Salvation in Albania: Europe’s Holocaust haven emerges from behind the Iron Curtain

Author: Chana Shavelson (Reprinted from The Jewish Advocate, May 21-27, 1999)

BOSTON — As ethnic tensions fuel civil war in the southern province of Kosovo, and the faces of displaced refugees crowd out local media coverage, America is faced more fully with Albania and its history.  Some might have learned that the country has the distinction of being the poorest in Europe, and that its borders were closed until the ousting of the Communist dictatorship in 1990. Others will know that Mother Teresa’s family origins were from that small Balkan nation.

Few if any know that Albania is the only European country to boast a larger Jewish population after World War II than before, or that along with Denmark, Bulgaria, and Finland, it resisted Nazi demands to compile “lists” and hand over its Jews.

In a country that is 70 percent Moslem, Albania’s absolute heroism vis-a-vis its Jews becomes that much more extraordinary.  For not only did the country protect its own — not a single Jew was deported or killed in free Albania — it served as a haven for Austrian, Serb, and Greek Jews during the war as well. Neighboring Greece, by contrast, did comply with its Nazi occupiers and hand over lists — 90 percent of its Jews met their fates in concentration camps and the thriving Sephardic community of Salonika was decimated.

Van Christo, director of the Frosina Information Network, an Albanian immigrant and cultural resource based in Boston, reminds us that Albania’s Moslems are Bektashi, belonging to a liberal form of Islam begun in the 17th century when the Ottomans conquered the country.  The great Turkish kingdom converted Albania’s then Christian population to Islam “through perks, not enforcement,” says Christo, and so “there’s nothing fanatic about it (the Bektashi religion).”

Like religious moderation and tolerance, hospitality has long been part of the country’s make-up.  Together, these traits have created a region in which intermarriage — between Moslems and Christians as well as between Jews and non-Jews — has long been the norm.  According to Christo, people consider themselves “Albanians first and religious second.”

When the country therefore went out of its way to protect its Jews, both foreign and native born, during the Holocaust, in a sense it was protecting its countrymen as well as its guests.

Today, however, Albania’s Jewish community has been depleted, not by ethnic cleansing, but by the end of Communism.  Only 61 Jews remain. The rest left with Joseph Jakoel, “a modern Moses,” says Christo, who took his country’s 400-plus Jews to settle in Israel when the Iron Curtain fell.

Though a few Albanian Jews have resisted emigration, in a country with 35 percent unemployment and a government that still struggles with free-market and democratic reforms, most have chosen to leave for the “promised land.”

In Israel, the names of Albanian Moslem and Christian saviors of Jews join those of their Danish and Dutch counterparts as “Righteous Among the Nations” at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.  In Washington, D.C., many of the same names have been cast upon the “Rescuer’s Wall” at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

One American Jew, Harvey Sarner of Palm Springs, Calif. and London, England, was so moved to discover the sacrifices and risks of the Albanians during the war, that he made it his business to find out more about the country’s humanitarian deeds, and to write a book about it, entitled “Rescue in Albania.”

In Albania itself, however, apart from those who remember, there are few reminders of the people’s heroism.  Magdalena Shkurti, who with her husband Petro saved six members of a Jewish family in the southern town of Berat, remembers the refugees, now in Israel: “I loved them too much … I still worry about them when I hear of a bus bombing in Tel Aviv.”

Refik Veseli’s family, like most Albanians who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust, never considered taking money from those fleeing persecution.  They were guests, and his people’s code of honor made taking payment for hospitality impossible.  “We are still one family,” he explains, “even though they now all live in Israel.”

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