by Enver Hoxhaj
That country? One of the world’s newest nations–the predominantly Muslim multi-ethnic democracy of Kosovo.
The reasons are at the heart of our heritage, dating from a decade-and-a-half ago to our history of rescuing Jews during World War II and living alongside them for centuries.
Fifteen years ago, the United States and its NATO allies protected the people of Kosovo against further ethnic cleansing that had already forced at least 400,000 people from their homes. Beginning on March 23, 1999, the NATO air campaign made it possible for Kosovo to emerge eventually as an independent nation in 2008 and to reach an agreement aimed at normalizing relations with Serbia in 2013.
During difficult times, predominantly Muslim Kosovo found allies among the Jewish people. Profoundly understanding the danger of mass deportation and even extermination endured by the people of Kosovo, political leaders, diplomats and intellectuals of Jewish descent were among the first to advocate action against the ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, the state of Israel also supported the people of Kosovo, announcing in April, 1999, that it would offer humanitarian assistance to refugees from Kosovo.
Why did so many Jews speak out? The trains expelling people from Pristina in 1999 reminded many people from every faith of the Nazi persecution of the Jews during the 1930s and 40s.
In the midst of the mass murders, Kosovars saved the lives of hundreds of Jews who fled the Nazis through our own area on their way to Albania. Families helped Jews move from place to place, and local officials provided Jews with false identity papers. Consequently, Kosovo was one of the few places that had more Jews after World War II than before.
Among other heroes, the mayor of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital city, helped to shelter and protect the Jewish community. Another Kosovo Muslim, Arsllan Mustafa Rezniqi, has been honored by the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Center at Yad Vashem as one of the “Righteous among the Nations” for his role in rescuing Jews.
Why did so many Kosovars save so many Jews? Anti-Semitism has never taken root in our politics, society or culture. And Kosovars share the Albanian tradition of “Besa”–an honor code that calls for hospitality toward the strangers among us.
Moreover, Jews and Albanians in Kosovo have co-existed since ancient times. The Jewish community in Kosovo included merchants, physicians and craft workers. Their synagogues survived Ottoman rule, only to be demolished by the Communist regime.
Now that Kosovo is an independent, democratic country, our historic Jewish community is taking its place alongside other communities.
As we build our future, we regularly hold Holocaust remembrances. This January 27, I was honored to address the commemoration in our capital city of Pristina.
Last May 23, during a week of events promoting “tolerance and reconciliation,” the government of Kosovo dedicated a Holocaust memorial in a courtyard facing our country’s Parliament building. Etched on a stone slab, in Albanian, Serbian, Hebrew and English, are these three simple but powerful sentences: “This is the place where the last synagogue in Kosovo stood until 1963. This plaque is raised in memory of Kosovar Jews that perished in Nazi camps during the Holocaust. The people of Kosovo will never forget them.”
Kosovo commemorates the Holocaust not only to honor the past but to build the future–a future that Muslims, Serbian Orthodox, Jews and members of other faiths and ethnicities all will share.
We understand that building a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multicultural society is a strong step toward integration into a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Europe. In that same spirit, last April, Kosovo reached an historic understanding with Serbia that solidified both of our countries’ standing as members of a diverse and democratic Europe.
Our agreement, which includes protections for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, sends a powerful message to a war-weary world that implacable foes can become peaceful neighbors.
Just as Kosovars and Jews share a common history, we hold common hopes for a better future.
As we remember the crimes against humanity during the past century, we say, “Never again.”
As we look toward the future, we say, “Let us move forward together.”
Enver Hoxhaj is the Foreign Minister of Kosovo.