The architect behind Tirana’s Holocaust memorial has spoken about the project, including his motivation for doing it, and why he charged nothing to complete it.
Stephen Jacobs is known for his multi-million dollar creations including the Hotel Gansevoort in New York and various other large-scale, luxury projects. He is also a Holocaust survivor and has already created two Holocaust memorials in Europe.
Upon learning that Albania was the only country in Europe that had more Jewish people after WWII than before, as well as refusing to hand over Jews to the Nazi’s, he agreed to create the memorial in Tirana.
The Memorial was unveiled last month and sits at the entrance to the Grand Park of Tirana. It consists of three plaques in English, Albanian and Hebrew that highlight the stories of Albanians who saved Jews during the war.
Jacobs said “For me, this is not about designing, this is a sort of personal experience. This was a story that needed to be told.”
The architect was born in the Polish city of Lodz- a city which was home to the first Nazi ghetto. The ghetto, home to 25,000 people was liquidated in 1942. Jacobs was five at the time he and his family were sent to concentration camps
He found himself at Buchenwald and managed to survive with the help of an underground resistance that worked to save young people in the camps. He worked in a shoemaker’s shop which helped him to avoid daily roll calls that would have likely resulted in him being killed due to his young age.
“I have fleeting memories,” Jacobs said. “I have memories that are not chronological, particularly the last few weeks because that was a very traumatic and dangerous time because they were trying to liquidate the camp.”
Thankfully, his family survived their time in the camps and they fled to Switzerland after their liberation. He then went on to become a prominent New York architect in collaboration with his wife Andi Pepper.
He was then commissioned to create a memorial for Buchenwald. He agreed on the condition that he wouldn’t be paid.
In terms of the Tirana monument, he said it was less emotionally draining on him.
“Albania, of course, was more remote because I wasn’t there. I didn’t know much about Albania before. I certainly didn’t know the story,” Jacobs said.
During WWII, some 2000 Jewish people sought refuge in Albania and were protected by the local population. They were sheltered in Albanians’ homes, sometimes even given local names to hide their identity and others were hidden in mountain communities, away from advancing enemy forces.
There were many Jewish people in the city of Berat and there still exists a “Jewish Quarter” which has now been vacated, along with a Jewish Museum, and a Star Of David in the local Mosque, where Jewish people were allowed to worship during the war. Vlora is also home to a small Jewish quarter that has been recently restored.