Navahrudak’s Native Sons: A Report from the Kushners’ Belarusian Homeland
By Linda KinstlerSeptember 6, 2017
The town center used to be a bustling market square, Vershitskaya explains, pointing to where stalls selling meat, fish, clothing, and hats had once stood. “That yellow building, it used to be a Jewish prayer house,” she says, gesturing towards a two-story wooden building, one of few in the center to survive World War II. A wooden sign above the doorway indicates that it is now a bar called “Rome,” but Vershitskaya, curator of the town’s Jewish Resistance Museum, brings my attention to the two white concrete scrolls that spring up from the sign on the bar’s facade, their curved edges topped by a single, small white crown. “Doesn’t that look like a Torah?” she asks.
Until recently, this Belarusian hamlet was primarily known as the hometown of the poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), Poland’s national bard, whose bronze likeness presides over the town’s highest point, next to the remains of its medieval castle. On a recent weekend, buses from nearby Vilnius unloaded tourists to the house where Mickiewicz grew up, a stone’s throw from where the long-gone Grand Duchy of Lithuania is said to have begun. The tours provide visitors with a glimpse of the home for which Mickiewicz, exiled to Russia, so pined. “It makes me hope a homesick exile might return to wooded hills, green meadows, and the lakes spread round the River Nieman,” the poet wrote. A grassy hill near the castle’s cliff edge is Mickiewicz’s “Mound of Immortality,” a type of memorial typically reserved for Soviet soldiers; it is said that on festival days Mickiewicz’s ghost, at least, gets to come home, momentarily departing from his grave at Wawel Castle in Krakow to take part in the fun.
Since November, however, Navahrudak’s attention has shifted toward one of its more contemporary prodigal sons, special advisor and son-in-law to President Trump, Jared Kushner, who was presented with a “bag of dirt” and a “piece of art” from the village by lawyer Sergey Gorkov, head of Russia’s state-owned Vnesheconombank, during their much-scrutinized December 13 meeting. In his statement detailing his interaction with Gorkov, Kushner misidentified his ancestral home, calling it “Nvogorod,” which appears to be a misspelling of the Russian city of Novgorod.
The gaffe will hit hard in Navahrudak, where Belarusian outlets reacted with elation to the 2016 US election (“Billionaire of Belarusian origin to define US policy,” one outlet proclaimed). In Minsk, archivists are busy preparing a genealogical study of the Kushner family dating back to the 17th century. When a Belarusian TV network came to Navahrudak to interview residents about Trump’s unexpected win, one pensioner, Mikhail Kasabukin, told them he spends all day watching news about Trump. “It is difficult for Belorussia to be friends with the U.S.,” he said. “But on a personal level, some familiarity, some loyalty, that would be desired, of course.”
Navahrudak (“new little town”) is where Jared’s grandmother Rae was born, and where the Nazis murdered her mother and older sister. During World War II, Rae, her father, and three siblings were held in the town’s small Jewish ghetto, where they helped dig a 600-foot earthen tunnel through which they and about 170 local Jews escaped the same fate. They fled into the nearby Naliboki forest, where they were taken in by a group of partisans, one of whom, Yosl Berkovitz, later married Rae and became Joseph Kushner, taking his bride’s more prominent surname. Rae’s brother, Chanon, was killed during their flight; Charlie Kushner, Jared’s father, is named after him, and has made regular pilgrimages to this small Belarusian hamlet for three decades.
During Mickiewicz’s time, Jews made up over 50 percent of the local population, and Muslim Tatars composed another 20 percent. “It was a kind of Jerusalem,” Vershitskaya says. In her mind, Navahrudak is notable for being a place where Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Jews long coexisted, a thoroughfare for marauding armies and tradesmen, a place accustomed to shifting borders and the close presence of foreigners. The Belarusian city has, over the centuries, belonged to Lithuania, Poland, and the Soviet Union.
“Belarus is a corridor through which everyone went back and forth. Belarusians don’t know who they are unless others are nearby,” Vershitskaya tells me. The city center was bombed four times during the war; the synagogues and Jewish prayer houses were destroyed, but the town’s mosque and several churches still stand. Of the city’s prewar population of 6,000 Jews, about five remain. Historic photographs dot the town square: “The locals like to see what was once here, and what remains,” Vershitskaya says.
Charlie Kushner and his siblings published The Miracle of Life, a record of their family’s history, in 1998; it contains a handwritten letter to Rae from a young Jared (“Thank you for being the wonderful role model that you are”) and a transcript of a 1982 interview with Rae about her family’s failed attempts to immigrate to the United States before the war: “We didn’t know where to run,” she said in the interview. “We felt the anti-Semitism. We felt something was coming, but we couldn’t help ourselves. The doors of the world were closed to us.” The Kushners’ remarkable escape is also depicted in Defiance, a 2008 motion picture about the Bielski partisans starring Daniel Craig. Last July, Jared Kushner cited his family history in a New York Observer op-ed in which he argued that his father-in-law was not an anti-Semite. In January, when Trump instituted his first executive order on immigration, banning the citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, the 1982 interview was unearthed.
Charlie first brought his family, including a young Jared, his three siblings, and their grandmother Rae, to visit Rae’s birthplace, which was then part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, in 1989, according to The Miracle of Life. In 2007, Kushner returned with Josh, Jared’s younger brother, to visit the site, and he visited it again last summer with his oldest grandchildren. He has vowed to bring all of his grandchildren, including Jared and Ivanka Trump’s three children, to Navahrudak once they turn 12 or 13, the age at which they will become adults in Jewish tradition. “Belarus is ready,” said Vershitskaya, who is an old acquaintance of Charlie’s. “Navahrudak’s heart is open.”
A silver stone bust of a young Lenin marks the entrance to the site where the Kushners were once imprisoned. Behind it stands the hulking white former courthouse, where the town’s Jewish residents were imprisoned. Around the corner, in the old barracks, is Vershitskaya’s three-room museum, its entrance marked by a sign in which the words “Museum of Jewish Resistance” are set aflame by a WordArt effect. The museum shares the land with the local trade school, whose students have lately taken an interest in the dark past of their grounds. A few years ago, survivors of the Navahrudak ghetto returned to help find the remains of the escape tunnel, uncovering a few of its decaying wooden walls beside the trade school’s garage for disused tractor trailers. Charlie Kushner has donated $36,000 to support the museum and pledged another $44,000 toward a project to preserve their findings and to build a memorial dedicated to those who were interned in the Navahrudak ghetto.
Inside the museum, replicas of the wooden bunks where the family slept, 65 centimeters per person, are carefully labeled, coupled with prewar family photos of the Kushners and their fellow detainees. Vershitskaya points out where the site of the tunnel entrance, mimicking how the prisoners covertly dug into the ground, hiding the excavated soil in the barrack’s every crack and crevice. For the past decade, Vershitskaya has overseen the museum’s upkeep, expansion, and finances, pushing the local administration to take care of the neighborhood’s Jewish landmarks, which, given its dark history, consist primarily of graves.
The Kushner connection has made Vershitskaya something of a local celebrity in Navahrudak, where she now acts as de facto spokesperson for the town’s history and, she hopes, its diplomatic future — a future in which Belarus is known as something other than “Europe’s last dictatorship” (a label that is, in any case, an infamous misnomer).
“If our president knew about our museum and understood how important it is, money [for the museum] would turn up, everything here would be different,” she argues. “Someone asked me, will Trump come visit Navahrudak when he meets with [Belarusian President] Lukashenko? I told them no, Trump will only get to meet with Lukashenko if he comes to Navahrudak first. We used to have a landing field; he can fly straight here.”
As we leave the grounds of the former ghetto, Tamara leans in. “Not only should Jared come here,” she says, “but he must.” She mentions that a man from a new think tank called the “Center for Public Diplomacy” had asked her to convey a message to Jared, via Charlie, to see if the Trump administration would back the organization’s efforts to oust the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a chocolate magnate who rose to power after Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan Revolution. “They have a lot of support in Russia for this initiative,” she tells me, explaining that she passed along the message to Charlie Kushner.
The think tank is run by a man name Igor Rudakov, a former doctor and businessman from Donetsk with no apparent background in politics. When I gave him a call a few weeks later, he explained via Skype from Moscow that, for business reasons, his think tank is registered in Ukraine, but that he would have preferred to register it in the separatist territories, which he avidly supports.
Navahrudak’s last best hope has always been that its prestigious émigrés might one day return. When Vershitskaya and I passed an unlabeled but ferocious metallic statue of a medieval knight on a tour of the town’s environs, she told me that one of Navahrudak’s more prominent citizens emigrated to the United States at the turn of the century, but later returned, twice, to teach the locals about the fundamentals of democracy.
That man, Alexander Harkavy, became one of the most celebrated scholars of the Yiddish language, publishing Yiddish translations of the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence after emigrating to the United States in 1882. “The Russian Jew is expected to adapt himself to American conditions of freedom and democracy,” Harkavy wrote in 1907, “but America does not demand of him that he forget the ties that bind him to his mother country, no matter how cruel she may have been, or that he forget his race, no matter how prosperous or how wretched that race may have become.”
In 1921, he returned to Navahrudak to report on the town’s sizable Jewish community. “The sight of Nowogródek moved me to tears. After 43 years I was expecting a lot of changes, but the market square looked exactly the same,” he wrote, remarking only that, after years of pogroms, “the market place seemed much less peopled.” Ten years later, he returned again to make a documentary film about local life, which opens with an image of Harkavy and two companions striding into town, visiting the busy market square, the Jewish prayer houses, the mayor’s office. With his visits came the promise that life in Navahrudak might soon improve, thanks in part to goodwill from those who would view his film back in the United States. But then the war began.
After a brief stop at the local mosque, a 18th-century wooden prayer house, our tour concludes at a popular local restaurant run by a businessman named Boris Krotin, who considers himself the city’s self-appointed rabbi. “Who except me could be the rabbi? I’m the oldest,” he tells me, ushering us upstairs to a private, baroque-style room on the top floor. Gray-haired, soft-spoken, and wealthy, Krotin hosted Charlie Kushner on one of his many visits to town, and says his restaurant is just a “hobby.”
When we sit down for coffee, he doesn’t want to talk much about Trump, or Kushner, or the local Jewish community, but about Ukraine, where my boyfriend and I flew in from. Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president and chocolate magnate who has lately consolidated a great deal of executive power, beguiles him.
“Poroshenko amazes me. He’s a millionaire. How much can one man eat? Why does he need this? You’re an American, you’re closer to the millionaires, maybe you can tell us why.”
“For the same reason that Trump needed to run for president,” Vershitskaya weighs in. “I think it’s a sickness. When you have money, you want more and more, just like cigarettes. It’s a kind of virus, it’s very difficult.”
“It’s very difficult to make the first million,” says Krotin with a half-smile, a nod to the millions he’s made.
“Yeah? And then?”
“And then, you get to work.” He turns to me. “Tell Jared there’s a standing invitation, but maybe don’t bring Trump.”
Linda Kinstler is a writer and PhD candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley
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