The founder and curator of the Museum of Jewish Resistance in Novogrudok, Tamara Vershitskaya, met with a US billionaire and in-law of US President Donald Trump Charles Kushner in January in New York. He said he was going to come back to Novogrudok this summer to show one of his grandchildren where his family once lived. And also, to see the Memorial Wall, built in memory of 227 Jews who managed to escape through a tunnel from the ghetto in 1943. Charles’s mother, Raya (Rajka) Kushner, was also among those who escaped. Tamara Vershitskaya is talking about her meeting and how the family of the American billionaire keeps the memory of Belarus.
Our days. Novogrudok – New York City.
Tamara Vershitskaya came to New York to participate in the international exhibition The New York Times Travel Show 2020. This is the fourth time Belarus has taken part in the event, and this year it decided that Novogrudok will be presented at the country’s stand as a successful example of tourism development.
– This is the result of the events that we held in Novogrudok last year. First of all, the congress of descendants of the Belski partisans. This was followed by the seminar, where Novogrudok was noted as an example of how tourism should be developed. And there are three components: events, the Museum of Resistance and the Lubchansky Castle, which is being restored by enthusiasts. As a result, the National Tourism Agency invited us to participate in this exhibition, which was held in New York from 23 to 26 January. We had a separate stand, we talked about both Novogrudok and the museum.
– Do Americans know anything about Belarus or Novogrudok?
– Not really. No one there knows about Novogrudok at all. And while people were interested in the Resistance Museum, almost nobody took the booklets that were on our stand with information about Novogrudok itself. Information about the museum was in demand. As for Belarus, there were different reactions. But again, here’s an illustrative example. The first day was an event for tourism specialists. Professionals gathered here. And when we started talking about Belarus, people did not even know what country we were talking about. For example, they thought that Belarus was one of the warm countries. They asked how we endured the temperature difference,” Tamara Vershitskaya laughs . – But we tried to tell and explain, we offered potential tourists a five-day tour with a developed route and a special guide. The flyers were all taken.
Preparing for the event, Tamara thought that just coming to the exhibition was not quite right. And she decided that it would be necessary to collect the descendants of the Belski soldiers who live in America and who could not come to Novogrudok last summer.
– I wrote a letter to the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust without any connections and just believing that everything will work out. Like, we are a small but unique museum in Belarus, and we offer you cooperation. They suddenly answered – and everything worked out. As a result, about 80 people gathered in one of the halls of the museum and got acquainted with each other, learned a little more about Novogrudok. Not only is it very important for us and for them to preserve the memory, but it is also a good advertisement of tourist Novogrudok.
And the third point of the program of Tamara Vershitskaya was a planned meeting with Charles Kushner. And to make it work, we had to stay in New York for one day, because the family was out of town during the exhibition days.
Both Charles and Tamara are united by Novogrudok. The Kushner family managed to escape from the ghetto in 1943 and settle in America after the war. Tamara has been studying those dramatic events for over 20 years.
German troops already captured Poland. The events that unfolded there, in the West, were closely watched in Novogrudok. There were several children in the family of local Kushner businessmen, who were sewing hats and fur coats. The eldest girl at that time was studying in Warsaw.
– After finding out about the German attack on Poland, The Kushners ran to the rabbi with the question: “What do we do?” It was Saturday, so the rabbi said: “Nothing, it’s Shabbat now”. When they left the house, the rabbi’s wife advised: “Run to the post office and send a telegram, let the girl go home,” Tamara Vershitskaya tells.
She seems to know almost everything about the history of local Jews, talking about different families from memory. For more than 20 years, the woman has been taking part in the work related to the Novogrudok ghetto, communicating with the descendants of the surviving Jews and members of the Belski guerrilla group. In 2007 the Museum of Jewish Resistance was opened in the district center, and last year the Memorial Wall in memory of the escape appeared nearby. Most of the money for its construction was donated by Charles Kuschner. He has already been to Novogrudok several times. The first time he came here was in 1989, bringing his mother – Rajka Kushner, who was one of those who managed to escape.
1943. The outskirts of Novogrudok. Ghetto
Before the war, about 6 thousand Jews lived in Novogrudok. About 227 fled from the ghetto. Some of them ended up in the Jewish partisan detachment of the Belski brothers, who operated in the Nalibokskaya Pushcha, and some unfortunately died. Only 124 escaped Jews managed to survive. The fate of another 35 is still unknown. In total, about 600 Jews survived the war.
Since 1942, they were herded into the labor camp barracks. Wooden bunk beds, unheated premises, meagre rations, lack of clean water and constant fear of imminent death… People knew: somewhere in Nalibokskaya Pushcha there is a Jewish detachment of the Belski brothers, where, as they said, they take everyone. The information about the rescue troop was transmitted from mouth to mouth. But how to get there, if everyone was behind barbed wire and the ghetto territory was carefully guarded? We decided to dig a tunnel. We made a detailed plan of the camp, stole wood in the ghetto workshops, sawdust to dry the way, laid an electric cable inside and even rails to take out the ground on trolleys. The tunnel was dug with hands and shovels, which were stolen from the Germans.
One of those who took an active part in preparing the escape was Rajka Kushner, Charles’ mother and grandmother of Jared Kushner, son-in-law of Donald Trump. Her mother Hinda was shot on May 7, 1943, then her brother Honya was killed. Rajka, her father Seidel and her sister Leia were saved.
Then there was the Bielski troop, where Rajka met Josef Berkovic, who took her name. In America, Seidel started to do housing construction work. His grandson, Charles, began managing the family’s finances in 1985 and founded Kushner Companies, headquartered in Florham Park, New Jersey, before moving it to New York. In early 2007, Kushner Companies acquired the 666 Skyscraper on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
And it was there, on the 15th floor of the building, that Charles Kushner and Tamara Vershitskaya met.
January 28, 2020. New York
– We talked for about an hour. Charles’ wife and one of his daughters also came to the meeting. I was very surprised they devoted so much time to me,” Tamara says. – Earlier, Charles had donated $36,000 to build the memorial wall in Novogrudok. The total cost of the project is 44,000. He said he would only give part of the money, and we must find the rest ourselves. And it makes sense: the search for money and philanthropists is a very complicated process, which at some point becomes part of your life. And it means that by spending so much energy, you will not give up all this halfway, but get it all done. The kind of psychological moment that Charles knows about.
Besides the memorial wall, Charles financially supports the Jewish Resistance Museum. During the meeting, he promised to continue to support it financially. He also said that he would come to Belarus again this summer and bring here one of his grandchildren, who would turn 13.
– Do the Kushners consider Novogrudok their homeland?
– You see, they don’t exactly call Novogrudok their homeland, but they feel some genetic connection with it. This story isn’t about them, but this is how it happens. In January, a famous clown from New York Harry Reznik (his relatives are also from Novogrudok) came here with his youngest daughter. And the 21-year-old girl, who was here for the first time, suddenly tells me (at that time we were walking in the Mickiewicz square) that she feels at home in Novogrudok. So, it’s something on an energy level. That’s what the Kushners feel, most likely. Why do they like Belarus? There are not so many people here and unlimited space. In New York, especially in Manhattan, you walk down the street and the sun doesn’t touch you. You just can’t see it because of the skyscrapers. The air doesn’t move. If you walk past some diner, the smell of fast food doesn’t go away. There’s no such thing here,” says Tamara Vershitskaya and adds that family history is very important to Kushner: his small office has a lot of pictures of relatives, children and grandchildren.
– The photos are even on the floor. In general, what one can learn from Jews and from Kushners in particular is how they keep the memory of their past, how they keep their families. For them it is a norm of life, and such perception of the world is encouraged by the Jewish tradition, where the Shabbat is a special time when the whole family is sure to gather together.
It’s not yet known when Charles Kushner will come to Belarus. By the way, this will be his fifth visit. Usually, the Kushner family stops at a hotel in Minsk, they travel around the country by car with a personal driver. Since part of the family strictly adheres to the customs and prefers kosher food, they take their provisions with them.
– But one day they went to the store and bought cheese, herring and bread. And then they just started eating it all, sitting at a table near a supermarket,” Tamara Vershitskaya says.
Charles Kushner brings his grandchildren to Novogrudok on each of his visits, organizes excursions for them and shows them where their great-grandmother’s house used to be, where there was a tunnel and where people had to live during their stay in the ghetto.
By the way, Charles’ son, son-in-law of Trump Jared Kushner, has not been in Belarus yet. Maybe he’ll come to Novogrudok this summer, too.
– Charles hasn’t seen the memorial wall yet. I’m worried how he’ll appreciate it, what he’ll say,” but when I showed him the photo of the monument, he said it looked good,” says Tamara.