Ties between Albanians and Jews have remained friendly and cordial for many centuries. In one of the most challenging moments of the Jewish people, the Albanians stood shoulder to shoulder with the Jews who were doomed to extinction.
There is one historical event that is worth remembering manifesting the courageous role the Albanian people played to help a persecuted people, threatened with total elimination.
In the beginning of the Second World War, as European countries, one after another, came under Nazi occupation, a European country would soon become a safe haven for the Jews.
The name of that country was Albania, a Muslim-majority nation located in Southern Europe.
According to the Yad Vashem centre based in Israel, which specializes in the documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust, the then Ambassador of the United States to Albania, Herman Bernstein, made a remarkable statement already in 1934 on the Albanians’ tolerance towards the Jews:
There is no trace of any discrimination against Jews in Albania, because Albania happens to be one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist, even though Albanians themselves are divided into three faiths.
It is widely accepted by historians that around 2,000 Jews fled during the Second World War to Albania to seek refuge and protection from the Nazis. Not surprisingly, there were more Jews in Albania at the end of the war than beforehand.
During the course of the war, only two Jews were deported from Albania to concentration camps scattered around Europe. Compared to the massive deportation of Jews from other countries, undoubtedly, Albania was the safest country for the Jews.
So, what triggered the Albanian population to stand up and protect the Jews from the Axis forces?
The Albanians are a proud people who have kept their traditions and customs in times of foreign occupation and domination.
One particular custom that has survived for decades is the Albanian besa, a cultural concept and code of honor that literary means to “keep the promise” and which serves as the highest ethical code of the Albanians.
In other words, when an Albanian gives you his besa, he or she stakes his honour to ensure someone else’s safety and protection. An obligation that cannot be broken at any cost. On this matter, Yad Vashem has collected numerous stories of Albanians who risked their lives to provide shelter and protection to the Jews.
It is worth sharing Nuro Hoxha’s impressions on the role his family played to save the Jews.
As devout Muslims we extended our protection and humanism to the Jews. Why? Besa, friendship and the holy Koran.
For Destan and Lime Balla, protecting the Jewish refugees remained a sacred duty:
We were poor - we didn't even have a dining table - but we never allowed them to pay for the food or shelter. I went into the forest to chop wood and haul water. We grew vegetables in our garden so we all had plenty to eat. The Jews were sheltered in our village for fifteen months. We dressed them all as farmers, like us. Even the local police knew that the villagers were sheltering Jews.
Ali Sheqer Pashkaj recalls the story of his father who risked his lives to protect the Jews he was sheltering:
They brought my father into the village and lined him up against a wall to extract information about where the Jew was hiding. Four times they put a gun to his head. They came back and threatened to burn down the village if my father didn't confess. My father held out, and finally they left.
“My father said that the Germans would have to kill his family before he would let them kill our Jewish guests," according to Besim and Aishe Kadiu.
There are many other stories, like the ones of Nuro Hoxha, Destan and Lime Balla, Besim and Aisha Kadiu as well as Ali Sheqer Pashkaj, about the many courageous Albanians who risked their lives to protect the Jews from the Nazis.
Hard times and challenging moments will reveal the true nature of friends, and the Albanians passed the test thanks to the Albanian besa.