Albania has marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day as it was the only country in the world to have more Jewish people living there at the end of WWII than at the start.
Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka spoke of her pride in how Albanians welcomed and sheltered Jewish people during the conflict.
“On this day of Holocaust remembrance, we honour the memory of the millions of innocent Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II. But as Albanians, we look at history and are proud of the fact that the Jews were welcomed, sheltered and saved from the tragedy by the Albanians, winning the title ‘The Righteous Among the Nations’” writes Xhaçka.
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.
The Accordion Player
Meanwhile, a Serbian professor and management consultant has pledged he will nominate two Albanian brothers as “Righteous Among the Nations” for rescuing him and his family during the Holocaust.
In a book, ‘The Accordion Player’, Ichak Kalderon Adizes details how his parents, grandmother, and he were stowed away in a remote Albanian village by two brothers, Ali and Rajib Brahimi. After a local Imam brought them to the village, the Jewish family pretended to be Muslim. They told villagers they were Bosnian Muslims who had different prayer traditions from them.
Holocaust and genocide specialist Stephen Smith told Jewish news that “the courage of the Muslim families who took life-threatening risks to give the Adizes family safety is truly inspiring. Yad Vashem has exacting standards for those recognized as Righteous Among the Nations and rightly so. I am hopeful that the family that gave shelter to the Azides family is recognized for all that they did to give this family the chance to survive and thrive.”
In 2020, Albania’s first Holocaust memorial was unveiled on 8 July.
Three rectangular stone slabs with the same message engraved in Albanian, English, and Hebrew serves as a place of remembrance and reflection.
“This memorial is to remember and honour the memory of the six million Jews of Europe that were murdered and the citizens of Albania who acted selflessly to protect the Jews when the world would not.”
During the ceremony, Israeli ambassador Noah Gal Gendler expressed gratitude towards the Albanian people for sheltering, hiding, and protecting about 2000 Jewish people during the Nazi occupation of Albania. He praised “the courageous actions of the Albanian people during the Holocaust, a resplendent act by a small country, that represents the values of humanity.”
The architect behind Tirana’s Holocaust memorial spoke 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 other large-scale luxury projects. He is also a Holocaust survivor and has already created two Holocaust memorials in Europe.
The architect was born in the Polish city of Lodz- a city that 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 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 became a prominent New York architect collaborating 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.
Jerusalem of the Balkans
In 2020, Geront Kureta, president of the Jewish community in Albania, thanked Albanians for their actions during WWII. He said that Tirana deserved the title of “Jerusalem of the Balkans” because of the religious harmony that characterizes it.
“Here, the Jews were saved thanks to the tolerance of the Albanian nation. We are proud of the tolerance, the harmony fostered here.
Sarajevo was once called the Jerusalem of the Balkans, with Orthodox Catholic churches standing alongside synagogues and mosques. Today, Tirana is the Jerusalem of the Balkans with religious harmony and coexistence,” he said.
In the same year, the Albanian government passed a resolution on
antisemitism. MPs Taulant Balla and Blerina Gjylameti urged the government to fight the phenomenon and take measures to fight it.
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which can be expressed as hatred of Jews. “Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed at Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, institutions and religious sites of the Jewish community.”
Albanians in the Holocaust
But it was not just Jewish people that were imprisoned in concentration camps. In 1943 and 1944, some 427 Albanians were sent to the camps, and only 23 returned.
There is now an exhibition taking place at the National History Museum which tells the story of some of those who ended up in Nazi Germany’s Mauthausen camp.
As a part of the project, DMO staff visited Mauthausen and conducted significant research. The result is a multimedia exhibition including photographs, testimonies, and documentaries from eight survivors.
The exhibition is open from 21 January until 31 January at the National History Museum in Tirana.
Exit previously brought you the story of one Albanian who was imprisoned in Mauthausen, cheated death, and upon liberation, waked from Austria to Albania only to then be imprisoned by Enver Hoxha.
Albania’s Jewish past
Rabbi Yisroel Finman, resident in Albania, told Exit that through discussions with historians, he had uncovered a lot of Jewish history in the country, predating WWII.
During the 18th Century, he said, there was a massive conversion to Islam from Judaism and Christianity.
“Look at 1600 years ago in Sarande- there is a synagogue from the 4th century. That whole area up to Vlora has Jewish history. Ioannina has had a Jewish community for 2000 years; why wouldn’t Albania have one as well?” he said.
“There is a strong history of Jews in the Balkans. After the Romans invaded Israel, hundreds of thousands of Jews were transported to Italy and the Balkans as enslaved people.”
One historian even told the Rabbi that in the national library of Istanbul is a book dating from the 18th Century. Written by an Ottoman, it provides a detailed account of Jewish history in Albania.
“We know there was a Jewish presence, but we don’t know how much. We need to find someone who can understand 17th and 18th Century Turkish!
On the topic of the Holocaust, Finman said that the Albanians “risked everything to save strangers”, something that is “truly remarkable”.
“There is something curious about the connection between Albanian Nation and the Jewish Nation. It’s not just that Albania wants our help, it’s that there seems to be a unique, soul affinity between the two peoples. There is a buried connection here; we need to unearth it- we need to pay the Albanian people back,” he concluded.