Jared Kushner is the son-in-law and chief adviser to US president Donald Trump. His roots are in traditional Litvak lands, the areas where Jews lived in the mediaeval Grand Duchy of Lithuania. His grandmother Reichel Rae Berkowitz-Kushner hailed from Novogrudok, known in Lithuanian as Naugardukas, south of Grodno (Gardinas) in Belarus. She was imprisoned in the famous ghetto there where prisoners dug an escape tunnel and fled to the Jewish partisans in the forests.
Born on February 27, 1923, Rae Kushner was the second-oldest of four children in Novogrudok, then part of Poland and spelled Nowogródek.
The city had a thriving Jewish population, comprising just over half of the town’s 12,000 inhabitants. In the summer of 1941, the Nazis invaded Poland at the start of Operation Barbarossa. Though rumors of mass killings had reached Novogrudok by that point, few Jews actually believed that the Germans would carry out such atrocities. Following several massacres, the remaining Jewish population was forced into a ghetto. Rae lived in the city’s courthouse with her family and nearly approximately 600 other Jews. Rae’s mother and older sister were killed in a subsequent massacre on May 7, 1943. Before long, Rae, her father and younger sister were among only 300 Jews left. These remaining Jews managed to dig and escape through a 600-foot tunnel during the nights, using special-made tools in the workshops and hiding the dirt in the walls of buildings. When completed, the 600-foot tunnel was only large enough for one person to crawl through. Upon emerging from it, the escapees were met with gunfire, darkness and disorientation. Consequently, only 170 survived out of the 250 that escaped. Rae’s brother was among the fallen, having lost his glasses during the crawl through the tunnel. Rae and her surviving family spent ten days hiding in the woods, eventually making their way to the home of an acquaintance. The woman fed them and allowed them to sleep in her stable with the cows for one week–a risk that carried the penalty of a violent death. Shortly thereafter, the Bielski partisans took in the escapees from Novogrudok–including Rae and her family.
The four Bielski brothers–Tuvya, Asael, Alexandr Zeizal “Zus” and Aharon–did more than just fight the Nazis in World War II. They rescued fellow Jews, leading them out of the ghettos and into the forest to join their fighting force, who had control of an entire village, nicknamed the Jerusalem in the Woods, from which they rained terror down upon the Nazis and their collaborators. The Bielskis saved more than 1,200 Jews from murder at the hands of the Nazis. Tuvya is alleged to have said “Rescuing Jews is more important than the destruction of the Nazi military. One old Jewish woman rescued is worth more than 10 Nazis.”
According to Yad Vashem:
“On February 4, 1943, a further murder operation was perpetrated in which some 500 Jews were killed. The survivors continued to toil in the workshops. On May 7, 1943, a selection was carried out among the professionals in the ghetto, which functioned as a labor camp. More than 300 Jews, mostly women and children, were murdered by the local police and a Lithuanian unit in Hardzilowka, near the courthouse. About 300 Jews, mostly artisans, remained in the ghetto.
“Following this massacre, a Jewish underground formed in Nowogrudok in the spring-September of 1942. An underground council with forty-two members from various parties was established, headed by Yaakov Cohen. A number of ghetto inhabitants managed to escape, primarily with the assistance of Jewish emissaries sent from the partisan battalion of the Bielski brothers. The underground planned and organized an escape, and for three months a 250-meter-long tunnel was dug, through which the 233 Jews remaining in the ghetto tried to escape on September 26, 1943. About 170 of them succeeded in reaching the forests, where they joined the Bielski partisans’ brigade. The rest were shot and killed either during the escape or afterwards, when they were caught by the Germans in the forests.”
In the Nalibotska encampment where the Bielskis had managed to shelter over 1,200 people, Rae regularly stood guard and often cooked the camp meals–mostly potatoes, soup and small pieces of bread. While in the partisans, Rae reconnected with Joseph Kushner, whom she knew prior to the war. They married a year after the Bielski camp was liberated by the Russian army in July 1944. After the war ended, Rae returned to Novogrudok, only to find that the entire city was destroyed. In 1949, she moved to New York, where she had two sons, Murray and Charles, and her second daughter, Esther. Although Rae passed away in 2004, her name lives on in prominence today. The Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, New Jersey is one of the most prestigious Jewish schools on the East Coast, with over 850 students attending.
Rae came from a middle-class family. Only three members of her family survived the Holocaust: she, her father and one sister. The three of them lived in the forest for nine months, doing kitchen duty in the partisan camp. Rae and her future husband Joseph, whom she is said to have known prior to the war and who came from a town in what was then Germany but now Poland (in Polish Kostrzyn nad Odrą, in German Küstrin), allegedly renewed their friendship in the forest camp and, after the Soviet army liberated Belarus in 1944, got married. After the war they moved through a number of countries including Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary before arriving in Italy, where they lived for three-and-a-half years as relatives in the United States worked to bring them there. In America Joseph went into real estate. When he retired he passed on his business to his son Charles. Rae and Joseph had four children including Charles, who is Jared Kushner’s father.
Rae passed away in 2004. She left recorded testimony in 1982, preserved by the New Jersey Holocaust Research Center and the US Holocaust Museum in Washington. D. C. In Livingston, New Jersey the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School bear witness to the memory of their founders.
Charles Kushner was graduated from the Law Faculty at Harvard College and expanded his father’s business after taking charge of it. He founded Kushner Companies—headquartered in Florham Park, New Jersey—and became its chairman. In 1999 he was named Businessman of the Year by Earnst & Young. By then Kushner Companies had grown to over 10,000 residential apartments, a homebuilding business, commercial and industrial properties and a community bank.
His son Jared Kushner obviously doesn’t think president Trump’s temporary ban on immigration from seven countries in any way compares to bans by Western countries on Jewish refugees before and during the Holocaust, although opponents and critics continue to claim rather disingenuously that his grandmother’s experience somehow argues for unregulated borders in America. Jared married Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka in 2009. She converted to Judaism to become his Jewish wife. Jared advises president Trump on Israeli issues among many others. The couple didn’t take an active part in the election campaign because Ivanka was expecting their third child. Jared Kushner reportedly stepped down as publisher of the newspaper the New York Observer in order to work full-time as presidential aide to Donald Trump.