Jews Mend Kosovo’s Spirit

Having endured 10 years of oppression and the largest expulsion in Europe since the Holocaust, it is not uncommon to hear the Albanians of Kosovo draw parallels between themselves and Jews.

So it was little surprise to Greta Kacinari that Jews would be among those lending a hand in Kosovo, the war-torn southern province of Yugoslavia.

Despite the near absence of Jews in Kosovo, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has rebuilt many of its schools.

“I know a lot of Jews, and I know they have helped each other in times of need,” said Kacinari, principal of Elena Gjika Primary School. “But the really amazing thing to me is there’s also something in their blood for them to help people who are in a similar situation as Jews were in during their history.”

Kacinari’s is one of 14 primary schools in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. All of them here and in the countryside have suffered years of neglect and vandalism, and later, war. Meanwhile, as the Balkans have convulsed with one crisis after another this decade, Jewish groups have not only assisted the small Jewish communities in the region, but they have emerged as key supporters of the overall relief effort.

Leading the way is the JDC. It pitched in $1.25 million for the Albanian refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania earlier this year. Then, when it expressed an interest in Kosovo’s primary schools late this summer, UNICEF asked it to help rebuild the infrastructure of all 14 in Pristina. The JDC also selected a school in the southern city of Prizren, home to a tiny Jewish community of 40.

Since its arrival in Kosovo in August, a small, dedicated team of Israelis has spent $1.1 million of JDC funds to replace broken glass, doors and toilets, among other projects.

“When you say it 10 times — ‘We’re here to help the people because we care’ — it loses its strength,” says Israeli Nir Baron, JDC’s administrator in Kosovo. “But that is why I’m here, and to make sure everything gets to the right people.”

There are certainly plenty of needy recipients. Since 1989, Kosovo and its 90-percent ethnic Albanian population lived within an apartheid-like system ruled by the Serbian minority. Albanians were kicked out of universities, high schools and most primary schools. In response, the Albanian community created a parallel school system, operated mostly out of private homes.

In schools like Kacinari’s, the Albanians were allowed to remain. But anywhere from 750 to 900 schoolchildren were forced into half a wing. As there were only nine classrooms, teachers and students came to school in three shifts, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Meanwhile, the 350 Serb students had access to 25 rooms, the gymnasium and luxury items such as microscopes.

When the Serb teachers and students left school at 2 p.m., the heat was shut off. The Albanians continued into the night in the cold, Kacinari says.

“I don’t wish for anyone in the world to live through the conditions we lived through for 10 years,” says Kacinari in fluent English.

Repression against the province’s 1.8 million Albanians grew progressively worse, leading to NATO’s intervention this spring. Three months of U.S.-led airstrikes finally forced the Serbs to end the repression, but forced relocation — known by the euphemism “ethnic cleansing” — resulted in an estimated 1 million ethnic Albanian refugees, 5,000 to 10,000 killed and tens of thousands of homes, businesses and schools burned.

As Serb forces withdrew, much of the Serb community went with them. In their wake, they trashed the schools.

So the JDC’s top priority was glass, to keep out the cold. Some 20,000 feet worth was bought for the 14 schools in Pristina alone. Workers installed it in one week. Next came replacement of doors and locks, many of which were said to have been kicked in and intentionally destroyed by Serbs.

As Baron tells it, the Kosovars are growing wary of well-meaning relief workers who promise but don’t deliver.

“That’s why we only promise what we can deliver,” he says. Baron notes the challenge for humanitarian groups is to judge where the greatest needs are. By virtue of having larger populations, the cities tend to draw most of the attention.

Some needs, such as physical reconstruction, are obvious. Other ideas came to the JDC only after it further familiarized itself with the communities. The organization recently gave away 15,000 pairs of shoes in Kosovo — mostly to orphaned children — and 3,500 backpacks for students.

The JDC and ORT have also donated 45 computers: 15 in Pristina, 15 in Prizren, and 15 in Skopje, Macedonia. The JDC has also hit on an idea for back-to-work vocational training for Albanians, to train them how to make tables and chairs for the schools. Then there’s the shortage of dental technicians: The JDC may bring some in, says Baron.

Finally, the JDC has allocated some discretionary funds for school officials to determine their own needs. Kacinari, for example, used the cash to buy items such as chalk, pens, notebooks, a screwdriver and light bulbs.

“We Jews know about occupation and foreign authority,” says the 32-year-old. “If I’d been liberated, even if someone wanted to help me I’d still want to defend my pride. Like, ‘I’ll tell you my needs and you can help me if you want.’ Just because someone gives you money doesn’t mean that they should own your soul.”

The JDC did in fact make one condition for its aid: that Albanian school officials not discriminate against Serb and other minority children. Kacinari boasts that in her school, there are 200-plus ethnic Turkish children, learning in their mother tongue.

Says Baron, “We told them we will not collaborate. If a Serb or Gypsy child wants to come to school, to us they are all just children.”

But he added, “These people are hurt and the feeling of revenge in the streets is very strong. I don’t know if you can blame them. To put hate aside is very difficult, as anyone from Israel knows.”

But Baron himself has found there is something contagious about bringing relief in a crisis.

“This work here has immediate rewards,” he said. “If you give a kid shoes or a school bag, it’s good for the soul.”

Kosovo’s Jews Battle for Survival

“Ah, the ironies of life,” says Votim Demiri. His mother escaped from the train that carried her family to death at Bergen-Belsen. Later, she became renowned for fighting with the Yugoslav partisans against the Nazis.

Fast forward to this spring.

A Serb offensive in Kosovo forced Demiri, the president of Prizren’s Jews, and close to 1 million Albanian refugees to flee their homes. Demiri, his wife and three children returned and hid until three months of NATO airstrikes persuaded Serb forces to withdraw.

So, today in Prizren, whose troops are keeping the peace? The Germans.

“I wonder what my mother would say if she were here to see it,” says Demiri, 52. Her mother died in 1994.

The Prizren Jews are battling for survival. Kosovo, legally still a part of Yugoslavia, is wracked with violent crime, and saddled with 70 percent unemployment.

One Jewish family of four has already emigrated to Israel, aided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and a second family is seriously considering it, Demiri says.

Prizren, a city of roughly 150,000, is a historic trade center in the Balkans. Jews are said to have lived here for centuries. There is no synagogue in town, though a Star of David adorns the minaret of one of the town’s old stone mosques. “I have no idea where it comes from,” concedes Demiri.

However, deep roots may not be enough to keep the Prizren Jews here. They also need jobs.

Today, the community is basically comprised of two large, extended families. Mixed marriages are common: Demiri’s father, for example, is Albanian, and his wife is “something between Albanian and Turkish.”

Yet Demiri’s Jewish identity is sufficiently strong enough that his 22-year-old son would like to visit Israel to learn Hebrew. And concern for the welfare of others during the crisis has bound the community even more tightly tog

Most Jews and their Albanian neighbors today eke out a living, accepting food staples like flour and cooking oil from humanitarian groups.

Actually, admits Demiri, his family is getting along fine: He’s been reinstated as the director of a local textile factory, a job he lost when Milosevic and his lieutenants purged all “Albanians” from leadership positions in 1989 and 90. What his people need, Demiri says, are not handouts, but machines to start up small businesses.

“We don’t want to live from humanitarian aid forever; people in Kosovo know how to work hard to make a living,” he says. “But I want to make it clear: We’ll need plenty of time.” –Michael J. Jordan, JTA

Sneakers for Mirjeta

During my visit to a refugee camp in Macedonia with a group of 16 American Jews last week, a waif-like girl wearing a dusty black-and-red parka stood on her toes to peer into my notebook.

She was painfully thin, had big black eyes, short black hair and a huge smile. Instinctively, I drew a smile face in my notebook and showed it to her. She took my notebook and pen and began to draw a body on the smile face. With a few strokes of the pen, she drew the figure of me, complete with a camera bag and yarmulke.

I indicated that she sign the picture with her name and age. Mirjeta Bajrami, 14, she wrote.

It was the perfect way to meet across the language barrier that separated us. Mirjeta, like all the Kosovar refugees, spoke Albanian, but she also understood quite a bit of English. Where did she learn it? In school, she told me, and also from her favorite bands, Back Street Boys and Spice Girls.

She told me she was from the village of Seva Reca, a name I knew because it had been the scene of a massacre of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serb forces in March. Draw me a picture of the house where you lived, I asked, handing Mirjeta my notebook. She drew a small farmhouse with the roof ablaze and surrounded by soldiers.

My group spent 10 hours that day at Stankovich 1 refugee camp, part of our mission to bring supplies and words of support to ethnic Albanians who had fled the tragic war in Kosovo. We visited with a troupe of amazing Israeli youth volunteers who run an athletic, crafts and music program for the refugee children among the 30,000 souls in the crowded and fetid tent camp. “Our job is to make children smile,” said the head of the program, Azi Rahim. “Nobody else does that.” Our American group brought 32 huge duffel bags stuffed with shoes and toys for the children.

Mirjeta spent the day playing with her friends, but on regular intervals, she would seek me out to draw in my notebook and give me additional details about her life. Her father had died three years earlier in a car accident, leaving her mother with five children. They fled their village with Mirjeta’s aunt and her family after the Serbian assault in March and arrived at the Macedonian border with only the clothes on their backs.

At one point, I asked if I could see Mirjeta’s tent. With a skip in her step, she led me down a dusty road past row after row of army tents, pitched one right next to the other. The stench from overflowing latrines fouled the air. In the doorways of the tents, adults sat, looking bored and hopeless. And there were long lines of people everywhere, at the water faucets, at the hospital, at the mess hall and at the government tents where refugees could register for asylum with different countries.

We arrived at Mirjeta’s tent, a space no bigger than the modest living and dining room in my Manhattan apartment. Inside lived 10 people — Mirjeta’s mother and her five children, her aunt and uncle and their two children. Her mother was not in, but her aunt greeted me and beckoned me to enter. The place was immaculate, with blankets covering the dirt floor and clothes and blankets piled neatly around the perimeter. In one corner were the family’s rations for the day: a few tins of meat, some bread and a bunch of bananas. The aunt bent down, retrieved a can of juice and offered me a drink. Even in such crushing poverty, these people retained their essential human dignity.

On our way back to the children’s program, Mirjeta asked me a question. “Tomorrow?” Yes, I reassured her. My group planned to return to the camp a second day, and I would see her again. She pointed to her feet and, for the first time, I noticed that she was wearing bedroom slippers. “Shoes?” It was the first time all day she asked me for anything. I asked her to take off her slipper. I rubbed the dirt from the sole and uncovered the size: 37. I said I would get her shoes.

When we returned to the children’s area, I marched right to the tent of the Israelis who ran the program. It was there, earlier in the day, that my group deposited our duffel bags of gifts. I started to open them to find the right pair of shoes for Mirjeta, when an Israeli asked what I was doing. “Shoes for a friend,” I said. “You can’t do that,” he told me politely. “You’ll start a riot. You give one, you’ve got to give them all.” He said that the camp officials had a system for dispensing gifts and that those who need shoes would get them.

That night, back in my hotel room in the nearby city of Skopje, I couldn’t sleep. I had shoes. I had a bed. I had electricity and running water. The child that I chose (or had chosen me) to be a symbol of the suffering of the Kosovars had become my conscience. I got out of bed and stuffed anything of value I had into my pillow case: my Dartmouth sweat shirt, three cans of tuna, my towel, my rain poncho, my flashlight. In the bag, I put my business card, circling my phone number in the vain hope that someday Mirjeta would have an opportunity to call me.

When I got off the bus at the refugee camp in the morning, I swung the pillowcase over my shoulder and nonchalantly walked past the barbed wire and Macedonian border guards. Mirjeta and a small band of children were waiting at the gate. I handed her the bag and said, “Tent!” She ran off to bring the goods to her family. I went straightaway to the Israelis’ tent. Luckily, no one was there. I unzipped one of the duffel bags and knocked it over so that shoes began to spill out. I bent down ostensibly to clean them up, furiously looking for a size-37 girl’s shoes. But the sizes on the shoes were American, 4’s, 5’s and 6’s. There was no one to ask. I picked up a pair of black suede sneakers that looked like they would fit and snuck them out in a bag, feeling like a smuggler, convinced that everyone’s eyes were on me and my contraband. After a few tense moments, I spotted Mirjeta. She circled around, took the bag and again ran off.

The leader of our group suddenly announced that we were leaving the camp to visit the Kosovo border, just eight miles away. We were told to board the bus. I, of course, wasn’t the only one in our group who had formed a friendship with the refugee children. Others hugged and kissed new friends they made and surreptitiously gave them gifts and business cards. Several of the children started crying, making us wonder if we did the right thing by befriending them. “Maybe we got their hopes up,” we wondered out loud. I stared blankly out the window as our bus began to pull away from the camp. Suddenly, I saw a girl running toward the bus; she was waving, smiling and throwing kisses. It was Mirjeta, and on her feet were the black suede sneakers. I blew her a kiss.

That afternoon, we started on the long drive from the Macedonian capital to Salonika, Greece, where we would catch the flight back to the States. At one point, there was a thunderstorm and lightning and the skies opened up with torrents of rain. Everyone on the bus fell silent. No one had to say it. Our minds all went back to the refugee camp where we knew that the dirt roads were turning muddy and the adults and children were all huddling in their tents, waiting for a brighter day.

Back home in New York, I can’t get Mirjeta out of my head. In the newspapers, there are reports that the refugee camps are slowly being cleared. The Kosovars are being granted asylum in Germany, Austria, Spain and other European countries. Some 450 arrived in the United States for processing at Fort Dix, N.J. I scan the newspaper and television photos for Mirjeta’s face. I know that there is a system for getting the refugees out, but, as I did with the shoes, I don’t want to trust her fate to the system.

The day after I returned, I called Jessica Pearl, the ever-capable information officer for the refugee camp we visited. I wanted to find out if I could sponsor Mirjeta and her family. Pearl put me in touch with Roger Winter of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, in Washington, who told me that only family members could be official sponsors, but that if Mirjeta’s family applied for asylum in America, I could help settle them once t
hey are here. I developed my pictures and sent a copy of Mirjeta’s photo to Pearl, who said she would try to locate the girl and tell her to make sure her family applies. Pearl’s task is, literally, finding one in 30,000.

I’ve spoken about Mirjeta’s plight to my family, to my classes at Columbia and to the members of my Manhattan congregation, Ramath Orah. When I tell the story of one child, the story of the faraway Kosovo comes alive for them. They ask, “How can I help?” I pray first for Mirjeta’s safety and second that she contacts me when she is settled, either here or in Europe or, at the end of this terrible war, back at her home in Kosovo. I want to hear from her; I’ve found a lot of people who are willing to help.

Ari L. Goldman wrote this account for The New York Jewish Week.

An Israeli Mission

Soaring above the sea of green and white canvas tents in the dusty, wind-swept Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia are a handful of Israeli flags. It is a jarring sight whose incongruity is compounded by the fact that just a stone’s throw away are the Germans.

Approximately 700,000 Albanians from Kosovo are said to have been uprooted in the past month — and Israel filled a critical void in neighboring Macedonia by setting up an army field hospital for refugees. A second medical facility followed within a week, operated by the German Red Cross.

It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that the two nations most familiar with ethnic cleansing have felt the greatest moral obligation to act. But that they are doing it in tandem has struck an emotional chord in at least one German team member.

“This is so touching for me, as a German, to be working so closely with the Israelis,” said Joachim Gardemann, dean of the nursing school at the University of Munster in Germany. “There are so many historical, diplomatic and ethical linkages here — the Israelis as victims, the Germans as murderers — that it makes me happy for us to cooperate to help a population in danger because of ethnic conflict.”

Indeed, for many Jews, the gut reaction to Kosovo has been one of horror that the world is witnessing yet another attempt at genocide. But Israelis on the ground say they see the situation more clearly.

“That this is happening in Europe, in 1999, is unbelievable,” said Dan Engelhard, a pediatrician and army reservist who also served in Israeli field hospitals in Cambodia and Rwanda. “But you can’t compare this with the Holocaust. No way. The Nazis tried to kill every Jew. However, when we see these pictures of Albanians forced out of their homes and into trains, it certainly reminds us of the Holocaust.”

Imbued with such memories, Israeli rapid reaction to crisis has become a niche of sorts.

In addition to setting up hospitals in Cambodia in 1979 and Rwanda in 1994, Israel sent a rescue team to Kenya after the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi last year.

Gardemann, who proudly displays a red Star of David pin given him by his Israeli colleagues, touts them as “world champions” of army field hospitals.

But that is a dubious distinction, indeed. It is a specialty borne out of necessity, say the Israelis, what with so many wars and grisly terrorist acts in the Jewish state’s 51 years of existence.

“One of the greatest things about Israeli society is our ability to improvise and be creative,” said Ron Maor, a 14-year army surgeon who also served in Nairobi. “If something urgent needs to be done, we don’t need a lot of bureaucracy to do it. For a country almost continuously at war, we can’t afford the luxury of being surprised or caught unprepared for any mission.”

By any yardstick, the Israeli reaction to Kosovo was lightning quick. On March 24, NATO launched its bombardment of Yugoslavia — a federation of two republics, Serbia and Montenegro. It was aimed at curbing the repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province. In response, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic accelerated the emptying of Kosovo, where 90 percent of the 2 million inhabitants had been Albanian. The vast majority of them are Moslem, in contrast with the mostly Orthodox Serbs.

Within days of the air assault, Albanians were on the move en masse, heading mostly south and southwest into the impoverished countries of Macedonia and Albania.

Macedonia, a nation of 2 million, now wheezes under the strain of more than 200,000 refugees, while Albania’s more than 3 million citizens, the poorest in Europe, cope with 400,000 refugees.

It wasn’t long before the flow overwhelmed local authorities and international relief agencies. They appealed for help.

On April 4, the Israeli Cabinet made a snap decision to contribute a field hospital for two weeks, at a cost of roughly $1.3 million.

Two officials from the Israeli Embassy in Athens were dispatched north to Macedonia to lay the groundwork. The next day, the Macedonian officials advised them to set up shop at Stenkovec — 10 miles north of Skopje, the Macedonian capital, but within sight of Kosovo’s snow-capped Shara Mountain range, located 20 miles farther north.

At that time, however, the camp housed only 2,000 refugees. So the Israelis were a bit mystified.

“They assured us that within a week, there would be 30,000 refugees,” said Jacob Dayan, one of the two Israeli coordinators and the No. 2 at the Athens embassy. “But just two or three days later, we were already up to 30,000.”

With a site secured, Dayan gave the thumbs-up to the Israeli Defense Forces. Six IDF cargo airplanes were soon airborne, laden with pieces of the hospital, plus blankets and tents. It arrived on April 6, and the entire Israeli contingent of 80 — including doctors, nurses and medics; some of them army staff, others reserves — worked feverishly through the night, erecting the hospital.

By 2 p.m. the next day, they were open for business.

Working round-the-clock, the Israelis treat about 200 patients a day, including refugees bused in from the 10 refugee camps scattered around Macedonia.

And while the Stenkovec camp itself is wracked with commotion, sunrise to sunset, the hospital compound, set on the camp’s western edge, is almost surreal in its order and tranquillity. Under its drab-green tents, the setting is straight out of the television series “M*A*S*H.”

There is room for 100 beds, and each tent serves a special purpose — emergency room, surgery, X-rays, laboratory, etc. What they lack, the Israelis say, is medicine and facilities to treat chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, epilepsy and diabetes.

But the tent drawing the most attention — including a steady stream of journalists from around the world — is the pediatric ward. As of Sunday, the Israeli team had already delivered 11 babies. Among them is 1-week-old Sara Berisha, whose Albanian Moslem mother gave her a Jewish name out of gratitude to her Israeli doctors.

But that celebration was fleeting. On April 15, twin 3-month-old boys arrived in the camp, suffering severe malnutrition and respiratory infection. Serb forces had flushed them from their homes two weeks earlier, leaving their parents no choice but to hide in Kosovo’s hills. Lacking milk, they were fed only tea and cookies.

They now lie in an Israeli army incubator in critical condition. But they weigh less than when they were born, and their tiny chests heave uncontrollably.

Monitoring their condition is Yael Goldman, a 20-year-old army medic. She also delivered Sara Berisha.

“In Israel, we feel helpless watching this on television,” said Goldman, who is on her first mission abroad. “Jews have been through so much hatred, it’s difficult to watch it happening to others. So when I was given an opportunity to help, I felt I had to do something.”

But there’s just so much she and her colleagues can do. At the Stenkovec camp, busloads of hungry, traumatized Albanians arrive daily. The food line is never less than hundreds deep. Scores of refugees crowd the various message boards, desperate for information on missing relatives.

Making matters worse, there are no portable toilets, only holed-out wood planks across large pits; the scent of human waste pervades the camp. In a murky stream nearby, men bathe, kids swim and women wash clothes.

For now, the weather is still cool, with intermittent rain and sunshine. But as the temperature warms, there will likely be epidemics such as measles, polio and dysentery, said pediatrician Engelhard, a professor at Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Macedonian officials and relief agencies have been slow to provide good sanitation and immunization; without it, children in particular are vulnerable to diarrhea, vomiting, and skin infections, he said.

But the Israelis won’t be around to see it. Their two-week mandate expires soon, and they were expected to ship out Thursday.

However, they leave knowing the Kosovo refugees are in good hands — the Germans and a newly arrived team
from Taiwan will take over hospital care.

“These refugees are luckier than my grandparents were in Poland and Hungary during the war,” said Maor, the army surgeon. “When they were thrown into ghettoes, no one cared. At least for the Albanians, there’s an international effort to help them.”

Swift Response

With echoes of the Holocaust and pogroms haunting a collective conscience, the Jewish community in Los Angeles has mobilized forces to come to the aid of Kosovar refugees left homeless and hungry by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.

Schools, synagogues and organizations have moved into action over the past few weeks, putting aside political opinions and historical complexities to send basic necessities — food, shelter, medicine — to the sea of ethnic Albanian refugees flooding Albania and Macedonia.

About $100,000 has come out of Los Angeles to support the Joint Distribution Committee’s operations in the region, according to John Fishel, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation. About $50,000 came through the Federation, while he estimates another $50,000 went directly to JDC, which is set up to provide food, clothing, shelter and medicine for the masses of refugees as well as for the Jewish residents of the area.

The Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation energized the fund-raising with an initial donation of $10,000 from a disaster relief fund. Other donations began to flow after the Federation also asked the Board of Rabbis of Southern California to urge its 250 member rabbis to appeal to their congregations.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance announced last week that it has purchased a mobile medical unit equipped to aid 54,000 refugees, along with enough money to support four months of operation.

“It is impossible for an institution such as ours to remain indifferent to the plight of tens of thousands that have been driven from their homes and seen their lives destroyed,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the center, which is dedicated to Holocaust remembrance and defense of human rights.

The brutal imagery so familiar to the Jewish community — convoys of refugees, families separated, villages burning — has been a major force behind the emotional response.

Still, many are wary of drawing parallels to the Holocaust, saying that the Kosovo crisis does not compare to Hitler’s attempt to systematically annihilate a people.

But Hier says the question is irrelevant, that with such a massive humanitarian crisis at hand, there is no room for such debate.

“This is not a question of whether or not the tragedy of Kosovo equals Auschwitz,” Hier said. “Nobody can say Auschwitz and Kosovo are one and the same.”

But, he says, no matter the intensity of the persecution, our history and tradition call upon us to act. “We ought to protest it and do what we can to alleviate suffering.”

Whatever the degree of similarity to the Holocaust or pogroms, the Jewish community clearly empathizes with the Kosovars, collectively cringing at the eerily familiar scenes in refugee camps and border crossings.

The fact that the crisis coincided with Yom Hashoah, when the always-present impact of the Holocaust is brought into sharp focus, seems to have further cemented that empathy.

At the community Yom Hashoah commemoration in Pan Pacific Park last week, several speakers took the opportunity to encourage the Jewish community to act.

Many rabbis also used the Yizkor appeal on Passover — a time when victims of the Holocaust are remembered by family members — to appeal to congregants to support the refugees.

At Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, congregants responded generously and immediately to Rabbi Harold Schulweis’ appeal, plunking down $6,000 the next day, with more to follow.

“They understand the language of sealed box cars, and the homelessness and hunger that people are experiencing,” Schulweis said.

Students at Milken Community High School evoked those images at a town meeting about the Kosovo crisis. Candles lined the auditorium aisles, and students wore blue ribbons to show solidarity with the refugees. Several students walked across the stage, stopping in the middle to give their personal reasons for supporting the refugees.

“I do this for my grandfather who died in concentration camp,” one said. “We do this so no child will be forced to leave his hometown,” another said.

According to Laurie Bottoms, director of General Studies at Milken, the tone of this town meeting was set by the students. Since a town meeting a few weeks ago about the history and geography of the Balkans, many students seemed to have internalized the crisis, relating it to the Holocaust and pogroms, Bottoms said.

While some students expressed ambivalence about the military action, all were ready to donate their lunch money or allowance to support the refugees.

The students sent around plastic bags to collect donations, and about 20 bags came back stuffed with dollar bills, Bottoms said.

Many synagogues have taken a similar tack, holding educational forums and, at the same time, soliciting funds for the refugees.

Adat Shalom in Westwood held an informational panel last Shabbat, dealing in part with the fact that it was the Serbs who helped the Jews during the Holocaust, while the Kosovar Albanians aligned themselves with Germany.

The forum, said Rabbi Michael Resnick, aimed to help congregants wrestle with the issues when “we are faced with a humanitarian crisis where the people being persecuted were not friends of the Jews 50 years ago,” he said. At the same time, the response to the humanitarian crisis must be decisive, he said.

In addition to the funds he solicited in a personal mailing to congregants, he is hoping his congregation will be able to adopt a refugee family.

Schulweis, of Valley Beth Shalom, has little patience for those in the Jewish community who look to the history of the Kosovars during World War II to justify inaction.

“That is in fact visiting the sins of another generation upon this generation, and it seems to me we have long ago overcome that,” Schulweis said. “There is nothing in our history or tradition that would countenance that kind of rationalization.”

Rather, he said, World War II history indicates that this is a time for action, and for the Jewish community to support that action.

“My hunch is that those of us who remember the frustration that we experienced in the 1940s when Allied bombers did not rip up the railroad tracks to Auschwitz… are especially appreciative of what the NATO countries are doing.”

The American Jewish Committee has taken ads in major international papers expressing just that idea.

“When history asks who stood up to evil in Kosovo, the answer will be: NATO,” a bold headline reads. The ad, part of an international educational campaign to garner support for NATO, also acknowledges Serbia’s history, stating Milosevic has “led Serbia to betray its proud anti-Nazi legacy.”

“The American Jewish Committee feels strongly that what is going on in Kosovo isn’t about oil or commerce or trading routes or anything. What is at stake here are basic principles like human rights and human dignity,” said Rachel Devon Schwartz, who is in charge of the international portfolio at the West Coast office of the American Jewish Committee.

The ads and a mail campaign have helped raise $500,000 for the AJC’s Kosovo Relief Fund, Schwartz said.

Apart from raising money, many in the Jewish community are raising their voices in prayer.

At Congregation Shaarei Tefila in Los Angeles, Rabbi Yehoshua Berkowitz recited a “Mi Sheberach,” a prayer for well-being, for the three American soldiers captured by the Serbs, as well as for the refugees. Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Cunin, director of Jewish Studies at Milken High School, led a prayer group for students, taking his cue from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote a piece titled “Pray to be Shocked.”

“One of the purposes of prayer is to overcome a certain lethargy, to break through the everyday,” Bernat-Cunin said.

“Different people are revolted by different things, and at a certain point you just shut down, you can only handle so much. And yet on the other hand it’s a challenge to try to be open and receptive and responsive and empathetic,” Bernat-Cunin said, citing Heschel. Adults as well as students, he said, need to look inside and “be responsible for as much as you
can handle.”

Donations to aid refugees can be sent to:

JDC — Kosovo

Relief Fund

711 3rd Ave.

10th Floor,

New York, N.Y. 10017.

Hungarian Haven

In other circumstances, there would be nothing unusual about busloads of Yugoslavs visiting the capital of their northern neighbor, Hungary.

But with NATO’s daily assault on Kosovo and other locations throughout Yugoslavia, these are no ordinary “tourists.” Roughly 200 Yugoslav Jews — some of whom arrived one day before NATO fired its first missile, on March 24 — are now in Budapest, hosted by the Hungarian Jewish community.

As the Jews here wait and see how events unfold at home, more buses are on their way.

“We are not refugees; we’re still tourists, who crossed the border legally with our passports,” said one woman from Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, who arrived on March 23 with her two grown children.

“The plan was just to come for a couple of days until things settle down, then go back. But we’re still waiting.”

Indeed, there is a huge distinction between these citizens of Yugoslavia — composed of two republics, Serbia and tiny Montenegro — and the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province.

During 14 months of conflict, the Yugoslav army and Serbian police have forced tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians — known as Kosovars — to flee south into Albania proper. And more are coming every day. In all, 500,000 of the 2 million Kosovars have reportedly been uprooted from their homes.

Escalating tension in the province, fueled by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, prompted NATO to launch its unprecedented air campaign. Soon, there may be other ethnic minorities in Serbia seeking relief from the warfare.

Hungary, for example, is bracing for a wave of ethnic Hungarians from northern Serbia, and many Serbs themselves are believed to be already staying with relatives in Hungary.

All the activity in Serbia is reminiscent of what happened earlier this decade, as Milosevic orchestrated the wars in Bosnia and Croatia next door. From 1991 to 1995, some 200,000 Serbian citizens emigrated abroad, many of them to avoid the army draft. At that time, some Yugoslav Jewish parents also sent their draft-age sons to Israel.

This time around, as NATO strikes loomed last week, the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities offered shelter to the estimated 3,000 Yugoslav Jews.

With Yugoslavia a pariah state, Hungary is one of the few countries in the world that hasn’t slapped visa requirements on Yugoslavia’s citizens.

So, on March 23, the Belgrade community took up the Hungarian offer and rented the first two buses to make the 400-mile trip.

As NATO bombing has intensified in the days since, so, too, has the stream of Yugoslav Jews into Budapest. Two-thirds of them are teen-agers and young adults, sent away for safekeeping — and for their parents’ peace of mind.

“I’m here because my mom made me,” said Iva, 23, a university student who, on Monday, sent her first e-mail back home. “She said: ‘Go, while you can. You can always come back.’ But I have just a few more exams before I graduate, so now I don’t know what to do.”

Other arrivals include a handful of families, a few elderly people and several young children.

The visitors are spending their days gathered at the center, the adults sitting on wooden chairs, chain-smoking, nervously talking about the war. Community officials are trying to come up with activities for the kids — such as arts and crafts and basketball games — especially those separated from their parents.

Thrown into the mix are a pair of young sisters, Bosnian Jews who are on the move for the second time in their short lives. They were among the 200 Jews evacuated from Sarajevo to Belgrade in 1992.

Up to 150 of the visiting Jews are being housed at the Jewish Community Center in downtown Budapest, in dorms usually reserved for 40 Hungarian Jewish students from the provinces. But those students are home for Passover. So extra foam mattresses have been crammed in to sleep seven to 10 per room.

The other Yugoslav Jews are sleeping at a Jewish high school in town, which lacks shower facilities.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has quickly swung into action, assisting with individual needs of the Yugoslav Jews, including counseling and finding better accommodations.

In Budapest, when the number of Jews streaming in jumped from 40 to 200 over the weekend, the local Budapest community, which had initially thought it could assist their neighbors on its own, asked the JDC for help.

But now thinking longer-term, the JDC’s priority is to find better housing. One possibility is the Szarvas international Jewish camp, located two hours from Budapest.

Yugoslav Jews want to return home when the dust clears. Many have opted not to come to Budapest — yet — for fear of losing jobs difficult to come by in a country in economic ruin.

And when it comes to the NATO assault, most share the hostility of their compatriots toward the United States and Europe.

“Milosevic is a jerk, but this does nothing to him,” Iva said, echoing the views of many here. “Instead, they’re killing people like my friends, who are forced to serve their military service in Kosovo.”

Meanwhile, Jews in Kosovo have declined offers to help them leave, according to Jewish aid workers who have been active in the former Yugoslavia.

Plans have reportedly been drawn up to extract the approximately 50 Jews remaining in the Kosovar capital of Pristina if necessary, the workers said.

Meanwhile, eight Jewish men from the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia fled to Bulgaria over the weekend and are being cared for by local Jews near the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. The men, all college students, expressed fears that the conflict may spill over the Serbian-Macedonian border. *