Hamid & Xhemal Veseli ©2010 JWM Productions, LLC
Hamid, Xhemal and their older brother Refik share the distinction of having their names inscribed on the wall of Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for their roles in rescuing Jews during WWII.
Xhemal was the youngest of the brothers, only about thirteen during the war. Two Jewish families, the Mandils and the ben Josifs, survived the Holocaust because of the bravery of the Veseli family protecting them.
Many Albanians took in Jewish refugees and, although their neighbors knew, no one betrayed their guests. Xhemal and Hamid quote an Albanian proverb, “Our home is our guest’s house, then our house, but above all, it is God’s House.”
During the very dangerous occupation of Albania, the Nazis would stage sweeps through Tirana looking for Jews. Refik, Hamid and Xhemal would lead their guests out of Tirana to mountain villages like Kruja. Xhemal explains, “The peasants came to sell their products in the market twice a week. And I said we must find some village costumes. We dressed up like peasants and walked behind the animals amongst the villagers.”
But even so, crossing the Nazi checkpoint was risky. Xhemal recalls, “I don’t know how to explain the fear that we felt, because if we had been discovered by the Nazis, they would have executed us all – the villagers along with us.”
The checkpoint blocked the road with a wooden beam. “To tell the truth, our knees were shaking from fear. It was a decisive moment – of life or death.”
To Xhemal’s great relief, the guards lifted the beam and waved them through. “Once we crossed the checkpoint, we started crying from the joy.”
Hamid remembers that the family wanted to pay for the expenses, “But of course, as Albanians we never accept any money from the guest because it is not normal that guests pay.”
Xhemal says the decision to help the Jewish families came from their Muslim faith. “The Qur’an says that we should always help people that are in difficulty regardless of religion or race.”
The Veseli brothers were photographed by Norman H. Gershman for his book Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in WWII, and interviewed for Besa: The Promise.
Since the interview, Hamid Veseli passed away. Gathering these stories while the witnesses are still alive is a great motivation to Norman. “It’s a race against time,” he says, “A race with history.”
The Veselis’ story will be told in greater detail on the website, along with the extended stories from other Albanians and Jews interviewed for the documentary.