Eighty years after the horrors of the Holocaust, the inspiring example of how ordinary Albanians saved not only their own tiny Jewish community from the Nazis—but also the lives of nearly 2,000 Jews from Austria, Germany, Greece and Yugoslavia—is no longer a footnote in history.
Since Albania emerged from the shadows of a cruel Marxist dictatorship in the early 1990s, dozens of scholarly books, articles, film documentaries and museum exhibits have appeared on this once-obscure topic.
And now, Israeli-born children’s author and lecturer Maya Klinger Cohen wants to make sure kids know the story too.
Her book, published in Hebrew as הצילום שהציל אותנו, or “The Photo That Saved Us,” has just been translated into English as The Photographer’s Son. The Hebrew version recently won the Yad Vashem Award for Educational Expertise as an outstanding Holocaust-related book for children and youth.
In its 119 pages, Maya tells the story of the Mandil family, who lived in Yugoslavia but were forced to flee the invading Nazis when World War II broke out. Hidden by the Veselis—an Albanian Muslim family—the family not only survived the nightmares of war but stayed in touch with their rescuers for decades after.
“It’s now one year since the war in Ukraine broke out, and I’m amazed that the events in my book which took place 80 years ago have become so relevant again,” she said. “Cities in Europe are being bombed, and I just cannot believe it.”
Maya spoke Feb. 5 from her metropolitan Washington, D.C., office during a one-hour Zoom conference organized by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) Capital Area Chapter, with support from AJL National and Classrooms Without Borders.
With over 20 years of experience in researching, guiding and educating, Maya has worked with people of all ages. She’s taken visitors on tours through the Old City of her native Jerusalem as well as national sites such as Yad Vashem and the Bible Lands Museum. Maya earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biblical studies from Hebrew University, and now lives in Rockville, Maryland, with her husband and three daughters.
Although Maya has never been to Albania, the mountainous Balkan nation entered her consciousness in a roundabout way.
“I had been looking for many years for an individual story about the Holocaust that teaches children but doesn’t intimidate them. When I was a little girl growing up in Israel, we didn’t really study the Shoah except for one day a year, and after that we didn’t want to know more about this subject because it was dark and frightening,” she said. “Working at Yad Vashem, I heard a lot of testimony from survivors, but they were too difficult for children to digest. I asked myself, is this the right way to do it? This is why I wanted a story with an optimistic message.”
One day, Maya took some people to her local JCC in Rockville, where a traveling exhibit called “Besa: A Code of Honor” told the story of Muslim Albanians hiding and protecting Jews during World War II. This extraordinary hospitality stems from the concept of Besa, which literally means “to keep the promise.”
As Yad Vashem itself points out: “One who acts according to Besa is someone who keeps his word, someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family. The help afforded to Jews and non-Jews alike should be understood as a matter of national honor. The Albanians went out of their way to provide assistance; moreover, they competed with each other for the privilege of saving Jews.”
The exhibit’s panels consisted mainly of images taken by the late Norman Gershman (1932-2019), who had traveled to Albania several times to photograph the people who had rescued Jews. And if they had already died, he took pictures of their spouses and children.
“Thanks to the goodness of the Albanian people, Albania is the only European state that had more Jews after World War II than before—mainly Jews who had fled there from Greece and Yugoslavia,” Maya said. “I decided to pick one of the men in the photo and investigate who he ended up saving.”
That man was Refik Veseli—and an entire generation of Jews in Israel today is alive thanks to the bravery of Refik and his family in September 1943, when Albania was under Nazi occupation.
Maya’s book is told from the perspective of 5-year-old Gavra Mandil, who lived in the Yugoslav city of Novi Sad with his father, Moshe, a photographer; his mother, Gabriela, and his sister, Irena.
During an April 1941 visit to their grandmother’s house in Belgrade, German troops invaded Yugoslavia and immediately began deporting Jews to concentration camps. Herded onto trains, the family—carrying counterfeit documents—were detained by German officers on suspicion of being Jewish.
But just at the last moment, defying expectations, Moshe showed the officers a small photograph of his children laughing under a Christmas tree. The tree had merely been a prop in his photo store, but the ruse worked—and the family was allowed to continue on its way.
Arriving in Prishtinë (capital of present-day Kosovo), they spent a year in a guarded refugee camp but, under Italian occupation, were allowed to travel by truck to Albania. They arrived in Tirana and moved into a small apartment together with a friend who owned a photo studio in downtown Tirana. At that store worked Refik Veseli.
“One day, German troops came into the photo store looking for Jews. Refik told Moshe to hide under a black cloth,” Maya said. “Refik spoke with the German soldiers until they left. That’s when Moshe understood that Tirana was not safe anymore, but he had nowhere else to go.”
Determined to help the Mandils, Refik traveled north to his village, Krujë, and asked his parents—Vesel and Fatima—to hide the Jews. Without hesitation, his father agreed, and came with donkeys to transport them. But they could only travel under cover of darkness, sleeping during daylight hours in the forests.
The journey was long and difficult, even though all the Jews carried fake Albanian identity cards and wore traditional Muslim clothing. At one particularly frightening Nazi checkpoint, German officers interrogated Gabriela—who they suspected of being a Jew because of her light-colored eyes—but she pretended to understand only Albanian.
Eventually, the Germans let the family pass, and as Maya said, “she saved all of them by playing the role of her life.”
At the end of World War II, Gavra and his family found their way to Israel. He eventually became a famous photographer and set up his own photo studio in Tel Aviv.
“They kept in touch with the Veselis for 40 years after the war, and Gavra did as much as he could to get them recognized as Righteous Gentiles,” Maya said. “But it wasn’t easy, because for all those years, Albania was a communist dictatorship.”
In July 1990, those efforts finally paid off when Refik Veseli traveled to Israel and, in a deeply moving ceremony at Yad Vashem, became the first Albanian in the institution’s history ever to receive that honor.
Since then, around 75 elderly citizens of Albania, as well as those of Albanian-speaking Kosovo to the east, have been honored.
In 2006, Gavra died at the age of 69. His daughter, Ruti, recently put together an exhibit in Israel of his work consisting of hundreds photographs that have never been seen before. This exhibit, to be inaugurated tomorrow (Feb. 8) in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, marks the 60th anniversary of Studio Gavra, and will remain open to the public for the next three months.
Meanwhile, Anna Kohen, a retired dentist now living in Florida—has published her own memoir, Flower of Vlora: Growing Up Jewish in Communist Albania. She’s trying to get Maya’s book—which will soon be translated into Albanian—as well as her own, onto the shelves of Albanian school libraries now that the country’s Ministry of Education requires Holocaust studies to be taught as part of Albania’s school curriculum.
“Not only Jews, but all kids need to learn about this dark time and let them identify with figures they can read about and relate to,” Maya said. “Children will remember individual stories—and hopefully these stories will dwell in their hearts.”