Yesterday, Prime Minister Edi Rama addressed the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum. Having previously met with the organization on several occasions in Tirana and Jerusalem, Rama discussed Albania’s part in the rescue of Jews from Nazi invaders during World War II.
Also on the agenda was the issue of the current resurgence of antisemitism in Europe, relations between the US and Israel, Albania’s EU membership aspirations and security challenges posed by Iran.
During World War II, Albania was the only Nazi-occupied country that saw its Jewish population increase. Albanian families took in Jewish people, gave them ‘Albanian’ names to hide their heritage, and sheltered them in their homes and communities. In Berat, where there has been a Jewish community for hundreds of years, Albanian Muslims even let Jewish people worship in the local mosque. In fact, a Star of David can still be seen today on the walls of the city’s main Islamic place of worship.
Today, the Jewish Quarter of Berat still remains although it is in need of investment and development. Most Jewish people have left Albania for Europe or Israel, but the legacy still remains. In Berat, you can visit the Solomon Museum, the country’s only Jewish museum dedicated to the history of Judaism in Albania. It was previously the life’s work of local Albanian man Simon Vrusho but after his passing in 2019, it has been moved to a new location and is open all year round.
Rama told the AJC that the Albanian people’s treatment of the Jewish population was “a shining moment in our history” and an “essential story of humanity”.
One of the reasons for the kind treatment of Jewish people was the Albanian tradition of ‘besa’. This code requires Albanians to be generous in their hospitality, honour, and respect. It also requires that guests are treated well and if they need help, assistance, or accommodation, it is provided for them.
In a world where significant tension exists between Muslim and Jewish communities, the Albanian example is something quite extraordinary.
To date, 75 Albanian families have been recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Amongst the Nations for the hospitality they gave to Jewish families during this time. In fact, following the devastating 26 November earthquake that claimed 51 Albanian lives, a Jewish organisation funded the reconstruction of one family’s home that was destroyed.
Muhamet, a Muslim, is the son of Mefail who sheltered some 20 Jewish families from fascist forces. In 2007, he received on behalf of his family the Anti Defamation League’s Courage to Care Award. Both he and his father were also recognised in 1996 by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations- the country’s award for non-Jews who put their lives at risk to save Jewish people during the holocaust.
During the meeting, Rama also spoke about the increase in antisemitism in Europe. He called it “one of the strongest signs of alarm for everyone” and said it was occurring in countries where you would not expect it.