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Author:  Milovan Mracevich  

Publisher/Date:  The Globe and Mail (Ca), August 31, 1999  

Title:  Targets of terrorism, Pristina's Jews forced to flee  

Original location:

In a seedy hotel across the street from Belgrade's Jewish Museum, the head of Kosovo's tiny Jewish community recalls the day two months ago when Albanian paramilitaries armed with submachine guns came to the door of the Pristina apartment where he and his family lived.

'He told us to get out,' said Cedomir Prlincevic, 61, a small, white-haired man who worked as director of the Pristina regional archive. 'We asked him why. He said, 'My house was burned.' I said, 'But I'm not the one who did it.' He said, 'I'm not interested. Get out or I'll slaughter you.'

By the end of June, four generations of the Prlincevic family and other Jews were forced to flee Pristina, almost bringing to an end five centuries of Jewish settlement in Kosovo.

While this flight of about 40 people represented but a drop in the sea of an estimated 300,000 non-Albanians who have fled Kosovo -- mostly Serbs, Gypsies, and Montenegrins -- their departure diminishes the former multifaith character of the region.

Many Jews thought they would be spared. When ethnic-Albanian refugees fled Serb attackers this spring, Israel was among the first countries to dispatch mobile hospital units to help the sick. Israeli officials spoke of being able to relate to the plight of refugees driven from their homes for ethnic reasons.

Because Mr. Prlincevic and his family had good relations with Albanians and had protected Albanian neighbours during the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by Serb forces, they believed they had no reason to flee when Serb forces withdrew. They also believed in the guarantees of the international community and the promises of KFOR, the peacekeeping force in Kosovo led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to protect Serbs and other minorities.

'I had trust in the world,' Mr. Prlincevic said. 'I never believed for a minute that I'd be the target of a primitive mass.'

But when heavily armed Albanian paramilitaries arrived, apparently from Albania, the Jews of Pristina found themselves targeted and terrorized by men who either assumed they were Serbs or had collaborated with them.

'It's a real inquisition down there. It's not like you can talk to someone and explain things. Those are wild people.'

The Prlincevics' ethnic-Albanian neighbours were unable to protect them from the paramilitaries.

'I saved two or three Albanian families during the war. When we were leaving Pristina, my neighbour called to me. He said, 'Neighbour. Forgive me. I couldn't help you. You helped me, but I can't help you.' '

An envoy of the U.S. Jewish Joint Distribution Committee met with Kosovo Liberation Army leader Hashim Thaci to seek protection for Kosovo's Jews. Mr. Prlincevic himself wrote to Mr. Thaci seeking protection. Mr. Thaci issued a letter ordering 'the entire Kosovo Liberation Army under my control to respect and protect all the Jews of Kosovo.' But the intimidation of Jews by paramilitary vigilantes continued unabated.

Efforts to obtain protection from KFOR also proved fruitless. Mr. Prlincevic sought personal protection, as president of the local Jewish community, from a British major. The officer told him he was too busy to talk to him that day.

'I'm not saying that KFOR encouraged this violence,' Mr. Prlincevic said, 'but the forces which were supposed to protect all nationalities didn't do their job.'

Almost all of Pristina's Jews left the city during a 10-day period in late June, with the assistance of the Joint Distribution Committee. They are now living in Belgrade and Vranje, where the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia helped them settle. The JDC supports them.

A historian by training, Mr. Prlincevic did research in Ottoman archives in Istanbul on Jewish settlements in Kosovo going back to the 15th century. He says the history of Kosovo Jewry until the Second World War was one of good relations with Albanians, Turks, and Serbs, and that there was a high rate of intermarriage with these groups. His father was Serbian, and his wife, Vidosava, is a Serb.

In April, 1944, Albanian fascists, acting on Gestapo orders, interned and plundered the belongings of 1,500 of Pristina's Jews, most of whom were sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Mr. Prlincevic's mother, Bea Mandil, was one of the few who escaped being deported, but her large extended family was almost wiped out in the Holocaust.

Now in her 80s, Mrs. Mandil is proud she can still speak the Spanish she learned in her parents' home, a remnant from her ancestors who were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Her large family's eight apartments and three houses in Pristina have reportedly been looted and damaged. She now lives in a crowded Belgrade apartment with Mr. Prlincevic and other family members.

'It's terrible,' said Mrs. Mandil, who was married in 1938. 'Sixty years later, having to start again.'

Less than half of Kosovo's pre-Second World War Jewish population of 1,700 survived the Holocaust, Mr. Prlincevic said. Most of those that did emigrated to Israel from 1948 to 1952.

The continuation of more than 500 years of Jewish presence in Kosovo now comes down to four Jews living in the environs of Pristina -- one of Mr. Prlincevic's sons, a daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren -- and two Turkish-Jewish families in Prizren, which comprise 22 or 23 members.

Aca Singer, a 76-year-old Auschwitz survivor who is president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia, is pessimistic about the chances for survival of the Kosovo Jewish community. He is disappointed that the Pristina Jews were forced to leave 'at a time of peace, with international troops present, and when the international community's representative in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, is a Jew from France.'

Although a few Jewish families from Kosovo fled to Israel on the eve of the NATO's bombardment of Yugoslavia and five young Kosovo Jews are on a paid excursion to Israel to explore living and studying there, efforts by Mr. Singer's organization to get Israel to accept all the Kosovo Jews have been stymied thus far.

He blames Orthodox Jews within the Israeli ministries of religion and the interior for the situation, saying that they are applying purely religious criteria in defining Jewishness.

Mr. Singer is disappointed that the Kosovo Jews were left out of Israel's efforts to help refugees during the Kosovo war, when Israel sent its army hospital and humanitarian aid, and took planeloads of ethnic Albanians to Israel.

He was visiting Israel at the time, and pressed interior-ministry officials to relocate Kosovo's Jews to Israel as well. 'I said, 'If there's a problem, then accept them as Albanians, and sort out later whether they're Jews or not.' They got mad at me.'

For Mr. Prlincevic, however, the prospect of going to Israel -- a region, as he says, with its own ethnic conflicts -- is not heartening. If he must emigrate, he would prefer Canada, but most of all he would like to be able to return home with his family.

'I can't comprehend in my 60th year, or my mother in her 81st, having to start a new life elsewhere. I'd look upon that as a moral death. This doesn't have to do with the Jewish community, it has to do with the right of a citizen to live where he belongs. I belong there, however primitive or undeveloped it is.'

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