Despite great obstacles, Jews throughout occupied Europe attempted armed resistance against the Germans and their Axis partners. They faced overwhelming odds and desperate scenarios, including lack of weapons and training, operating in hostile zones, parting from family members, and facing an ever-present Nazi terror. Yet thousands resisted by joining or forming partisan units. Among them was Rae Kushner.
Born on February 27, 1923, Rae Kushner was the second-oldest of four children. Her family lived in Novogrudok, Poland. The city had a thriving Jewish population, comprising just over half of the town’s 12,000 inhabitants.
Soviet troops entered Novogrudok 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 at the start of Operation Barbarossa. Though rumors of mass killings had reached Novogrudok 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.
Before long, Rae, her father and younger sister were among only 300 Jews left. These remaining Jews managed to dig and escape through a 600-foot tunnel during the nights, using special-made tools in the workshops and hiding the dirt in the walls of buildings.
When completed, the 600-foot tunnel was only large enough for one person at a time 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.
While in the partisans, Rae reconnected with Joseph Kushner, whom she knew prior to the war. They married a year after the Bielski camp was liberated by the Russian army in July 1944.
After the war ended, Rae returned to Novogrudok, only to find that the entire city was destroyed. In 1949, she moved to New York, where she had two sons, Murray and Charles, and her second daughter, Esther.
Although Rae passed away in 2004, 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.
Series: Women in the Resistance
Critical Thinking Questions
- What obstacles and limitations did Jews face when considering resistance?
- What pressures and motivations may have influenced Rae Kushner's decisions and actions? Are these factors unique to this history or universal?
- How can societies, communities, and individuals reinforce and strengthen the willingness to stand up for others?