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Out of one of Europe’s smaller nations came a young hero inspired by his community, his country and his faith. Refik Veseli was a 17 year old Muslim boy, born and raised in the rural village of Kruja in the mountains of Albania. What is remarkable about Refik’s story is that his community’s courage is as much a part of the story as his own. Refik is one of thousands of Albanian heroes who risked their lives to save the lives of Jews during World War II.
During the beginning of the war, Albania was under the control of the Italian fascists and was fairly stable and secure. Refik’s parents sent him to the capital city of Tirana to learn the trade of photography. While in Tirana, Refik became an apprentice for a successful photographer named Neshad Prizerini.
At the same time, Germany expanded their reach and control, taking over Albania, Kosovo, Greece and other neighboring countries. Jews who had fled from central Europe now moved further South into Albania and the neighboring countries. One of the Jewish families that ended up in Tirana was the Mandil Family.
Moshe (Mosa) Mandil and his wife Gabriela had been a very successful Yugoslavian photographers and shop owners prior to being imprisoned by the Italian forces. He and his family escaped and fled to Albania. As Moshe looked for employment at local photography shops he ran into Neshad Prizerini who had been one of his apprentices a decade earlier. Prizerini offered Moshe work and invited the Mandil family to stay in his home in Tirana.
Shortly thereafter, the Italian forces pulled out of Albania and the German forces began their occupation. Knowing that thousands of Jewish refugees were living in Albania, the Germans intensified and increased their searches. Refik realized that being in the capital city would no longer be safe for the Moshe, his wife Ela or their young son and daughter, so he asked his boss if he could take the Mandil family to his home in the mountains.
Refik didn’t have to think twice about his parent’s approval. He had heard them say many times before that “every knock on the door is a blessing from God.” And he knew that his family would open their arms to help hide and take care of the Mandils.Despite the immediate risk of death, Refik devised an escape plan for the Mandil family using various forms of transportation, traveling at night, and hiding in caves along the way. After a few days of traveling and a terrifying crossing right under the nose of the German border guards, they safely reached the Veseli home in Kruja, where the Mandil family was eagerly accepted and given food and a place to hide in a small space above the barn.
Refik’s brother Hamid had a relative of the Mandil’s, Joseph Ben-Yosif working at his clothing shop. Hamid, was inspired by Refik’s rescue of the Mandil’s and created a plan with his youngest brother Xhemal to smuggle Joseph, his wife and children to safety at the Veseli family’s home in the mountains.
With two families, the room above the Veseli barn was too small for comfort, so the Veselis decided to clothe the Jewish refugees in traditional Albanian farmer’s clothing and hide them in plain sight. Because the Veseli children and the Jewish children played in the streets together, everyone in the community knew the Veselis were harboring Jews, but whenever the German forces came searching, no one said a word. In time, other members of the community began hiding Jews as well.
The Albanian community has been known for their heroic code of honor. Sometimes referred to as Besa meaning “to keep the promise” or to keep one’s word and protect each other. In previous decades the Abanians lived out this principle, providing shelter to Hungarians, Italians, Greeks and others in their times of crisis and need. Because of the years of earned trust, the Albanians had a strong sense of community and relied on each other to keep their secrets safe.
Infuriated at their inability to find any Jews, the German forces began bombing the countryside, threatening the villages for anyone harboring Jews. Refik, like many other Albanians, was offered a reward for information leading to the capture of Jews. Though the reward money would have been helpful for his poor family, he kept his secret.Refik’s family and hundreds of other Albanian families, with equally daring stories, risked their lives to save the lives of over 1,800 Jews. By the time the war ended not one of the Albanian Jews were turned over to the Germans and there were more Jews in Albania than when the war began. To put it in perspective, 83% of the hiding Jews in neighboring Yugoslavia and 90% in neighboring Greece were exposed and killed.
After the war, the Mandil family safely returned to Yugoslavia and reopened the photography shop. Refik moved to Yugoslavia with them to continue his apprenticeship as a photographer. His story and others like his went unnoticed for decades as the countries became isolated under communist control and contact with the Jewish survivors was cut off.
The young Refik, encouraged by Prizerini and his community, took a bold leap of courage to save the lives of a family. His efforts inspired his brothers to do the same, and their combined efforts inspired their rural village. Refik Veseli is a hero, as was his family and community. His story and the lives of hundreds who were saved in Albania highlights how a heroic community can achieve much more than one well-intentioned individual.
Photos Courtesy of YadVashem.org