Jews and Albanians, Then and Now

From the documentary “Besa: The Promise,” which premiered at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, 2012.
From the documentary “Besa: The Promise,” which premiered at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, 2012.

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

My journey through the Balkans last autumn came to an end in Tirana, the monumental capital of Albania that is not without its charms. Having delved into the Jewish responses to the refugee crisis and discrimination against the Roma population in Hungary, met energetic and remarkable educators and charity organizers in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and celebrated the four-hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Jewish community with a concert in Sarajevo, turning up in Tirana was a little deflating.

I had expected to find something of a Jewish community in Albania, yet came away with the conclusion that while there might still be Jews here – anywhere between 50 and 250, according to disputatious accounts – that is something altogether different to having Jewish life. While the remaining Jews are known to one another, engage in business and celebrate the holidays together, there is no Jewish school and cemetery. Perceptible Jewish life seems confined in the past in Albania, and outside efforts to help local Jews have done more harm than good – except, of course, for the organizations purported to be assisting them.

By way of example, the installation of a chief rabbi in Albania back in 2010 was something of a publicity stunt rather than a serious theological and community-oriented gesture, done for the benefit of the government, Chabad, and the Israeli chief rabbinate. It had no impact on community life, and in fact, Albanian Jews forthrightly rejected the move and refused to recognize the authority of the rabbi in question, Yoel Kaplan (who was director of Chabad Lubavitch of Thessaloniki at the time). Sokol Pirra, who helped facilitate Kaplan’s installation, was denounced as an imposter. “He is not even one of its members, because his connections to Judaism are very unclear at least, not to say inexistent.”

Now Albania, relative to other European countries, has always had a small Jewish population, yet it is one with deep roots whose story has an ongoing political, social, and historical relevance to the Albanian people at-large, one I discussed with Dr. Shaban Sinani, the author of Albanians and Jews: The Protection and Salvation. We met in one of the dining halls of the Tirana International Hotel, over a cup of coffee, on a warm October day when it was raining on and off and people were ducking in off the street to escape the strange weather. We discussed the Albanian experience of the Holocaust and how it was that this country became something of an exception to the broader European experience.

Prior to the Second World War, Albania became a place of refugee for a small number of Ashkenazi Jews from the greater German Reich. Sinani told me the number was around 1,000; Yad Vashem estimates it was somewhere between 600 and 1,800. Initially coming under Italian occupation within the confines of a kind of Greater Albania that included Kosovo and parts of Macedonia, the bloody horror of the Holocaust largely passed over Albania, though it must be said that several hundred Jews did end up in the Nazi concentration camp system in Yugoslavia during this time. In 1943, the Germans replaced the Italians as occupiers, with the desire to exterminate in totality the Jewish population of Albania.

While as Sinani told me, there were willing collaborators in Albania, a greater emphasis must be placed on the actions of Albanians to shelter and save Jews, to the extent that the Jewish population of Albania was in fact larger after the Second World War than before it began. Narratives in this regard typically focus on the role played by Albanian individuals and families, who when Jews began to leave the cities for the relative safety of the hinterland hid them in their homes, fed them, and offered them traditional Albanian clothes. The intent was to make Jews indistinguishable from the rest of the population for their protection – to keep them out of sight through a combination of occlusion and assimilation.

In trying to explain why the Albanian people acted so extraordinarily, the most common theory falls back on something called besa. It is a narrative propagated by Yad Vashem, the Albanian government, and historians and journalists who have previously investigated this event (including myself in the past.) “The remarkable assistance afforded to the Jews was grounded in besa, a code of honor, which still today serves as the highest ethical code in the country,” states Yad Vashem. “Besa, means literally ‘to keep the promise.’ One who acts according to besa is someone who keeps his word, someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family.”

Sinani has a slightly more nuanced view. “It is not only a question of honor. It is not only a question of besa. It is not only a question of the Albanian national code,” Sinani said. “It’s about diplomacy and the politics between the various parties in Albania, as well as the qualities of the Albanian people.” Besa is something of a “folkloric explanation” in terms of accounting for way the Albanian people did what they did. “The ethical qualities of the Albanian people are a way of explaining this story: besa, hospitality, the traditional code of honor,” Sinani said, but one must also take into account other principles like solidarity and looking out for others, which are accentuated in times of tremendous peril. Besa, as an idea, has become “mystified” in recent studies of the Holocaust in Albania, Sinani concluded.

To look only at besa also ignores the other forces at work in Albania that Sinani alluded to. There were those in the government who refused to turn over lists of Jews residing within the country’s borders and provided many Jewish families with fake documentation. The role of the resistance cannot be discounted either, for the two factions – one communist, one nationalist – agreed between them a kind of neutrality on the issue of Albanian Jews. Other factors include the size of the Jewish population in Albania, which was as mentioned small and therefore easy to assimilate, and that as a Muslim-majority country, Albania avoided the centuries of Christian anti-Semitism that provided much of the background to the midnight of the twentieth century.

The recent rediscovery of the Albanian Holocaust experience quite obviously serves something of a political purpose, as when the Albanian Foreign Minister is heard telling participants a breakfast meeting hosted by the World Jewish Congress and the Israel Council on Foreign on Relations the story of besa, just when Albania is trying to move itself closer into the western family of nations. Still, the fact that Albania is producing fresh historical studies like Sinani’s and other cultural products like documentaries about the Holocaust also shows that, even in the absence of Jewish life, the historical relationship between Albanians and Jews has a tremendous resonance in contemporary Albania.