When President Trump was criticized recently for not reacting quickly enough to incidents of anti-Semitism, his son-in-law Jared Kushner came to the president’s defense by telling the story of his own Jewish grandmother’s escape from Nazi occupation in the Soviet Union.
Rae Kushner fled what is now Belarus through a tunnel dug underneath the Jewish ghetto in the small town of Novogrudok.
The headline in one of Belarus’ most popular news website summed up the euphoria over the town’s mention: “The In-Law of Donald Trump Has Belarusian Roots.”
Novogrudok, population 30,000, doesn’t get much attention from the outside world. The connection to the U.S. president flung open the doors of possibility.
Would Trump come visit? Could there be a Trump hotel in Novogrudok’s future? Would Novogrudok’s new fame mean the government would finally improve its roads?
“We — Novogrudok and even Belarus itself — were the No. 1 news story in the whole former Soviet region,” said Marina Yarashuk, director of the Novogrudok Museum of History and Regional Studies. “We really felt that we were in the middle of something, and it gave us a lot of ideas.”
Online commenters weighed in with their suggestions.
“Trump’s son-in-law would pave the roads, paint fences and build some spots to exercise ice hockey,” wrote one.
“Trump’s son-in-law and his daughter must be invited to Belarus to visit the places where his relatives once suffered and died,” wrote another. “Then the president of America may remember that there is such a republic of Belarus that his children are interested in, which will help improve relations between the US and Belarus.”
The town is tucked in Belarus’ northwest, a landscape dominated by large, state-run farms and huge swaths of forest.
Over the last 900 years, the city has been under the control of the Mongols, Lithuania, Poland, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, before Belarus finally became independent in 1991.
Soviet concrete apartment blocks line the outskirts of town. In the center is a quaint square lined by pastel-colored buildings dating to the 19th century.
Down a grassy hill sits a Baroque Roman Catholic Church and a crumbling stone tower of a 14th century castle that hosted the coronation of the first king of Lithuania in 1253.
Despite Novogrudok’s rich history, the main tourists are Belarusian schoolchildren and the occasional group of Russians.
The last time Belarus — a country of 10 million where the security agency is still called the KGB and whose leader then-President George W. Bush dubbed the “last dictator of Europe” — made international headlines for something other than politics or human rights abuses was November 2015, when Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in literature.
A recent government crackdown on protests hasn’t helped when it comes to improving Belarus’ image in the West.
Citizens are quick to point out famous people with Belarusian roots: actors Scarlett Johansson, Lisa Kudrow, and Kirk and Michael Douglas, the painter Marc Chagall and the late Israeli Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.
Add to the list Jared Kushner.
On the eve of Trump’s inauguration in January, the founder of the Novogrudok Museum of Jewish Resistance invited the Trump family via an e-mail to Kushner’s father, Charles.
“I received an answer in just a few seconds: Yes, he will give the invitation to all members of the Trump family,” Tamara Vershitskaya said in an interview on state television. “Charles has a very warm attitude towards Novogrudok.”
His relationship with the city began in 1989, when he visited with his mother. He frequently returns with family members to see where his mother and five other members of the Kushner family survived Nazi occupation.
He is also the largest contributor to the tiny museum, most recently giving $6,000 to build a memorial garden at the site where the Jews are believed to have emerged at the end of the tunnel.
The museum sits on the grounds of what is now an agricultural college. It was here in July 1941 that the Nazis corralled 600 Jews, forcing them to live in horse stables and work in a sewing factory.
The Nazis executed half of the ghetto’s population in May 1943, according to testimony from survivors.
The leaders of the ghetto devised a plan to escape. Using spoons, leather shoe insoles and other rudimentary tools, they began digging a narrow hole underneath a floorboard in the stables. They dug in shifts at night for four months, carrying out the dirt in their pockets, shoes and pantcuffs and dumping it when the Nazi guards weren’t looking.
On Sept. 26, 1943, in 48 minutes, 250 Jews crawled through the 600-foot tunnel and ran into the neighboring woods.
Before the war, Jews made up about 60% of Novogrudok’s population. Today, according to Yarashuk, the museum director, there are thought to be 17 Jews in the entire region.
Novogrudok is still waiting for the Trumps to RSVP to the invitation to visit.
“We really need to fix our roads first, we can’t have visitors coming here and walking through that,” said Yarashuk, pointing to the muddy parking lot. “That’s wishful thinking, of course. But who knows? Maybe even our own president will come to see us.”
Ayres is a special correspondent.