Berlin Kids Name School After Muslim Who Saved Jews During Holocaust

The Albanian family rescued Serbian Jews who had to flee to an Albanian village to keep a step ahead of the Nazis.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The ceremony during the naming of a Berlin school after Albanian Muslim Refik Veseli, October 2014.
The ceremony during the naming of a Berlin school after Albanian Muslim Refik Veseli, October 2014. Credit: Ruti Mandil
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Students, parents and teachers at a Berlin elementary school have voted to name the institution after an Albanian Muslim photographer who saved a Jewish photographer’s family during the Holocaust.

Students from the school have taken a course on the Holocaust, which included a visit to Yad Vashem. In Israel, they also learned about other Muslims who saved Jews from the Nazis.

The two families — from Israel and Albania — are still close; in 2004, Yad Vashem named the Muslim family, the Veselis, members of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Earlier this month, members of both families attended the dedication ceremony at the school, which is in a Berlin neighborhood famous for its immigrants, Kreuzberg.

Six months ago, Ruti Mandil, the head of a Tel Aviv photography studio, received an email from the school, which was naming itself after Refik Veseli, the Muslim teenager who saved her father’s life during the Holocaust.

The Veselis and Mandils during the dark days of the war. Credit: Yad Vashem

Gavra Mandil, who had founded Gavra Studios, was a pioneer of fashion and advertising photography in Israel. His pictures, including portraits of celebrities and beauty-pageant winners, appeared on magazine covers and billboards in the ‘60s.

The Mandils were natives of Novi Sad in Yugoslavia, where they owned a photography studio. When the Germans invaded in April 1941, the family – Moshe, his wife Gabriela and their two children Irena and 6-year-old Gavra – fled with false papers.

At a railway station the Germans asked them to prove they weren’t Jewish.

“We’re Christian,” the father said, pulling out a picture of his children beside a Christmas tree. He didn’t mention that the tree was a ploy to bring in customers at Christmastime.

A later stop was a prison, in Pristina, but Mandil made friends with the guards after he took their pictures. This helped him escape when the time was right.

The family then headed for the town of Kavaje in Albania, where Mandil opened a photography studio during the war. Albania was occupied by the Germans in September 1943 after the Italians surrendered.

Trying to keep a step ahead of the Germans, the family moved to the capital Tirana, where Mandil worked in the studio of one of his former apprentices, who invited the Mandils to stay at his home. Mandil photographed German officers who had no idea the man in front of them was a Jew.

At the studio Mandil met Refik Veseli, a 17-year-old Muslim who had been sent from his village of Kruje to learn the photography trade. When the Germans invaded, Veseli suggested that the Mandils move to his parents’ house in the mountains.

On a long night journey, riding on mules through narrow mountain paths and hiding in caves, the Mandils reached their refuge. They hid there until the liberation in November 1944, surviving both bombings and Nazi raids on the village.

After the war the family returned to Novi Sad; their home now housed Soviet soldiers, who agreed to return only one thing to Mandil: a photograph of his wedding. Mandil reopened his studio, where Veseli continued his apprenticeship.

In 1948 the Mandils immigrated to Israel. Mandil took pictures in the transit camp and later opened a photo shop in Haifa; Gavra continued the family business. After completing his military service, he studied the trade in England and in 1962 set up Gavra Studios on Tel Aviv’s Ha’avoda Street.

His clients included companies like El Al, large banks and the state lottery. He took the famous photo of a mustachioed man holding a tomato-filled box on Tal Miloz products. He also taught photography at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and Hadassah College in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Refik Veseli ran a photography studio in Tirana and was later appointed the head photographer at the city museum. His son Fatmir is continuing in his footsteps. Refik’s grandson is named Ron after Moshe Mandil’s grandson.

Gavra Mandil wrote to Yad Vashem about the story, and in 1987 the institute recognized Vesel and Fatima Veseli and their children Refik, Hamid and Xhemal as members of the Righteous Among the Nations.

“They may not have been educated on the heritage of Goethe and Schiller, but they attached the greatest importance to human life, in a most natural and understandable way,” Mandil writes on Yad Vashem’s website.

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