With ordinary Albanians moving Jews from hide-out to hide-out to elude capture, Albania saved virtually all of its 200 native Jews and 400 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. The country also helped spirit hundreds more over from Nazi-occupied Balkan lands.
“Albania was one of the only European countries that had more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning of the war,” said Michael Berenbaum, former project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A full picture of that rescue emerged only in the early 1990s after the collapse of a particularly opaque and repressive Communist government and was confirmed by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust research institute, in 2007. It will be retold on Dec. 8 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, where speakers will include descendants of Albanian rescuers and of rescued Jews.
Albania has practical reasons for wanting this story known. The country is seeking membership in the European Union, but its chances are hobbled by a history of ingrained corruption. At a time when Albania has promised to clean up its government, the rescue story not only highlights an episode of Albanian magnanimity, but also shows that Albanians honor their promises.
The story of the rescue, said Ferit Hoxha, the Albanian ambassador to the United Nations, shows that “although we were closed under one of the fiercest Communist regimes, this nation’s people are noble and as able to deliver with courage as anyone else in Europe.”
In much of Europe, the Final Solution was remarkably efficient: 90 percent of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews were killed, 88 percent of Germany’s 240,000 Jews, 77 percent of Greece’s 70,000 Jews, with similarly chilling tolls elsewhere.
The exceptional difference in Albania, experts on the episode say, was rooted in a national creed called besa that obligates Albanians to provide shelter and safe passage for anyone seeking protection, particularly if there has been a promise to do so. Failure to act results in a loss of honor and standing.
“It involves uncompromising protection of a guest, even at the point of forfeiting one’s own life,” wrote Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, an organizer of the New York event whose husband, former Representative Joseph H. DioGuardi, visited Albania in the early 1990s and helped unearth details of the rescue.
Another explanation, Ms. Cloyes DioGuardi says, is that in Albania, a Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox country until Ottoman rule led to conversions to Islam starting in the 15th century, ethnicity has always trumped religion, and piety is less than zealous. “We knew our enemies wanted to use religion to divide and conquer us, but we knew we had the same blood,” said Akim Alickaj (a-LITCH-kye), an ethnic Albanian raised in Kosovo who owns a New York travel agency and whose father helped rescue Jews. “Religion changes, but nation and blood can’t be changed.”
Two other countries saved most of their Jews as well. When German occupiers ordered the deportation of Denmark’s 7,800 Jews in 1943, neighbors, colleagues and activists, in a virtually spontaneous outpouring of help and resistance, transported more than 7,000 Jews, largely by fishing boat, across a channel to neutral Sweden, according to Bo Lidegaard, editor in chief of the newspaper Politiken.
Bulgaria was allied with the Nazis and turned over 11,000 Jews from occupied Macedonia and Thrace for deportation to death camps. But when an order came for deportation of Bulgaria’s own Jewish citizens, members of Parliament and church leaders pressured the government to resist, and 48,000 Jews survived.
When the Nazis rolled into Albania in September 1943, taking the country over from the more lenient Italian Fascists, two Jewish residents of the city of Vlora — Rafael Jakoel and his brother-in-law — met with the mayor there. He told them, according to Mr. Jakoel’s granddaughter, Felicita, “As long as you are here, you don’t have to worry, but Germans are Germans so it’s better to go to the capital.”