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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Remembering Rae Kushner (z''l) and her Escape from 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 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, though he later 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 forests, 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 violent death.

Shortly thereafter, Rae, her family, and others from Novogrudok, sought refuge with a partisan group led 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."

Postwar, 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.
Visit Rae's partisan page, for more information and to view seven videos of her speaking about her experiences. JPEF's short film A Partisan Returns features the story of Rae's escape from the Novogrudok.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

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 24, 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.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Share the Legacy of Jewish Partisan Sonya Oshman (z''l) During Women's History Month


The eldest of four children, Sonya Oshman (z''l) was born in 1922 to a family of wealthy Novogrudok merchants. Novogrudok was a Polish town with a population in the thousands, approximately half of whom were Jewish. The Gorodinskys were well-respected, and Sonya’s father was occasionally called upon to mediate tensions between the town’s Polish and Jewish communities.

Sonya had planned to enroll in medical school in Bialystok the year that the Soviets invaded. Although the Soviets deported many Jews to Siberia, the Gorodinskys were left alone. Life changed drastically when the Nazis occupied Poland. They systematically murdered most of the town’s Jewish population, including Sonya’s youngest brother and grandparents.

By May of 1943, only 500 Jews remained in Novogrudok – mostly skilled laborers and their families. The Nazis confined them to the city's courthouse, where they lived in squalid conditions in what became a makeshift ghetto. On May 7th, the Nazis conducted another massacre, reducing the ghetto population by half. Following this massacre, the remaining 250 Jews began plotting their escape. The initial plan to storm the courthouse gates fell through when the Nazis discovered their plot. Instead, the escapees decided to dig a tunnel underneath the ghetto into the woods; a slow, stealthy escape through a hidden tunnel would allow the sick and the elderly enough time to get out.

The work was difficult and dangerous. The excess earth had to be disposed of, and the summer rains threatened to collapse the tunnel. To avoid suspicious dirt stains, those digging wore burlap sacks – or dug naked. Even in these dire conditions, Sonya found a ray of hope when she befriended and fell in love with Aaron Oshman during the time they spent digging together. They would later marry. Just a month before the escape, Sonya’s father was transferred to another ghetto, along with a handful of other skilled workers. She never saw him again.

The escape finally occurred on a rainy September night. About seventy of the escapees – including two of Sonya’s cousins and the tunnel’s mastermind – lost their lives when they accidentally ran back towards the ghetto and were shot by the guards, who mistook them for ambushing partisans. Most of the other escapees, including Sonya, eventually made it to relative safety at the Bielski partisan camp. There, she was reunited with her one surviving brother Shaul, and with Aaron.


As a member of the Bielski partisan group, Sonya performed many important duties and was instrumental in safeguarding the camp population by standing sentry.

After the war ended, Aaron and Sonya traveled across Europe, finally making it to a displaced person’s camp in Italy. Their first child was born shortly before they arrived in the United States and settled in Brooklyn.

Sonya dedicated her life to sharing her story and to teaching people about the resistance of the Jewish partisans. She traveled extensively and spoke in schools, synagogues, and community centers across the country.

Sonya and Aaron were married for 56 years, had two sons Matthew and Theodore, and four grandchildren. For more on the inspiring life of Sonya Oshman, the Novogrudok tunnel escape, and the Bieslki brigade, please watch the JPEF documentary, A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters. and read Gila Lyon's excellent biography in Tablet magazine.

Sonia passed away on March 2, 2012.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Bring Jewish Women in the Partisans to Women's History Month with JPEF's Resources


March 2019 is the 39th anniversary of Women's History Month. Our website has an extensive library of easily accessible resources and lesson plans to help educators and parents teach about the history of women in the Jewish partisans.

So many brave women — young and old alike — fought back to defeat the Germans and their collaborators. JPEF is proud to share these women's stories. Please check out the following resources on our website:

* Curriculum, film, and related historical links can be found on the Women in the Partisans Resource Page.

* Everyday the Impossible: Jewish Women in the Partisans is a 15-minute film about the women who made up less than 10 percent of the partisans. The film introduces viewers to eight Jewish partisans as we hear their firsthand experiences from the partisan camps.

A Partisan Returns is a riveting story of former Bielski partisan Lisa Reibel's escape from the Novogrudek ghetto, and her journey back to visit her home nearly 65 years later.

Pictures of Resistance is JPEF's traveling photographic exhibit, showcasing pictures taken by Faye Schulman, the only known Jewish partisan photographer.

Consider reading these five excellent books about Jewish women partisans, all of which are featured on the JPEF website:
All titles are highly recommended by the JPEF staff.

* Background, in-depth information and great techniques for teaching about Jewish women partisans in your classroom is the focus of JPEF's online course, which awards CEUs.

Picture above (left to right): Sara Fortis, Brenda Senders and Sara Ginaite.