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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Rae Kushner (z''l), Born February 27, 1923, Escaped the Novogrudok Ghetto

"But he knew the way how to go in the woods. We didn't know nothing. I [was with] my sister and my father and I said to him, '…we're going to die together or we're going to be rescued together.' We were sitting under the bushes for 10 days. And it was pouring."
— Rae Kushner.


Reichel "Rae" Kushner, was born to Nashum and Hinda Kushner, on February 27, 1923, in Novogrudok, Poland. The second-oldest of four children, she had one brother Channon, and two sisters, Chana and Lisa. Her family resided in, and contributed to, a thriving Jewish community of about 6,000 members, which also compromised just over half of the entire population. The Kushner family had a strong, middle class foundation built on home, embraced by the community and her father's thriving fur business.

In September of 1939, just after the signing of what was known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Eastern part of Poland was invaded by Soviet Troops, and life for young Rae Kushner and her family changed drastically. Rae expressed thereafter, that survival under Soviet occupation was relatively "tolerable" in comparison to what took place after the Nazi invasion. These life altering episodes began June 22, 1941, during World War II, with the launch of Operation Barbarossa, during which Nazi troops aggressively attacked occupied Soviet territories. Though rumors from the West, of massive and barbaric killings, had reached Novogrudok by that point, few Jews actually believed that the Germans would carry out such atrocities.

Following several massacres, the surviving Jews were forced into provisional ghettos in a suburb of Novogrudok. Rae, her family, and many others, were forced to crowd into the city’s courthouse, and were inflicted with preposterous living conditions. During this time they instigated a plan of escape from captivity. Unfortunately, Nazi troops were often "entertained" with the weekly slaying of large numbers of Jews; which subsequently lead to the untimely deaths of Rae's mother Hinda and eldest sister Chana, during one of these cruel and fatal disseminations, on May 7th, 1943.

Starting in the middle of May, the remaining Jews dug a narrow tunnel during the night from the courthouse to a nearby forest, using tools made in the ghetto workshops, and hiding the dirt in the walls of buildings. Rae, along with her remaining family and approximately 600 others, helped to execute the escape when the route was finally completed. The passage was only large enough for one person to crawl through, and of the 600 only about 250 were able to reach the forest. Many of the escapees were met with darkness, disorientation, and even gunfire; only 170 survived. Rae’s brother Channon was among those who escaped, but then lost his life. Losing his glasses during the crawl through the tunnel, he became disoriented and afflicted by the heinous conditions of the forest.

Rae and her surviving family spent the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hidden in the cold, dark, dense woods. She and her younger sister grew famished, "it was in those forest, and in those moments of pain and hunger, when those men and women were digging for their lives, that it became evident that it was either Israel, or nothing." Determined to live another day, they eventually made their way to the home of an unknown ally. 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, Rae, her family and others from Novogrudok, sought refuge with a partisan group lead by Tuvia Bielski. The Bielski Partisans managed to shelter over 1,200 Jews, Rae regularly stood guard and often cooked camp meals, consisting of mostly potatoes grown in the surrounding forest, soup and small pieces of bread. During that time, Rae became better acquainted with Joseph Kushner, whom she knew prior to the war. They fell in love and were married in August of 1945, a little over a year after the Bielski camp was liberated by the Red Army. Joseph and Rae became one, among the many partisan couples, who "found love in the forests."

Post war, Rae returned to her hometown of Novogrudok, only to find it destroyed and in complete devastation. She and the remaining members of the Kushner family ended up in an Italian Displaced Persons Camp for three years. It was there that Rae gave birth to her daughter Linda, the first of her four children.


In 1949, the family was able to relocate from Europe to New York where Rae gave birth to three more children, two sons, Murray and Charles, and a second daughter, Esther. Rae passed away in 2004, but her name lives on with great relevance and influence 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.
For more information on Rae, including seven videos of her speaking about her experiences, please visit the JPEF partisan pages. Rae is also featured in JPEF's short film A Partisan Returns — you can find it on our films page.

Edited by Alya Dejoure.

















Friday, February 23, 2018

Sam Lato (z''l), Born February 24th Became a Partisan at 17

"Whenever you went on assignment, the most dangerous part is coming back. Going there, they don’t know you're there, so you sneak in. While you sneak in, they might catch you, they might shoot you, but going back is the problem, because they know you're here, and they're going to go after you. However, if they don't know the direction you went, they won't catch you, but if they saw one, they're going to go after you. Because this is their army here. So that was the most dangerous part."
— Sam Lato.

Sam Lato was born in Baronovich, Poland on February 24th, 1925. He moved with his family to Warsaw at the age of three, where his skills as a craftsman earned him a scholarship to a local Jewish trade school. He eventually returned to Baronovich, which went under Soviet control in 1939 after the blitzkrieg of Poland.

Life was calm in Baronvich until 1941 when the Germans invaded Poland and quickly occupied Sam’s hometown. Soon, the Baronvich ghetto was formed. It was here that Sam became a member of the local resistance, even before he knew of the partisans’ existence. He started making cigarette lighters to sell on the black market, and smuggled ammunition and medical supplies from his factory job.

A year later, the Germans began to commit massive acts of violence against the locals. While Sam was fortunate enough to avoid several massacres, he and 15 other young men decided to take their chances in the forests of Belarus. At the age of seventeen, Sam fled from Baronvich and eventually found his way to a partisan camp. He was surprised to discover that there were already over a hundred Baronvich Jews in the brigade. Sam wasn’t with the partisans long before he met Genia Wishnia, whom he married only a few months later. They went on several missions together.

Sam’s brigade was in poor condition when he first arrived. They had no explosives to commit sabotage, and their camp was infested with lice. Sam and his friends would joke, “When you take off your jacket, put it in the corner so it [won’t] go away. Otherwise, the lice [are] going to move it outside for fresh air.” However, in the spring of 1943, they began receiving airdrop support from the Russians. They received new weapons, clothes and medical supplies. Soviet paratroopers even came to help coordinate the brigade’s activities, and Sam was recruited into their ranks as an auxiliary.
Sam and Genia in Germany, 1946

Sam was, at one point, assigned to accompany a Polish paratrooper. He followed him everywhere because no one was supposed to be alone. Sam didn’t think much of the short Pole, and didn’t know who he was or what he did. After Sam was relieved of his assignment and returned to his brigade, he was summoned by his colonel. The colonel instructed Sam to never repeat what he saw or heard during his time with the Pole, because he was none other than the exiled Polish prime minister.


In 1944, Sam joined the Russians in their advance to the Baltic Sea. After the war, he and Genia stayed in the USSR for several years before ultimately immigrating to the United States with their son, Edward. Genia lost her life to breast cancer in 1987. In 2006, Sam wrote a book about his time as a partisan in response to the denial of the Holocaust, as well as those who believed that the Jews went quietly. "The Jews did not go quietly,” he said in a 2009 interview. “Resistance, both peaceful and fierce, was waged by rabbis, senior adults, men, women and children alike." The book, From Ghetto to Guerilla: Memoir of a Jewish Resistance Fighter, received the gold medal for its category at the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and was introduced to the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Hollywood, Florida in February 2008.
Sam passed away in 2012, leaving behind three grandchildren.

Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Sam Lato, including seven videos of him reflecting on his time as a partisan.

Edited by Kyle Matthews.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Purim and the Partisans: A Jewish Tale of Defiance

The celebration of Purim is the victory of the oppressed rising over an oppressor. Countless stories of the Jewish partisans during the Holocaust are more or less, echoes of this story and have resonated over time as a parallel to Purim. Some of the themes seen in both the Partisans and Purim include hidden identities, outwitting enemies, recruiting allies, providing food for those in need, confronting antisemitism and, of course, armed resistance.



Purim celebration held by the Beitar Zionist movement in Wlodzimierz, Poland in 1937. Thousands of Beitar members reportedly formed or joined partisans groups and participated in the in the Warsaw, Vilna, and Bialystok ghetto revolts. Photo source: USHMM.

At the climax of the Purim story, Queen Esther (whose name can mean "hidden") reveals her Jewish identity in order to save her people. At significant risk to her own safety, Esther confronts her husband, King Ahasuerus, and convinces him to thwart Haman in order to exterminate the Jews of Persia. The king grants Esther and her cousin Mordecai ("warrior") the authority to issue a counter-order, allowing the Jews to take up arms against their attackers.

And he wrote in the King Ahasuerus' name, and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters … wherein the king granted the Jews, which were in every city, to gather themselves together, and to stand for their life, to destroy, to slay and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province that would assault them… (Esther 8:10-11)

Through a combination of intellectual planning and physical force, the Jewish people defeat Haman's anti-semitic minions, and live to celebrate their victory:

The Jews gathered themselves together in their cities throughout all the provinces of the King Ahasuerus, to lay hand on such as sought their hurt: and no man could withstand them; for the fear of them fell upon all people. And all the rulers of the provinces, and the lieutenants, and the deputies, and officers of the king, helped the Jews; because the fear of Mordecai fell upon them. (9:2-3)
…and the month [in which the Jews would have been annihilated] was turned for them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day: that they should make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. (9:22)

As with the heroes of Purim, Jewish partisans saved thousands of lives through a combination of intellect, arms, the will to create a better future, and a great deal of mazal (luck). While Mordecai and Esther are heroic figures in Jewish lore, the day is truly won by the largely unsung Jews of Persia who united to rebel against their murderous assailants. As with the Jews of Persia, the great majority of the Jews who struggled against Nazi forces – both partisans and the millions more who engaged in unarmed resistance – remain nameless heroes, hidden in the shadows of our history.



Purim celebration in 1939. All but one person in this photograph - Jewish partisan Norman Salsitz - were murdered by the Nazis.

Today, the world continues to face oppressors who are willing to use brutal violence to attain their goals. The story of Purim, and the history of Holocaust resistance, teach us that the key to defeating injustice is using our minds, our bodies, and our spirits to act justly to defend ourselves and others from tyranny, bigotry, and violence.


Thursday, February 15, 2018

Remembering Jewish Partisan Vitka Kempner Kovner (z''l)


Born in the town of Kadish on the Polish-German border in 1922, Vitka Kempner Kovner escaped to Vilna after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union and turned Vilna into a ghetto, Vitka joined up with poet and future husband, Abba Kovner to organize the United Partisans Organization (FPO) – a Jewish armed resistance movement. Vitka committed FPO’s first act of sabotage when she blew up a Nazi train line with a homemade bomb.
Photo Courtesy of USHMM

When the Nazis gave orders to liquidate the ghetto in 1943, she helped evacuate much of the Jewish population to the forests following a failed uprising. Vitka continued her work in the resistance with the "Avengers," an all-Jewish partisan brigade formed from the ashes of the FPO and led by Abba Kovner.

After the war, Vitka and her husband helped hundreds of European Jews immigrate to Palestine, the land that would eventually become the Jewish state of Israel. They both followed in 1946, settling at Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, where Vitka passed away on February 15, 2012. She was survived by four grandchildren and left behind a proud legacy of survival and resistance.

For more information on Vitka, including seven videos of her speaking about her experiences, please visit her profile on the JPEF website and view the short film Women in the Partisans. Vitka is now featured on the websites of both Facing History and Ourselves and the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum through their collaborations with JPEF.

May Vitka and Abba's memories be a blessing.