Besa: Rescue as a Matter of Honor
The Muslim Veseli family saved two Jewish families by taking them in. The families were from Yugoslavia and had ﬂed to avoid deportation and murder by the German occupiers in their country. They survived in the Veselis’ home in the mountains of Albania.
In Albania, there is a long tradition of showing hospitality. The Veseli family received the Jews with open arms and expected nothing in return. The Veselis acted according to a traditional rule of conduct: besa, the Albanian code of honor. If a promise is made, it is a matter of honor to keep it. The Veselis promised the Jewish families that they would protect them. People who helped Jews risked denunciation and then punishment by the German occupiers. Despite this danger, the Veseli family kept its promise. They continued to protect their guests until the war’s end.
Other Albanian families also gave refuge to Jews, thus saving them from murder by the German occupiers. Almost all of the Jews in Albania survived World War II.
Albania under Italian Occupation: Country of Refuge for Jews
Italy occupied Albania in April of 1939. Discriminatory laws immediately applied to the two hundred Albanian Jews. In contrast to their German ally, Italian occupiers did not have any Jews deported. Starting in 1938, there were also a few hundred Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria in the country. When the German Reich’s sphere of inﬂuence was expanded in 1941, several hundred additional refugees from occupied countries went to Albania and Kosovo.
“Our parents were devout Muslims and believed, as we do, that ‘every knock on the door is a blessing from God.’ We never took any money from our Jewish guests. All people are from God. Besa exists in every Albanian soul.”
Hamid Veseli and Xhemal Veseli in an interview, 2007
The Flight of the Mandil Family
The Beginning of a Friendship
Reﬁk Veseli lived with his parents and siblings in Kruja, a village in the Albanian mountains. He moved to Tirana, Albania’s capital, in 1943. As a 17-year-old he wanted to become a photographer. He worked in a photo studio with Moshe Mandil, a Jewish photographer. Moshe and Gabriela Mandil, along with their children Gavra and Irena, ﬂed Yugoslavia after the Germans invaded. They lived in Albania under a false identity. Moshe Mandil taught Reﬁk Veseli how to photograph. They became close friends.
Italy Surrenders, the German Reich Occupies Albania
In September 1943, German troops occupied Albania. The German Reich formally permitted an autonomous Albanian government to exist, but it expected the Jews to be handed over in return. The Albanian government refused. An SS division of Kosovars and Albanians persecuted Jews in Kosovo. In Albania too, Jews had to hide from the SS, the German army, and local police. Mostly Muslim, but also Catholic and Orthodox, families took in Jews, thereby saving almost all of the roughly 2,000 Jews now living in the country.
Aid in Escaping to the Albanian Mountains
After the German invasion, the Mandil family went underground in Tirana, the large capital city. Reﬁk Veseli offered the Mandil family refuge in his parents’ home in Kruja. His father, Vesel Veseli, accompanied the Mandils as they ﬂed to the mountains. They were disguised as an Albanian family. Reﬁk Veseli’s brothers Hamid and Xhemal brought another Jewish family, the Ben-Josefs, to their parents’ home. People in the village knew about the refugees, but they too kept the besa code and did not denounce the refugees.