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Israelis Help Kosovo Refugees

April 9, 1999

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ Unable to shake the image of her grandfather suffering Nazi horrors, Shalevet Friedland left early for her evening shift at McDonald’s to make an important stop on the way: a collection depot for Kosovo refugees.

Friedland, whose grandfather survived a Nazi labor camp, stuffed blankets and warm clothing into three white garbage bags and piled them onto a suitcase cart.

``We need to help them, to give, to give what we can,″ Friedland, 24, said Thursday as she tossed her bags on the growing pile of contributions in Rabin Square.

The saga of thousands of ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo _ families ripped apart, children and women packed onto trucks, illness breeding in cramped refugee camps _ has special resonance in Israel. In the Jewish state, the Holocaust, the murder of 6 million Jews during the German occupation of Europe, is a defining historical moment.

``Since I saw the pictures, I got a pain in my chest, simply a pain,″ said Avraham Zelig, a survivor of Poland’s Lodz ghetto who is raising funds from fellow survivors. ``All the pictures took me back to another period.″

The concern extends beyond survivors and their descendants. Tens of thousands packed the same square in central Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening for a fund-raising rock concert dubbed ``We of all People Cannot Remain Silent.″

``To act normally at an abnormal time is itself abnormal,″ Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau _ himself a Holocaust survivor _ told the youthful crowd.

A daylong radiothon raised more than $600,000.

``It’s beyond survivors,″ said author Tom Segev, who has written extensively on the reverberations of the Holocaust in Israeli society. ``It’s connected to the Israeli ethos _ to empathize with the refugees.″

In Israel _ a nation built by immigrants _ even those not related to Holocaust survivors are still likely to know of refugee experiences in the family.

Yaakov Rachminovitch spoke of the hardships his parents went through when they emigrated from Yugoslavia to pre-state Palestine in 1930. Rachminovitch was born that year, en route, in Turkey.

``We know these problems of refugees very well,″ he said as he watched preparations for the concert.

The fighting in Yugoslavia _ and the refugees it has created _ has pushed the faltering Mideast peace process and May 17 elections out of the headlines.

The refugee crisis is simply too compelling, said Yuval Natan, a columnist with the daily Maariv.

``Call me an idiot, tell me that I’m a sucker for kitsch, but every time I see a crate of aid with the Israeli flag pasted to it landing in a crisis zone, it makes me feel good,″ he wrote.

Many Israelis have expressed embarrassment at their government’s failure to unequivocally support the NATO action against Yugoslavia, whose forces have emptied Serbia’s Kosovo province of its majority Albanian population.

Yossi Peled, a retired general who backs the opposition Labor Party, said the silence was especially conspicuous as Israel prepares to mark Holocaust remembrance day on Monday.

``The day should never come where they shake their finger at us and say `Where were you?‴ Peled told Israel television. ``Our conscience is there,″ in Albania.

Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon has angered the United States by suggesting that a Yugoslav defeat could lead to a triumphalist ``Greater Albania″ that would sponsor Muslim fundamentalism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has distanced himself from Sharon’s statements and offered to take in some refugees.

The Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization once known only for Jewish rescue, is airlifting more than 40 tons of supplies to the refugees. Israel’s army has set up a field hospital among refugees in Macedonia.

Some of the relief workers say they are paying Albania back for protecting its small Jewish community during the Holocaust.

About 2,000 Jews from Yugoslavia fled to Albania during World War II, joining the tiny Jewish community there, said Avner Shalev, the chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

``Everyone was saved, everyone,″ Shalev told The Associated Press. ``No one was turned in by informants or collaborators.″

Israel has honored some of the Albanians who saved Jews during the war, he said.

``The Albanians helped the Jews, I’m returning the favor,″ said Bala Bajram, a doctor at the field hospital whose parents were hidden by an Albanian family during the Holocaust.

Some Israelis, too young for memories, were moved only by the images.

Aviha Travis, 7, contributed his allowance to the family donation he and his father dropped off in Rabin Square.

``I saw on the television that people don’t have blankets and they are living in tents and they are hungry,″ he explained.

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