Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Jews of Albania and their salvation during the Holocaust

Van Christo

In her book, Escape Through the Balkans: the Autobiography of Irene Grunbaum (University of Nebraska Press, 1996), translated and edited by Katherine Morris, Irene Grunbaum describes, in the extensive section on Albania, her parting thoughts as a Jew after having been protected and sheltered by Albanian Muslims and Christians during Nazi German WWII occupation of Albania: "Farewell, Albania, I thought. You have given me so much hospitality, refuge, friends, and adventure. Farewell, Albania. One day I will tell the world how brave, fearless, strong, and faithful your sons are; how death and the devil can't frighten them. If necessary, I'll tell how they protected a refugee and wouldn't allow her to be harmed even if it meant losing their lives. The gates of your small country remained open, Albania. Your authorities closed their eyes, when necessary, to give poor, persecuted people another chance to survive the most horrible of all wars. Albania, we survived the seige because of your humanity. We thank you."

Too little is known worldwide about the fact that only Albania in Europe protected its own Jews during the Holocaust while also offering shelter to other Jews who had escaped into Albania from Serbia, Austria, and Greece. Yet, an American Jew named Harvey Sarner of Palm Springs, California and London, England, who, after finding out that Albanian Muslims and Christians risked their own lives to shelter Jews, made it his personal business to know more about those extraordinary Albanian humanitarian deeds. While much of Europe was willingly giving up its Jews to the Fascists, Sarner was amazed to learn that the Albanians, whose renowned hospitality is deeply steeped in their traditions and culture, went to great lengths and personal risk to shield Jews from Nazi German occupiers of Albania during WWII.

With the advent of democracy in 1991, almost all of Albania's Jews emigrated to Israel and it was there that Sarner learned of their heroic rescue after reading the names of Albanian Muslim and Christian saviors of Jews listed and commemorated as "Righteous Among the Nations" at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Moved by such humanitarianism, Sarner arranged, at his own expense, a joyful reunion between the Albanian Jews and their Albanian Muslim and Christian rescuers in 1992 in Israel. Again, at his own expense, Sarner also made it possible for an Albanian-Muslim, Ledio Veseli, to attend a university in the USA as his personal expression of gratitude to the Albanian rescuers. And Sarner didn't stop there: he was so impressed by the obvious warmth between seemingly disparate peoples that he was moved to research the history of the Jews in Albania from Roman times to the present day story of Joseph Jakoel, the Albanian Jew who led his people to from Albania to Israel in 1991. With the help of Jakoel (who passed away in 1995), Sarner assembled a compelling history of Albania's Jews and their amazing survival in his 1994 limited-edition booklet "The Jews of Albania."

I first learned about Sarner after reading a short article about him in "Albanian Life" - a mazazine published in London. After contacting the editor who gave me Sarner's address, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Sarner was an American who divided his time between California and the UK.

After writing to Sarner seeking to purchase copies of "The Jews of Albania", he generously donated a quantity for fund-raising purposes to Frosina, a non-profit, IRS Section 501(c)(3), humanitarian organization that I formed in 1994 to provide assistance and counsel to Albanian newcomers arriving in the USA and also to help dispel misconceptions that even some educated people have about Albania and the Albanians.

In 1997, Sarner updated his book by publishing "Rescue in Albania: One Hundred Percent of Jews in Albania Rescued from the Holocaust" which more fully described how and why not one single Jew was taken to a Nazi concentration camp in Albania. After turning over my research files on Albania's Jews to Sarner (having originally intended to write my own article about that little-known subject), he graciously permitted Frosina to serve as co-publisher of the new book.

Sarner, born in New York City, served earlier as an attorney and has a long list of credentials and honors. The author of seven books and countless articles, Sarner has received numerous awards and citations including the Order of Merit Medal from the President of Poland. An Honorary President of the Albanian-Israeli Friendship League, he is also a Board Member of the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers, and co-producer and writer of a documentary "Jews of Albania" with Israeli TV.

On February 1, 1995 during ceremonies unveiling the names of Albanian protectors on its "Rescuer's Wall" at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, the-then Museum Director, Miles Lerman, gratefully declared "Albania was the only country in Europe which had a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than before it!"

An Israeli-Albanian concert was held in1995 in Tirana, Albania, to commemorate the protection of Jews by Albanians during the Holocaust. Participants were the Kibbutz Orchestra of Israel, the Opera Orchestra of Tirana, the National Choir of Albania, and the Israeli-Albania Society. The idea for the commemoration came from Stephen Moskowitz, a Fulbright Scholar and former English Lecturer at Tirana's Polytechnic University who, after learning of the little-known Albanian humanitarianism towards the Jews, broached the subject of a joint Albanian-Israeli commemorative concert in Albania with conductor Doron Salomon when he attended a performance of the Kibbutz Orchestra in Macedonia.

After plans and preparations were finalized, the Israeli-Albanian concert was performed on November 4, 1995, in Tirana's Pyramid Center where the Kibbutz Orchestra was joined by members of the Opera Orchestra of Tirana and its leader, Bujar Llapaj, who conducted the national anthems of Israel and Albania before handing the baton to Maestro Salomon who led the orchestra and the National Choir in Mozart's Requiem.

An Albanian, Apostal Kotani, also wrote a book about Albania's Jews titled "The Hebrews in Albania During Centuries" that was published in Tirana, Albania, in 1996 wherein he cites case-histories and lists the names of some 98 Albanian Muslims and Christians who protected Jews during the Holocaust. As further evidence of legendary Albanian hospitality and religious tolerance, it may be interesting to note that the majority of the Albanian rescuers of Jews were Muslims.


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