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Sunday, 17 November 2013

ALBANIA - a haven for the Jews


"Where religious prejudice and hatred did not exist"

Thus wrote Herman Bernstein about Albania in 1934, when he was the US ambassador to that country.

A house in Berat (Albania) where Jews were hidden in WW2 
(Source: Click here)

Last year, I published a brief item on my blog (click HERE ) about the idea, which was briefly mooted in the 1930s, that Albania should be considered as a new 'homeland' for the Jews. So, it was with great interest that I began reading Harvey Sarner's book about the Jews in Albania.

It appears that Jews have lived in Albania since Roman times or maybe even before. During the 12th to 14th century, there were communities in what is now Albania and what is still considered to be 'Greater Albania', notably in the now Greek city of Janina. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 15th century further increased the numbers of Jews in Albania. Until the 19th century, this small population of Jews lived peacefully with their Albanian neighbours. During the 19th century when nationalists, mainly Greeks, were trying to become independent of the Turks, there were several incidents during which Jews were massacred. These occurred mainly in Corfu and Janina, and have been largely forgotten.

During the first half of 20th century before WW2, Jews in Albania were tolerated by their gentile neighbours, both Moslem and Christian. The considered themselves, and were considered by others, as being primarily Albanian rather than Jewish, even though they did adhere to Jewish religious customs. They spoke Albanian rather than Yiddish, Hebrew or Ladino (as did Jews in Thessalonika). This may have been one of the reasons that protected them from the anti-Semitism, which was so rife elsewhere in Europe. Harvey Sarner proposes 2 other reasons for tolerance of Jews in Albania: they did not set themselves apart from other Albanians and they were not so numerous that their presence adversely concerned or made the rest of the population feel threatened (as in, for example, Thessaloniki or further away in Warsaw).

I could not help wondering whether the Albanians' tolerance for Jews would not have been stretched beyond its limit had the plan, mooted in the 1930s, to create a new home for the Jews in Albania been fulfilled. The small (a few hundred) population of Jews would have been greatly enlarged by the influx of large numbers of Jews who were not Albanian, and who had little or no interest in promoting Albania's interests ahead of their own. After all the Zionists did not choose to settle in what is now Israel primarily to promote the well-being of their gentile neighbours.

When anti-Semitism became the official order of the day in Europe after Hitler came to power and began invading Europe, Albania became one of the countries that accepted Jewish refugees. Some of these had been issued with visas, but many others had fled from neighbouring Yugoslavia and to a lesser extent from Greece. The Albanian people welcomed these unfortunate refugees, and protected them from being discovered by first the Italian and then the German invaders. When asked to prepare lists of Jews in Albania, the authorities refused to do so. This was in contrast with what happened in neighbouring Greece (and the Netherlands). In Thessalonika, I remember reading in another book, the Jews themselves prepared a list of the members of their community for the Germans, and another was prepared in Janina. Both of the these Jewish communities were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. In Athens, where such a list was not prepared, the Jews could not be rounded up until the Nazis resorted to a dirty trick, namely offering free supplies of Matzo flour during Passover. The Jews who collected this were rounded up, and massacred. In Albania, no lists were prepared, and the Albanians, who held the safety of guests as an ancient and sacred tradition, made sure that the survival rate of Jews in their country was almost, if not, 100%.

Sarner describes some of the individuals who protected the Jews and a few of the stories of Jews who were saved by them. It would have been nice to have heard more of these, but for those who are interested, let me recommend Escape through the Balkans: The Autobiography of Irene Grunbaum written by one who experienced life as a Jewish refugee in Albania, Irene Grunbaum. Sarner, in a later chapter of his book, describes his successful efforts to have some of the Albanian rescuers recognised as Righteous Gentiles in Israel's Yad Vashem memorial.

After WW2, Albania began to be ruled by the regime headed by the most faithful disciple of Joseph Stalin, Enver Hoxha. According to Sarner, there was no anti-Semitism under Albania's Communist regime - unlike many other countries that had entered the Soviet 'bloc'. Although Hoxha's government were never pro-Israel, they were not anti-Semitic. The country isolated itself from the rest of the world. Neither Jews nor anyone else were able to leave it. In 1967, Hoxha decreed that Albania was an atheist state. Mosques and churches were destroyed or closed; there was no synagogue to be closed. Religious practices were banned, and Albanians had to choose names for their children that did not give away their original religions.

6 years after Enver Hoxha died (in 1985), the Communist regime collapsed in Albania. It was at this point that many Albanians fled from their impoverished country, many of them to Italy where they were not welcomed with open arms! In contrast, Israel welcomed those of Albania's Jews who wished to live there, and with a few exceptions most of Albania's Jews, none of whom knew any Hebrew, took up the opportunity.

Sarner's book is crammed full of interesting information, but is, sadly, poorly edited. There are many errors and inconsistencies of spelling . At first, this put me off the book, but I am glad that I persisted, and read all of this fascinating but brief volume. I would have liked to have given this book 4 out of 5 stars for its interest value, but stylistically it only deserves 3.





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