Before the opening of the photo exhibit BESA: Albanians Who Saved the Jews During World War II, USEP sat down with Leke Rezniqi, Secretary of the Kosova-Israeli Friendship Association, to talk about the exhibit, his personal connection to the project, and the important work of the Association.
Leke speaking at the opening of the photo exhibition,
Also in this photo (from left side): Mr. Michael Murphy – Dpt. Chef of US Embassy, Mr. Hasan Rema Xërxa – Kosovar Albanian Rescuer of Jews, Mr. Fahredin Spahija – Director of Kosova National Arts Gallery
How did you meet Norman H. Gershman and what is your connection to the project?
Leke Rezniqi: I met Mr. Gershman at the “BESA” exhibition opening in Tirana, Albania. He worked a lot with my grand-father Mustafa and our Association Vice-president Mrs. Xhangyle Ilijazi. In fact, they met more than 6 years ago when Mr. Norman asked to come in Kosova after being in Albania to photograph persons or their families who saved Jews during the Holocaust. He came here and made the photos of some Albanians from Kosova that saved Jews also, but unfortunately not all of them. Mr. Norman came with his information from the United States and asked to meet my grandfather, and he also helped him to complete our file for the Yad Vashem in Israel, which is the Israeli authority for Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Authority, and which has a Recognition award for the persons that helped and saved Jews during the Holocaust by risking their own lives. After that my grandfather was the honorary guest of all the exhibition openings in Jerusalem, at UN Headquarters in New York and also in Tirana. Unfortunately he is not with us today on this very important day when the exhibition comes in Prishtina.
What are your impressions of the exhibit?
Rezniqi: I think that opening of this exhibition is very important for Kosova and Albania, as it shows a very extraordinary value that our nation and our tradition has, called “BESA” which is also the name of this exhibition. This exhibition helps the world to understand that during those horrible years of Holocaust, there was a small nation and country with such great heart — that by risking their own lives helped people that were persecuted just because they are Jews.
What is your favorite photo?
Rezniqi: My favorite photo is with the old lady holding an apple, Mrs. Verushe Babani.
Can you share a story you know or remember from your family who saved the Jews? Are you still in contact with the Jewish family?
Rezniqi: I remember my grandfather, Mustafa Rezniqi, telling me of a time when he was ill from typhus. Three other members of our family had already died from the same illness, and my family lived in Decan, a small town close to the Albanian border in western Kosova. At that time Kosova was occupied by Italians. One of the Jews that were sheltered at our house in Decan recognized Dr. Abravanel at a soldier line passing through Decan, as he was mobilized in the beginning as a doctor for the occupation — of course later to be sent to a camp. My great grandfather Arsllan Rezniqi went up close to the doctor and told him to escape from the line with him, and after that, my grandfather gave him a traditional Albanian costume to wear instead of his uniform. As Dr. Abravanel was a Jew from Skopje, he knew Serbo-Croatian, and he was presented to the officials as a Bosnian. This way how Dr. Abravanel’s life was saved. After that he began to treat my grandfather Mustafa’s typhus, and in fact, he saved my grandfather’s life. Also, during the period that he was staying at our house in Decan, he continued to cure the other people from Decan and villages near it, taking no money or other compensation, all time saying “I am staying at Arsllan Rezniqi’s house by not paying anything, I not taking anything from you for the service I am providing you.”
Today, the grand-daughter of Dr. Abravanel lives in Israel with her family and we are in constant contact. She testified at the Yad Vashem Commission on behalf of her grand-father, saying that my great-grandfather saved her grand-father.
What are you currently working on with the Kosova – Israeli Friendship Association? What are your plans?
Rezniqi: The main mission of our Association is to research, find, record, document and publish all the facts about Albanian families in Kosova that saved Jews during the Holocaust, and of course to help them complete the files to receive the Yad Vashem recognition as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
It takes a lot of work to complete all of the required documents to prove that all of this was true, especially when you take into consideration that some do not want to recognize the Kosovar Albanian contribution to saving Jews during the Holocaust. There is also another main problem related to the recognition of Albanians saving Jews, because Albanian tradition says that when you make an honor to somebody, you don’t ever request even a simple paper which would say “Yes, this man did me this favor,” and even more offensive would be to feel that if he would ask for money or other payment. But ironically, today, after almost 70 years, history requests written facts. It is very hard to find those facts and of course the number of Albanians that saved Jews in Kosova is so much more that those represented here tonight in this exhibit and in the crowd…
In the end, I would like to thank you very much for cooperation.