The recent inauguration of the Holocaust Memorial in Tirana, Albania drew acclaim from Jewish leaders in Israel and abroad. This memorial represents an advancement in the already warm relations between Israel and Albania. At a time when anti-Semitism is increasing in other parts of Europe, Albanian officials are demonstrating, once again, their commitment to Israel and the Jewish people.
Money for the memorial came from donors in the United States and from the US Commission for the Preservation of American Heritage Abroad. In Tirana, three large pieces of gray stone were erected with written text on them that explains the special relationship between Albania and the Jews living there during the Holocaust. The message is written in Albanian, English, and Hebrew.
Leading officials from Albania, the United States, and Israel were at the event, as well as representatives from various Albanian religious groups. Descendants of Albanian families who rescued Jews were also in attendance. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama spoke about the importance of the event for the Albanian people, in telling the story of the saving of the Jews during World War II.
Dan Oryan, Director of the Balkan Department for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), sees this inauguration of the memorial as a significant step in Israeli-Albanian relations:
“For many years, the Albanians, of course, had the story, but didn’t tell it…. a well-known secret. It is now out there in the public sphere; is taught to the children; and is part of their heritage. The story of the saving of the Albanian Jews is something very special. We want it to be told, as certainly one of the moments of light in the dark age of the Holocaust.”
Oryan explains that before the Holocaust there were about 200 Jews living in Albania. After the Holocaust, there were 2,000 Jews that survived there. Many of the Jews had escaped Hitler’s plan of extermination in other countries, finding shelter in Albania. Yad Vashem, Israel’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center, recognizes more than 73 Albanians that have been proven to have saved the lives of Albanian Jews at the time of the Nazi regime. Their names are recorded in Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Gentiles database.
The inauguration of this recent stone memorial in Albania comes as an encouragement, especially through tough times in Israel and globally. This is particularly significant during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, where there are also troubling signs developing of violence and fanaticism.
Erion Veliaj, Albania’s Mayor in Tirana explains the relationship between his country, the Jewish people, and Israel. “The friendship between our peoples is rooted much deeper and dates way back, much earlier than WWII. It is a time for us all to acknowledge and celebrate this fact. We are two small countries punching way above our weight, and if we can share a warm friendship in our global path of challenge, let us do so. We feel it is our country’s responsibility to share this story of strength and hope, not only for the Israelis, but for all nations struggling today with intolerance and extremism. This memorial is only a start.”
Veliaj shares that the Albania memorial is just the beginning of a vision by Prime Minister Rama, who has set a path to build a Museum of Tolerance. Rama’s office has appointed a working group with the participation of representatives from all religious communities to explore the best options for the location where work can start immediately. The devastating earthquakes in Albania in September and November 2019, delayed the process, but the Albanian government is committed to its completion. Rama and Veliaj, alike, share a strong conviction regarding the importance of documenting and educating Albania’s unique tolerance as a people and a nation. They want to educate the next generation of Albanians.
Throughout Albania’s history, people of all religions have been coexisting in Albania. As Veliaj acknowledges, “not only in complete respect for one another but they have gone out of their way to help in times of need. Only in Albania will you find Muslim villages that donate money for church reconstructions and vice versa. Such was the case even with the rescue of Jewish refugees looking for safety when there was none. The hosting families ranged from all religious backgrounds, but that made no difference; hospitality was the same.”
Felicita Jokoel, head of the Albanian Jewish community in Israel, was born in Albania. Her ancestors lived through the Holocaust. Her father went into hiding in Albania when he was about 22 years old, and her family is one of those that survived at the caring hands of Albanians during WWII.
Jokoel welcomed the decision by the Albanian government to erect the recent memorial. “We are very excited about it. Israel, in an official way, has expressed many times, its gratitude towards the Albanian people… The memorial is the fulfilling of these good relations between the two peoples.”
Jokoel’s relatives were well settled in Albania before things began to deteriorate in Europe as Hitler rose to power. According to Jokoel, “When the Nazis conquered Albania, which was in October-November 1943, then the real danger started.”
While 99 percent of Albania’s Jews were rescued from Nazi tyranny, from 1945 until 1991 all Albanians lived under a dictatorship, mostly communist rule, and the country was hermetically sealed off from the world. Jokoel explains that the borders opened up in 1991. About 70 Jews went to the United States, but the rest immigrated to Israel. “Me and my family, and almost the entire Jewish community of Albania, arrived in Israel in 1991, after the collapse of the communist regime.”
Jokoel, Israeli Ambassador Oryan, and Albanian Mayor Veliaj all spoke about a special code of ethics, the Besa, which has been part of the Albanian culture, especially operating in times of global distress.
Ambassador Oryan sees the saving of the Jews in Albania as much more than the Besa. “When you ask the Albanians why they saved Jews when others didn’t, they tell you they have this code, the Besa. It means that whoever lives in your house, whoever is a neighbor, he should be kept safe, also in times of trouble. So, if you look for it, it is the cultural justification. But, we see the saving in a much wider sense of doing the right thing even when others are not doing the right thing.”
Mayor Veliaj has a similar assessment. “What is common in all stories of survival rests in the courage to be on the right side. For nations like ours, having gone through unforgiving history and determined survival, the courage has become a moral code by which we live our lives… During the traumatic times of crisis or war, like WWII, Albanians didn’t think twice about the applicability of the Besa. Under such circumstances, the Albanian people simply chose to act with empathy, generosity, and above all, humanity.”
Jokoel asks the question: “What made the Albanians save the Jews? I think there are different reasons. One of them is, of course, the Besa, which is a very important element in the Albanian culture. When a stranger comes to you and seeks for help, you are obliged to help him and to shelter him. And, imagine if this stranger is not a stranger at all, but your friend. This is how you can explain why the Albanians helped not only the Albanian Jews.”
Some Israeli school children are learning about the role of the Albanian people during the Holocaust. The Israeli government has made a special effort to teach Israeli youth about Albania’s rescue of the Jews. As part of Israel’s education system, students can choose topics beyond their required studies. There is a “study unit,” created by Israeli educator, Efrat Kedem that has presented an opportunity for Israeli teachers to engage their students in activities on this subject. Two years ago, 20 Israeli students participated in a trip to Albania, to hear the rescue stories from Albanians, themselves.
“I think it was very meaningful for them,” explains Kedem. “I created, for the Israeli Ministry of Education, a study unique for high school students, in different sectors, and not only for Jews. We have Muslims, we have Bedouin, Druze, etc. I was asked to focus on the positive aspects that happened; why, how, and what was different in Albania.”
The program has been open to anyone studying in an Israeli high school, but the funding for the Israeli youth to travel to Albania has not been available for future trips.
Adi Kahani is an Israeli Albanian, formerly with the Ministry of Education, and in close connection with many in Albania. She says, “Relationships between our governments are very strong and very positive, as well as the relationship between our two peoples. Albanians have seen the Jewish people as the Chosen People, and they have had this kind of admiration for them.”
This alone is moving the Albanian people towards closer cooperation with Israel. But, more needs to be done on both sides. Kahani suggests, “It is a matter of bilateral relations on educational aspects of culture.”
Kahani, and other Israelis think that the ministries of education in both countries, and the governments, themselves, need to cooperate on a deeper level. Subsidizing trips of Albanian students to Israel is a matter for consideration. “There is nothing better than understanding the Israeli reality, which is completely different from what is shown in the news media throughout the world.”
Kahani also suggests that cooperation from the Israeli government can come in assisting the Albanians in the school system with lessons of the Holocaust as part of their history books.
Israel’s Ambassador to Albania, Noah Gal Gendler, who took up his post in Tirana almost a year ago, is working towards further cooperation with the Albanian government. He is planning to meet with Albania’s Ministry of Education soon. Gendler explains that Israel would like Albania to help translate its high school students “study unit” information from Hebrew into the Albanian language, hoping the Albanians will instill the lessons into their textbooks and into the educational system, as well.
Gendler acknowledges that many people around the world do not know the story about the saving of the Albanian Jews. The Albanians, themselves, do not understand Israel’s preoccupation with this topic. “And, we tell them, your story is very different and unique. And, if you don’t tell it to your people and if you don’t teach it to your students today, then 20 years from now the new generation will know nothing about it.”
Israeli Ambassador Oryan agrees, “We hope that the cooperation in culture and education will continue to grow, and will widen to new fields. We see big potential both in joining forces in innovation, and in widening the partnership of education in general, and the education of the Holocaust, in particular.”
On the Albanian side, Tirana’s Mayor Veliaj confirms, “There is still a lot of ground to cover in our bilateral relations and many bridges ought to be built… We are exploring growth opportunities in services and in knowledge-based economy, where Israel holds the lead. I believe the key to any successful relationship and cooperation ultimately lies in the chemistry between people. I’m convinced, in these times of peace, we could do wonders!”