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Israel-Kosovo ties a year on; Jews honor wartime rescuers

The Embassy of Kosovo on Jerusalem's Keren Hayesod Street is one of only three full-fledged embassies located in Israel's capital, along with those of the United States and Guatemala. (Photo by Larry Luxner)
The Embassy of Kosovo on Jerusalem's Keren Hayesod Street is one of only three full-fledged embassies located in Israel's capital, along with those of the United States and Guatemala. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

JERUSALEM — Raul Teitelbaum, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor descended from Polish Ashkenazim, is alive today because Kosovar Muslims protected him during World War II.

Likewise, Shelly Rachel Levy-Drummer owes her life to the Rezniqis, who hid her grandfather, Dr. Haim Abranavel, from Nazi officers and, years later, were the first Kosovars ever to be honored by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Gentiles.”

The traumatic, emotional stories of both families emerged in vivid detail during a Jan. 31 event at the Embassy of Kosovo in Jerusalem to observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

About 50 people attended the evening ceremony and reception, which also marked one year since the establishment of diplomatic ties between the predominantly Muslim republic of Kosovo and the Jewish state of Israel.

“Being raised in a family where the Holocaust was present, I was taught never to stop talking about this topic,” said Ines Demiri, chargé d’affaires at the embassy, which organized the event in cooperation with Yad Vashem. “Our obligation is not only to teach the universal lessons of the Holocaust to young generations—but also to honor those in Kosovo who risked their lives.”

About 50 people crowded into the Embassy of Kosovo in Jerusalem to attend a Jan. 31 event marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (Shlomi Reuven/Embassy of Kosovo)

Landlocked Kosovo—population 1.9 million and half the size of Israel—today is home to fewer than 100 Jews. Like their brethren elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, Kosovar Jews are Sephardim whose origins date to 15th-century Spain and Portugal. Besides the languages of the countries they came from, over time they also learned Albanian, Turkish and Serbo-Croatian, and prospered thanks to the silver, lead and zinc mines in eastern district of Novobërda.

Jews in the nearby capital, Prishtinë, had their synagogue, yeshiva, private club and cemetery. But in 1963, Yugoslavia’s communist regime demolished the shul, leaving almost no trace of the once-influential community.

During World War II, when Demiri’s paternal grandmother, Ruth Behar, was only 18, she was mobilized with other Kosovar Jews, and in coordination with the rabbi of Prishtinë joined the partisans to fight fascism; her life was saved by Demiri’s Albanian-speaking grandfather.

Ines Demiri, chargé d’affaires at the Embassy of Kosovo in Jerusalem, with Eitan Behar, director of the World Zionist Organization’s Center for Diaspora Communications and Countering Antisemitism. (Shlomi Reuven/Embassy of Kosovo)

“Our diplomatic presence in Jerusalem represents not only our commitment to intensify our bilateral cooperation in all fields, but also our emotional connection to the past,” Demiri said. “I would never have imagined that one day, as their granddaughter, I would be posting their pictures at the Embassy of Kosovo in Jerusalem—the embassy of a country where Jews have lived peacefully for many centuries.”

Yet Kosovo’s role during the war is not black-and-white. Many Kosovars, like Arslan Resniqi, rescued Jews in defiance of their Nazi occupiers and were later honored for their heroism. But others joined the Skanderbeg Nazi SS division and helped round up 258 local Jews for deportation to Bergen-Belsen, 92 of whom were gassed or shot to death there.

The Jewish legacy in Kosovo: ‘We didn’t forget’

Nevertheless, today Kosovo is one of only three countries that recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by locating their embassies there, along with the United States and Guatemala.

Israel, in turn, recognizes Kosovo’s sovereignty along with more than 100 other nations—much to Serbia’s disappointment—and has sponsored several trade missions to help the struggling Balkan economy emulate Israel’s success as a startup nation.

A worthwhile quote from famed novelist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is displayed during a Jan. 31 event at the Embassy of Kosovo in Jerusalem. (Larry Luxner)

During the ceremony, Demiri took a swipe at Serbia for pursuing “an unjust war that took the lives of many people” in 1999, following the breakup of Yugoslavia and the renewal of old hatreds between ethnic Serbs and Albanians. As a result, an estimated 13,000 Kosovars died, 20,000 women were raped, and up to one million were forced to leave their homeland.

“Jewish politicians from Europe, the United States and Israel all stood up and advocated for stopping the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo,” she said. “At the time, Israel received 200 refugees, and for that, Kosovo is deeply thankful. Especially since our independence, we see a big need to share the history of the Jews. There is no doubt that the history of the Jews in Kosovo and Albania cannot be told separately.”

That was also the essence of a speech delivered from Prishtinë by Arberi Nagavci, Kosovo’s minister of education, sport and youth.

“Today, we remember the destroyed lives and dreams of six million Jews — including 1.5 million innocent children. Even after 77 years, it is still hard to conceive that the Holocaust took place,” said Nagavci, speaking via Zoom. “No one better than the Kosovars themselves can understand what genocide and ethnic cleansing means, as only two decades ago our country, in the middle of Europe, also suffered similar atrocities.”

This currently boarded-up, abandoned building in Prizren will soon house Kosovo’s only synagogue and Jewish museum. (Larry Luxner)

Next month, she said, Kosovo’s Ministry of Culture will begin funding the long-delayed restoration of a building in the medieval city of Prizren that will soon house the country’s first Jewish cultural center-synagogue complex. The $300,000 project is spearheaded by Votem Demiri, the 77-year-old patriarch of Kosovo’s Jewish community and Ines Demiri’s father.

In medieval times, Prizren was the capital of the entire Serbian Empire. During World War II and until the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991-92, Serbia was the largest of the six republics that made up the Yugoslav federation. It also controlled Kosovo until the latter’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008.

Stories of heroism and resistance

It was in Prizren where journalist and author Raul Teitelbaum was born in 1931—the son of Josef Teitelbaum, a military doctor from Poland—and raised under the shadow of Kosovo’s Italian occupiers in the early days of World War II.

“My father was 10 years old, and in the underground. They used to steal weapons from the Italian Army, puncture the tires of their vehicles and give the occupiers a hard time,” said his daughter, Iris Teitelbaum. “Raul became a street kid with no school and no parental discipline.”

Italian troops arrested Kosovo’s intellectuals—teachers, doctors, lawyers and others—and transferred them to Albania. After Italy’s capitulation and the Nazi occupation of both Albania and Kosovo in 1943, the Teitelbaum family escaped with anti-fascist partisans to the mountains.

Part of a marble monument on the grounds of Kosovo’s Parliament building in Priština — engraved in Albanian, Serbian, English and Hebrew — that marks the spot where Kosovo’s only synagogue stood until 1963. An inscription on the monument also honors Kosovar Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. (Larry Luxner)

“My grandfather treated the partisans in the villages and, in return, won protection,” she said. “One day, four SS men knocked on the door to take them away. My grandfather tried to show them the ranks he had from World War I, but it didn’t help. They were put on a cattle train and sent to Bergen-Belsen.”

But in April 1945, only three days after British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen, the elder Teitelbaum died.

“My father was only 13. ‘There is no God!’ he cried. From that moment on, God was dead for him,” she said. “He and his mother were left alone, so they went back to the only home they knew, hitchhiking to Prizren on Red Army trucks carrying sacks of flour.”

In 1949, a year after Israel’s establishment, they arrived in the Jewish state. Raul, 18, was very thin and weak, but he enlisted into the IDF and became a major. He eventually became the German correspondent for Yediot Aharanot and, among other scoops, interviewed the son of Adolf Eichmann in Munich.

Shelly Rachel Levy Drummer, who came to Israel in 1963 from Macedonia, describes how her grandfather, Dr. Haim Abravanel, was saved from the Nazis during World War II by the Rezniqi family. (Shlomi Reuven/Embassy of Kosovo)

Now 90, Raul no longer speaks much—especially since the death of his wife, Aliza, four and a half years ago—which is why his daughter gave the speech.

In a similar vein, Shelly Rachel Levy-Drummer told the story of her grandfather, Dr. Haim Abravanel, who lived in the Macedonian capital of Skopje. In 1941, was mobilized by the Yugoslav Army to Kosovo, where a typhoid epidemic was raging. One of the patients he cured was a 17-year-old boy named Mustafa Rezniqi.

Shortly after, the Germans captured Abravanel, but the Rezniqi family freed the young doctor and hid him in their home for several months, eventually bringing him back to Skopje. In 1963, after her parents died in a massive earthquake that leveled 80% of Skopje, Levy-Drummer came to Israel with her grandparents.

“In 1999 [after the Israeli government announced it would welcome refugees from the Kosovo war], I started looking for the Rezniqi family. I always considered them as family, even though they were Muslims,” she said. “One evening, a guy in his 80s called me, and said he was Mustafa Rezniqi from Kosovo.”

Besa: The Albanian code of honor

Eventually, Levy-Drummer had an emotional reunion at Yad Vashem with the old man whose life had once been saved by her grandfather, and whose family had saved hers in return. The occasion was the opening of Yad Vashem’s exhibition, “Besa: A Code of Honor,” which chronicled the history of Muslim Albanians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families.

An emotional encounter between two Kosovar Jews during a Jan. 31 event at the Embassy of Kosovo marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. (Shlomi Reuven/Embassy of Kosovo)

Besa literally means “keep the promise”—and explains in large part why Albania, the only country with a Muslim majority, was also the only one that had more Jews at the end of World War II than at the beginning.

Just two months after the 2009 ceremony in Prishtinë where Rezniqi received the “Righteous Among the Nations” award on behalf of his father, he passed away.

Those warm family ties live on through the hero’s great-grandson, Leka Rezniqi, who heads the Kosovo-Israel Friendship Association. Rezniqi, 36, a former TV news presenter and producer in his native Prishtinë, is currently pursuing Holocaust studies at the University of Haifa.

“Relations between Kosovars and Jews started many decades before the official establishment of diplomatic ties and the embassy’s opening,” said Rezniqi, who’s been living here since October. “It’s not like we know each other only now. I’ve spoken several times in Israel on this topic, and to me, all that we’ve done together is part of this ongoing relationship between our two peoples.”

Ziva Arvatz shared the story of her mother, Yafa Behar-Reuven, a Kosovo-born Holocaust survivor, and Yad Vashem expert Lea Micha spoke about her work educating teachers from Kosovo and Albania about the Shoah.

The event concluded with “Take the Girl,” a one-hour documentary produced by Yad Vashem about Shela Alteratz, a young Macedonian Jew who spent much of World War II wandering and hiding throughout Kosovo, where she lived under an assumed identity. After liberation, she moved to Prishtinë and, in 1949, emigrated to Israel.

Alteratz, now a great-grandmother, also attended the event, along with Ambassador Dani Dayan, chairman of Yad Vashem; Ambassador Gary Koren, deputy director-general of the Western Balkans division at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and several other Israeli, Kosovar, US and other foreign dignitaries including Bardhyl Canaj, Albania’s ambassador to Israel.

One important footnote: In addition to the heroism of Albanian-speaking Kosovar Muslims who saved Jews during World War II were their brethren in long-isolated Albania.

Felicita Jakoel, president of the Albanian community in Israel, estimates that some 2,500 European Jews found refuge in her tiny Balkan country, even though Albania never home to no more than 200 Jews at any one time.

“It’s not a big number, but 99% of them were saved. This is extraordinary,” said Jakoel, noting that the story of Albania’s rescue of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis only became widely known after the fall of communism in 1992. “Each one of the Jews saved in Albania could be a movie in itself.”

About the Author
Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017.
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