Majority-Muslim Albania and the Holocaust

On October 29, 1944, Jewish refugees protected by Albanians pose for a photo following the liberation of the country. Photo: Refik Veseli

Albania was the only European country that ended World War II with more Jews living in it than before the war started. According to the International School for Holocaust Studies, every one of the 200 Jews living in Albania before the war was saved by their local countrymen and women, and over 2,000 Jews in total were hidden, housed, and provided for by Albanians. In 1943, Nazi Germany ordered the Albanian authorities to turn over government census data on Jews in the country. The Albanians refused. In fact, not a single Jew was ever turned over by Albanians to the Italian fascists and Nazis in Albania.

Few know about the role this small, mountainous country played in driving out Nazi occupation or how Jews fared in this Muslim-majority Balkan nation during the Holocaust. In 2002, the famous Jewish-American photographer Norman Gershman traveled to Albania to document and understand the Muslim-Albanians who were instrumental in saving Jews from being killed. Gershman toured the country speaking with Muslim-Albanians and the families of Muslim-Albanians who sheltered Jews from the Nazis. He later traveled to Eastern Europe and Israel to speak with those who were saved and to capture their stories through photos and an upcoming documentary film following the return of Hebrew books kept from Nazi authorities by a Muslim-Albanian family.

An even more incredible element of this story is that Albanians didn’t just take Jews into their homes and hide them in the back closet; they literally made them part of their own family. Gershman explains:

Jewish Refugee Children Celebrate at a Birthday Party in Kavaja, Albania, 1942 Photo: Mosa Mandil

Most remarkably, this was all done with the consent and support of the entire country. Thousands of Jews, hidden in plain sight–everyone knew–and no one told… There was no government conspiracy, no underground railroad, no organized resistance of any kind–only individual Albanians, acting alone, to save the lives of people whose lives were in immediate danger… The rescue of Jews in Albania was a unique experience in Holocaust history as Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler were welcomed not as refugees but as guests.

In this video clip (from 1:35 onwards), Gershman recounts the story of a Muslim-Albanian who risked his own life and the threat of authorities burning down his entire village in order to save a young Jewish boy from being caught.

For Albanians of all faiths, protecting Jews during the Holocaust was anything but extraordinary. It was part of besa, the Albanian honor code that requires individuals to protect anyone in danger regardless of religious or political affiliation, and to treat them as part of the family. Ali and Nadia Kazazi explained how faith and besa played into their family’s decision to take Jews into their home during the Holocaust:

Our parents were not very religious, but they believed in the Qur’an and besa. Without the Qur’an there is no besa. Without besa there is no Qur’an. For the heart there is no color of skin. No man or woman can forget God.

The story of Albanians saving Jews during the Holocaust is beginning to gain more attention. President Obama’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, recently met with Albanian Ambassador Gilbert Galanxhi to discuss the Holocaust memorial being build in the Albanian capital, Tirana. The 2011 Hours Against Hate initiative appropriately highlights some of the underlying principles of besa, and we’ll be exploring this in our upcoming radio show on November 29 with Rosenthal and her colleague, Farah Pandith, US Special Representative to Muslim Communities.

The 2011 Hours Against Hate and similar initiatives demonstrate that Gershman’s timeless message goes well beyond race, religion, and geography. His photos and upcoming film, Besa: The Promise, display the compassion that we all have within us, and seek to tell the entire world of the Muslim-Albanians who demonstrated the humanity that each of us can embrace and enact in our own communities.

To view more photos of Jews saved by Albanians during the Holocaust go to the US Holocaust Memorial website and enter the search terms “Jews, Albania.”

Have you heard of this story before? If the message of besa and the history of Muslims saving Jews becomes more recognized around the world, could this have a real impact on tensions between Muslims and Jews? How does besa relate to the principles of Islam? 

3 thoughts on “Majority-Muslim Albania and the Holocaust

  1. I have been involved in this project for many, many years and have travelled to Albania and Kosova and continue to work with these amazing people. The movie of this story will be out in early 2012. The title is Besa:The Promise. I have been to many exhibits of the work all over the world and it indeed brings people of all faiths and nationalities together. These stories will hopefully be used to teach tolerance in schools in North America and hopefully around the world. There are cases where the Muslim rescuers married the Jewish women they rescued. The heads of the Albania and Kosova- Israel (meaning Jewish) Friendship societies are all Muslim!

    Many of them attribute besa, the kanun and the koran as their influences as to why they risked their personal life and safety of their families and villages.

    To learn more here is a link to one of the articles that I wrote including a review of the book Besa:Muslims Who Saved Jews During WWII.

  2. I have known about this for quite some time now. It is as moving as it was the first time I read about it. Although it should be noted the notion Besa has nothing to do with religion. Besa is just as meaningful to every other non muslim albanian. Its a gentlemans agreement, once upon a time it defined man from kids. Unfortunately, this is not the case now.

  3. Besa is not related to Islam. Besa is a Code of Honor of the Albanian people, whether they are Muslim or Christian. It is an Albanian thing which comes from the Kanun (Law of Middle Ages in Albania). Kanun is almost always mixed up with the Koran. I believe whenever people mentioned Kanun (in English: Code) it was misunderstood for Koran. Both Muslim Albanians and Christian Albanians saved Jews. They would do it again and again. If someone is amazed on the Muslim part of the story-fine. If this noble act will help to ease relations among Muslims and Jews-great. But, remember: Besa is Albanian honor, promise, and one’s given word, and all Albanians respect it.

    As for the Albanian acts of saving Jews- these are beautiful, courageous, interesting, and touching stories!