A Matter of Humanity: The Rescue of Jews in Albania during the Holocaust

February 6, 2019Sandy Abramson

The United Nations 2019 Holocaust Remembrance Week focused on demanding and defending human rights around the world. Sandy Abramson serves as one of the WRJ representatives to the United Nations. She represents the organization in coalition and caucus meetings centered around our high priority social justice issues. The following piece is a recap of a UN event during the remembrance week.

I attended a moving UN briefing, where I learned about something totally new and astonishing! Jews who were living in Albania, and those from other countries in Europe who ended up there by some stroke of magic, all survived the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Between 1943 and 1944, the Germans controlled Albania, but no Jews were killed; by the end of the war, there were more Jews alive in Albania than before the war.     

As part of the UN’s Holocaust education program, the Department of Global Communications presented a panel of distinguished Albanians. They told of a chapter of history little known to the world.  They all believed that to tell this untold story now is crucial to stemming the rise of anti-Semitism and hatred that is coursing through our country and world. 

The Ambassador from the Republic of Albania to the UN outlined the amazing rescue of the Jews. She told how Albanians sheltered Jewish families, convincing the Germans that these people were family. Members of the Albanian Embassy made work visas and identification papers for those people who came from other countries. Entire villages knew about the Jews, and yet they did not betray them to the Nazis nor take any remuneration for helping them.

Why did the Albanians save the Jews?  The answer is BESA, the Albania ethical code of honor. It’s deeply rooted in Albanian tradition that one doesn’t betray a guest or neighbor. There are no foreigners in Albania, only guests. There has never been a history of anti-Semitism in Albania, a mostly Muslim country. It’s a matter of national pride to be able to help one’s fellow human being, and the Albanians saw this rescue as an opportunity to fulfill their duty. 

A daughter of survivors told her incredible story; another woman told how her father-in-law helped save his childhood friend, a young Jewish boy from the university, whom they hid until the liberation. Film clips from a film made by an Israeli woman were shown, following an Albanian woman émigré, who goes back to Albania to say thank you. A grandson of survivors, a college student at Duke University, told how he founded “Together We Remember,” a youth organization that creates exhibitions and remembrance vigils every April about genocide and other hate crimes. His group has gone to Cambodia, Zambia, Congo, Rwanda, Germany, and the US, displaying pictures of the Holocaust next to other examples of hatred and violence, as a way to teach tolerance. They’ve established a database of 14,000 victims of hatred and atrocities. Their goal is to empower one community at a time until “Never Again” is a reality.

Aside from the Albanians, Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, spoke about the rise of anti-Semitism in the US and around Europe. He felt there was a leadership vacuum in the world and quoted Elie Weisel. “The enemy of love is not hate, but indifference.” He said that we needed strong leaders to stand up to the perpetrators. He also faulted the UN for issuing more resolutions against Israel than to any of the truly terrorist countries. 

I came away feeling very emotional, but uplifted!       

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