Emigre envisions S.F. monument honoring Righteous Gentiles

Leonid Nakhodin dreams of the day when everyone who walks through San Francisco's United Nations Plaza will stop to laud non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.

The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine hopes to spur that awareness by erecting a monument honoring Righteous Gentiles. He has the sculptor and the concept lined up. He also is writing a letter to Mayor Willie Brown to ask for permission.

There's no indication, however, how long the process will take, or if it will take at all.

Nakhodin, a former Soviet political prisoner jailed from 1983 to 1988 for attempting to promote Jewish culture, is pursuing the monument as president of the United Humanitarian Mission.

The 54-year-old founded the S.F.-based nonprofit a year ago to "improve society's moral health by combating the loss of universal human values." Nakhodin particularly wants his grassroots organization to focus on educating children and young adults.

Righteous Gentiles in particular, he asserts, teach crucial lessons about heroism and the difference individuals can make in the world.

His nonprofit received federal tax-exempt status earlier this month; Nakhodin is now starting to apply for grants to realize his vision for a monument, which he projects will cost approximately $800,000.

He has spoken with Mikhail Chemiakin about creating the sculpture. The noted Russian artist, who now resides in New York, is on United Humanitarian Mission's board.

Chemiakin's work is represented locally at the Hills of Eternity Cemetery in Colma, where his granite gravestone for Soviet comic actor Savely Kramarov stands out with casts of comedy masks, scripts and makeup brushes.

Nakhodin plans to order a special stone — pegmatitum, a granite whose surface appears to be marked with Hebrew letters — to comprise all or part of the project.

"It is an absolutely amazing granite," Nakhodin says. "It looks like a Moses tablet."

Nakhodin is so enamored with the granite he had a stone book made from it for Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman. He presented it to Perlman when the musician visited San Francisco last year and received a letter of thanks in which the artist wrote: "I have never seen anything quite like this before."

Nakhodin, a friendly, bespectacled man with boundless idealism, imagines a monument resembling a puzzle. While the main portion of the work will remain in San Francisco, he hopes other pieces will be shipped to countries where Righteous Gentiles resided.

A computer scientist by trade, Nakhodin immigrated to this country nine years ago, settling in Philadelphia before migrating west. Since diving into the nonprofit full time a year ago, he has supported himself by doing freelance computer work and serving as a notary public.

So far, the group has held ceremonies in the Danish and Swedish consulates to thank those countries for their roles in saving Jews during the war. Nakhodin plans to make such visits an annual tradition.

Other plans include a documentary film on the rescue of Danish Jews during World War II by their fellow Danes and a film on noteworthy philanthropists.

Nakhodin hopes such projects will disseminate universal humanitarian values, the preservation of which enhances governments, families and international law and supports the principle that "an enlightened nation creates enlightenment among members of its society."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.