Nisim Navonovic was born in Pristina on September 3, 1921, to Gavrijel and Ester (neé Baruh). He has a sister Rukula Bencion. His immediate family survived the Holocaust.
Until 1963 he served as the president of the Jewish Community in Pristina. He has received much recognition for his work.


Jewish families started arriving in Pristina from Nazi-dominated countries in late 1939. There were women, children, the sick and the elderly, primarily from Austria, Poland and Germany. They had fled south in the hope of reaching Palestine. Around 100 families reached Pristina. The authorities of the time could neither accommodate nor support them. Therefore the families of the newly arrived Jewish refugees put them up, sharing whatever they had until the end. At that time the Pristina Jewish Community numbered around 800. Rabbi Josif Levi and President of the Jewish Community Haim David assigned certain young people to work on taking in the refugees. I was deputy head of a group for those Jews who wanted to reach Pec and Prizren and the Albanian border as I spoke excellent Albanian. At that time, I was a student and had to interrupt my study of economics and return to Pristina as a result of the implementation of the "numerus clausus" law.

After entering the town in 1941, the Germans collected all the Jews who had arrived from other countries, put them in prison and after several days, took them in trucks in an unknown direction. This was in mid-April. At the same time, maybe a day later, Gestapo agents captured and imprisoned four Jews: Mushon Asher and his son Salomon, my grandfather Jakov Buhor Navon, who was a merchant, and grocer David Mandilo. Three of them were shot at the town shooting range, my grandfather Jakov was kept in prison as they wanted to get their hands on the family jewellery and money, about which they had learned from some Balist members from Pristina who were familiar with his assets.

Before the measures against the Jews commenced, numerous Jews had started to arrive in Pristina from Belgrade, intending to head south- wards to the Italian zone of occupation. Most traveled with no or fake documents.

In such circumstances, the general plunder of Jewish property in Pristina commenced. With the assistance of the Gestapo, the Albanian Fascists broke into Jewish stores, handing out beatings and trying to destroy and humiliate the remaining Jews. With yellow stars on their chests, Jews became targets of all those who could kill them without consequences.

Soon after the Germans entered Pristina in April 1941, under the guidance of Rabbi Josif Levi, we formed an underground Jewish squad as an underground resistance movement against the enemy. The objective of our activities was to assist elderly and sick community members, to supply them with food and drugs. Soon afterwards, our squad started distributing pamphlets encouraging resistance to the occupier. We did this on the orders of the town's resistance movement, under which all anti-Nazi and patriotic forces acted.

Initial members of this squad were Rabbi Josif Levi, who led the group, student David Aserovic (killed near Trieste in 1945), carpenter Baruh Baruh (killed in Berat in combat with the Germans in 1943), student Albert Aserovic, laborer Jakov Bahar, David Navon (captured and deported to Bergen-Belsen, where he died), Salamon Salamon (lives today in Venezuela), merchant Josif Salamon (survived the war and emigrated to Israel), student Gedalja Gidic (survived Bergen-Belsen, emigrated to Israel and died there), merchant Baruh Gidic (survived Bergen-Belsen, died in Israel) and myself, a student. There were three girls as well: Ruti, Meti and Luca who I think are no longer alive. Meti was a 1941 Partisan award winner.

Independently from what we were doing, the Gestapo formed a working group of around 150-200 Jews who were sent to forced labor. We worked crushing and grinding stone by the old electric power station, in a suburb of Pristina on the road to the cemetery. We worked12 hours a day under the supervision of guards. We would gather every day by the district headquarters at six o'clock in the morning. From there, escorted by the guards, we would go to work, we had no breaks. Each of us was obligated to provide our own food, mainly cold meals. Only the seriously ill were spared from work or those older than 70. Forced labor continued even after the German departure at the end of May 1941, when the territory fell under Italian occupation. Albanian pro-Fascist elements, the Balists and others then took up local government.

One day, as far as I remember it was in the autumn 1941, I was taken from the building site with my hands tied, escorted by two policemen. The two took me to the Gestapo in the village of Milosevo for, as they said, interrogation and execution. However, after waiting for some two hours, the police chief interrogated me, inquired whether I was a Communist and ordered the two to return me to the building site. After several days they again led me away, this time to the Questura (Albanian police under the supervision of the Germans), and then to prison. They put me in a cell with 40 prisoners, mainly Serbs. There was hardly room to sit and no toilet. After several days, in a place with no water or sewerage, I was full of lice like the other prisoners. This forced an Italian officer, a doctor, to sprinkle us with a powder every day to rid ourselves of the pest. We performed our natural functions in buckets in the cell, the unbearable stench spreading every- where. We went into the prison yard only in the morning, for an hour's walk during which it was forbidden to talk to one another. The food was very poor: two pieces of bread with some grain vegetables on a metal plate, with no flavor and very dirty. During the entire period of my imprisonment, I received no news about the destiny of my family or friends. Kemal-bey went out of his way to order that all our property be confiscated. The Balists came to our house with three trucks and with Gestapo security. Although beaten and exhausted from my time in prison, together with my father I loaded the trucks with our property from the cellar. They left us with only four bundles of our belongings, explaining that we were supposed to take these along when we were summoned.

Occasionally the Balists and other pro-Nazi Albanian formations would enter the prison without any particular reason and beat prisoners with an ox hide whip. Even today I have scars from this on my left arm and on my head. My grandfather was held in prison and asked for the family gold with which the Navon family had conducted its business for four generations. Kemal-bey was acquainted with my grandfather's financial situation, and saw him killed in prison even after being stripped of the gold!

Even outside prison, circumstances were difficult for Jews. A forced labor group was formed for our mothers and sisters. They would clean the occupational authorities' residences; some women were assigned to clean the streets and public toilets, at which time they were exposed to different forms of humiliation. In general, Jews in Kosovo had nowhere to hide. The Gestapo, the Balists and Mussolini's Black Shirts, persecuted them. The German command headquarters was located in the village of Milosevo, some five to six kilometers from Pristina. The Italians held formal power, although German guards and motorized police would incessantly circle the town. Somewhere at the end of December 1941,1 don't know on whose order, I was transferred to a prison in Tirana. With no documents I was put in a cell with a Serb named Jezda. We were isolated and didn't know about what was going on outside. No one asked me anything, no one talked about anything. I slept on a wooden bed with a blanket. Those who worked in the prison were mainly Italians and Balists.

Soon afterwards, in February 1942,1 was transferred to Elbasan, to the casa dei priggioneri (the house of prisoners), which was under the supervision of the Italians and the Balists. We lived in uncertainty, with bad food, no medicine and in fear. There were several interned families from Pristina there: Gavriel Navon, Nisim Lazar, Mushon Navon, Jeshua Navon, Salamon Lazar, Avram Baruh, and Mordehaj Lazar.

After spending more than a year and a half in Elbasan, at the end of August 1943, we fled to the mountain of Dajti, to the village Sen Djerdj (St. George). The capitulation of Italy was in sight. All six families from Elbasan were living in strict isolation in village barns, with no possibility of making any sort of connection with the world. We lived without clothes, food or medicine, sleeping on planks and fern, on sheepskins with cattle all around us. Instead of water we drank melted snow, which we collected overnight. There were two people who helped us: a local teacher named Elmaz Mema, who knew who we were, but pretended not to know anything. He would bring us food, polenta and corn, during the night and leave it at an agreed place. Sometimes we would also find a handful of beans. The other man who helped us was Dzafer the shepherd, and sometimes the head of the household who would occasionally bring us some whey and polenta. His name was Kaplan Bala.

During our stay in the village we knew that the Germans constantly traveled down the road, one or two kilometers away. Luckily they didn't enter the village, as they themselves feared they would meet the Partisans on slopes where even mules had difficulty navigating.

As time went by, we more and more frequently heard planes flying overhead. They were signs that fortunes were changing in the war. We guessed where the planes were flying and lived in complete isolation and fear until April 1945. Then, Kaplan Bala gave us mules, and accompanied by his son Destan, we descended to Tirana. I remember that the snow had started to melt. We reached our homes with the assistance of the Yugoslav military representative in Tirana who gave us permits and our friend Sheab Topuli who ferried us to Struga. We then traveled by train to Urosevac and then on to Pristina by horse-driven cart.

Our house was inhabited, but the unknown tenants moved out quickly and we entered. It was empty, but we were home nonetheless. Everyone was in a poor state: my mother and sister had Basedov's disease, my father had a spinal injury, and I had an abscess on my lungs, typhus and rheumatism. This is how our lives in the liberated country begun.

Nisim Navonovic

Nisim Navonovic