In 2005, the United Nations designated January 27th—the date of the liberation of Auschwitz—as an   annual international d...
risked their lives to save Jews, but no               against any danger.” The Kanun “demands              the woods and t...
was attributed to Lekë Dukagjini, an                 century, when Ottoman officials leviedAlbanian prince who lived from ...
The Italians were followed in 1943 by the              were subject to anti-Albanian and repression       ton, DC, to add ...
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Jewish Survival in Albania & the Ethics of ‘Besa’ by Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi


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Jewish Survival in Albania & the Ethics of ‘Besa’ by Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi

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Jewish Survival in Albania & the Ethics of ‘Besa’ by Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi

  1. 1. In 2005, the United Nations designated January 27th—the date of the liberation of Auschwitz—as an annual international day of commemoration of the Holocaust. In recognition of this day, CONGRESS MONTHLY offers two articles dealing with less familiar aspects of the Jewish story of the Shoah, followed by two very different personal stories of survival. Jewish Survival in Albania & the Ethics of ‘Besa’ Shirley Cloyes DioGuardiV ery few people know about the long history of Albanian religious tolerance and resistance to oppression. Neither do they know that during World War II, all Jews who lived in Albania or sought asylum in that country were saved from the ravages of the Holocaust. This infor-mation was suppressed by the Stalinist Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, who controlled Albaniafor 50 years. T When European Jewry began fleeing to HE fact that Albanians had beenAlbania to escape the unfolding events in isolated from centuries of institu-Western Europe in the early 1930s, there tionalized anti-Semitism in Westernwere approximately 200 Jews living in Europe was a factor in this remarkableAlbania. (Archaeological evidence documents record. However, the principal reason for . . . [I]N THE EARLY 1930S,the presence of Jews in Albanian lands since Albanians saving Jews was their history of THERE WERE APPROXIMATELY 200the epoch of Roman rule.) At the end of religious tolerance based on the Kanun and JEWS LIVING IN ALBANIA. . . . ATWorld War II, there were close to 2,000 Jews its underlying moral code of besa. THE END OF THE WAR, THEREliving in Albania—the only nation that can In the words of Mehmet Hysref Frasheri,claim that every Jew within its borders was a descendant of one of the most influential WERE CLOSE TO 2,000 JEWSrescued from the Holocaust. families in the political history of Albania LIVING IN ALBANIA—THE ONLY One witness to the lack of anti-Semitism who rescued Jews from the Nazi Holocaust, NATION THAT CAN CLAIM THATin Albania was Herman Bernstein, himself a “People in Albania are not surprised; theyJew, who served as U.S. Ambassador to thought that it was normal to save Jews.” EVERY JEW WITHIN ITS BORDERSAlbania from 1930 to 1933. Bernstein His statement is echoed by Beqir Qoqja, a WAS RESCUED FROM THE HOLO-wrote in his letters that: 93-year-old who today lives in the same CAUST. There is no trace of any discrimination house as he did when his family sheltered against Jews in Albania because Albania Avraham Eliasaf, aka Avram Gani, from happens to be one of the rare lands in 1943 to 1944. “I have always been a devout Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist, even though Albanians Muslim,” Qoqja told fine-art photographer themselves are divided into three faiths….1 Norman Gershman in a 2004 interview. “We did nothing special; all Hebrews are our 1 The Jewish Daily Bulletin, New York, vol. XI, brothers and sisters.”no. 2821, April 17, 1934. Muslim and Christian Albanians not only 77JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2006 7
  2. 2. risked their lives to save Jews, but no against any danger.” The Kanun “demands the woods and to wait for him at a desig-incident has been found where they that a guest should be accompanied . . . lest nated place.accepted compensation. When Avram Gani he be the victim of some wicked act.” “If When the Nazis got ready to leave Alia’soffered to recompense Beqir Qoqja for someone mocks your guest or abuses him, establishment, they discovered that thesheltering him, Qoqja refused, telling him you must defend your guest’s honor, even if Jewish prisoner was missing and erupted inthat “Albanians give besa to a friend, but your own life is in danger.” fury. They dragged Ali Alia into the villagenever sell it.” square and pinned him against a wall. Four T Although the Kanun contains an oft- HE modern Western concept of times the Germans put a gun to his head,publicized, abhorrent, but now archaic set of “foreigner” does not exist in the but he continued to maintain his innocence.injunctions for carrying out blood feuds, it is Kanun, only the concept of the Abruptly they left to search for the Jewishprimarily a collection of Albanian customary guest.3 Hence, there were no Jewish “foreign- prisoner. When they returned empty-laws that covers and regulates all aspects of ers” in Albania during World War II—only handed, they threatened to burn the villageconduct within one’s family, village, and Jewish “guests,” who had to be sheltered and down if Alia did not confess. He did not,clan, with members of other clans, and with protected even at the risk of Albanian lives. and finally the Germans left Puka for good.complete strangers. The Kanun has been the Alia retrieved the Jewish prisoner, whosefoundation of Albanian society overcenturies and, as Professor Leonard Fox has THE MODERN WESTERN CON- name was Yasha Bayuhovio, and hid him in his home for two years until the war waswritten in his superb introduction to his CEPT OF “FOREIGNER” DOES NOT over. (Today he is a dentist living in1989 English translation of the Kanun, it is EXIST IN THEKANUN, ONLY THE Mexico.)4an “expression and reflection of the Albanian CONCEPT OF THE GUEST. HENCE, Acharacter.” 2 LBANIANS are generally recog- THERE WERE NO JEWISH “FOR- nized as the oldest inhabitants of EIGNERS” IN ALBANIA DURINGB esa, which inextricably links per- Southeast Europe. They are the sonal honor and respect for and WORLD WAR II—ONLY JEWISH descendants of the Illyrians, the core pre- equality with others, is the founda- Hellenic population that extended as far astion of the Kanun. Besa has multiple “GUESTS,” WHO HAD TO BE SHEL- Greece and Italy. During the six centuriesmeanings, ranging from faith, inviolable TERED AND PROTECTED EVEN AT that the Romans ruled Illyria, the Illyrianstrust, truce, and word of honor to a sacred THE RISK OF ALBANIAN LIVES. resisted assimilation and retained their legalpromise and obligation to keep one’s word to norms, as well as their culture and lan-provide hospitality and protection. It The story of Ali Alia, the owner of a guage—both of which are distinctlyinvolves uncompromising protection of a general store in Puka, illustrates dramatically different from their neighbors in Southeastguest, even to the point of forfeiting one’s the extent to which Albanians went to save Europe. Today’s Illyrians are Albanians whoown life. Jewish lives. use the Roman alphabet; their neighbors are For example, Book 8, Chapter 18, of the In 1943, a German transport carrying 19 Slavs who use the Cyrillic alphabet. Alba-Kanun, which deals with “social honor,” Albanian prisoners on their way to hard nians are Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodoxopens with the maxim that “the house of an labor and one Jew who was to be shot, Christians who have lived side by side inAlbanian belongs to God and to the guest.” stopped outside Alia’s store. Sizing up the harmony for centuries.It continues by stating that “A weary guest situation, Alia, who spoke excellent German, The Kanun has been central to Albanianmust be received and surrounded with invited the Nazis into his store, offered them survival in the face of hundreds of years ofhonor. The feet of a guest are washed.” food, and plied them with wine until they occupation and genocide. As such, it is a“Every guest must be given the food eaten in were drunk. form of collective memory, cultural identity,the house.” And, upon entering the house, While they were drinking, Alia convinced and resistance. Some of the customsthe guest “must give you his weapon to hold the Nazis that he should give the prisoners described in the Kanun are believed to haveas a sign of guardianship, since after you some food. He handed the young Jewish originated in antiquity. They were transmit-have said, ‘Welcome,’ he must have no fear prisoner a piece of melon. In it, Alia had ted orally and handed down from generationand know that you are ready to defend him concealed a note instructing him to flee into to generation, with input from a variety of authors. Ultimately, the text of the Kanun 3 2 Leonard Fox, Introduction to The Code of Lekë Harvey Sarner, Rescue in Albania. Reprinted by (the word that gives us the English “canon”)Dukagjini, translated by Fox from the Albanian the Albanian American Foundation (Ossining,text collected and arranged by Shtjefën Gjeçov (NY: NY); originally published by Brunswick Press 4 Adapted from the account given to NormanGjonlekaj Publishing Company, 1989), p. xix. (1997), page 63. Gersham by Alia’s son, Enver, Tirana, May 2004. 8 CONGRESS MONTHLY
  3. 3. was attributed to Lekë Dukagjini, an century, when Ottoman officials leviedAlbanian prince who lived from 1410 to discriminatory taxes against non-Muslims,1481. Educated in his native Shkodra, the Ottomans never succeeded in destroyingAlbania, and Venice, Italy, Dukagjini either the Albanian clan system or the poweremerged as a leader in the Albanian resistance of the Kanun. Conversion to Islam wasto the Ottoman Turks, who invaded the nominal. Until today, intermarriage betweenBalkan Peninsula in the second half of the14th century. Dukagjini was a contemporary Muslims and Christians is commonplace, and religion is rarely the basis of conflict, [I]NTERMARRIAGE BETWEENand sometime compatriot of Gjergj Kastrioti because religion is secondary to Albanian MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS IS“Skenderbeg”—the Albanian national hero identity—individually and collectively. COMMONPLACE, AND RELIGION ISand towering 15th century figure who According to the Kanun, there is no RARELY THE BASIS OF CONFLICT,fought against the Ottomans for 25 years “distinction between man and man. Soul for BECAUSE RELIGION IS SECONDARYand prevented them from overtaking soul, all are equal before God.”Western Europe. TO ALBANIAN IDENTITY—INDI- T VIDUALLY AND COLLECTIVELY. Although Dukagjini continued the fight HE individual who would ulti-against Ottoman domination for a decade mately codify the Kanun in writing ACCORDING TO THE KANUN,after Skenderbeg died of disease in 1468, he was a Franciscan priest born inbecame best known for codifying the set of Kosova in 1874 named Shtjefën Gjeçov. THERE IS NO “DISTINCTIONlaws that came to be called the Kanun. Gjeçov was an ardent Albanian nationalist BETWEEN MAN AND MAN. SOUL The late Albanian linguist Martin Camaj who participated in the 1912 uprising FOR SOUL, ALL ARE EQUAL BEFOREhas stated that the “natural form of this against the Turks, which began after a groupunwritten law remained rooted in the spirit of Albanian leaders declared Albanian GOD.”and memory of an ancient people forever in independence in Prizren (in what is nowcontact and conflict with the customs and Kosova) on November 28, 1912. No soonerlaws of other peoples.” “The maxims of the did Albanians throw off 500 years of TurkishKanun,” he said, “were primary; they took domination, than they found themselvesprecedence over all other laws.”5 This was battling Slavic incursion, beginning with theillustrated dramatically during the 500 years Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, in which half ain which Albanians resisted OttomanTurkish occupation, from the 15th to the million Albanians were killed or died of hunger and disease, followed by racism, E ARLY ON . . . ALBANIANS HIDearly 20th centuries. According to Syrja forced assimilation, expulsion, occupation, AND PROTECTED JEWS ON THEIRPupovci in his introduction to the 1972 and genocide at the hands of hostile Slavic OWN INITIATIVE AND IN AN UN-reprint of the Kanun, the preservation of the regimes that would last in various forms until COORDINATED WAY. LATER, AS ITKanun “was one of the most important today. BECAME MORE DANGEROUSelements in helping the Albanian people to That story is the subject of a separatemaintain their individuality under Turkish article from this one. What is important to UNDER THE GERMANS, THEdomination.”6 note here is the fact that, after the Balkan RESCUE OPERATION BECAME MORE Wars, Albanians were unfairly and artificially ORGANIZED AND “NATIONALW HEN the Ottomans invaded divided. With the assent of the so-called Albanian lands, Albanian Great Powers (Austria-Hungary, Britain, LIBERATION COUNCILS” IN TOWNS society had a well-defined clan France, Germany, Italy, and Russia), Serbia AND VILLAGE WHERE JEWS WEREsystem and all Albanians were Christians— annexed half of Albanian lands, including HIDING MOVED JEWS FROM PLACEeither Eastern Orthodox or Catholic. The Kosova, and other parts were given to TO PLACE—EITHER WITH FALSEOttomans set out to destroy the clans Montenegro and Greece. Only because ofthrough forced conversion to Islam and the intervention of then- U.S. President PASSPORTS OR DISGUISED ASacceptance of Islamic law. Although mass Woodrow Wilson was the State of Albania ALBANIAN PEASANTS.conversions to Islam occurred in the 17th created in 1918. 5 Martin Camaj, Foreword to The Code of Lekë In1939, when Mussolini’s Italian fascistDukagjini, op. cit., p. xv. forces invaded and occupied Albania, the 6 As quoted by Leonard Fox in his introduction toThe Code of Lekë Dukagjini, p. xvii. country had been a monarchy since 1925. 99JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2006 9
  4. 4. The Italians were followed in 1943 by the were subject to anti-Albanian and repression ton, DC, to add Albania (previouslyGerman Nazis, who remained until they under Marshal Tito. overlooked) to the “Righteous amongwere defeated by the Allied forces a year later. Most of the Jews in Albania immigrated Nations” section of the museum. Early on, according to Apostol Kotani, to Israel, as a result of the courageous efforts Tthe leading authority on the history of Jews of Josef Jakoel and his daughter, Felicita, ODAY, three and a half millionin Albania and co-chair with Dr. Petrit Zorba leading up to the fall of communism in Albanians live in the State ofof the Albanian-Israeli Friendship Society, 1991. (Josef, who was born in the historical Albania and another three and aAlbanians hid and protected Jews on their community of Jews in Vlora that dates back half million live side by side on its borders—own initiative and in an uncoordinated way. to the 16th century, had been saved with his in Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro, theLater, as it became more dangerous under the sister by an Albanian Muslim named Shyqyri Presheva Valley (southern Serbia), andGermans, the rescue operation became more Myrto.) Chameria (northern Greece), while yetorganized and “national liberation councils” another eight million live in the diaspora,in towns and village where Jews were hiding primarily in the United States, Westernmoved Jews from place to place—either withfalse passports or disguised as Albanian I N 1995, WITH THE HELP OF Europe, Turkey, and Australia—having fled Slavic state-sponsored terrorism and later CONGRESSMAN LANTOS ANDpeasants. Albanian officials passed some Communism within and outside of the Stateanti-Jewish regulations, but only to placate FORMER CONGRESSMAN BEN of Albania.the Italians and the Germans; they never GILMAN, THE ALBANIAN AMERI- Although millions were imprisoned,enforced them. When the Germans asked CAN FOUNDATION WORKED WITH tortured, and killed in the post-war era,Albanian leaders to provide a list of Jews Communist and Slavic efforts to suppress or THE U.S. MEMORIAL HOLO-living in Albania in 1943, they refused.7 destroy Albanian customs and the majorAs American Jewish philanthropist Harvey CAUST MUSEUM IN WASHING- precepts of the Kanun failed. What hasSarner has observed in his Rescue in Albania, TON, DC, TO ADD ALBANIA continually allowed Albanians to define“the importance of Albania as a sanctuary is themselves after a history of being defineddemonstrated by the fact that only 10 (PREVIOUSLY OVERLOOKED) TO by their subjugators is the powerful ethicalpercent of the 70,000 Jews who were in the THE “RIGHTEOUS AMONG NA- underpinning of the Kanun. It also is whatsurrounding territory of Yugoslavia survived TIONS” SECTION OF THE MU- made Albanians take on the role of savingthe Holocaust.” That being said, many SEUM. Jews from the Holocaust, and powerfullyAlbanians just outside of Albania’s current illustrates the intimate interconnectionborders under Nazi occupation in Kosova, between besa and religious tolerance that has BMacedonia, and Montenegro hid Jews and UT we might never have known the been endemic to Albania.provided them with false documents and extent of Albanian efforts to save In the 21st century, Albanians must beginsafe transport into Albania. Jews during the Holocaust if it were to overcome the destructive psychosocial not for the trip made to Albania in 1990 by consequences of hundreds of years ofI N the 50 years from World War II to the Congressman Tom Lantos, a Holocaust occupation, racism, and genocide. At the fall of the Berlin Wall, the history, survivor from Hungary, and former Con- same time, their story is not only one of culture, and reality of Albanians was gressman Joe DioGuardi, as the first U.S. subjugation but—as epitomized by theireither concealed or misrepresented by their officials to enter the country in 50 years. courageous behavior during the Holocaust—oppressors. In Albania, Communist dictator Seeking to ingratiate himself with Congress- it is also one of resistance to oppression,Enver Hoxha subjected the country to 46 man Lantos, dictator Ramiz Alia presented religious tolerance, and a commitment toyears of one of the most centralized and never-before-seen archives containing letters, justice.repressive totalitarian regimes that the world photographs, and newspaper clippingshas ever known. Hundreds of thousands of about Albanians who saved Jews during SHIRLEY CLOYES DIOGUARDI is the ExecutiveAlbanians were murdered and imprisoned World War II. DioGuardi subsequently sent Director of the Albanian American Founda-until Hoxha died and the regime of his the files to Israel, where they were authenti- tion and a political analyst who has testified atsuccessor, Ramiz Alia, collapsed in 1991. cated by Yad Vashem. In 1995, with the several hearings on Southeast Europe before theMeanwhile, the Albanians living outside of help of Congressman Lantos and former House International Relations Committee. ForAlbania in what is now the former Yugoslavia Congressman Ben Gilman, the Albanian more information, visit the website of the 7 Apostol Kotani, “Acts of Heroism,” Illyria, #369 American Foundation worked with the U.S. Albanian American Civic League and(New York, 1997). Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washing- Foundation at 10 CONGRESS MONTHLY