Nelli Gordon survived a mass execution on October 14, 1941. Over two days, SS and police units murdered more than 10,000 Jews from the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk (Dnipro) by shooting them at the edge of a ravine. Nelli Gordon remained uninjured during the mass murder. Partially buried under other bodies, she regained consciousness and was able to free herself. Only nine years old, she was now left to her own resources.
Nelli Gordon managed to make her way back to the city. She went to a non-Jewish neighbor, where she could stay for a week to recover. However, the neighbor was poor and had two children. She was not able to look after Nelli Gordon long term, so she found a place for her to stay with the Zubkov family. Nelli Gordon told the family she was a non-Jewish orphan. The Zubkovs took her in and helped her survive.
Roughly 90,000 Jews had lived in Dnepropetrovsk. A large majority of them were able to ﬂee before the German troops arrived. Anyone who did not manage to ﬂee or go into hiding was murdered by the German police or members of the mobile killing unit Einsatzgruppe C of the Security Police. By the end of the war, about 20,000 Jews had been shot to death. The very few who managed to survive did so largely through the help of friends or neighbors.
Nelli Gordon spent her last summer vacation before the war began in 1941 with her relatives in Dnepropetrovsk. Once German troops invaded it became impossible for her to return to her parents. Together with her grandfather Boris Frumin and her aunt Rozaliya Frumina, she tried in vain to ﬂee the city. On October 12, all Jews were ordered to gather the next morning at an assembly point in the city center. Anyone failing to appear was to be shot.
Nelli Gordon lived with Mariya and Vasili Zubkov. Her foster father was affectionate but her foster mother often hit her. One day Nelli Gordon was denounced and was detained for two months. Although she was beaten during the interrogation, she continued to claim that she was a non-Jewish orphan. She and her foster family risked getting shot if her true identity was revealed. Vasili Zubkov procured forged documents, so they were able to adopt the girl. Thus, they saved Nelli Gordon and themselves.