BOSTON — One was a family of Holocaust refugees from Poland, the other a family with roots in 19th-century Germany. Now, following Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism, two American dynasties, the Kushners and the Trumps, are joined by marriage. Collectively, the families are the subject of award-winning journalist Andrea Bernstein’s new book, “American Oligarchs.”
Subtitled “The Kushners, The Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power,” the book was already a New York Times bestseller days after its publication by W.W. Norton & Company. The first stop on Bernstein’s book tour was the WBUR CitySpace in Boston on January 22, in which she gave a talk moderated by “Here & Now” radio host Tonya Mosley.
Bernstein got a favorable reception from the audience. When she said that her book tried to reinstate the importance of truth and facts, they applauded. They laughed when she said US President Donald Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, left Germany in the late 19th century because “he did not want to join the military.” And they groaned when she mentioned, “I’m hearing the floating of Ivanka Trump for 2024.”
The book comes out amid Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, but Bernstein began the project in the summer of 2018, during the trial of former Trump campaign head Paul Manafort, who was eventually sentenced to prison.
“The characters come back around, the storylines come back around,” said Bernstein.
In the book, Bernstein writes about the experience of looking at one of Manafort’s homes, a brownstone in Brooklyn. “It was paid for by oligarchic wealth from Ukraine,” she said, adding, “I never knew we would be here now talking about Ukrainian oligarchs, wealth flowing into the US.”
Bernstein is an American Jew who told The Times of Israel she “was raised mostly secular,” though “I’ve been a member of a congregation myself all my adult life.” Her father is the philosopher and Hannah Arendt scholar Richard J. Bernstein, who recommended that his daughter read Arendt’s 1967 New Yorker article “Truth and Politics” while working on “American Oligarchs.”
Based in New York, Bernstein has been covering Donald Trump for decades, most recently in her WNYC/ProPublica podcast Trump, Inc.
“Working on the book was really, really hard,” she told the audience. “It was my first book, and the whole time, I was co-hosting and working on the podcast.” Over the course of the book project, she interviewed an estimated 200-plus people. She includes over 30 pages of references at the end of the book.
“Looking so intensely at business records, court records, all of these things contributed to telling the story,” she told The Times of Israel, as did “paying attention to what’s happening in the news. And, with family historical situations, looking into archival records.”
Kushner: A Holocaust tale
In her talk, she said that unlike the Trumps’ beginnings in Germany, “The Kushner family origin story is much less well-known.”
The book shares that Jared Kushner’s grandmother, Reichal “Rae” Kushner, survived the Holocaust, as did her father, Naum, and her sister, Lisa. But Rae’s mother Hinda, brother Chanon and sister Esther all perished.
According to Bernstein, in northeast Poland, where the Kushners were from, a population of tens of thousands of Jews had shrunk to 300 under the Nazis. Some survivors felt that because they had endured up to this point, the Nazis would let them live; others, including Rae, Naum, Lisa and Chanon, escaped in a tunnel dug beneath a ghetto fence, barbed wire and spotlights. Chanon got lost afterward and was fatally shot.
Rae lived with a group of Jewish partisans led by the famed Tuvia Bielski. She also met a young carpenter from the shtetl, Yossel Berkowitz. After the war, she and Berkowitz were married in Budapest.
To get to the US, Berkowitz did several things, Bernstein said. He changed his surname to his wife’s and claimed he was Naum Kushner’s son, not his son-in-law. He also said the family was from Germany.
Immigration laws favored Germany. He was able to immigrate to the US with two dollars in his pocket
“Immigration laws favored Germany,” Bernstein said. “He was able to immigrate to the US with two dollars in his pocket,” aided by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS.
In the US, former carpenter Berkowitz — now Joseph Kushner — would experience a turnaround because of a housing shortage for returning GIs and government assistance toward that end, Bernstein said: “His skills were so much in demand… He went from two dollars to, by the time he died, a millionaire many times over.”
Bernstein said that in making real estate fortunes, the Kushners and the Trumps benefited from New Deal programs and institutional racism, “each in their own way.” She followed political contributions made by members of the families, saying she examined “years of investigations, court records” regarding Donald Trump and his father, Fred Trump. “They gave so much money to the system, expecting something in a direct transactional way,” she said.
Meanwhile, Bernstein said, Jared Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, “was a very, very big Democratic donor.” She notes in the book that Charles Kushner also made political contributions to Benjamin Netanyahu over the course of the current Israeli prime minister’s political career, and writes, “He and Netanyahu grew so close that Bibi stayed at the Kushner home” in Livingston, New Jersey — though that was well before the Israeli premier’s 2009 ascension to office.
She told the audience that Charles Kushner’s Democratic donations got him into trouble. “He was writing a check from his companies,” she said. “It’s tax evasion — the money belongs to the people of the United States of America.” His brother Murray sued him, and according to the book, then-US attorney for New Jersey Chris Christie “enlisted Charles Kushner’s sister and brother-in-law as witnesses.”
Bernstein said in her talk that Charles Kushner hired “a police captain to hire a sex worker and entrap his sister’s husband.” He sent a videotape of the encounter to his sister, who “ends up giving the video to Chris Christie,” Bernstein said. “Charles Kushner is arrested for obstruction of justice and witness tampering. He professes his innocence, pleads guilty and serves one year in prison.”
Within three years of Charles Kushner’s release, in 2009, his son and Ivanka Trump would marry in an Orthodox ceremony under a wedding canopy at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. The 500 guests included former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and award-winning actress Natalie Portman. Bernstein chose the wedding as the opening moment in her book.
“It’s an incredible scene of the families coming together,” she said.
Bernstein said that newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch and his then-wife Wendi Murdoch attended the wedding and were “very close” to Jared and Ivanka, intervening to reunite them after a breakup over religious differences while they were going out.
“Rupert Murdoch was a real mentor to Jared Kushner,” Bernstein said. She added that when Kushner subsequently bought the New York Observer newspaper, he was “schooled by the way Rupert Murdoch used his paper,” including “the ideas he was appropriating for the editorial page.”
“It was not a discrete break,” Bernstein said. “It was somebody he became over a long period of time” on the way to joining the Trump campaign for president.
Mosley, who moderated Bernstein’s talk, noted that Charles Kushner gave his son a photo of Jared’s grandparents for his new White House office.
“Jared Kushner was interviewed by Time magazine and asked about immigrant stories, how his grandparents changed their relationships to get into the country,” Bernstein recalled. “He answered, ‘I’m never going to say anything bad about my father-in-law.’ The picture of Joe and Rae, his Holocaust survivor grandparents, that picture by his father is in the White House, [with the words] ‘Never forget who you are.’”
“I don’t know that I understand it fully, the way whenever Jared Kushner is asked about this, he sees his family as a success story who built themselves up from nothing, and isn’t it amazing their grandson is in the White House,” Bernstein said. “[Asked about] refugee or immigration policy, he shuts down, redirects the story.”
Since the election, numerous Cabinet members have come and gone, including former chiefs of staff Reince Priebus and John Kelly; ex-Defense Secretary James Mattis; and former national security advisors H.R. McMaster, Michael Flynn and John Bolton. Throughout, Bernstein said, Jared Kushner retains his influence.
“You can see, even now, as Jared felt more powerful, with all the messages with [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman, connections with the Saudis, [he felt] ‘I am a disruptor, you are all too much the old way, I’m here to do a different way,’” Bernstein said.
She said Kushner is “not only very powerful — he’s very proximate,” noting that he can go from a Cabinet meeting to a family dinner. “With Trump, proximity is power, family is power.”