What Happened after this Christmas Photo Saved a Jewish Family?

Gavra and Irena Mandil

It’s a timeless holiday photo: two children dressed for a special occasion standing next to a Christmas tree. Thousands of similarly themed photos will be taken and shared this week with friends and loved ones. But this photograph — which the Museum has posted many times during the holiday season — served a different purpose. It helped save the lives of a Jewish family during the Holocaust.

A Photo Studio near Belgrade

The children are Gavra and Irena Mandil. Their father, Mosa, ran a photo studio in Novi Sad, a town northwest of Belgrade in what was then Yugoslavia. He took the portrait in the fall of 1940 to promote his photography business for the upcoming Christmas season. The Mandils were Jewish. A predilection for photography ran in the family: Mosa’s father-in-law had been the royal photographer of King Alexander in Belgrade.

When Germany invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, the Mandil family fled Novi Sad. As they traveled south by train, they were detained by SS officers who demanded to see their papers. When the Germans accused them of being Jews, Mosa showed them the photograph of his children by the Christmas tree to prove they couldn’t be Jewish.

The Germans let them go, unaware they allowed a Jewish family to proceed to safety.

A Prison in Pristina

Gavra Mandil (right) at a prison for Jews in Tirana

Upon arriving in Kosovo, then controlled by Italy, the Mandils were imprisoned for several months along with other Jewish families. Mosa sought to ingratiate himself to his Italian captors by volunteering to take their pictures.

Having withstood overcrowded prison conditions for some time, the Jewish families complained to prison officials, who informed their German allies. In response, the Germans executed half of the prisoners. Fearful that the others would also be killed, Mosa appealed to the Italians whom he had befriended to save the remaining Jews. They obliged by sending the prisoners by truck to Albania, where they were given limited freedom.

The Mandils settled in the town of Kavaja, where they lived in relative safety until the summer of 1943.

A Temporary Haven in Tirana

After Italy surrendered to the Allies, Germany quickly occupied territory previously controlled by Italian forces, including Albania. Hoping to find safety in numbers in the capital city, the Mandils moved to Tirana.

Mosa got a job in a photography studio owned by Neshat Ismaili, an Albanian who had worked for Mosa’s father-in-law in Belgrade. A 16-year-old apprentice named Refik Veseli also worked in the studio. He was Muslim, as were the majority of Albanians.

In the fall of 1943, Germany began tightening its hold on the Albanian government. Jews in the cities fled to the countryside. Refik asked his parents for permission to hide the Mandils in their home in the mountain village of Kruja. About 20 miles from the capital city, it was a picturesque town that centuries before had been home to the first independent Albania state.

A Refuge in Kruja

Gavra and Irena Mandil play in the snow with Refik Veseli

Refik and the Mandils made their way slowly to Kruja, staying off major roads and traveling under the cover of darkness to avoid capture. After arriving safely, Mosa and his wife, Gabriela, hid in a small room above the barn. The children, Gavra and Irena, lived openly as Muslim villagers — playing in the snow with Refik and attending the wedding of Neshed Ismail, who had owned the Tirana photo studio where Mosa and Refik worked.

The Veselis provided for the Mandils’ daily needs and kept them safe, despite an increased military presence in the region. In an attempt to stamp out partisan activity, the Germans conducted searches and dropped bombs on nearby villages.

The Mandils lived with the Veselis for just under a year. Then in November 1944, the partisans gained the upper hand and German forces withdrew.

At Home in Novi Sad

The Mandil family returned home to Novi Sad after the war, and Mosa resumed his career as a photographer. He invited Refik to continue his training with him. Refik lived in the Mandil home for several years.

In 1948, after the communist regime consolidated its hold in Yugoslavia and the Jewish state was established, the Mandils decided to immigrate to Israel. Refik expressed a strong desire to go with them but ultimately chose to go home to Albania. The families stayed in contact despite the distance and passage of time.

In risking their lives to protect a Jewish family during the Holocaust, the Veselis were heroic but not atypical of Albanians. In keeping with a code of ethics known as Besa, many Albanians protected Jews fleeing Nazi persecution regardless of their nationality.*

The Veselis were the first Albanian rescuers recognized for their actions by Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem. On that occasion, Gavra Mandil wrote of the Veselis, “They attached the greatest importance to human life, in a most natural and understandable way.”

Anne Merrill is a digital content strategist and editor at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Photographs: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Gavra Mandil

*In 1933, about 200 Jews lived in Albania. Neighboring Yugoslavia and Greece were home to much larger populations of Jews.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org

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