nisim navon

Nisim Navon's photo of Ester Gidic and her brother Baruh GidicBelgrade, Serbia

Nisim Navon
Belgrade
Serbia
Interviewer: Rachel Chanin

I was born in Pristina in 1921. My sister Rukula Navon (Navonovic) was born
in 1925, also in Pristina. Our parents, Gavriel and Ester (nee Baruh)
Navon, were both born and raised in Pristina. They only left the town when
they were forced to flee the Nazis. Our family did not change its name
officially, but the "-ovic" ending was added by the school authorities when
they enrolled in school. We now use both Navon and Navonovic.

Before World War Two, Pristina was a provincial village. We had a small
Jewish community and everyone knew each other. I think there were about 450-
500 Jews in all of Kosovo and Metohija. Most of them were concentrated in
Pristina. Our family, like most families, is directly descended from Jews
exiled from Spain who came to Bitola, in Macedonia. But because of the
overpopulation and poverty they left Bitola to find a better life. This is
how most Jewish families came to Pristina, Yugoslavia.

Later, some Jews migrated north. Pristina was a small town and life was not
much better there than in Bitola, so some families moved to Kosovska
Mitrovica, because the Trepca Mines are there. These Jews believed that the
activity in the mines would give them a better chance to earn a living.

The Pristina community was entirely Sephardic. I never even met an
Ashkenazic Jew before refugees from the north reached Pristina during the
war. There was little interaction between the Jews of Pristina and more
distant Jewish communities, but there were occasional meetings between the
Jews of Kosovska Mitrovica and those of Pristina. All Jews in Pristina
before the war were observant and there was very little intermarriage. I
remember one instance when that occurred, and the drama that accompanied
it. A young Jewish woman, of 16 or 17 years of age, ran away from her home
and married a Serbian man. This was almost unheard-of at the time. The
family was distraught over her actions and responded by ripping their
clothing as a sign of mourning for their now "deceased" daughter. This
young woman converted in a Serbian church and her family had no more
contact with her.

We grew up in our father's father's house with our parents, plus one of our
father's brothers, his wife, and their children. It was a one-story house,
built of mixed materials. It had four rooms, a hall, and a courtyard. Our
paternal grandparents, Jakov and Rahela (nee Asael) Navon, and their home
were the center of family life for me and my sister Rukula, as well as for
our extended family. As a young child I spent more time in the company of
my grandparents than my parents.

In our town, most Jewish men worked as shopkeepers or merchants and the
women ran the homes. In the years leading up to the war, our family was
moderately prosperous, living a modest but comfortable life. We had three
houses close to each other in the center of Pristina. Before the war, there
was generally no electricity nor running water and people did not have
cars. I remember an army general stationed there who had a military vehicle
which caused a great deal of interest among the residents of the town. We
had electricity introduced in our house in 1931, when I was 10. A
businessman from Leskovac built a small electrical power station and each
house in Pristina got one electric bulb. It hardly changed our lives, as we
didn't have any houseware that used electricity. Nevertheless, there were a
lot of us in the house (my mother and father, my sister and me, my uncle
with his wife and two children, another uncle with his wife and my
grandparents), so I had to study at night. Until we got electricity I used
the light of a petroleum lamp.

My family did not travel much, except to natural springs, banja, in the
region, during the summer holidays, a few times before the war. Our
childhood was mostly spent at home. The lack of running water and
electricity, and the long, cold winters, meant that there were a lot of
household chores to keep us busy.

Like many people in Pristina at the time, we had a Turkish-speaking maid
who came to our house every day, so we also spoke Turkish as children. At
home, we spoke Ladino, and in school, Serbo-Croatian.

The only synagogue was in the center of the town, and most of the Jewish
community lived within walking distance. The synagogue was not large, but
it could hold all the Jews. The women sat in a slightly raised section
behind the men. The mehitza (barrier between women and men) was a wooden
latticework trellis. Because of it, the women could see the men, but the
men could not see the women. The prayer books and service were all in
Hebrew, except for those prayers that were in Ladino. Everyone could follow
the service and all the males knew how to participate.

The rabbi, Zaharija Levi, also served as the chazzan (cantor). He had such
a beautiful voice. The services currently led in Belgrade by Rabbi Isak
Asiel remind me very of much those I remember from my childhood. Rabbi
Asiel has a similar accent and uses the same melodies that we used in
Pristina back in our time. Before the war there was a daily minyan (prayer
quorum) but I am not sure how many services there were a day. Our mother's
father, unlike our father, went to synagogue every day. The rabbi lived in
a house in the yard. There was also a building in the yard that belonged
to the community. The first floor was used as a classroom and the upper
floor had a hall that was used for community celebrations and meetings. In
the yard there was a section where the rabbi slaughtered poultry and behind
the rabbi's house there was a place where the chevra kadisha (burial
society) stored their materials. No social events were held in the
synagogue.

The chevra kadisha was interesting and I sometimes got to watch, although
the children were kept away. When someone died, a group of women prepared
female bodies and some men cared for the male bodies. They had a long
wooden board they kept near the synagogue, and they would take it to the
dead person's house to use while preparing the corpse. They washed the body
and dressed it and placed it in a wooden coffin. Rukula and I spoke about
this but we could not agree on whether there was a bath in the synagogue
where the bodies were washed, or whether they were washed in the home of
the deceased using water from the family's well. The corpse was transported
to the cemetery-carried on a cart, pulled by a horse-in the wooden coffin,
but was removed from the coffin and placed directly in the ground without a
coffin. We had two cemeteries in Pristina. Albanians destroyed one
immediately after the war, when they built houses on our ancestors' bones.
The other is partially destroyed, as Albanians are using it today for their
funerals.

It was the practice in Pristina that women did not go to the funeral. They
stayed at home during the funeral and only visited the cemetery some time
after the shiva (mourning period) was over. I remember sitting shiva for
our father in Pristina in 1951. All the mirrors and pictures were covered.
Rabbi Josef Levi helped us rip our garments, we sat on the floor the entire
seven days, and other people from the community brought us food. The male
mourners did not shave for 30 or 40 days after the funeral. When they
recited a pomen, muldadu, which was recited for the dead it was either done
at the family's home or at the cemetery. After the service they would eat
small rolls and inhaminadus, which were also eaten at the end of the shiva,
insejiti in Ladino.

Rabbi Zaharija Levi was the shochet (ritual slaughterer and kosher butcher)
for our community. Several times a week he would go to the town's
slaughterhouse and slaughter large animals. Then he had some man take the
meat to two butcher shops in Pristina, where it was kept separated from the
non-kosher meat. These were not kosher butcher shops but all of the Jews
knew about them and bought their meat there. When they wanted to eat
poultry they bought it live in the market and brought it to the synagogue
yard. Rabbi Levi would slaughter the poultry in a special section of the
yard set off just for this. I myself brought poultry on several occasions
to the synagogue for Rabbi Zaharija to slaughter.

There was no mohel (circumciser) in Pristina, but when there was a need,
one was brought in from Sjenica in the Sandzak region of Serbia. That is
how every Jewish male in Pristina was circumcised before the war. I really
cannot remember, nor can my sister, if there was a mikva (ritual bath), and
I do not know if the women practiced the laws of family purity on a regular
basis.

Like all boys in Pristina, I had a bar mitzvah when I was 13. I prepared
for this occasion by taking special classes with Rabbi Levi to learn how to
put on the tefillin, and study the text that I had to recite. After the bar
mitzvah in the synagogue, I gathered my Jewish male friends and we all went
to the city's Turkish baths and then back to our house for a big meal.
There were two Turkish baths made of stone with wells. Water was heated in
kettles. We had baths weekly or once in 15 days. Women went each Friday to
a bath; first I went with my mother when I was 4-5 years old, then with my
father. Almost all of my friends with whom I went to a bath are dead.

All the old men in the community wore the fez, and they were always black.
Both of our grandfathers, Rabbi Zaharija Levi, everybody. They would even
wear them in synagogue. The younger men all wore hats or caps in the shul
(synogogue) and on the streets. No one had a kipa (skullcap) like men wear
today. My father wore his hat in his store, too. The women wore kerchiefs
on their heads, some of which were held on by gold chains called
kilingdjare, which had gold coins hanging down from them.

Kashrut (dietary law) was strictly observed in our household. There were
separate dishes for milk and meat and these two were never to be mixed. Our
grandmother and our mother made their own goat cheese. Before the onset of
winter, a milkman delivered a large quantity of milk, and we used it to
make a barrel full of cheese which lasted the entire winter. In preparation
for winter, we also made our own wine, collected winter staples such as
onions and garlic, and pickled vegetables. We would buy meat in those
butcher shops which sold meat that Rabbi Zaharija Levi slaughtered and
koshered. There was also a closet for Passover dishes, which was only
opened for the Passover holiday. There was no kosher restaurant in
Pristina, so eating in the local restaurants and cafes before the war was
something we simply did not do.

Shabbat was observed each week in our family. No one worked from sundown on
Friday until sundown on Saturday and we did not use lights. However, if by
some chance we needed to do one of these things, we would go out to the
street and look for a non-Jew to do it for us. Friday the women would
prepare food for the entire Shabbat. The meal usually included fiuzaldikas,
pastel (cake), fidjoni (cooked beans) and pitijas, an airy bread that
served as challa. The members of our family living together gathered each
Friday evening for the Shabbat meal. Our grandmother and the other women in
the house would light candles. Usually this was a bowl of oil with a bunch
of wicks, some of which were lit in memory of dead people. Our grandfather
Jakov would make kiddush (the prayer over the wine). Each Shabbat morning
we went to synagogue and back to the house for lunch. Our mother's father
gathered the children at his house to make havdalah (prayer service marking
the end of Shabbat). We called the spices barmut.

All of the holidays were observed by our family in a similar matter to
Shabbat, all at home. There were few communal celebrations. For Rosh
Hashanah we used to eat apples and honey. For such occasion my uncle Muson
had a roasted head of lamb on the table, and I cannot remember if our
grandfather also had one. The shofar (ram's horn) was blown in shul either
by Rabbi Zaharija Levi or by Jehuda Judic. Before Yom Kippur we would buy a
chicken and our grandfather would perform kaparot in the yard of our house
and then give the chicken to Zaharija Levi who would then give it to the
poor in the community. (Kaparot, literally meaning "atonements," is the act
of swinging a chicken over one's head and asking that its death substitute
for the death of the one making the prayer.) Our family always built a
succah (harvest festival booth) in the yard.

Before Pesach the women would buy wheat and take it to a water mill where
it would be ground into flour. They would gather in our grandmother's yard
and would make both matzot and bojas outside in the garden where she had a
bread oven. The women also ground some of the matzot to make matzo flour.
The Passover Hagaddah was read by all the family members in Hebrew. We
would go around the table taking turns reading. During the reading of the
Hagaddah, one child would sling a satchel with the bojas over his shoulder,
then all the other children would follow him around the table, recreating
the exodus from Egypt.

During the week of Passover, we would eat inhaminadus, bemulos de massa,
cuftes, sivuikas, pitas from matzo (with spinach, meat, leeks, etc), meat
patties with leeks or spinach, sweet matzo pitas, etc. I can still smell
those roasted onions stuffed with ground matzo and meat and hamin, cooked
wheat and meat, that we ate for Passover.

For Purim, the community would have a small masquerade party for the
children in the Jewish community building. After shul on Purim day, the
children would return home in their costumes and hang small white cloth
bags around their necks. They would then go to visit their relatives and
each one would add a few dinars to the little bag around the child's neck.
At the end of the day they would count up the money to see who had
collected the most. Baklava was frequently eaten on Purim, and presents
were given to the poor people in the community.

There was a small metal box in the house where coins were put before the
Sabbath, holidays, and other times during the year. Once a year a Jew from
outside Pristina (maybe from abroad) would come to open this charity box
and take the money, which was being collected for Israel.

Both my sister and I had Jewish and non-Jewish friends. We did not have any
problem socializing with non-Jews, just as we saw from our parents.
Gavriel, our father, employed a mixture of nationalities in his store. Our
family still did not observe the secular New Year or the other secular
holidays before the war. Among the different nationalities-Serbs, Muslims,
Albanians, Jews and Gypsies-there was no nationalism. We got along well, we
all respected each other, and there were no incidents. Incidents occurred
only between Albanians, because they had custom of blood revenge. There
were no tendencies for the Jews to be on either the side of the Serbians or
the Muslims. No one humiliated the Jews; we were respected, as we lived
modestly. In elementary and high school I had Serbian friends. We had good
relations with both Serbian and Muslim boys. In Pristina the majority of
the population was Turkish, and there were fewer Albanians, as they lived
mostly in villages. During the Nazi occupation, the Turks became Albanians
overnight, as Albanians were privileged, allowed to rob Jews and other
nationalities.

I attended the local elementary school, which was held in a mosque a
distance from our home. In the wintertime I would meet the other children
in the neighborhood at the end of the road armed with books and shovels. On
the way to school we would shovel away snow to clear a path in the road.

When we were young, we also had religious education. I vividly remember the
classes with Rabbi Zaharija Levi, the religious leader of Pristina before
the war. Zaharija Levi was a respected man, authoritative, and we called
him Signor Rubi. He was 60-65 years old; he had a beard and a cap that is
usually wore by rabbis. Twice a week the young boys, about 100 of us, would
meet him in the classroom of the synagogue complex. The schoolroom was on
the first floor of a building near the synagogue. During these classes we
learned to read and write Hebrew, learned the prayers, and learned other
Jewish topics. The Hebrew script we learned was a special one used by
Sephardi Jews. Community documents were written in this script. Rabbi Levi
was a strict teacher and did not have much patience for lazy students. Each
class we were given a text that had to be learned by heart for the next
class. Rabbi Levi kept a large stick in his closet in the room and when a
student failed to memorize the text he would take it out and give the
unprepared student five slaps, that we called falaka, on both hands. Many
of the children feared Rabbi Levi and his stick more than they did their
own fathers. We spoke in Spanish (i.e., Ladino) and Hebrew. I understand
and know some Hebrew, thanks to Zaharija Levi. By 1938, Rabbi Zaharija Levi
was too old to continue his job and he was replaced by Cadik Danon. Rukula
told me that she remembers going to religious lessons with Rabbi Danon but
Rabbi Danon did not remain there long; he left for Split after just a short
time in Pristina and was replaced by Rabbi Josef Levi, Rabbi Zaharija
Levi's son.

For a short time I took private accordion lessons with a Serbian teacher
from Pristina and played in the school orchestra. But doing things such
things as private language, dance, or music lessons or belonging to clubs
were not the norm. Rukula and I were members of a Zionist club but it was
not part of a larger organization. We just did not have the contact. We
gathered together in the synagogue building, but I must admit that I cannot
remember what we did there. I think our parents wanted Jewish children to
be together. In our free time we would play with other children on the
streets, and in the wintertime, ice skate and sled with homemade equipment
on a nearby river.

I also attended the State Commercial Academy in Skoplje for commercial
trading from 1934 to 1937. There was no such school in Pristina, so my
parents paid for me to enroll and board at the school in Skoplje. My father
insisted that I should continue with schooling at the State Commercial
Academy. As I was the oldest grandson, no one from the family wanted me to
leave Pristina. Nevertheless, my father told us that one could never know
what would happen in the future, and he wanted to secure me with a diploma.
Among my friends were two Jews, one from Bitolj another from Nis, and Serbs
and Macedonians. While living in the dormitory in Skoplje, I did not eat
kosher food but I also did not eat the meat. Not because of kashrut. I
simply do not particularly like meat. Occasionally, I would eat in the
kosher restaurant in the Jewish mahala in Skoplje. In Skoplje I did not
observe the Jewish holidays or the Shabbat. In fact, I would often travel
back to Pristina on Saturdays so I could be with my family. I traveled by
train. Skoplje was 100 kilometers from Pristina and it took me two hours to
get to Kosovo polje, as there wasn't a station in Pristina. From Kosovo
polje to Pristina I went by horse and carriage. I didn't write letters, as
almost each weekend I went home and the letters would have arrived after
me.

In 1937, I enrolled in the Economics Faculty of Belgrade University, but
my studies came to an abrupt end with the passing of the Numerus Clausus
laws restricting the number of Jews allowed to enter certain professions. I
was in Belgrade once or twice before that, when I escorted my father to
Vienna where he had a throat operation. I enrolled in the Faculty in 1937
and stayed until 1940. I lived with my cousin in a part of the city called
Zvezdara. Students whose fathers had been in World War One could remain at
the university. I was among those students, as my father had fought against
the Bulgarians in World War One. Nevertheless, I wanted to show solidarity
with all of my Jewish friends; I even left my documents at the university.
I found them and used them after the war, as the building wasn't destroyed.
My oldest friend from the Faculty was Marci Levi.

At that time there was anti-Semitism "thanks" to Dimitrije Ljotic, who
published a magazine called Zbor, with anti-Semitic articles only. Cicvaric
was the editor of the magazine Balkan, also with anti-Semitic articles. The
magazines had their readership, and that was the beginning of hatred
towards Jews, who were described as murderers and usurpers. But nothing
happened to me as I had a lot of Serbian friends.

Before the war I wasn't involved in political life. Jews had their own
cultural organization that belonged to the synagogue. I was a member of it.
I was a Zionist. Each house in Pristina had a blue cash-box in which we put
money each Friday. A delegation of three people from Belgrade or another
European center came once a year to collect the money, which was used for
buying land, kept by Arabs, in Palestine.

Our father was a very honest and well-liked man, highly respected even
amongst the general population in Pristina before and after the war. He
served three four-year terms as president of the Jewish community of
Pristina. His last term ended in 1951, the year of his death. I succeeded
my father as president and served three terms, ending in 1963.

In his capacity as president, our father was able to save some Jewish
refugees from Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, who were
captured in Pristina in 1940. He went around the Jews of the community to
collect the required 1,000 golden coins to ransom some of the captured Jews
that were being held by an Albanian named Kemal Beg. Those that were not
released were taken away in caravans by the Germans.

I met my first Ashkenazi Jews in Pristina right before the war. They were
running to the south, as they wanted to settle in Israel. The government
put them in Jewish homes, where we shared good and bad, as fear and the
same destiny unite people. We hosted a family from Poland. Together with
Rabbi Josif Levi, we supplied these Jews with food and medicine. There were
no differences in manners or outlook between them and us. The Germans came
in 1941 and put them in prison, from where they were transported by trucks
to Belgrade, where most of them were shot. Some of them escaped to Prisren.

The first Germans arrived in April 1941. The Albanians liked the Germans.
They came down from villages to welcome them and kiss their boots. Right
after the Germans came, the Jews were ordered to wear a yellow band with
the word Jude, and form a brigade of 200 adults from Kosovo to work at the
stone pit. When the Nazis first rounded up the Jews in Pristina, they came
with a truck to our house and took away everything from us, 10 kilos of
gold, family jewelry which we had had for four generations. Five bags were
all that were left, one each for my father, mother, sister, grandfather and
me. They made our father carry all of the family's belongings out of the
house onto trucks, the whole time beating him on the spine. His back never
recovered from these beatings and he never regained his strength. Rukula
and our mother were both operated on in 1946 for respiratory problems that
developed during the war.

We thought that the Germans wouldn't take my grandfather as he was old, so
we gave him everything we had. But my grandfather was taken to prison
immediately and killed. Soon after grandfather was murdered, my grandmother
died of sorrow and lack of medicine. My two uncles and I were put in labor
camp where we worked at the stone-pit 12 hours a day. My sister, together
with another 40 Jewish women, had to clean streets and public buildings
that belonged to German organizations in the city. They worked 12 hours as
well.

Six months later, two policemen, one Italian and the other Albanian, took
me to be shot in the village of Milesevo, 6 km away from Pristina. A
Gestapo chief asked me if I was a communist. I answered that my family was
capitalist. He thought for some time and released me. When I came back, the
Italian police put me and my cousin in prison in Pristina. I was in prison
from October to December. I was in the room with 40 prisoners, mostly Serbs
expelled from villages by the Albanians. We had to work and we were beaten.
I still have a scar on my arm. In December the Germans transferred me into
a prison in Tirana, where the living conditions were better. I stayed there
till January. In the meantime I didn't have any information about my
family. While I was in Pristina they were moved to Elbasan, Albania. In
February I was removed to Elbasan, but still didn't know that my family was
there, as I was in another part of the prison together with thieves and
criminals. My family was with six other Jewish families. Later I found out
that we were in the same prison. We were there until the end of August
1943.

In Albania I had a friend, Seap Topuli. He told us that Italy would
surrender. This happened on September 9. In the Tajti Mountains, in the
village of St. George, he found Albanian houses to which these seven
families, including mine, could escape, because the Germans were already
starting to take prisons and public institutions. We were settled under the
roof of a stable, where we slept on animal skins. Through the roof the snow
was falling down on us. We used melted snow as water. We hid there without
any contact to the outside world. A teacher from the village, Elmas Nema,
gathered some food for us, corn and a few beans. We went to get it at
night. Our host gave us whey and some food as well. We stayed there until
April 1945, when we came back to Pristina.

Our family returned to Pristina after the war and found that our house had
been looted and occupied by a Serbian family. Eventually, we moved back
into one of our former properties, but we have never managed to rebuild
what we had. This time around, instead of having milk delivered, we were
forced to buy a small goat and depend on the little bit of milk she could
produce.

I continued my studies in the fall of 1945, but this time under very
different circumstances. Before the war, my family was in a position to
finance my studies and my living in Belgrade. Later the situation turned
around as they became dependent on me for their income. My parents were sad
about it, especially my father.

Around 50 Jews came back. The community looked so sad. In the street where
I lived there had been 10 Jewish families, of which only one survived. Nine
families were killed at Bergen-Belsen. I gave an interview in our Bulletin,
with the title "Those Who Are No Longer," about the atmosphere after the
war. As we lost almost everything, we expected help from the Federation of
Jewish Communities in Yugoslavia and from JOINT. And we got help in the
form of clothes in Belgrade and in Pristina as well. I went to the
Federation almost every day. According to the new town development plans,
the synagogue would have had to be demolished, as it was made of faulty
materials. The municipality called me as a member of the community board
and asked me what should be done. I thought that we should renovate the
synagogue, and we did it together with the Federation of Jewish Communities
in Yugoslavia and its representative, who was a lawyer.

After the war I married my wife Ljubica, a school teacher, whom I met
during the studies at the university. Ljubica is Serbian. Her family was
from Nis but moved to Pristina after the war to work on the development of
the town. We used to meet while visiting our families. We had a child,
Gavriel N. Navon, who died in 1954 and is buried in the cemetery in
Pristina. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery, together with my father and
grandfather. The cemetery still exists, but Albanians are using it now.

My sister studied in the local gymnasium in Pristina before the war. Her
studies were interrupted when the Numerus Clausus laws were passed. After
the war she took a couple of training courses but she never finished her
secondary education. She moved to Belgrade in 1948 where she worked as an
office clerk. She married Jakov Ben Cion, a Sephardic Jew from Belgrade.
They were married in 1948 in the Belgrade Synagogue by Rabbi Cadik Danon.
Their marriage ended in divorce twenty-some years later. My sister and I
currently live in Belgrade and see each other often. I still speak to my
sister in Ladino but she prefers Serbian.

Most of our extended family moved to Israel after the war, but my sister
and our parents and I remained in Yugoslavia. Mainly because of their poor
health, our parents were not in a condition to start a new life. Our father
died in Pristina in 1951. After his death, my mother and I moved to
Belgrade, where she died in 1984.

After my retirement and illness, I lost interest in politics. The situation
is much worse now than it was during World War Two. It is a tragic
situation for the Serbs; there are 300,000 refuges from Kosovo. Today
Pristina has 500,000 residents, including thieves, homeless persons and the
mafia from Albania who robbed and occupied Serbian homes. Kosovo is now an
Albanian state; KFOR has to protect the Serbs when they go out to buy
bread.

I can't tell what will happen in the future, but I think that anti-Semitism
will increase. I'm the oldest member of the synagogue and devoted to the
community. I promised my mother when she was dying that I would go to the
synagogue each Friday. And I'm keeping that promise.

Country: 
City: 
Belgrade

Interview details

Interviewee: Nisim Navon
Interviewer:
Rachel Chanin
Month of interview:
September
Year of interview:
2000
Belgrade, Serbia

KEY PERSON

Nisim Navon
Jewish name:
Rea
Year of birth:
1921
City of birth:
Pristina
Occupation
after WW II:
Working in natural and technical sciences

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