Lisa Kushnir, at 91, sings the Yiddish tunes of tenacity

Clear memories of a life of defiant Jewish patriotism, in a land of bloodshed and poverty.

lisa kushnir 88 (photo credit: )
lisa kushnir 88
(photo credit: )
In a land strewn with the human detritus of Jewish Holocaust victims, where mass graves are discovered regularly, the Yiddish songs that Lisa Kushnir, 91, was belting out sounded like a testimony to the tenacity of Jewish continuity. Kushnir sat animated and smiling as she sang songs about the joys of teaching Torah to children, songs based on portions from the Jewish prayer book, songs about love. "My gentle love, don't go away," ran one, "but if you must, I'll think of you till you return to my arms." A delegation of journalists and representatives of Jewish organizations crowded into the squat red brick house, located a few hundred kilometers north of where a huge mass grave, suspected to be full of Jewish victims of the Nazis, was uncovered not long ago. Kushnir's house, where she has lived since 1944, was tidy, well furnished and cozy. The delegation had come to hear how Kushnir survived the Holocaust and how she was getting along. Now they sat, transfixed, as Kushnir, dressed in a simple dress and head scarf, gently rocked and sang with the professional charisma of someone accustomed to appearing before large crowds. Her singing was contagious. Soon most of the people in the room were humming and clapping along. Before the war Kushnir lived in a predominantly Jewish ,i>shtetl called Novozhytomir. She told reporters that she had been a precocious child. While other girls stopped their Jewish studies after learning to read and write, her melamed (teacher) encouraged her to learn Talmud, a course of study usually reserved for men. She was also encouraged to develop her voice and sing with the cantor. "Most girls only learned Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Ben-Yitzhaki, a commentary on the Pentateuch]," said Kushnir. "But my rebbe invited me to learn the Talmud." Later she became a schoolteacher, instructing pupils in history, science and math. During World War II, most of the residents of her shtetl were massacred by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators. Kushnir displayed a photographic memory for details as she told the story of how she and her baby son Michael - who is now 70 and lives in Haifa with her 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren - escaped the Nazis. She remembered the names of the places where she stayed during her flight, the names of the people who helped her, and she remembered the names of the three Ukrainian policemen who helped round up 850 Jews who were later shot and pushed into a mass grave near Zaporozhye, a town in eastern Ukraine where Kushnir found refuge for a time. After the war, her husband, who was a soldier in the Red Army, brought back with him, in Kushnir's words, "my picture, held dearly to his heart, and a victory for the Soviet Republic." Although she was an ardent Soviet patriot, Kushnir did not reject her Jewishness. She could sing Yiddish songs about love and Torah and still join in a round of the "Internationale." And although the Soviet regime prohibited practicing religion, she says she and her husband, who died in 1983, always baked matza on Pessah. "I did not listen to everything the Soviets told me to do," she said. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kushnir stayed on in Krivoy Rog because, as she said, "this is my country." Today, Jewish organizations help care for Kushnir. Central among these is the Hesed Welfare Network. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the deterioration of the welfare state. Kushnir's monthly state pension is $92. The poverty line is $100 a month and the average salary in Ukraine is $250. Hesed provides Kushnir with food, winter relief - she owes close to $200 to the gas company for heating costs - and medical assistance, including an aide who runs errands for her. Hesed is funded by the Claims Conference and run by the Joint Distribution Committee - the JDC (which brought this reporter on the visit to Ukraine). After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Claims Conference became the legal successor to all unclaimed Jewish property. About $1 billion from the proceeds of the sale of this property has been set aside to provide social services to Nazi victims in 40 countries. In Ukraine alone, $29.3 million has been set aside for 2007 and 2008 to fund Hesed. Why doesn't she leave for Israel? For Kushnir, Jewish continuity is not dependent on the state of Israel. "We are God's chosen people. We are smarter than the gentiles," she said. "All of my family are here," she added, pointing vaguely in the direction of the cemetery, where her husband and second child and other family members are buried. "Soon I will join them."