Ms. Francine Kiefers/
Editor of Op-Ed Page of The Christian Science Monitor/
By SAMI REPISHTI*/
-On October 8,in Berlin, capital of Germany, an elementary school located in the district of Friedrichheim-Kreuzberg, was given the name of Refik Veseli (1926-2002) of Kruje, Albania. The late Mr. Veseli was a professional photographer who saved two Jewish families from Nazi persecution during the World War II. His name is inscribed in the Yad Vashim Museum, Jerusalem, as “a Righteous among the Nations”, in a growing list of many Albanians honored for similar actions.
The late Mr. Veseli learned the art of photography from his Jewish “master” before the Nazi occupation of Albania (September,1943). At the risk of his and his family’s lives, he protected his benefactor’s Jewish family hiding them in the attic of his house, with the full approval of his large family, until the liberation of Albania, November 28, 1944. “There are no ‘foreigners’ in Albania, only guests. Our moral code, as Albanians, requires that we be hospitable to guests, in our homes and in our country”, he was quoted to have said.
The little known fact of Jewish people rescued by Albanians during World War II is now becoming public, mostly by those who were saved and their descendants.
The first publication by Harvey Sarner, Rescue in Albania (1997), has the subtitle “One hundred percent of Jews in Albania rescued from Holocaust”. Sarner wrote: “Even before World War II started, Albania was a haven for Jews escaping from the Nazis…”. Albanian Jews, as well as escaping foreign Jews, seeking refuge in Albania were protected and saved by both Albanian Moslems and Christians. It was a great example of humanity and religious tolerance, little known to the outside world due to the self-isolation policies imposed on that country by the Communist regime (1944-1991).
A formal recognition of this courageous deed was made with a statement by the Israeli President Ezer Weizman: “The Israeli people will never forget that during the difficult years of World War II, they found in the Albanian people protection and genuine hospitality”. In 1992, the first Israeli diplomat to visit Albania, Leon Taman, greeting the participants at the opening ceremony of the Albania-Israeli Friendship Association declared:” …The humanism displayed by your people is unparalleled.
While in Europe, six million of my Jewish countrymen were exterminated, in the poverty-stricken and suffering Albania not one of them was handed to the Germans.
This is genuine humanity and the world should know about it”.
Presently, numerous reliable sources have reached the conclusion that there was no victimization of Jews in Albania, there was no expulsion of Jews from Albania; and there was no cooperation with the Nazis in Albania on the “Final Solution”. As a result, Albania was the only occupied country in Europe to have a larger Jewish population after the Second World War than before. This is even more impressive
considering that Albania is a Balkan country, and that the neighboring Nedic Serbia declared, in Summer of 1942, to have completed the cleansing of that country from the Jews; and Greece, had rounded up and delivered to the Nazis most of the 75.000 strong Jewish community of Salonika. Many of those from Salonika and Ioannina, who escaped capture, found refuge and were saved in Albania.
The most commonly used explanation for this phenomenon is the Albanian traditional “Besa” (the promise, the pledge), considered by them as a matter of national pride and a social value which stands above wealth, prudence, or knowledge. It’s a voluntary commitment to keep the given promise without any reservation. The breaking of “Besa” is an individual as well as a collective dishonoring of self, family , and even “the tribe”- the extended patriarchal family. It is an irreversible downfall, and the culprit is often punished by his or her own people, a concept of shame that derives from a break of the custom-based law.
Hospitality of the “stranger in need” (in Albanian “mik” -guest) is a traditional virtue, and is perceived as being one step higher than “aid” or “assistance”, as it involves a freely accepted sacrifice. The surviving leader of the Albanian Jewish community, Joseph Jakoel, wrote:” Not only the doors did not remain closed to those who knocked, but we have many examples indicating that local people tried to find
those ‘fugitives’ and shelter them to save their lives”. (Recently, a film on “Besa”, an Albanian-Israeli cooperation, was shown in the theaters of New York City)
The protection of Jews by Albanians was unique, “sui generis”, but not an isolated act. A similar hospitality was also displayed by Albanians in the days of World War II towards the Greek refugees caused by the Italian-Greek conflict in 1940-41, the prisoners of the defeated Yugoslav Army in April 1941, the Italian soldiers who escaped German captivity in 1943-44, and more recently, the sheltering of the Kosovar refugees escaping Serbian “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovo, in 1998-99.
There was no history of anti-Semitism in Albania; no teaching of contempt, no blood libel cases, no Christ-killer identification, no pogroms, and no distribution of the Protocols of the Elderly of Zion, or any similar venomous phenomena of anti-Semitism. “ There is no trace of any discrimination against Jews in Albania because Albania happens to be one of the rare countries in Europe where religious prejudice
and hatred do not exist”, wrote the Jewish scholar Stephen Schwartz. He added:” The remarkable spirit of tolerance that has been the hallmark of the interfaith relations in Albania, has played a major role in the treatment and the position of the Jewry in Albania”.
A similar judgment was passed recently by Pope Francis, during his September visit to Albania. He brought to the world’s attention the warmth and the spontaneous atmosphere of the reception by a majority Moslem population that surprised the Pontiff., as he was welcomed with a sense of gratitude for his visit to Albania, his first in a European country. Before him, Pope Paul VI and especially
Pope John Paul II had stressed the strength of religious tolerance in Albania.
Speaking from Seoul, Korea, Pope Francis called on other nations to follow the
example of Albania, when the told the press:” I am going to Albania, …. because they have displayed a sense of maturity to have a government – and, let’s not forget, we are in the Balkans!- of national unity, Moslems, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholics, and they have set an Inter-religious Council which greatly assists the process, a well-balanced one. This is good, and harmonious. The Pope’s presence aims at declaring for all that for peoples of the world it is possible to work together. I felt the need to help this noble population…..”.
The well-informed Pontiff was aware of the statements made by his predecessors.
On April 28, 1968, Pope Paul VI praised the spirit of friendship and co-operation among the Albanians, saying: ”….You have made yourselves the forerunners of modern ecumenism!” Twenty-five years later, on April 25, 1993, visiting a liberated Albania in his effort to reconstruct the heavily persecuted Roman Catholic Church for 45 years by the Communist dictatorship, Pope John Paul II, greeted the grateful
masses of believers:”…My visit (to your country) hopes to be an encouragement to pursue the respect for all, and to continue on your well-known journey of peaceful co-existence, open cooperation, and understanding among the various ethnic, cultural and spiritual elements of your society”.
It is not by chance that the national hero of the predominantly Moslem Albanian population is George Kastrioti, known as Skenderbeu, a Catholic knight, defender of Christianity against the advancing armies of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. Today, the most revered person among the Albanians is the Catholic nun, a sister of charity, Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Even here, in New York City, on November 2, 1997,
during a Solemn Mass in her honor, held at the Saint Patrick Cathedral, one of the main speakers was an Albanian Moslem Imam, praising a Catholic nun, to the surprise of several hundred worshippers looking on in disbelief.
A unique phenomenon in our troubled world! A splendid example of peaceful co-existence and religious tolerance. And, as Pope Francis put it: ”…do not forget that we are in the Balkans”, not far from Srebrenica, a tomb of Western civilization’s values.( November 6, 2014)
Sami Repishti , Ph.D. (French:1977) The Graduate Center of C.U.N.Y. is a retired educator. He is the author of several books, mostly on Albanian subjects and human rights. More recently, he wrote an Essay : ”Jews in Albania- A Story of Survival” published in “The Holocaust: Documents and Essays”, Ed. R.L,Braham (Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies: C.U.P, 2009).
Presently, he and his family live in Ridgefield, CT