Apr 2010 Journal

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Albania’s remarkable philo-Semitism

The objective of the planned documentary Back from the Brink (for further details, see my letter in AJR Journal, December 2009) was to express gratitude to individuals and/or countries that helped us Jewish refugees to survive. I personally had felt for a long time the need and desire to thank Albania and its population for having saved my life since after Kristallnacht Albania was the only country that was prepared to offer my parents and me a safe haven. This made me keen to include scenes filmed in Albania in our documentary. However, my failure to secure sufficient funding made it impossible to cover the cost this would have involved. Fortunately, the Albanian embassy in London was prepared to enable me and a cameraman to spend three days filming in Albania.

Thus, after 71 years I was finally able to return to Albania - the country that had saved my life. It turned out to be a wonderful experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. Everyone I met in Albania made me feel at home. This included HRH Prince Leka, the grandson of HRH King Zogu, the Director of the Albanian Association of Friends of Israel, and the former Ambassador of the Republic of Albania to Israel as well as many ordinary men and women I met in the street who heard my story when they curiously watched us filming. The only thing that marred the joy of my return was that I couldn’t find a single individual still alive whom I had known during the five months I stayed in Durrës, Albania’s port city, before the war.

Though I vividly remember the generous hospitality Albanians offered us Jewish refugees in 1938-39, I must admit I had not been aware that Albania is the only country in Europe with more Jews after than before the war: there were 200 Jews before and 2,000 Jews after the war. This clearly shows that Albania became a safe haven for Jews during the last war because Albanian families were prepared, even at the risk to their own lives, to offer shelter to Jewish refugees.

HRH Prince Leka and the Honorary Consul of the State of Israel to Albania kindly arranged for me to view in Tirana, the capital, their recently made film Rescue in Albania. This shows Jewish refugees who survived the war in Albania telling the story of how kindly Albanians had treated them. It also shows The Jewish Daily News of 14 July 1935 reporting that King Zogu offered German Jews visas and even passports to come to Albania and help his country’s development. Even Albert Einstein took refuge in Albania for a few days in 1935 before continuing his journey to America with an Albanian passport. Many of the refugees who survived the war in Albania ended up in Israel, though some also went to America and Canada. The film was formally launched in Washington DC on the recent Holocaust Memorial Day and my hosts kindly gave it to me on a DVD (anyone interested in viewing this film please contact me via the Journal).

My hosts also took me to the Tirana Museum, of which I was given a conducted tour. The Museum displays much of the country’s historical past, including a list of the names of all Jewish refugees who survived the war in Albania as well as of Albanian families who sheltered them. The majority of the families appeared to be Muslims. When I asked how it had come about that Muslims had risked their lives to shelter Jews, my hosts explained that central to Albanian tribal culture is the concept of besa. In accordance with this concept, each Albanian family, disregarding their different religions, is expected to treat every guest or visitor as if they were members of their family. Besa thus helps to explain the fairly unusual religious harmony that was responsible for the survival of Jewish refugees under the very difficult conditions that prevailed during the last war in Albania and for the religious harmony that still exists today in Albania. My hosts presented me with a large book entitled Besa – Muslim Families Shelter Jewish Refugees, written by a Jewish refugee who survived the war in Albania and is now in America.

I hope this article will help to secure Albania and its population the recognition the country and its people deserve for their outstanding friendliness towards Jews.

T. Scarlett Epstein OBE

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