Two rescuers of S.F. woman honored by Yad Vashem

Presenting Yad Vashem's medal of the Righteous Among the Nations posthumously to two rescuers of a small girl in Kiev, Israeli Consul Eran Etzion said, "There are few moments in the life of a consul as moving as this one."

The life of emigre Zenaida Jaroslavskaya, who now lives in San Francisco, "reads like a modern Hollywood script," he added.

The audience listened in rapt silence as Etzion told of Jaroslavskaya's wartime experiences during a ceremony Tuesday of last week at a meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council board, held at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation building.

Four years old in 1941, Jaroslavskaya (who was then named Edelman) was found wandering the streets of Kiev by a peasant woman, Maria Alekhina. The child's mother, having traveled to Kiev to recuperate from an illness, had been killed by a Nazi bomb.

The child was wounded. Reacting instantly, Alekhina picked her up. She and her mother, Anna Utkina, then harbored the girl for six years.

"You see a 4-year old, wounded," said Etzion to the audience, "and unlike others, you don't just walk by. You pick her up, and by that you've made a decision that changes forever the lives of three people."

Jaroslavskaya accepted the award on behalf of Alekhina and Utkina, both now deceased.

"Today is a big holiday in my life," she told the audience, who went on to give her a standing ovation. Alekhina and Utkina, she said, performed "a very big heroism. In that time, when every life hung on a hair, it was difficult for people. These were very good women."

In a twist of fate, Jaroslavskaya was reunited with her brother and father after the war. When Utkina became ill, she and Alekhina and Jaroslavskaya moved to the village of Kafkov, near Zolskaya. By chance, Jaroslavskaya's brother Boris was in a military hospital in the same town. He heard of a rescued girl named Zenaida and decided to go and visit her.

"I cried, and put my hands around the table leg," said Jaroslavskaya of the moment when her brother came to claim her. "My brother was a strange man, and I didn't want to leave my mother and grandmother, but what could I do? I was a very little girl."

She never forgot her rescuers, though, and visited them twice after her return to Leningrad. Alekhina traveled to Leningrad for Jaroslavskaya's 1960 wedding, and was honored by the other guests.

"All people kissed her hands and brought her presents, because she was a poor woman and she saved me," said Jaroslavskaya.

Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, set up a commission in 1962 to award the title Righteous Among the Nations to non-Jewish heroes and martyrs of the Holocaust. Along with the specially minted medal, recipients receive a certificate of honor and have their names engraved on a Wall of Honor at the museum.

To date, over 13,000 titles have been awarded, representing more than 5,500 authenticated rescue stories.

The last time the title was awarded in the Bay Area was in 1993. A 92-year-old Catholic, Madeleine Wolf of San Ramon, was given the award at a ceremony attended by then-Consul General Harry Kney-Tal.

Wolf had sheltered a Jewish family for three years in wartime Belgium.

Attending the ceremony with her husband, Mark, Jaroslavskaya said she thinks of Alekhina and Utkina as her mother and grandmother, not as steprelations.

"If they had a piece of bread, they'd cut it and share it," she said of the two women. "They were simple, uneducated women, but they did what their hearts told them. They loved me all their lives."