The Righteous Ones

Author: Linda Bachrack

 For Van Christo, president of the Frosina Foundation, an organization dedicated to the needs of Albanian-Americans, a casual comment led to extensive research of Albanian history. In 1975, Christo hosted a National Public Radio program titled “The Albanians.” A panelist on the show remarked that “Albania saved its Jews during World War II.”

“It was an astonishing statement,” says Christo, “but details were rather sketchy because of the uncommunicative posture of the Albanian communist government.”

Christo subsequently met American author and attorney Harvey Sarner, who had written a booklet titled The Jews of Albania. After finding out that Albanian Muslims and Christians risked their own lives to shelter Jews during Nazi German occupation of Albania, Sarner made it his life’s work to know more about their extraordinary humanitarian deeds.

With the advent of democracy in 1991, almost all of Albania’s Jews emigrated to Israel, and it was there that Sarner learned of their heroic rescue. In 1992 in Israel, Sarner arranged a reunion between the Albanian Jews and their rescuers (the Albanian Righteous). He also sponsored an Albanian-Muslim, Ledio Veseli, to attend a university in the United States.

But he didn’t stop there. Sarner was so impressed by the obvious warmth between seemingly disparate peoples that he was compelled to write a chronicle, Rescue in Albania (Brunswick Press, $15).

During ceremonies unveiling the names of Albanian protectors on its “Rescuer’s Wall” at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., Museum Director Miles Lerman declared, “Albania was the only country in Europe which had a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than before it.”

Why did the Albanians risk their lives for the Jews? Sarner says, “It was their moral code, the Code of Leke Dukagjini, which is not based on religion. It’s based on the golden rule that you die first before you hand over a houseguest. All of the people knew that the Jews were being hidden, but not one told the Germans about them.

“For them, it was their duty,” he says. “In fact, after the war, the Albanians sought out the Jews to give them back their valuables and property.”

Sarner’s book is dedicated to the memory of Josef Jakoel, the head of the Jewish community in Albania whom he calls “a 20th-century Moses who took his people to the Promised Land.”

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