Over two consecutive days in early August 1942, all the Jews hiding in the village of Urozhaynaya in the Caucasus Mountains were murdered. The 2,500 victims had believed until the very last moment that the long arm of the Nazi regime would not reach their distant place of residence, but their hopes were dashed. That summer the German army managed to capture parts of the area from the Red Army, and when the SS entered the gates of the village, they led the Jews to a nearby river and shot them to death.
Today, 78 years later, the bodes are still buried there, in one gigantic mass grave, without a monument or any documentation. Local residents of Urozhaynaya, located near the Russian city of Stavropol, have left the killing site desolate: They never built on the land, nor did they use it for agricultural purposes.
Only one Jew managed to evade the bitter fate of the community and survive the horrors – but she remembers nothing of them since she was a 10-month-old infant at the time.
Larisa Breicher (née Shavzin), 78, a resident of New York and a retired teacher, was hidden by Christian neighbors and survived thanks to a Nazi officer, who spared her life after he was promised that she would be baptized.
For decades authorities dealing with reparations refused to believe Breicher's story or recognize her as a Holocaust survivor. Only recently, thanks to a comprehensive archival study undertaken by some of her relatives, has she received the hoped-for recognition – and attendant compensation.
In addition, the family who saved Breicher from certain death – but never did baptize her – were recognized posthumously as Righteous Among the Nations, an honorific used by the State of Israel and conferred by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center to describe non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.
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Larisa Breicher was born in 1941 while her mother Manya and her grandparents were fleeing from Kishinev, Moldavia to the Caucasus. Her father, David, had been drafted into the Red Army shortly beforehand, with the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
Like many Jewish refugees who fled to the east, the Shavzins hoped that the Nazis would not arrive in remote Urozhaynaya. But in the summer of 1942, reality caught up with them. The German army occupied large parts of the Caucasus and held onto them for about four months, during which about 31,000 people were murdered, 19,000 of them Jews.
Area residents were ordered to hand over the Jews, and anyone who hid them was severely punished. But thanks to the exceptional initiative, resourcefulness and courage of her Christian neighbors, Konstantin and Anna Bobin, little Larisa Shavzin was saved. The Bobins had heard from one of their relatives – who collaborated with the Germans – about a plan to eliminate the entire Jewish population of their village. Without delay, they rushed to the Shavzins' home, and asked them give them the infant so as to save her life.
Manya, who hesitated at first but acceded to the request in the end, was murdered shortly thereafter, as were all the Jews hiding in the vicinity.
The Bobin family watched over Larisa. In the morning they would hide the baby in a field of sunflowers, under the watchful eye of their 15-year-old daughter; in the evening, they would bring her home. Over time, however, rumors spread about a Jewish baby and reached the Nazi commanders stationed in town. Residents were assembled and given an ultimatum to hand the baby over within 24 hours. If not, warned the Nazis, the entire family of rescuers would be apprehended and then executed.
The Bobins were naturally torn between their own existential fears and concern for the welfare of Larisa. In a last-gasp effort, Anna Bobin embarked on a suicide mission. She knocked on the door of the German regional commander, and pleaded for the life of the Jewish baby. After about an hour, the family received his surprising decision: The Germans would show mercy for little Larisa, and allow the Bobins to continue to take care of her – on condition that they would raise the child as a Christian.
The devoted family continue to care for the baby until the winter of 1943, when the Red Army reoccupied the region and expelled the German forces. After the war was over, Larisa was found by her uncle, who brought her to her father David, who had seen combat in Stalingrad, Prague and Berlin, and received many medals for heroism.
Eventually, David Shavzin immigrated to Israel (he is buried in Netanya), but his daughter did not accompany him. She worked as a teacher in the Soviet Union, immigrated in 1976 to the United States where she worked in education as well, and married twice.
Over the years Larisa Breicher maintained warm relations with the family of her rescuers in the Caucasus. Later their descendants joined the circle, and even met and got to know one another. The relationship continued even after the Bobins and their daughter passed away.
Picking up the gauntlet
Although the story of her rescue was not a secret per se, Breicher kept the details to herself for decades, and only recently began to open up about them. At one point she told her story to Edward Breicher, the son of her second husband, Alex. Edward Breicher, who resides in the Israeli town of Kiryat Yam, north of Haifa. Breicher, who teaches mechanical engineering and is an amateur historian, picked up the gauntlet and decided to research the story in depth, taking advantage of his command of Russian and German. Joining him in the endeavor was his son, David Breicher-Magen, a historian.
“We started by collecting documents about the Red Army and the Germany army, which referred to events at that time,” Edward Breicher told Haaretz earlier this month, noting that they found quite a bit of information in the government archives in the Stavropol district. After conducting more intense research, Breicher says, they were surprised to learn that unlike Larisa – who didn’t reveal the saga of her rescue to anyone – residents in the area actually knew the story, having learned about it in school or after reading about it in the local press.
Breicher passed on the archival materials he and his son had collected to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, along with a request that the Bobins be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
“Many people are alive today thanks to the Bobin family,” he wrote Yad Vashem. “They acted out of humanity, compassion and love of man. In the sea of death and destruction that surrounded them, they endangered their lives and that of their daughter in order to rescue a Jewish baby. They continued to raise her even after the end of the Nazi occupation, thinking that her entire family had perished – until she was gathered into her father’s arms.”
Several weeks later, he was informed that his efforts had borne fruit: About two years ago now, Konstantin and Anna Bobin's granddaughter was invited to Moscow, where she received her grandparents’ Righteous of the Nations certificate, which she later placed on their grave.
But Edward Breicher’s activity did not end there. He is now working to build a monument to the Jews – among them Larisa’s mother – who were murdered and buried in the mass grave in Urozhaynaya, and is trying to bring the Bobins’ granddaughter to Israel. By law she is entitled to residency status there as a descendant of rescuers of Jews.