Author: Dr. Anna Kohen
I’m honored to be here today commemorating the biggest tragedy of our nation, the Holocaust. We are also here to celebrate one of the aspects of human behavior — that of helping each other in time of need. We look back on these dark times of civilization with tearful eyes and broken hearts trying to find lighter moments to ease the pain.
Every tradegy has its own good side. It brings people together regardless of race, color, or religion. It tries to restore hope in their victim’s soul and attempts to heal the wounds inflicted on them by their fellow humans. The Holocaust is not only going to be remembered for the millions of lives that perished into the flames of hatred, it will also be remembered for the humanity of others helping the Jews.
There is a small country in the heartland of Europe called Albania where I was fortunately born, where hospitality to foreigners is part of their tradition. During the Second World War, not only did the Albanians save all the Jews who were living among them but they dared to share their homes, their food and their lives with them. Albania has its share of Oscar Shindlers, and, indeed, so many that we could never have thanked each glorious one of them.
Let us be reminded that not one – not one – of the Jews living in Albania, or those who sought refuge there were turned over to the fascists — all found a safe haven at great danger to their protectors.
My family was one of many who were saved. I’m not a survivor but a child of survivors, born in Vlora in southern Albania. My parents, Nina and David Kohen, came from Janina, Greece. They were living in Vlora when the Nazis invaded Albania. They fled to the mountains and hid in a small Muslim village called Trevlazer. They took Muslim names, my father David became Daut, my mother Nina became Bule, and my brother Elio became Ali. Everyone in the village knew they were Jews but not one person betrayed them.
I had a very interesting experience that I would like to share with you: when I was about 5 or 6 years old, I was walking down the street with my mother, and I heard someone shouting, “Bule, Bule!!!” I turned my head to see what was going on, and this woman was running towards us. She ran to my mother and started to kiss and hug her with tears streaming down her face. Later on, my mother told me that she was one of the women from the Muslim village that had saved her life. Other Jews were hiding in people’s houses. As you can see, the Albanian people risked their lives for the Jews. I would not be here today delivering this speech if it were not for the courage and generosity of those Albanians.
Until the year 1990, little was known about Albania and the Albanian Jews but when things began to change in the country, an Israeli photographer, Gavra Mandil, remembered the Veseli family who saved his life. Gavra Mandil had taken refuge in Albania after the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia, and the Veseli family saved him. He invited Refik Veseli to Israel, and, for the first time, an Albanian Muslim was honored with the title Righteous Gentile. As a matter of fact, if you look at the calendar in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, on the second page in the month of February, is a picture of Gavra Mandil and Refik Veseli. Since then, more and more Righteous Albanians were discovered and honored in Israel. A list of all of their names is posted in the museum.
On behalf of the Albanian Jews living in Albania, Israel, and America, I would like to give a message to the Albanian people and the Righteous Gentiles: thank you for saving us, we will never forget you.
As Apostol Kotani says in his recent book, The Hebrews of Albania During Centuries, “Sikur te kisha krahe e te fluteroja do te veja te puthja token Shqipetare qe me shpetoj jeten. / If I could have wings to fly, I would come to kiss the holy Albanian land which saved my life.” Thank you.