The story of the Shoah in Albania is largely unknown, even though Albania lost almost none of its Jewish population and indeed even saw a large increase due to all the people who’d fled there from surrounding areas. The Albanian Embassy in Berlin also continued issuing visas until 1938.
The Mandil family came to Albania from the former Yugoslavia in April 1941, and settled in the Italian-controlled Kosova province. (Kosova is the proper Albanian name; Kosovo is the Serbian name.) Near the end of summer 1942, the refugees fled deeper into the Italian-controlled part of Albania, and the Mandils (husband Moshe, wife Ela, son Gavra, daughter Irena) settled in the capital of Tirana.
Moshe, who’d owned a prosperous photography shop in Yugoslavia, wanted to continue working with photography, and found a shop owned by a former apprentice, Neshad Prizerini. Neshad offered Moshe a job, as well as inviting Moshe’s family to live with him.
Refik Veseli, 1946, Copyright http://www.yadvashem.org/, Use consistent with fair use doctrine
At his new job, Moshe met Neshad’s 17-year-old apprentice, Refik Veseli, who’d come from Krujë to learn the trade. After September 1943, the Germans invaded and took over the formerly Italian-controlled areas, and Refik suggested the Mandils move to his parents’ home in the mountains of Krujë. The journey took several days, travelling on mules along side roads and rocky terrain by night, hiding in caves by day, all the while staying out of Nazi radar.
Refik’s parents, Veseli and Fatima, hid Moshe and Ela in a room above the barn, while Gavra and Irena lived in the house with the younger Veseli children, Hamid and Xhemal. After the Mandils’ arrival, Refik’s brother Xhemal smuggled in another Jewish family from Tirana, Ruzhica and Yosef Ben Yosef, and Yosef’s sister Finica. Both families stayed with the Veselis until Krujë was liberated in November 1944. As the war came to a close, military activity in the area intensified, as Nazis fought against Albanian partisans, the village was bombed, and searches were conducted.
Novi Sad Synagogue, Serbia
After the war, the Mandils settled in Novi Sad, Serbia, where Moshe started a new photography shop. He invited Refik to live with his family and be his apprentice, so he could continue training as a photographer. Refik lived with them till they made aliyah (moved to Israel). The families stayed in touch even after they no longer lived close by.
In 1987, Moshe’s son Gavra wrote to Yad Vashem and begged the museum to recognise the Veselis as Righteous Among the Nations. The request was granted, and the five Veselis became the first Albanians granted this most prestigious honour. Though Albania was tightly controlled at this time, Refik and his wife received permission to travel to Israel for the ceremony.