Albania and the extraordinary story of the Jews in our country

Ambassador Ferit Hoxha, Permanent Representative of Albania to the United Nations

By Ferit Hoxha
Ambassador Ferit Hoxha, Permanent Representative of Albania to the United Nations

In a few words and in many ways unique, Albania, a small Balkan country, not only protected from the Italian fascists and then from the Nazis, all Jews who lived on its soil, but allowed those from Poland, Germany, Austria, Greece, Bulgaria or from different territories of the former Yugoslavia to come to Albania, find shelter and enjoy protection. This entire community, everyone, rich or poor, young or old, educated or not, were not asked any question and were not looked at with suspicion. They were met with an open door, a warm heart and offered the secure shelter that other nations around refused them. Whatever the time, whoever the ruler, whatever the difficulties the country has been through, there is one thing to remember: there is no history of anti-Semitism in Albania, no hate speech, no bigotry. Respect for other’s religion, culture and heritage has been a fundamental part of the Albanian society since ages, a value carefully transmitted through generations that is still strictly observed and respected nowadays. But before making some more specific remarks on how all this happened, let me try to say a few words on who we are, where do we come from and what we have been through.

Albania is a small country in South-Eastern Europe. It borders Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece. To the West it opens to the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.

Every story about the Balkan Peninsula begins with the ancient Illyrians. According to scholars, Albanians of today are the only people in Europe and, particularly in the Balkan Peninsula, whose language is that of the ancient Illyrians. Albanians are the indigenous continuants of the Illyrian population who were never assimilated by later invaders.

During no less than twelve consecutive periods of foreign domination, the ethnic identity of the Albanians has been constantly threatened, first by the Eastern and Western empires of Christendom, then by the Ottoman Turks, and most recently, during last century, by Soviet and Chinese communists. Politics apart, it never worked. Albanians resisted, preserved their language and culture and imposed and preserved their indelible mark.

In a quick storyline: in 169 B.C, Albania fell under the Roman rule until the split of the Empire, when the country became part of Byzantium.

With the arrival of the Ottomans to the Balkans, Albanians staged a fierce resistance for some 25 years, under the leadership the national hero, George Kastrioti – Skenderbeu – i.e. “Lord Alexander” (1405-1468). A great strategist, a resolute leader and a fine diplomat, Skanderbeg has marked his time and beyond. A thousand books have been written about Skanderbeg; Vivaldi among other musicians composed an opera with its name; its memory has been engraved in many museums in Albania and abroad and its monument are almost everywhere in Europe. The only thing he could not be was immortal.

After his death, the 1479 Treaty between the Ottomans and Venice left Albania under Ottoman rule until 1912. Five centuries is a long time but even that was not enough to modify the Albanian DNA.

Independence was finally declared in 1912. But a Big Powers Conference in 1913, in Paris, defined the Albanian borders leaving outside half of its territory, large parts of land, all around the country, in particular Kosova, which went to Serbia. The trauma of this decision would never disappear and the second half of the 20th century will be also marked by efforts of Kosovars to gain their freedom, something that we know, had to go through terrible hard times, ultimately requiring an international military intervention in 1999.

During the World War I, the new fragile state of Albania was invaded by many armies (Austria, Italy, France etc.). In December 1920, a new state of Albania was reconstituted and became a member of the League of Nations. From 1920 to 1939, Albania went through an effort of nation-building, first as a republic and later on as a monarchy led by King Zog, who ruled until April 7, 1939, the day when Italy invaded Albania.

During WWII Albania organized its resistance and on 28th of November the country was liberated. The war caused heavy material destruction to the country and some 28,000 victims to its population. Albania is a rare example of a country liberated without the intervention of the Soviet Red Army, but this did not, unfortunately, prevent it to be part of the wrong side of Europe, after Yalta.

From 1944 until March 1991, Albania was ruled by one of the cruelest communist dictatorships that brought on an almost total isolation of the country. The population was subject to a particularly severe regime of oppression. Thousands of political victims were executed, imprisoned, interned, tortured. Thousands were sent to concentration camps, built mostly for “enemy” family members and their relatives. This is by far the darkest part of the Albanian history and only a comparison with todays North Korea would provide an accurate picture of the country was in the late seventies and eighties. Albania had simply become a complete geopolitical black hole, forgotten by the world.

The fall of the Iron curtain freed the country and since 1991 Albania has been a free republic. An overall transition was put in place to overcome the disastrous communist heritage and create the necessary conditions and environment for a successful democratic society. With very hard work, going through pain and sometimes-chaotic events, Albania has successfully managed the transition period, is successfully building the present and has clearly designed it future. Since 2009 Albania is a member of NATO and as we hope, as off the 1st of January, a candidate country to the European Union, which it seeks to join in the years ahead. The tremendous rhythm of change of Albania and Albanians everywhere have made the nation quickly regain time that history denied it continuously.

Let me turn the situation of Jews in Albania: According to established facts and documents, the first evidence of a Jewish presence in Albania dates back to 13th century. In the early Middle Age, Jews came to Albania from Salonika. Later, a significant number of Jews arrived from Spain at the end of the 15th century escaping the Spanish Inquisition. Although it is hard to find precise account of the Jewish population in Albania, it is believed that, according to one statistics that by late 19th century, there were a total of 15,000 Jews in what was then Albania. A very poor and extremely underdeveloped country, it did not become the permanent residence of the majority of the Jewish community.

While Western Europe was already in turmoil, in 1937, under the rule of King Zog, the Jewish community was granted official recognition by the government. Although figures offered by different scholars vary, it is believed that approximately 200 Jews were living in Albania prior to WWII, half of them being refugees. During the years 1938-39, many Jews of Central Europe received visas to enter Albania; many others came in illegally, either to settle there, or to travel to other countries.

When Italy invaded and annexed Albania in April 1939, Jews were obliged to leave the coastal areas and settle into the countryside. Welcomed by the population, met with a friendly face, Jewish refugee families had no difficulty to scatter throughout Albania and assimilate into society. Jewish children continued to attend school, many under false names and religion.

Repeated Italian requests to expel non-residential Jews from Albania were not satisfied. To the contrary “non-resident” Jews were given residency permits, and were allowed to exercise their professions, or trades. Authorities in many cities like Korçe, Kukes, Peshkopi and Elbasan responded: “There are no foreigners of Jewish origin here”. In several cases, Jews from the Former Yugoslavia transferred to Albania were provided with documents.

After the Italian capitulation, on September 1943, Albania de jure reestablished its independence on October 1943 and declared to be neutral. That fact did not change anything to the war atrocities, military operations and fighting, which continued. Nevertheless, the arriving German Army somewhat recognized the independence and the neutrality of Albania. The Nazi committed not to take any action on Jews without prior consultation with the local government. The legislation for persecuting Jews, imposed on all the occupied territories, was not applicable to Albania proper; therefore Jews were not required to wear distinctive signs on their clothes. Of course, the Nazis did not respect in full the agreement and begun insisting upon the Government to take measures against the Jews.

When the Nazis did make a first request for a list of Jews – both “residents” and “non-residents” – living n Albania, the list was not supplied. In 1944, the Nazis summoned again Albanian authorities to supply the list of all Jews residing in Albania. The Albanian Government, in an extraordinary act of courage, not only disobeyed, but reassured the local Jewish leaders that, for as long as they were in power, they had nothing to fear. Consequently, Jews fled to supportive Albanian villages outside of the cities. Christian and Muslim Albanians alike regarded it as a matter of national pride to help Jews, both native Albanian and refugees. History has duly recorded that no Jews were turned over to the Nazis in Albania and the whole community survived the war.

The Albanian shelter was so secure that the Jewish population – a unique case in Europe – not only did not fall but instead, it increased. Credible and uncontested reports provide the figure of a tenfold increase of the Jewish community in Albania during the Second World War.

Brend Fischer, an American historian who has written several books on Albania, states that “Albania is certainly the only state in Europe where the Jewish population actually grew during the Axis occupation; it is estimated that there were 1800 Jews in Albania at the end of war”. This number does not take into account the hundreds of Jews who, from 1930 until the end of the conflict, travelled through Albania to more easily take off.

What makes the Albanian story and behavior unique are some very simple yet very meaningful facts: Every Albanian Jew survived the Holocaust; Every Greek, Yugoslav, Austrian and German Jew, who was lucky enough to get into Albania proper, also survived; No instance was found where an Albanian accepted compensation for hiding Jews; The importance of Albania as a Jewish sanctuary is demonstrated by the fact that less than 10 percent of the neighboring Yugoslavia’s Jews survived the Holocaust, a situation of equal proportions happened in Greece as well; and finally, like no other occupied country, Albania had more Jews within its border at the end of the war than at the beginning.

The Jews during Communist Albania: With the end of the war, in a world free of Nazis, many Jews chose to move from Albania. Only some 200 Jews that stayed behind the iron doors that the Albanian communist regime decided to shut just after the end of the war. The Albanian Jews, like all other Albanians, immured in what proved to quickly become an insane world, tried like everybody else to survive, particularly by ensuring not to attract attention. The word and the reality of the Holocaust did not exist in Communist Albania.

Requests from the Sate of Israel to the communist authorities to let Jews emigrate were met with unclear responses. As a rule a paranoid regime would never let its citizens leave the country. Jews would wait for the fall of the Albanian communist regime in the early 1990s, to leave the country. They carried with them their memories, which will later become part and be graved at Yad Vashem.

In 1987, Gavra Mandil, a Jew protected and saved by Albanian families, wrote to Yad Vashem and told his story. He wrote that he felt an obligation in the name of all those saved in Albania to pay tribute to the Albanian people and to his rescuers in particular. He added: “They may not have been educated on the heritage of Goethe and Schiller, but they attached the greatest importance to human life, in a most natural and understandable way“.

In 1987 Yad Vashem decided to recognize five members of the Veseli family as Righteous Among the Nations, the first Albanians to be recognized by Yad Vashem. Mandil wrote to the Albanian authorities asking them to allow Refik to travel to Israel and attend the ceremony. “In those days, when danger and death were all around, the small and brave Albanian people proved their greatness! Without any fuss and without asking anything in return, the Albanian people performed the elementary human duty and saved the lives of their Jewish refugees”, he wrote.

The world knew little or nothing about the extent of Albanian efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust but the story begun uncovering in the early ‘90. First through efforts by the then US Congressmen Tom Lantos and Joseph DoiGuardi, the first US officials to go Albania after half a century, who uncovered important documents, and later, in 1995, with the help of US Congressmen Lantos and Gilman, the Albanian American Foundation worked with the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, to add Albania to the “Righteous among Nations” section of the museum.

How to understand the Albanian attitude: Many find the explanation of this exceptional human behavior of the Albanian people in their ancient cultural heritage. Kanun, a set of unwritten laws, rules and moral codes has been the legal and social mechanism, which has regulated the life of Albanian people from early Middle Ages to the modern times. The whole idea of Kanun is based on the concept of honor. One of the pillars of the Kanun, is Besa – “the given word or oath” – which confers an absolute certainty that what has been promised will be delivered. It means and confers faith to his neighbor, to a friend, a stranger, even to your enemy if he came to knock on your door, to protect him at every cost. However, whoever would see in this behavior only an automatic and blind execution of ancestry rules would fatally miss to understand a deep sense of pride and honor, a willingness to care for the other, a profound sense of hospitality, the readiness to help at any cost, these precious human values as a best way of communication with everyone, a friend, a guest, a stranger.

In Albania, here in the Un as well as in Israel, we honor the exceptional courage of the Righteous and Gentile, and rightly so. But “What is fundamentally different about the Albanian story”, as pointed out by Randi Winter, a Jewish writer who has helped document stories of rescue, “is that Jews weren’t rescued in secret by the exceptional good persons. Entire villages knew about Jews in their midst, and no one turned them in”. This is the very exceptional behavior of an entire society, whatever their social class, their origin, religion or beliefs.

Hospitality is a traditional Albanian virtue. But in Albania involves also sacrifice. “Mik” in Albanian has a dual meaning: “friend” and “guest”, to be received, welcomed and honored, as meaningfully explained by an Albanian American professor, Sami Repishti in his comprehensive study, “The Jews in Albania – a Story of Survival”. “There are no foreigners in Albania, there are only guests”, would rightly write Harvey Sarner in “Rescue in Albania”. All stories of Albanian Righteous would spell out the same fundamental: “We saved Jews because, in accordance with our faith, rules and tradition, this is what we felt it was the right thing to do.”

In concluding, I would have only one word to say about all this, like every other citizen of my country: We are proud of them, proud of their action, proud of their courage and the so many lives that they have saved. This is the truth. It needs to be known and it needs to be recognized.

“Whosoever saves a single life saves an entire universe” is written in the Mishnah.

Many Albanians did. Thank you.

(A version of the lecture “Who are the Albanians” read by the Ambassador Ferit Hoxha, Permanent Representative of Albania to the United Nations during an event held by the Institute of the Human Rights at the Kean University, New Jersey on November 14th, 2013.)

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