"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.
Born on February 27, 1923, Rae Kushner was the second-oldest of four children. Her family lived in the Polish town of Novogrodek, where a thriving Jewish community comprised just over half of its population.
Soviet troops entered Novogrodek in September of 1939 after the Soviet Union invaded Poland. Though the Russians took away the Kushner business and home, life under Soviet rule was relatively tolerable. Then, in the summer of 1941, the Nazis invaded Poland at the start of Operation Barbarossa. Though rumors of mass killings had reached Novogrodek 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.
Starting in the middle of May, the remaining Jews dug a 600-foot tunnel during the nights, using tools made in the ghetto workshops and hiding the dirt in the walls of buildings. Rae and her family helped with the digging. 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 Novogrodek — including Rae and her family. In the Naliboki 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. During that time, Rae met and fell in love with Joseph Kushner, whom she knew prior to the war. Rae and Joseph were married in August of 1945, a little over a year after the Bielski camp was liberated by the Red Army. They were among the many partisan couples who found love in the forests.
After the war, Rae returned to her hometown of Novogrodek, only to find it destroyed. Rae and her family ended up in an Italian displaced persons camp for three years. It was here that Rae gave birth to her daughter Linda, the first of her four children.
In 1949, the family moved to New York and Rae had two sons, Murray and Charles, as well as another daughter, Esther. Both of her sons went on to have prominent careers in business. Rae passed away in 2004, but 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.
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 Kyle Matthews.