Sep 2010 Journal

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As written in The Book of Fate: How Albanians rescued Jews fleeing Nazism

Scarlett Epstein OBE: Many Jews fleeing Nazism found a safe haven in Albania, where the population, irrespective of which religion they followed, shared a ‘code of honour’ - besa - which dictated that they risk their own lives to save Jews. Natasha Korn, whose family was persecuted by the Nazis in Odessa, has lived in Albania since 2003 with her American husband, who works there with the Peace Corps.

What if it were I who had found him naked and shaking from terror with the letter ‘J’ stamped on his forehead and a prayer for mercy in his eyes? What if it had been my country under Nazi occupation and it had been the death penalty for hiding a Jew? What if it had been I and my entire family of 17 who had been transported almost 100 km from our native Monastir to Skopje to a concentration camp where we were all to live our last day?

I try to imagine myself as one of this Jewish family. I try to feel the way they did when they decided to save one man to carry on the family name. They drew lots and Joseph pulled the straw of salvation. His loved ones collected all the money and valuables they had and he paid it all in ransom for his freedom.

It is at least 155 km from Skopje to Tirana, the Albanian capital, where Joseph found shelter until the end of the war. There is no information about all the people who helped him escape. I found, among other incredible life-saving stories, the names of only three families in Apostol Kotani’s book The Jews in Albania over the Centuries (Tirana, 1996).

It was midnight when Joseph knocked at the door of Tirana eye specialist Kristofor Kristidhi. ‘His shabby clothes and long beard showed just how much he had suffered,’ recalls Dr Kristidhi. ‘I helped him with some new clothes and sheltered him in my house for some time before I could find other safe places for him to stay. We hid him at first in villages around Tirana, then in Durrës, and again in Tirana’ (Kotani, p.190).

Nora Sheko (Imami) says Joseph was sheltered in Irakli Lako and came to her house in Elbasani Street in Tirana from Dr Kristidhi: ‘He was a young man, thin, swarthy and nice. When he took his hat off, I was shocked when I saw the “J” stamped on his forehead. I cursed the Nazis who had done it to him. The story of his escape from the Nazis and how much he had suffered on his journey from Skopje touched me deeply. He told me how the Nazis had rounded them up in a camp in Skopje’:

There were 17 members of my family. We were all anxious to know what was going to happen to us. When we learned we were all going to die, we decided that one of the men in our family had to escape in order to carry on the family name. We drew lots and I, Joseph, was the chosen one. My family handed all their money and valuables over to me and I walked up to one of the less fearsome-looking German guards. I offered him the money in exchange for letting me out. He accepted and I left. That same night, I learned later, all the prisoners had to undress and were burned the next day.

Naked as I was, I travelled through the night and finally came upon a village, where I found a cattle shed and hid in the straw. In the morning, when the owner came to feed his cattle, he found me there. He was shocked to see me naked with my forehead stamped and my sad face. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked me. ‘I will be destroyed, I will be dead! Please leave immediately!’ he yelled. I told him my story and gave him a choice: he could either help me or hand me over to the Germans. Fortunately for me, he chose to help me. He gave me some local clothes, a hat to hide my forehead and a bag with bread and cheese and guided me out of the village. After endless days of suffering, I arrived at Korça and finally made it to Tirana.

‘All the time Joseph was talking,’ said Nora, ‘I was crying in pain. As I was making a morning coffee for him, he said to me: “Nora, you remind me of my sister-in-law though no one in my family is alive any longer.”

‘We kept him hidden in our home for a few months, aware of the enormous risk. Once he asked me: “Are you not scared, Nora? You have a time bomb under your roof which could go off any moment!” I answered: “Whatever is written [in The Book of Fate].” My husband and I had made up our minds to see it through to the end and protect him and, thank God, we did’ (Kotani, pp.191-92).

Apostol Kotani was the first to reveal the names of those saved in Albania and the names of those who saved them. He found them in documents in the State Archive, by personal investigation, by visiting many parts of Albania, and by interviewing numerous people, many of them no longer alive. Satisfied his research was complete, he published his book The Jews in Albania over the Centuries.

Kotani does not analyse why the Albanians acted in the way they did, but his book is extraordinarily powerful in the stories it pieces together and the hope it inspires.

When I read of the industrial methods employed to kill millions of people and when I see the photos of endless lines of emaciated, naked humans, like Botticelli’s drawings of the Last Judgment, waiting in front of the gas chamber to be murdered, I feel a huge sense of loss and it leaves me without hope and with great shame. Yet, when I read about people saving people, it fills my spirit with hope and pride.

When I read Kotani’s book as well as Harvey Sarner’s Rescue in Albania (Cathedral City, California: Brunswick Press, 1997), I realised that the treatment of the Jews by the Albanians and Albania is unique throughout the history of their coexistence. I needed to clarify what was unique about this treatment during the Second World War.

I realised that all the Albanians were saving all the Jews. By this I mean that Albanian Christians, Albanian Muslims and the Albanian government all took equal risks and made equal sacrifices in saving Jews: ‘[R]eligion doesn’t affect national custom’ (Edith Durham, High Albania (London: Phoenix Press, 2000), p.125).

When I say all Jews, I mean that they did not discriminate between the Jews who lived in Albania before the war (300 of them) and the Jews who came there legally or illegally before and during the last war – hundreds, perhaps thousands of them (Sarner, p.33), escaping from other countries to Albania or via Albania.
Bulgarians also saved Jews - but only their own - and sent the 11,400 Jews from Macedonia to the death camps. Joseph was one of the Jews destined to die in Macedonia but to survive in Albania.

What makes the Albanians’ treatment of the Jews unique is that they acted in this way when the rest of the world (excluding Sweden and a number of brave individuals) acted in the opposite way. Albanians did not have their world-famous humanists but they had their code of honour, which was not written down but imbibed with their mothers’ milk. The code demands that anyone who knocks at the door and asks for shelter is treated better than the family’s own children. As far as is known, not one Albanian stained his or her honour by not helping a Jew, despite the death penalty such help could incur. All who were saved in Albania might repeat after Edith Durham ‘And it will be long before I shall forget my hospitable and gallant hosts who took me in and gave me of their best, and who lived up to their code, counting their life as nothing when it was a case of keeping honor spotless’ (p.157).

Reading and thinking about the people of Albania, the country in which I am now living, causes me to ask myself each time I go and see who is knocking at my door - what if it’s someone who needs help? And what if this person is related to the hundreds of Albanians ready to sacrifice their lives saving, who knows, possibly even one of my relatives?

Joseph Kambi lives in Israel now. He settled there after the liberation of Albania, married, had children and fulfilled the final hope of his exterminated family. He has remained in touch with Nora Sheko, one of his Albanian saviours. When Nora’s husband died, he sent her some money and a black garment. Every letter of his ends: ‘Dans l’attente de vous servir!’ (I am waiting to serve you) (Kotani, p.193).

I feel that what the Albanians did to save Jews during the Holocaust is also ‘waiting to serve’ each of them and their Country of Eagles. I hope it is written!

Natasha Korn

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