PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — A statue bearing the names of 23 Kosovo Albanians who rescued Jews from the Holocaust during World War II was inaugurated Wednesday in the capital, Pristina.
The “Wall of Honor” statue was placed in a park in Pristina in the presence of some of the rescuers’ descendants, political leaders, and the U.S. and German ambassadors.
Some 500 Jews lived in Kosovo, then part of former Yugoslavia, at the beginning of the war. Many were arrested, deported to nearby prisons or Nazi-managed camps and almost half of them died.
Local Albanians helped scores of Jews to escape, usually taking them to neighboring Albania.
Leke Rezniqi’s great-grandfather Arslan rescued Jewish physician Chaim Abrabanel, who was working in Skopje, now in North Macedonia. Arslan Rezniqi sheltered him and worked with another Albanian, Arif Alickaj, to prepare false documents and take Abrabanel safely to Albania.
“That shows only the example of the uniqueness of Albanian rescue,” Leke Rezniqi told The Associated Press. “He promised with the highest level of promise, the concept of the besa (‘trust’ in Albanian), that means that you never betray that promise, even though you would have to sacrifice your own family.”
In 2008 Arslan Rezniqi was the first Kosovar to be included in the “Righteous Among the Nations” list from Yad Vashem for rescuing Jews from the Holocaust.
Since 2021, Leke Rezniqi has lived in Haifa, Israel. Abrabanel’s niece Rachel-Shelly Levy-Drummer helped him to emigrate and gain Israeli citizenship.
Nowadays, 56 Jews live in the western Kosovar town of Prizren.
The statue showed that “the remembrance of those who risked their lives to save their fellow human beings is a tradition that commemorates a rare, bright light in one of the darkest periods of human history,” according to Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti.
Avner Shalev, former head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, considered Albanians as “a unique case in the history of the Second World War.”
In every other European state, the Jews were fewer in number after the war or totally wiped out, he said. The only exception was “in the territories that Albanians used to live: there were more Jews after the war then in the beginning of the war,” he said, adding that should be told to generations.
Kosovo and Israel decided to establish diplomatic ties at a Kosovo-Serbia summit held at the White House in September 2020 by then-U.S. President Donald Trump.
Kosovo was the first European country, and the first country with a Muslim majority, to establish its embassy in Jerusalem, following the U.S. and Guatemala. An opening ceremony was held in March 2021.
Israel is the most recent country to have recognized Kosovo after Pristina’s Parliament declared independence from Serbia in 2008, nine years after NATO conducted a 78-day airstrike campaign against Serbia to stop a bloody crackdown against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Most Western nations have recognized Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia and its allies Russia and China have not.
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.