By Mal BERISHA*/
It is a great honour and a privilege for me today to be here and speak about a remarkable story of longstanding relations between the Albanian Nation and the Jewish Community in my country, Albania. This relationship is a case study, not only because every life of the Albanian Jews was saved in Albania, during the time of Holocaust but also because the number of Jews, who were fleeing Europe, sheltered and saved in Albania, was doubled and tripled during the W.W.II.
The history of Albanian – Hebrew relations goes back at the time of Romans and continues to be strong, peaceful, and excellent in the course of centuries. There is no pogrom, crime, offense, persecution whatsoever, performed by Albanians as a native population in their country against the Jews in more than two thousand years since the first Jewish settlement is recorded in the country. There are signs of Jewish presence in Albania, such as a Basilica of 5th century BC in the south-western city of the country, Saranda, a large archaeological excavated area of one of the biggest synagogues of the Balkan region. There are some very well-known Jews who have been related to Albania such as Sabatai Zvi, a famous traveller Nathans of Gaza, Albert Einstein, Herman Bernstein, etc.
In 1930 the United States assigned an Ambassador in Albania named Herman Bernstein – who was a Jew. Born in Lithuania, he had covered the Soviet Revolution for the New York Times. He took a serious interest on the Jewish History in Albania. Among things that he learned and discovered there was the Life of the Messiah False, Sabattai Zvi. In the Middle of the 17th century a soothsayer born in Izmir, Turkey known as Sabbatai Zvi proclaimed he was the Messiah and convinced thousands of Jews to sell their belongings and go with him to the Promised Land. His story goes on and on but finally he perished in Albania, interned by the sultan where he established a very liberal Muslim – Jewish sect named Bektashi which is still in existence in that country. He died in 1673 as the most famous non-Albanian Jew in Albanian’s history.
There are many newspapers that have published articles about a possibility that Albert Einstein was provided with an Albanian Passport when he left Europe for the United States. It was said that he went to Albania, got the passport and the US Visa and after 3 days he travelled to the United States. There are many Albanians who have given testimony about this fact. However, no records were found about this interesting fact. It might have been concealed for security reasons of that time. This fact makes Albanians also very proud for what they have done.
It is estimated that in the beginning of 1930, Albania had about 1000 Jews located mainly in Vlora, Durresi, Tirana, Berat and Elbasani. In 1945 this number was about 3000. The Jewish population increased in Albania three times while in Europe it was reduced in millions. In Greece for example, the majority of them were consigned to the Germans. Why did Albanians save everyone, contrary to what was happening all over Europe? This is what I would like to explain.
When the Nazi Germans started to persecute Jews in Europe, it was the Albanian King, Ahmet Zogu who instructed all his Consular Missions to grant a visa to every Jew, who, despite the fact that his or her passport had a sign “J” for “Jew” stamped on it, should be allowed to enter Albania for an indefinite period of stay. From 1937 to the end of the war a big number of Jews entered and were sheltered in Albania, staying there or making their way out to other safe countries.
Albania is the only country in Europe where no life of a Jew was lost, no Jew was handed over to the Nazis. They were all sheltered by Albanians simply who pursued BESA, their Code of Honour. There was no government in place, to force them to do that, but they did it and they did not offer asylum to persecuted Jews for monetary gains either..
There are 69 Albanians remembered in the Row of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.. To better understand why that miraculous behaviour was performed by Albanians it is necessary to explain the most, special, rare, righteous tradition of Albanians which stands above any other moral value and is named BESA.. It is the fundamental part of the Kanun. The Kanun is a very old code among the Albanian society. According to this Code/Kanun explains: “The house of an Albanian belongs to God and to the guest” Every hour of the day and night, a man must be ready to receive a guest with bread, salt, and an open heart. He must offer him a bed, a pillow and a worm hearth. To the delight of the Jewish refugees seeking shelter among Albanians – many of whom were Muslims – from the Nazi killing machine “Guest” meant guests in the country as well guest in the house. Everyone can see himself as a good man when he is addressed as a man of honour.” A man must defend his guest’s honour even if he endangers his own life in doing so.”
A few case studies should suffice to show how the strong influence of BESA made Albanians offer shelter between 1930 and 1945 to many Jewish Refugees that tried to survive the Nazi persecution. BESA influenced Albanians of the different religions with a majority of Muslims to provide secret shelters for a large number of Jewish Refugees between 1930 and 1945.
Moshe Mandili and his 7 member family were among 120 Jews who travelled from Belgrade to Albania during the Italian occupation that started in 1938. They stayed in Tirana at the Refik Veseli’s Family while Italians were there. Later on, in 1943, Albania was occupied by Germans. Refik Veseli took them to his parent’s house in a village. There, they stayed one year. When they felt that Germans were coming to chase them, they were taken to a cave and saved. This host family took all the risks.
Sulo Mecaj was a farmer in Kruja and lived with his wife and son in a small house he built with his father. In 1943 he opened his house to ten Jews, members of the Battino family. When Sulo received a message that the Germans were going to his house looking for Jews, he told the Jews that when he gives a signal, they should go to the space that he had prepared for them in the attic. Panic surfaced and Sulo tried to reassure the Jews that it was unlikely they would be discovered. One Jew asked, what would happen if the Germans will set the house on fire. To reassure them, Sulo asked his only son to go to the attic with them and suffer their fate if the house is set on fire. Sulo had no choice. It was a matter of honour.
In 1943, the Germans asked the Albanian authorities to summon the Jewish Leaders to present a list of Jews living in Albania. That was the first step to collect them and transfer them to concentration camps. At that time Albania was ruled by Albanians who were forced to comply with the German orders. However, when the Albanian Quisling government signed the initial agreement with the German invaders they included the following provision: “The Germans have no rights to intervene into internal affairs of Albania”. Rafael Jakoel an Albanian Jew was summoned to turn up at the Minister of the Interior Xhaferr Deva who served the Germans. In spite of this he was first of all an Albanian. Rafael was very scared expecting he would be asked to provide a list of the Jews that were sheltered. To his pleasant surprise the Minister told him that he had called him only to
me: Please, handcuff me! Here! Here I am! I cannot, no, I cannotThe Minister was shocked and asked him Why are you doing this? You are not summoned to be arrested here! Yes, Rafael said, but I would rather get handcuffed and executed, than report my compatriots. The Minister pointed out:” No, you don’t have to do this. I summoned you to say, please tell your people to keep a low profile. We have an agreement with the Germans not to intervene to our internal affairs. The Jewish issue in this country is an internal issue. So go, be careful and stay safe! We will never hand over our Jews, neither those who were always here, nor those who took shelter in recent years.
Albanians have a rich and sometimes tragic history. But in their long history of relations with neighbours, invaders, guests, sojourners, minorities, people in need, the story how they saved 100 per cent of Jews during the time of Holocaust is like a jewel in their crown.
Finally I want to quote the memories of one of the Jewish survivor, Irene Grubman:
““Farewell, Albania, I thought. You have given me so much hospitality, refuge, friends and adventure. Farewell, Albania. One day I will tell the world how brave, fearless, strong, and faithful your sons are; how death and the devil can’t frighten them. If necessary, I’ll tell how they protected a refugee and wouldn’t allow her to be harmed even if it meant losing their lives. The gates of your small country remain open, Albania. Your authorities closed their eyes, when necessary to give poor, persecuted people another chance to survive the most horrible of all wars. Albania, we survived the siege because of your humanity. We thank you”.
This is why I wanted to share with you this wonderful story on this Memorial Day of the Holocaust.
* On the HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY 2013
SUNDAY, 20 JANUARY 2013
Speech presented by the London Albanian Ambassador