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Albania, the Jewish people and the Holocaust: a unique story of solidarity and courage


Albania is the only Nazi-occupied country that had a larger Jewish population after the Holocaust as compared to before. In this article, H.E. Ms. Adia Sakiqi, Ambassador of Albania to the Netherlands, recounts the efforts made by Albanians to rescue their Jewish brothers and sisters who faced persecution at the hands of Nazism.

Ambassador, could you provide us with some background on the historic relations between Albania and the Jewish people?

The Republic of Albania has always enjoyed excellent relations with Israel and the Jewish people. The history of the Jewish community in Albania dates back about 2,000 years, where the country was always considered a safe haven: the Jewish people have sought refuge in Albania three times, in the first century, in the 15th and 17th centuries, and have always been welcomed by the Albanian people.

How did this special relationship play out in the first half of the 20th century, when Jews came to be persecuted in many places across Europe?

In 1932, when anti-Semitism was widespread, Albania was the first country in Europe to recognize the right of the Jewish community to live in peace. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, many Jews found refuge in Albania. No accurate figures exist regarding their number; however, different sources estimate that 600-1,800 Jewish refugees entered the country from Germany, Austria, Serbia, Greece and Yugoslavia, in the hope to continue on to the Land of Israel or other places of refuge.[1] Following the German occupation in 1943, the Albanian population, in an extraordinary act, refused to comply with the occupier’s orders to turn over lists of Jews residing within the country’s borders. Moreover, the various governmental agencies provided many Jewish families with fake documentation that allowed them to intermingle amongst the rest of the population.

The Albanians not only protected their Jewish friends, but also provided sanctuary to Jewish refugees who had arrived in Albania, when it was still under Italian rule, and now found themselves faced with the danger of deportation to concentration camps. Many Albanian citizens of all religions, Christian Orthodox, Catholic, Bektashi and Muslims provided a safe haven for the fleeing Jews from other countries, even from the Netherlands as the Dutch author, Ms. Helene Wesselingh explains in her recent book “De belofte van de nakomeling”.[2] Jews found shelter in many Albanian households in cities, but when the threat grew too high from the occupying forces’ frequent checkpoints, many escaped to the remote mountains and pretended to be local shepherds. They were provided food and shelter by the local Albanians.[3]

This behavior explains the exceptionality of Albania, whose Jewish population increased throughout World War II, despite the persecution of Jews under Nazism…

Indeed. While counting only 200 Jewish families before the WWII, by the end of WWII, Albania was home to more than 2,000 people of the Jewish community. Albania it is thus, the only country that counted more Jewish population after World War II than before the war began.[4] It’s worth mentioning that only one European nation — Albania — can claim it had more Jews at the end of World War II than when the war started.

Has the effort of the Albanian people been recognized, internationally and in Israel?

At the international level, it was through former US Congressman Joe Di Guardi – who, together with Congressman Tom Lantos, after 1990 was the first to chair the Human Rights Committee in the US Congress, and who visited Albania – that the fact that every Jewish person who passed on Albanian soil during the Nazi occupation escaped the Holocaust was first recognized.

As for the recognition in Israel, Albania appreciates the inclusion of Albania’s contribution to the protection of Jews in Israeli high school curriculum, which will help younger generations recognize it and appreciate it, contributing to the continuation and consolidation of friendship between the two countries. For this contribution, the Raul Wallenberg Foundation decorated Albania as the “House of LIFE”, a unique example in the world and the Albania’s role was included in Israeli high school curriculum.[5]

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism continues to be an issue as of today. What is Albania currently doing to fight this plague?

Under the auspice of the Albanian Chairmanship of the OSCE, on 4-5 February 2020, in Tirana, was held the High-Level Conference on the Fight against Anti-Semitism in the OSCE region. It was attended by official delegations from OSCE participating States, representatives of international organizations, diplomatic community, civil society, etc. This conference provided a good opportunity for dialogue and discussion between the participants on current challenges and good practices related to the fight against anti-Semitism, examining the possibilities of interaction between the participating OSCE states, and promoting tolerance and non-discrimination.

During the conference, Prime Minister of Albania Mr. Edi Rama, said that our small country has a lot to show to the OSCE countries about the values and the people who saved the Jewish people, making for a great example. PM Rama has called on everyone to say “never again” to anti-Semitism and to rise up against it in every environment, as the way out can be achieved only when people show solidarity and when governments promote fundamental human rights and freedoms.[6]

In October 2020, the Albanian Parliament, in partnership with the Movement Against Anti-Semitism and the Agency for Jews of Israel, organized the first Balkan Forum Against Anti-Semitism.[7]  Guests and special speakers at the Forum were high level government officials from Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Israel, as well as the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and European Parliament President David Sassoli, the United Nations High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations Miguel Engel Moratinos, United States Senator for Nevada, Mrs. Mr. Jacklyn Rosen, United States Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism Mrs. Elan S. Carr, President of the Center for Jewish Influence Robert Singer, President of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Mr. Isaac Herzog, Chairman of the Board of the Congress of Eurasian Jews, Mr. Aaron Frenkel, as well as activists in the global fight against anti-Semitism.

In July 2020, an inauguration ceremony was held for the new Holocaust Memorial established in Tirana. The ceremony was attended by the Prime Minister of Albania, Mr. Edi Rama, the US ambassador, Yuri Kim, the Israeli ambassador to Albania, Noah Gal Gendler, the Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, representatives of all religious communities in Albania, etc.

The Memorial is composed of three high stones of gray marble, placed at the entrance of the Artificial Lake Park of Tirana, are the Holocaust Memorial, newly inaugurated. In three different languages, Albanian, Hebrew and English, the same historical event is witnessed in each of them: the refusal of the Albanian people to report and hand over the Jewish refugees and their hosts to the Nazi occupiers, the risk of their lives to save the Jewish people.[8] At the base of the Memorial is written in golden letters the following expression in the scriptures: “He who saves a life, saves the whole world.”

[1] Archival material of the Embassy of the Republic of Albania to Israel, 2021.

[2] Helene Wesselingh “De belofte van de nakomeling”, 2016.

[3] Archival material of the Embassy of the Republic of Albania to Israel, 2021.

[4] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/albania-virtual-jewish-history-tour

[5] Archival material of the Embassy of the Republic of Albania to Israel, 2021. Archival material of the Embassy of the Republic of Albania to Israel, 2021.

[6] https://www.osce.org/chairmanship/445474

[7] https://balkans.combatantisemitism.org/​​

[8] https://www.dw.com/sq/kush-shp%C3%ABton-jet%C3%AB-shp%C3%ABton-bot%C3%ABn-mbar%C3%AB-memoriali-i-holokaustit-n%C3%AB-tiran%C3%AB/a-54228134

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