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How Albania Saved Jews

It’s a heartwarming, little-known story that took place in one of humanity’s darkest hours. For 50 years, it lay buried in the hearts of the survivors and their rescuers, while a repressive Communist regime that seized power in Albania at the end of World War II sealed the country off from the outside world.

Then, in the early 1990’s, after the fall of Communism, as the country began to break out of decades of isolation, a remarkable story began to surface of how ordinary Albanians had saved their Jewish countrymen from the Nazis. They had also sheltered hundreds of desperate Jewish refugees fleeing Germany, Austria, Greece and lands. Despite the Nazis’ brutal occupation of Albania, not a single Jew had been turned over by the citizens of that country.Some of the Albanian rescuers had been honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. But it wasn’t until a retired New York investment banker turned photographer began exploring the story’s deeper dimensions that Albania’s finest hour was fully unveiled.  
 
Norman Gershman spent six years meeting, photographing and recording more than 60 families in Albania who helped saved the lives of more than 2000 Jews. His photos have been compiled in the book, BESA: Albanian Muslims who Saved Jews during World War II, published in 2008. They also form the basis of a unique documentary.
 
The display has been exhibited internationally, including at the United Nations and Yad Vashem, and was recently shown in New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage and in Jewish libraries and museums in other states. The message is unmistakable: had other nations and governments shown even a glimmer of the humanity and compassion that defined the Albanians, the Nazi juggernaut might well have been stopped.
 
Albania, a predominantly Muslim country, “was one of the only European countries that had more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning of the war,” said Michael Berenbaum, former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
 
In stark contrast, Hitler’s war against the Jews was staggeringly successful in most of Europe, with the lone exceptions of Denmark and Bulgaria. We are familiar with the mind-numbing numbers of those deported, gassed, mass-murdered: 90 percent of Poland’s three million Jews were annihilated; the same proportion in Latvia, Lithuania and the Netherlands; 77 percent of Greece’s 70,000 Jews; 1,100,000 Russian Jews. And on and on.
 
ANCIENT CODE OF HONOR INSPIRED ALBANIANS
 
What motivated ordinary Albanians to put their lives on the line to hide and shelter its tiny Jewish community, when most of Europe was eager to assist the Nazis in the extermination of their Jewish neighbors?
 
The striking difference in Albania, historians say, was rooted in an ancient code of honor called “besa,” obligating one to open one’s door to those in need, and to offer shelter and protection even at the risk of one’s life.
 
“It involves uncompromising protection of a guest, even at the point of forfeiting one’s own life,” wrote the New York Times in an article documenting the Albanian rescue story.
 
Under besa, Albanians took Jews into their homes, treated them as family, fed and clothed them, and sacrificed their own safety and the safety of their families for the sake of their guests.
 
The Times article noted that Albania today is seeking membership in the European Union, but is encountering resistance due to its history of ingrained corruption under communism. Albanians must first show good faith measures in cleaning up their government, EU spokesmen say.
 

The Holocaust-era story of Albanian heroism in the face of Nazi brutality may help the country’s image, showing that Albanians honor their promises.

 

The story of the rescue, said Ferit Hoxha, the Albanian ambassador to the United Nations, shows that “although we were closed off under one of the fiercest Communist regimes, this nation’s people are noble and as able to deliver with courage as anyone else in Europe.”

 

According to Hoxha, besa is woven into Albanian society. When Albania’s King Zog – then Europe’s only Muslim ruler – instructed his country’s foreign embassies to provide visas to Jews and for guards to allow entry to those arriving at the border, he said the population was fulfilling a moral obligation.

 

“There are no foreigners in Albania,” the king said, according to Hoxha. “Only guests.”

 

“The gem of this story is that Albania, which is predominantly Muslim, took in refugee Jews when almost all other countries rebuffed them,” said historian Deborah Dwork in a CBS News interview. Dwork is the author of a book about Jewish refugees during World War II.

 

“Europe 1938, ‘39, ‘40, even ‘41, we see it as a totally closed universe,” she said. “Jews in that closed universe were looking desperately for holes, for openings. People began to whisper: ‘If you get to Albania, you will be safe.’”

 

“Safe, because of besa, a cornerstone of Albanian culture,” said Dwork. “It has to do with a certain sense of honor, an honor code that they take very seriously. It’s not simply to give someone a bed for a night, a hot meal. It’s really to offer protection, full protection. They judged themselves by that code, and they also knew that their neighbors judged them by that code.” 

 

‘ALL JEWISH CHILDREN WILL SLEEP WITH YOUR CHILDREN’

 

When the Nazis occupied Albania in September 1943, wresting power from their more lenient Italian allies, the prime minister of Albania was Medi Frasheri, a member of a liberal Muslim sect called Bektashi. He refused to release the names of Jews to the Nazi occupiers. He organized an underground of all Bektashi to shelter all the Jews, both citizens and refugees.

 

Frasheri gave a secret order: “All Jewish children will sleep with your children, all will eat the same food, all will live as one family.”

 

Around the same time, two Jews, Rafael Jakoel and his brother-in-law, met with the interior minister in Tirana, who showed them a list of Jews the Germans had asked to turn over. Nevertheless, the tradition of besa was so forceful that he did not turn over the list, Jakoel’s daughter told the NY Times.

 

Another native Albanian, Mr. Alickaj, now a New York travel agent, recalled in an interview with the Times, that his father was executive secretary of the municipality of Decan in Albania. Using popular Muslim names, he issued false identifications to allow refugee Jews to travel to Albania. He too was asked by the Nazi occupiers for a list of Jews but insisted there were none.

 

Alickaj’s friend, Arsllan Rezniqi, a grocer, owned a truck that picked up fruit and vegetables from Macedonia. Hearing about worsening conditions for Jews in Macedonia, he transported 400 Jews over the border to safety in Decan.

 

Rezniqi’s great-grandson, Leka Rezniqi, 28, a television news anchor in Kosovo, said in a telephone interview with the NY Times that his “great-grandfather even built a house in the garden as a shelter for refugees. Albanian neighbors knew Jews were hiding on the property and never exposed them.”

 

“They knew that Arsllan Rezniqui gave them besa so he could not be betrayed,” said his great-grandson.
 
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ADAPTED FROM TESTIMONIALS RECORDED ON THE BESA DOCUMENTARY, PRODUCED BY JMW.

 

A PROMISE KEPT

 

Rexhep Hoxha lives in Albania’s capital city of Tirana with his wife and two children. He was born after the war, at a time when religion was strictly outlawed under the communist regime. Rexhep said he grew up watching his father practice his Muslim faith in secret.

 

When he was in his teens, his father told him about another secret. He had rescued a Jewish family during the Holocaust and was still safeguarding three “sacred Hebrew books” left behind by the Jewish family he had protected for six months during the war.

 

When the family fled Albania, they asked Rexhep’s father to keep the prayer books. To carry them was dangerous and would give them away as Jews. They hoped to return for them one day. But Rexhep’s family never saw them again.

 

Rexhep promised his father before he died that he would find the family and return the books. But after many decades under the iron grip of the regime which outlawed all contact with the West, Rexhep had all but given up hope of being able to carry out his promise.

 

Then, several years after the fall of communism, Rexhep met Norman Gershman who was researching the Albanian rescue story. He related the story about the Jewish family his father had sheltered during the war and showed him the siddurim. “Can you help me find the Jewish family?” he asked hopefully.

 

Gershman and his crew launched inquiries in Israel and eventually located the family. With their help, Rexhep made arrangements to fly to Israel and to deliver the siddurim in person. Gershman was on hand to film that long-anticipated, emotional moment on both sides.

 

SOLE HOPE FOR SURVIVAL

 

Yehoshua Baruchowic stood watching the Nazi’s trucks roll into his hometown, Pristina, and trembled with fear. The year was 1941. He had already been assigned to forced labor and made to wear a Star of David on his shirt. “I don’t want to die,” he cried out silently, sensing impending doom.

 

The boy made the wrenching decision to leave his family and flee to Italian-occupied Albania, clutching to what he felt was his only hope of survival. To his amazement, he was embraced and given shelter along with other Jewish refugees.

 

Even though it was illegal for him to work under the fascist regime, Yehoshua found a job as an assistant to an Albanian dentist, Dr. Jidar, who took him in. Eventually he joined the Albanian Resistance as a partisan. Both he and his brother fought for Albania’s freedom, suffering wounds in battle.

 

The Italians surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, and immediately the Nazis stormed in to Albania. Yehoshua and some of his fellow partisans were rounded up and questioned by Nazi troops, told their papers were not in order and herded to a police station. Yehoshua slipped some money to a guard, pleading to go to the toilet. Once out of sight, he dashed away.

 

Heart thudding, he made his way to a tavern owned by Ali Pashkaj, pleading for help. Ali instructed him to hide in a certain place up in the mountains, and said he would come for him later. Yehoshua raced through the woods and found the spot, lay down and covered himself with branches. Throughout the night, he trembled in terror of being found.

 

Meanwhile, Ali invited in the Nazis looking for Yehoshua and got them drunk. The next morning, they returned, furious that the Jew had gotten away. They took Ali out to the square and put a gun to his head, threatening to kill him and burn down the village if Ali didn’t tell them where the Jew was. Somehow he convinced them he knew nothing and miraculously, they left.

 

Ali immediately went to where Yeoshua was hiding. “I was sure he wouldn’t return, but he told me, ‘besa, besa,’ which means a promise,” Yehoshua recalled on the documentary.

 

Yehoshua lived with Ali’s family for the next two months. “If the Nazis found a Jew with a family, they would take cruel reprisals. Burn the house. Kill the owner. But Ali’s family never surrendered to fear.”

 

After the war ended, Yehoshua, the only one of a family of 13 children to survive the war, moved to Mexico and became a dentist. “Mother, father, sisters, brothers… I weep not only for myself, not only for my family, but for all six million people,” he said on the Besa documentary. “One million three hundred thousand were children. They all went up in ashes.”

 

Because of the decades of communism that sealed Albania from the world after the war, Yehoshua was never able to reconnect with Ali. But in 2007, he traveled to Yad Vashem to meet Ali’s son Enver at an exhibit of Norman Gershman’s portraits of Righteous Muslims.

 

LIFESAVING DOCUMENTS

 

In April of 1941, seven year-old Jasa Altarac was visiting his grandmother in Sarajevo for Pesach with his family and many relatives. Suddenly, the sound of Luftwaffe bombers sent the family dashing into the basement. The house took a direct hit.

 

“I remember flying in the air for some three floors and crashing down. My little sister, Lela, was found together with my grandmother. Dead.”

 

After a heartbreaking funeral, Jasa and his parents returned to Belgrade. The Germans had occupied the city, posting notices that whoever helps Jews will be shot dead. The Altarac family managed to flee to Kavaje, Albania.

 

In September of 1943, the Italians capitulated to the Allies and the Nazis prepared to occupy Albania to take power from the Italians Fascists. The Italian commander assembled the heads of the Jewish families and told them, ‘We are leaving town. You should know that we have destroyed all documents that show that you were here.’

 

At the same meeting, the mayor of Kavaje gave to every head of the family documents which said that they are citizens of Kavaje and are Muslim.

 

The Altarac family decided they would be safer in the bigger city of Tirana once the Nazi occupation force arrived. They were sheltered by the Toptani family. The Altarac family remembers celebrating Pesach with other Jewish families such as the Gershons, who were protected by their Albanian hosts.

 

There were many dangerous times during which the Nazis staged surprise raids for hidden Jews. “Terrified Jews would flee from one house to another, knocking on the door in the middle of the night,” Altarac recalled on the Besa documentary. “The Albanians would give them shelter. They would give them food. They would calm them down. ‘Be calm. Nothing will happen to you. We will guard you. They will kill us before they kill you.’”

 

After the war, the Altaracs moved to Israel. By then, Albania was under a Communist dictatorship and all contact with the West was prohibited. They were afraid to contact the Toptani family lest reprisals be taken against them.

 

In 1992, Jasa Altarac petitioned Yad Vashem to have the Toptani family listed as Righteous Among the Nations. In 2000, he petitioned to have the Frasheri family who had risked their lives for his friends, the Gershons, designated with the same honor.

 

UNDER THE NAZIS’ NOSES

 

Vehbi Hotiwas six years old when the Nazi trucks rolled into his family’s courtyard in Shkodra, Albania. It was September, 1943. Italy had capitulated to the Allies and the Nazis pushed in to Albania.

 

The Hotis’ large compound attracted the attention of the occupiers. They needed to situate their garrison and they requisitioned our property. My father and my uncle said yes, with no questions asked. We all knew about the cruelty of the Germans.

 

The courtyard where Vebhi and his brothers played ball soon filled with German soldiers, vehicles and munitions. Seven Italian prisoners of war were locked up in the chicken coop. The Nazi soldiers took over the ground floor of the family’s house. The Hotis all moved upstairs.

 

Shortly after, one of the cousins came to Vehbi’s father with an urgent request: A Jewish family from Pristina with four daughters was in need of shelter. Could they take in one of the girls?

 

“My father said we cannot say no to someone in trouble. Despite the danger we will take her in,” recalled Vehbi Hoti on the Besa documentary.

 

Rashela Lazar, 16 at the time, came to stay with the Hotis, right under the nose of the Nazis. Terrified of the beasts of prey surrounding her, she rarely ventured into the courtyard. In the face of certain death if Rashela were discovered, the Hoti family continued to protect her.

 

With the end of the German occupation in November 1944, Rashela was reunited with her family and shortly afterward moved to Israel. During the next half century, despite the communication blackout in Albania under the communists, the Hotis never forgot the girl they had sheltered.

 

Nor had she forgotten them.

 

One day in 1990 after the fall of the regime, Vebhi saw a newspaper article and heard a radio announcement about a Jewish woman looking for the Hoti family. It was Rashela. Overjoyed, they reestablished contact through the Albania-Israel Friendship Society.

 

“I finally went to Israel in 1998, on the 50th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel,” Mr. Hoti said on Gershman’s Besa documentary. “When we first saw each other, we both cried… So many memories… impossible to ever forget.”