, she stayed in Ukraine, became a nurse, married an engineer, and had two daughters.

She and Sonya maintained a life-long friendship, and in 1996 Taisia and her husband joined Sonya in Israel. They were able to do so because of Taisia's status as a Righteous Among The Nations. Taisia's husband lived for just one year after they emigrated, and Taisia stayed in Israel for another decade.

"It was easier for her in Israel. Ukraine was separating from Russia during Perestroika [a programme of widespread reform of the USSR], and it was a poor country. But Israel is a very religious country, and it's very much for the Jews," Natalia said.

As Taisia got older it became more difficult for her to live on her own so Natalia, who had emigrated to New Zealand from Russia in 1995 after the death of her only son, arranged for Taisia to join her in New Zealand.

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.

Natalia was an adult before she knew the true story of how her family had helped Jews during the war.

"In my childhood I never heard this story. I knew that Mum and Grandma had saved Sonya, but with the Communists in power people couldn't talk much. After Perestroika, people started talking more openly."

Natalia believes her mother has always been haunted by the fear and terror of those times during the Nazi occupation.

"She told me 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 both survived. Life was so dangerous."

Taisia's only descendant is her granddaughter, Natalia's niece, Polina, who lives in Russia and is very interested in her family's 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."