Rae Kushner: A story of Jewish resistance

It was in those forests, and in those moments of pain and hunger, and when those men and women were digging for their lives, that it became evident that it was either Israel, or nothing.

Child Holocaust survivors (photo credit: REUTERS)
Child Holocaust survivors
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 The story of Rae Kushner and the Belsiki partisan group during the Second World War is not just one episode of Jewish resistance, but in fact signifies the very spirit that Israel still harbors today.
Cold, scared and innocent Rae Kushner, along with her younger sister went hungry during the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Despite the fact that they entered the new year barely alive, they were glad to have escaped the ghetto of Novogrodek, which had been their home for close to two years. Kushner’s story, although one of many, is a perfect example of a small narrative of Jewish resistance amid the sea of melancholic causality which seems to continue to persevere in the study of the Shoah.
Born in Novogrodek, Poland, Rae’s life changed completely when Soviet troops invaded the eastern half of the country as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939. The Soviets took her parents’ business away which led to unthinkable poverty. Yet, in her own words she believed that the Russian occupation was “bearable” compared to when Nazi forces arrived in 1941, after the launch of Operation Barbarossa.
After weeks of gossip of massacres in the west, reality struck home when the Wehrmacht and SS Einsatzgruppen arrived in her small town, where about 6,000 Jews lived, constituting half of the population.
Hundreds were killed, and the rest were placed in a makeshift ghetto in a small part of the town, where living conditions were again ludicrous. The weekly massacres that the Nazis inflicted on the ghetto for their own amusement finally led to her own mother being murdered. Most could not take the pain of hunger, and death that surrounded them, and planned an escape.
“They digged, digged and digged” said Kushner in one of her emotional interviews before her death, referring to the hundreds of women, men and children who participated in digging a long tunnel that stretched from the courthouse in which her family lived in along with dozens of others, to a nearby forest. They used homemade tools and even their hands to dig a tunnel big enough for one person to crawl through at a time. When they finally escaped, out of the 600 that went through, only 250 made it. Many of those were later murdered by Nazi guards outside Novogrodek.
After wandering endlessly through the woods with her sister, brothers and father they found hope in a man they came across, named Tuvia Bielski, the famous leader of the Bielski partisan group which at one point enrolled a 1,000-strong Jewish force that fought the Nazis in Poland and Belarus on the Eastern Front. “Bielski saved us” said Kushner. Yet they were not the only ones whom he helped as Bielski took in hundreds of Jews who escaped from surrounding villages, and hid them in concealed camps in various forests.
Rae took up arms to serve with the men and women in the partisan group not because she had no option, rather she wanted to save lives.
When she did not fight, Rae guarded the camp, and mostly cooked potato soup as potatoes were the only thing that they could find in the forests of Poland. Yet, the quality of their food was truly the last thing on the mind of the partisans. For the course of the war Rae, Bielsky and hundreds of other fought to cripple German supply lines, and rescue Jews from being sent to their deaths.
After the war both Rae and those like her spent the rest of their days with the ability to celebrate Rosh Hashana peacefully, never again having to feel hunger, or the unbearable sight of seeing those they loved killed around them.
Yet, there is more to this story than just Jewish resistance, agency, and the improbability of defying death. No. This is about Israel, as it was Israel that was being built in those forests.
Eretz Yisrael was first conceived decades before Rae’s time, in the minds of men and women through the diffusion of ideas, yet it was in Poland, and Europe as a whole, that it became much more than just an idea. It became a necessity.
It was in the fighting spirit of those such as Tuvia Bielski that the first stones of a nation began to be molded. It was in the spirit of struggle, and defiance against tremendous odds, that the very cornerstones of a country for a people that have remained without a home for far too long were founded.
It was in those forests, and in those moments of pain and hunger, and when those men and women were digging for their lives, that it became evident that it was either Israel, or nothing.
The author, a native of Jassy, Romania, is a writer, historian, and the senior editor of The Art of Polemics magazine. He is currently working on a book on The Jassy Pogrom of 1941.