Even as Israeli doctors in Macedonia cared for ethnic Albanians forced by Serbs from their homes in Kosovo, rabbis throughout the New York area were making plans to meet Monday in Manhattan to develop a Jewish communal response to the crisis.
The call for the rabbinical conference came from the American Jewish World Service following the group’s appeal last week for funds to help the refugees. The appeal was made in an ad that featured a photo of Kosovo residents being sent into exile by train. The caption read: “Once again, there’s reason to remember.”
The ad said those who have been “herded into exile in the name of ethnic cleansing … are the fortunate ones. Others have simply been murdered, with some villages entirely massacred.”
Ruth Messinger, the group’s president and former Manhattan borough president, said rabbis called in response to the ad wanting to know more.
“We are going to ask them what they think and would like to do, and then proceed from there,” said Messinger. “There may be more things we can do.”
At the meeting, Messinger said she expected to get an update from the AJWS’s partner in this project, the International Rescue Committee, a not-for-profit organization that assists refugees and has been working in the region for several years.
“It is the best organization on the ground to organize assistance to refugees in Albania and Macedonia,” she said. “They have a large number of people there, and we are raising money from the American Jewish community for them. They are in the best position to provide emergency food, housing and health care.”
She noted that in just two days, more than $70,000 was raised.
Although some have made comparisons between the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the Holocaust, survivor Elie Wiesel insisted this week that such a comparison is inaccurate. Writing in Newsweek he said: “I saw the prison camps at Banja Luka; the conditions were deplorable and the prisoners terrified. But it was not Auschwitz. Auschwitz was an extermination camp, a black hole in history. … Now we are witnessing a nightmare in Kosovo; it demands action, not comparisons.”
Wiesel repeated those thoughts Monday night at the White House, and President Bill Clinton said he agreed.
“That distinction should not deter us from doing what is right,” Clinton continued. “When we see people forced from their homes at gunpoint, loaded onto train cars, their identity papers confiscated, their very presence blotted from the historical record, it is only natural that we would think of the events which Elie has chronicled. … The efforts of Holocaust survivors to make us remember and help us understand, therefore, have not been in vain. The people who fought those battles and lived those tragedies, however, will not be around forever. But they can live on in our determination … to stand against the modern incarcerations of the evil they defeated.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Holocaust taught the world that “silence kills.” Therefore, he said, “Jews should be the first ones to say we cannot afford to be silent. There was a total silence then — there isn’t now.”
The ADL too set up its own fund to aid refugees. It took out an ad last week showing people peering out of a box car with the words: “Respond as you wish the world had responded the last time.”
A liberator of one of the camps at Dachau, former Staff Sgt. Curtis Whiteway, said after an address at the Dix Hills Jewish Center on Long Island this week to commemorate Yom HaShoah, that he found the events in Kosovo “very upsetting.”
“Man doesn’t learn from the past,” he said. “Unfortunately, it looks like brutality charges will always be with us. … We can’t turn our backs and walk away from it.”
Stephen Solender, acting president of the United Jewish Communities, said the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Israeli government have all pitched in to help the people of Yugoslavia. He said that about 200 Jews from Belgrade and Kosovo were bused to Budapest. And he noted that about 200 residents of Kosovo were flown to Israel this week, where they were offered refuge until they could return to their homes.
“We also are proud that the State of Israel sent a field hospital to Macedonia — the only one sent by any country to the region,” said Solender. “And we have also worked to send from Israel several plane loads of food, clothing and medicine.”
The Israel Defense Forces’ mobile army surgical tent was set up early last week in a camp for 20,000 refugees at Brazda, located near the Macedonian border with Kosovo. A team of 65 staffed the hospital, including a dozen physicians from various Israeli hospitals. Among them was Dr. Yoel Donchin, an anesthesiologist from the Jerusalem-based Hadassah Medical Organization, who said surgeons had just performed an emergency appendectomy on one of the refugees, an 18-year-old girl.
“She was diagnosed immediately and, like in America, she and her parents signed a consent form and the surgery was performed,” he said by phone from the tent. “We have a big tent here with all the necessary equipment. But without the expertise of the people here, it would be impossible to perform such procedures.”
Another Hadassah physician there, Dan Engelhartt, a pediatrician, said that in five days he had seen 250 patients ranging in age from newborns to 16. Among them were eight infants born in the tent.
“Until we got an incubator from Israel, one of the team here built an incubator using a carton and a heater,” he said. “It’s almost freezing here at night and that was very important to have. There is usually a high mortality rate in such disasters, but no one has died and all are doing well.”
He said the main problem among the children has been viral infections, causing vomiting and diarrhea, and dehydration.
Most of the medical supplies have been flown in from Israel. Anything that is urgently needed is bought in the nearby capital of Macedonia, Skopje.
Asked about the spirit of the people, Engelhartt said: “Some are totally in shock and have been separated from members of their family. But we do not have any orphans. The children are with their mothers or with both parents.”
At the same time Israeli doctors cared for the ill, a group of 110 refugees flew to Israel Monday. On board the flight was Carole Solomon, national campaign chair of the United Jewish Communities, who later said that the care provided in the hospital was “so fantastic that it helped motivate these people to come to Israel. What we have done, I believe, is proven that history need not repeat itself.”