Marina Yarashuk, director of the Museum of Jewish Resistance of Novogrudak, at the museum on June 1, 2017. Photo by Cnaan Liphshiz

Jared Kushner’s family is a legend in this Belarus town


People in Jared Kushner’s ancestral town tend to speak very highly of President Donald Trump.

That’s generally the norm in the former Soviet Union. After all, Trump’s style goes over well in this part of the world — a survey conducted in November in Russia found that 45 percent of respondents said they would vote for Trump, compared to a four-percent approval rating for Hillary Clinton. Trump has promised to improve relations with Russia and has enjoyed high approval ratings throughout the region, with the exception of Ukraine and the Baltic countries.

But in Novogrudok — a picturesque city of 30,000 in western Belarus, about halfway between Minsk and Bialystok, Poland — Trump’s election is especially celebrated because it adds Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and key advisor, to the city’s short list of international success stories.

“Of course I am very proud that there is someone from Novogrudok in the White House,” said Boris Semyonov, a 57-year-old businessman, when asked about the subject last week in Lenin Square — a wide, clean space in the city center featuring a bust of the communist leader. “I am waiting for him to visit us.”

Yulia Silevskaya, a jurist in her twenties, said Kushner’s post “adds prestige” to her city.

Like many other locals, Semyonov and Silevskaya were familiar with Kushner’s name and his White House title; in addition to being married to Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka, Kushner is also a senior White House advisor.

But unlike many people — including residents of the United States — the citizens of Novogrudok had known about the Kushners long before the presidential election.

In Novogrudok, the Kushners are remembered and revered — not for their Trump connections or  their sprawling real estate empire, nor for the scandal that engulfed Kushner’s father, Charles, or the recent allegations that he proposed a back channel for communication between the Trump administration and Russia.

Rather, the Kushners are known for the daring escape from the local ghetto in one of the most famous acts of Jewish resistance to the Nazis.

The Kushners’ story features prominently at Novogrudok’s humble Museum of Jewish Resistance. The two-room museum, which opened in 2007, features pictures of Kushner’s paternal family — his great-grandfather, Zaidel; his wife, Hinda; their daughter, Rae; and her two siblings. The museum also displays the bunk beds where the family was forced to sleep when the Germans rounded up the local Jews into the Novogrudok ghetto.

In addition to Novogrudok’s wartime Jewish population of 6,000 — about a quarter of its total population — the Nazis crammed an additional 24,000 Jews from neighboring towns into a ghetto that was built around around a courthouse.

“The Kushners were a well-off family that, before the war, owned several shops in the center, was known to many people here,” said Marina Yarashuk, director of the Museum of History and Regional Studies in Novogrudok, which operates the Jewish museum. “So it’s natural that they should feature in the display.”

But what really makes the Kushners’ story stand out, Yarashuk added, is how they stuck together through a remarkable escape. Their plan seemed doomed to fail, but ultimately enabled them to survive the Holocaust and fight the Nazis alongside Jewish partisans.

“It’s an amazing story,” Yarashuk said. “I’m glad that it’s now coming out, even if it’s only because everyone is so interested in Jared Kushner.”

The Kushners’ unlikely survival centers upon the actions of Rae Kushner – Jared’s steel-willed paternal grandmother, who was 16 when the Germans placed her with her parents, sister and brother in the ghetto.

Having survived at least five “selections” for murder by machine gun — including the one in which her mother was killed — Rae joined her brother in leading a daring escape through a tunnel that was dug underneath the heavily-guarded ghetto, which was surrounded by electric wire. Rae recalled her role in the escape — which included removing dirt, as well as obtaining work tools and information from non-Jews who had entered the ghetto with the Germans’ permission — in a two-hour interview she gave in 1982 to the Kean College of New Jersey Holocaust Resource Center.

In what became one of Belarus’ best-known Holocaust stories, Rae helped lead prisoners through the weeks-in-the-making escape tunnel, which was the longest of its kind in Nazi-occupied Europe and facilitated the biggest escape through a tunnel by Jews.

The diggers — who concealed the earth they removed inside double walls and attics — led 350 men and women to freedom through the tunnel and into the woods. There, the survivors joined the Bielski partisans — a group of some 1,000 Jews named after the three brothers who led them, and whose bravery was the subject of the 2008 film “Defiance.”

As organizers, Rae and her brother, Honie, had earned a spot among the first to crawl out — what was considered a far safer position than at the end of the line. But she gave up her prime position to be with her 54-year-old father and 15-year-old sister. “If we live, we live together. If we die, we die together,” she recalled in the interview.

That decision may have saved her life, as well as that of her sister and her father, who was so weakened by months of malnutrition that he needed his daughters to carry him. Rae’s brother, who was among the first to emerge, disappeared without a trace. He was never seen again.

Today, the tunnel — which was dug inside a barrack and is now the site of the museum — is commemorated by a red-pebble path that traces its 225-yard trajectory all the way to the exit point, which is today a hole that borders a car repair shop. The shop’s walls feature commemorative posters with pictures from an archaeological excavation conducted there 10 years ago.

The attention devoted to the Kushners and their escape — as well as the general awareness of the story among Novogrudok’s locals — are typical of the success of Holocaust education in Belarus, according to Yuri Dorn, a former leader of Belarus’ Jewish community of 15,000 people.

Whereas revisionism is a growing problem among Belarus’ neighbors, with the exception of Russia, “the Holocaust is taught elaborately in schools in Belarus, where museums and memorials are set up and maintained,” he said.

 

President Alexander Lukashenko’s undemocratic rule and police-state policies may be condemned internationally, Dorn added, “but when it comes to Holocaust education and commemoration, Belarus is a world leader.”

This is partly because during World War II, Nazis killed some 2.23 million people in Belarus — a quarter of its population, including many non-Jews, Dorn said — a number too great to ignore.

Even so, the Kushners’ story is proof to Semyonov, the businessman, that the suffering of Jews was particularly intense. “The occupation in Belarus was a national tragedy,” he said. “But no one suffered like the Jews.”

In Rae’s two-hour interview, which was archived by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, she recalled how she forced a farmer to lead her family into the woods, where they lived for months on food given to them by locals until they were discovered by the Bielski partisans, who had heard about the escape and sought out survivors in nearby villages. The Kushners lived in the woods for a year, keeping watch for German troops and helping maintain the partisans’ camp until liberation in May, 1945.

Rae then took her family to a refugee camp in Czechoslovakia and, later, to Italy. She married her husband, Joseph Berkowitz, also from the Novogrudok area, in Budapest. Since he was from a poor family, he took her better-known name.

They emigrated to the United States in 1949 and settled in Brooklyn, where they raised four children, including Jared’s father, Charles. Joseph Kushner got a job as a construction worker, but by the time of his death in 1985, he had built a real-estate empire comprising more than 4,000 apartments.

Charles Kushner has visited Novogrudok several times, and even received a tour of the museum in 2014, Yarashuk said. Rae Kushner visited at least once before her death. The family donated some funds toward the construction of the Jewish resistance museum, according to Tamara Vershitskaya, the museum’s former director, who declined to provide details.

“Clearly it was a very moving experience for him, but it was also very emotional for us,” said Yarashuk.

She added: “Around here, the Kushners are a big deal, with or without Trump.”

Israel closing five consulates, including Philadelphia


In a budget-cutting move, Israel is closing five of its diplomatic offices around the world.

The affected consulates are in Philadelphia, Belarus, El Salvador and Marseilles, France, along with a “roving ambassador” to the Caribbean, The Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the saved money will go toward existing consulates and embassies.

The Philadelphia consulate was initially scheduled to be shut down two years ago, but was left standing after the local Jewish community and local politicians objected, according to the Post.

In addition to its embassy in Washington and the Philadelphia consulate, Israel has consulates in eight other U.S. cities: New York, Boston, Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Alleged Nazi war criminal who moved to Canada dies at 93


Vladimir Katriuk, a native Ukrainian who avoided deportation from Canada for 64 years after hiding his Nazi past to move there, died peacefully in Quebec.

Katriuk, who was 93, died on May 22, according to his lawyer.

For years Katriuk was second on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s list of “most wanted” Nazi war criminals. As a member of a Ukrainian battalion serving the Nazis in 1943, he was alleged to have been a key player in the massacre of Jews in a Belaraus village, with especially compelling evidence emerging in 2012.

Although in 1999 Canada’s Federal Court ruled that Katriuk lied about his Nazi past to enter Canada and ordered his Canadian citizenship revoked, he exploited Canada’s lengthy appeal process to stay in the country.

That brought decades of criticism from Canadian Jewish bodies such as B’nai Brith, the defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).

Just hours before news of Katriuk’s death was made public, CIJA issued a statement reacting to Russia’s criticism of Canada for not having extradited Katriuk back to Ukraine.

“We call on the Government of Canada to review this case and take the necessary steps to ensure that…Katriuk be held accountable for war crimes…” CIJA stated.

For decades, Katriuk lived as a beekeeper in the municipality of Ormstown, one hour southwest of Montreal.

Belarus Jewish leader convicted of tax evasion, sentenced to time served


Yuri Dorn, a Jewish community leader in Belarus, was convicted for tax evasion but set free after a year in jail.

Dorn, president of the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations in Belarus, was arrested in March 2012 on allegations that he had mismanaged the community’s property for personal gain. Police also said Dorn had been caught accepting a $13,000 bribe in a sting operation. Prosecutors had accused Dorn of renting out space belonging to the Jewish community without permission,

Earlier this week, Dorn pleaded guilty to tax evasion but denied charges that he abused his position or rented out space without permission. The latter charges were dismissed by the judge at the Central District Court of Minsk on Friday. The judge convicted Dorn of evading taxes but said the year Dorn spent in prison was his penance for the offense, according to the Interfax news agency.

In an interview after his release for Liberty Radio, Dorn said he would resign from his position as president of the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations. He was placed under house arrest until the sentence goes into effect, Intefax reported. Dorn does not intend to appeal the verdict, according to the news agency.

On March 21, prosecutor Tatiana Rak asked the court to hand down a five-year sentence to be served in a medium-security facility.

Last month, prosecutors in Minsk dropped bribery charges that were included initially in their indictment.

Belarus Holocaust memorial vandalized


A Holocaust memorial in eastern Belarus was vandalized.

Brown paint was poured over about 60 percent of the marker, on the site of the Jewish ghetto in the Belarusian city of Mahileu, according to Radio Free Europe.

It is not known who damaged the memorial.

Jews have lived in Mahileu since the 16th century, Radio Free Europe reported.

Ex-Israeli ambassador to Belarus is indicted for aiding Lieberman


Israel’s former ambassador to Belarus was indicted for providing Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman with documents relating to an investigation against Lieberman.

As part of a plea bargain, Ze’ev Ben Aryeh admitted to turning over to Lieberman a copy of a police request to Belarus authorities to help in the corruption investigation against the foreign minister. The request reportedly asked for permission to question Belarus banks and government officials.

Lieberman is accused of advancing Ben Aryeh’s position in the Foreign Ministry in exchange for the information.

Ben Aryeh reportedly will be sentenced to four to six months of community service.

Belarus synagogue vandalized again


A synagogue in eastern Belarus was vandalized for the second time.

The windows of the synagogue, located in the city of Babruysk, were smashed in early Monday morning, Radio Free Europe reported.

On Nov. 11, the day after commemorations around the world for Kristallnacht, a swastika and the words “Death to Jews” was painted on the synagogue’s fence.

About 50 people, most of them elderly, belong to the synagogue, the synagogue’s secretary, Maya Savatseyeva, told Radio Free Europe.

‘Defiance’ celebrates Jews’ daring acts of WW II resistance


“Every day of freedom is like an act of faith,” says Tuvia Bielski, one of three brothers who led a partisan group battling Nazi troops in the forests of Belarus.

Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) are the heroes of “Defiance,” which chronicles not only their daring acts of sabotage, but also how they established behind enemy lines a self-contained community of a thousand Jewish men, women and children.

Unlike Russian, Polish or French resistance groups, the Bielski Otriad (detachment) had to face, in addition to German soldiers and tanks, frequently hostile local populations, anti-Semitism among “allied” Soviet partisans and opposition by Jewish community elders who feared Nazi mass reprisals.

To make matters worse, there were bitter quarrels about strategy and methods between the more militant Zus and the more idealistic Tuvia.

Nechama Tec, whose book is the basis for the film, has described the Bielski Otriad as “the largest armed resistance by Jews during World War II.” As such, the exploits of the three brothers and their followers have given heart and pride to Jews burdened by the common misconception that all European Jews went passively to their doom.

One who gained new self-esteem was Edward Zwick, who, growing up in the Midwest, felt shamed by the supposed meekness of Jews during the Holocaust.

Once he became a well-established television and film director/producer (“The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond,”) Zwick spent 12 years trying to bring “Defiance” to the big screen.

The long delay was due partly to the reluctance of Hollywood’s Jewish honchos to tackle the subject, but even more by their reluctance to gamble their money on so complex a story.

“Studio chiefs fear anything that smacks of complexity,” Zwick told an Anti-Defamation League audience at an advance screening.

Paramount finally backed the movie, with Craig, the current James Bond star, in the lead. Zwick commented, “My greatest hope for the film is that another 15-year-old boy in the Midwest will see it and never feel the shame I did.”

Abraham Foxman, national ADL director and himself a child Holocaust survivor, praised “Defiance” as the first American film to tell the truth about the collaboration of many Lithuanians, Poles and Ukrainians in the extermination of their Jewish neighbors.


The trailer

But surprisingly, Foxman was unsure how “Defiance” would be judged by Jewish viewers. “I am not certain whether we are ready to embrace fighting Jews,” he said.

After shooting of the film was completed, a brief media flurry brought some unwelcome publicity.

A Polish government agency, the Institute of National Remembrance, charged that the Bielski detachment might have joined Soviet partisans in an attack on the village of Naliboki, in March 1943, in which 128 civilians were shot.

ALTTEXTThe agency, known by its Polish acronym IPN, deals with “crimes against the Polish nation” and is generally considered right wing. Even in its own brief report, IPN stated that participation of the Bielski partisan in the killing “is merely one of the versions of the investigated case.”

Descendants of the Bielski brothers have categorically denied the charge, as has Mitch Braff, director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation (www.jewishpartisans.org).

“For one, it’s been clearly established that no Bielski partisans were in the vicinity of Naliboki at the time of the shooting,” Braff said. “Furthermore, it would have been stupid to kill civilians whom the partisans needed for food supplies.”

Based on extensive research and interviews, Braff believes that between 20,000 and 30,000 Jewish partisans, mainly from Russia and Poland, fought the Nazis during the war.

American Jewish University scholar Michael Berenbaum and Braff are collaborating on a teachers’ guide to accompany release of the film and the subsequent DVD.

“Defiance” will open at selected Los Angeles theaters on Dec. 31, before a later national rollout.

Image: Director Edward Zwick, right, with Daniel Craig and Alexa Davalos on the set of “Defiance.” Photo by Karen Ballard/Paramount Vantage

IFF: Belarus actress returns with a hat trick


After an absence of several years, Belarusian-born actress Yavgenia Dodina has returned to Israeli cinema — and in a big way, releasing two films in the final months of 2006 and preparing for the release of a third early this new year.

No one needs you when you’re down, the actress said recently about her character in “Love and Dance,” the film that marked her return to the big screen in October. That may be true, but it’s not an issue Dodina has had to deal with in her own career for quite some time, having long ago carved out a niche for herself in the world of Israeli cinema and theater.

When it comes to the country’s large community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, there is perhaps no performer who’s succeeded more in entertainment, or conveyed a more fully developed sense of the U.S.S.R.’s former Jews than Dodina.

Playing a host of characters from a variety of backgrounds and time periods, the actress has become Israeli cinema’s perpetual newcomer, the go-to performer for characters struggling — and, only in some cases, triumphing — in their pursuit of a secure and fulfilling existence in their adopted homeland.

A native of Mogilev, Belarus, Dodina arrived in Israel as a 25-year-old, still lacking fluent Hebrew but already carrying dreams of success on the Israeli stage. A graduate of the prestigious Moscow Academy of Theater Arts — GITIS, according to its Russian acronym — the actress immigrated to Israel with other Soviet Jewish actors to establish a Russian-speaking theater in their new country, an endeavor that seemed risky at the time but continues to thrive more than 15 years later in the form of Jaffa’s Gesher Theater. Now in her early 40s, the actress has won a formidable collection of awards for her stage work, and by the mid-1990s had begun her ascent within the world of Israeli TV and film as well.

An alumna of Moscow’s well-regarded Mayakovsky Theater, the actress made her Israeli film debut in 1996, earning her first Israeli Academy Award nomination two years later for her role in “Gentila,” a male road trip movie in which she played a key part. Her most celebrated recent movie is 2003’s “Nina’s Tragedies,” a surprise best film winner at that year’s Jerusalem Film Festival and the runaway winner — with 11 statuettes — at the Israeli Academy Awards.

But that was three years ago. In the intervening period, Dodina has focused on her stage work, finally returning to the big screen in the fall as Yulia, a ballroom dancing teacher trapped in a difficult marriage in “Love and Dance.” A bittersweet look at the lives of immigrants from the U.S.S.R. and their Israeli-born children, the story is told through the eyes of the nearly adolescent Chen (Vladimir Volov), offering a look at the depressed grandmothers, frustrated parents and conflicted sons and daughters of Ashdod’s Russian-speaking community.

The film’s young hero abandons judo to join the world of competitive ballroom dancing, but it is Dodina’s Yulia who becomes the film’s unexpected heroine, with the dance teacher’s skepticism about Chen slowly fading and re-emerging as concern for the troubled young boy. But even as the character begins to provide emotional support and advice to her young charge, she continues to reinforce her own thick skin, attempting to prove to the world that, when it comes to her own life, she doesn’t believe in tears — or, most of the time, in feelings.

A champion ballroom dancer in her former life, the character is a moving symbol of the sacrifices made by Israel’s largest immigrant community, with Yulia’s distinguished earlier life simply of no concern to the native-born Israelis who surround her. A lucrative professional dancing career has given way to ballroom lessons for teenagers at an Ashdod community center, as well as work as a pharmacy clerk in the evenings.

She plays a similarly steely character in her most recent film, “Dear Mr. Waldman,” which screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January. The movie, whose Hebrew title translates literally to “Letters to America,” explores the relationships between two parents and their son in 1960s Tel Aviv, with the wife (Dodina) and son burdened by the knowledge that the father (Rami Heuberger) lost his previous family during the Holocaust.

The final movie in Dodina’s unofficial comeback trilogy, tentatively titled “A Touch Away,” will arrive in theaters later this year.

Known according to fans’ tastes as either the first lady or diva of the Gesher Theater, Dodina’s keeping up her work there as well, appearing this month in both Russian and Hebrew as the headlining performer in Medea and in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

Categorizing the actress and her work is hard enough in Hebrew and Russian, and arguably even more difficult in English — her first name alone, depending on which source you’re using, can be spelled Evgenia, Yevgenia or Yevgenya, and there are also nicknames including Jenya and Doda. (Yavgenia the spelling used in this article, is also the spelling of choice in promotional material for “Dear Mr. Waldman.”)

But when it comes to her own career and sense of herself as a performer, Dodina sees things quite simply.

“I feel fully Israeli,” she said.

World Briefs


Bush Blasts Attacks

President Bush lashed out at those responsible for a rash of anti-Semitic attacks that have taken place across Europe. “We reject the ancient evil of anti-Semitism,” Bush said during a speech Tuesday, referring specifically to “those who burn synagogues in France.” In the speech to business and civic leaders in California’s Silicon Valley, he added, “America values and welcomes peaceful people of all faiths

Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and many others. Every faith is practiced and protected here because we are one country.”

Farrakhan Ban Upheld

Britain’s Court of Appeal upheld the government’s right to bar Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan from the country. The court said Tuesday the ban was based on reasonable fears that Farrakhan’s “notorious opinions” were a threat to public order. The court also said that Farrakhan would not be allowed to appeal the decision to the House of Lords, which is Britain’s highest court. Tuesday’s finding came after the government appealed a decision last year in which a lower court judge ruled against the government’s ban, saying the government had failed to establish “objective justification” for excluding Farrakhan.

Saudis Supporting Bombers’ Families

Saudi Arabia has been providing financial support for families of suicide bombers, according to documents seized by Israeli troops during the military operation in the West Bank. The papers show that Saudi Arabia has transferred more than $500,000 to the West Bank, and the funds were then used to give $5,000 each to the families of suicide bombers, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported. The paper quoted sources in the Prime Minister’s Office as saying the money was transferred via an aid society headed by the Saudi interior minister.

Belarus Gets a JCC

A new JCC was dedicated in Belarus. The community center in Minsk includes a Jewish museum and athletic facilities. It is operated by the Union of Belarussian Jewish Organizations and Communities. Palestinian wounded in church standoff

Israeli troops shot and wounded a Palestinian at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity on Wednesday. Israel described the Palestinian as a gunman who was spotted in the courtyard of the church compound. He was hit in the shoulder, then surrendered along with another man, an army statement said.

Nativity Burns Engineer Sentenced

An Orange County engineer was sentenced to 40 months in prison and fined $20,000 for exporting to Israel electronic components that could be used as triggers for nuclear weapons. Richard Kelly Smyth, 72, had spent 16 years as a fugitive. Last July, he and his wife were located in Spain. Israel returned most of the components after Smyth’s indictment and said they never were intended for use in nuclear weapons.

Israeli Opium Field Found

Israeli police discovered a vast field of opium-producing poppies in the center of Israel. Investigators speculated that the field had the potential of producing opium worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Acting on intelligence information, a police investigator picked a flower at a field near Kibbutz Hulda and sent it for laboratory testing. Police are currently trying to locate those who planted the field.

Briefs complied by J.T.A.