In November, I went to exhibit by the photographer Norman Gershman, which told the little known story of Albanian Muslims that had aided and sheltered Albanian Jews and Jews from neighboring European countries during the Second World War. Albanians from top government and religious leaders down to the ordinary citizen felt a double responsibility to protect the Jews from Nazi aggression through their belief in Islam combined with their social code called Besa.
From the introduction to the exhibit:
“Albania, a European country with a Muslim majority, succeeded where other European nations failed. Almost all Jews living within Albanian borders during the German occupation– those of Albanian origin and refugees alike– were saved. Following the German occupation in 1943, the Albanian population, in an extraordinary act, refused to comply with the occupier’s orders to tun over lists of Jews residing within the country’s borders. Moreover, various governmental agencies provided many Jewish families with fake documentation that allowed them to intermingle amongst the rest of the population. The Albanians not only protected their Jewish citizens, but also provided sanctuary to Jewish refugees who has arrived in Albania.”
“When post-World War II Europe found itself devastated by the loss of its Jewish population, Albania was the only country to boast a larger number of Jewish people than it had housed prior to the Holocaust. Over 2,000 Jews from Albania, Greece, Austria, and Italy were hidden in the homes of Albanian Muslim families throughout the war. Norman Gershman, an American photographer fascinated by these stories, traveled to Albania and Kosovo to chronicle the tales of the righteous Albanians and their devotion to Besa, an Albanian code of honor, which means ‘to keep the promise’.”
These are some of their stories:
There is a large shia sect in Albania called the Bektashi. The leader of this sect during WWII told his followers that it was their duty to help the Jews.
“At the time of the of the Nazi occupation, the prime minister of Albania was Medi Frasheri. He was a member of the Bektashi. He refused to release the names of Jews to the Nazi occupiers. He organized an underground of all Bektashi to shelter all of the Jews both citizens and refugees. At that time, nearly half of all Muslims in Albania were Bektashi. Prime Minister Frasheri gave a secret order: ‘All Jewish children will sleep with your children, all will eat the same food, all will live as one family’.”
Our home is first God’s house, second our guest’s house, and third our family’s house. The Quran teaches us that all people– Jews, Christians, Muslims– are under one God.
My husband was a photographer. He learned his trade as a teenager from a Jewish photgrapher by the name of Moshe Mandil. The Italians had deported the Mandil family from Pristina to Tirana. When the Germans occupied Albania, my husband got his parents’ permission to hide all four members of the Mandil family and four of their cousins in the family’s home in the mountain village of Krujo. All eight Jews were hidden until the liberation. My husband Refik and his parents, Fatima and Vesel Veseli, were the first Albanians to be recognized by the state of Israel as Righteous Among the Nations.
When my husband was asked how it was possible that so many Albanians helped to protect Jews and hide them, he said that, “there are no foreigners in Albania, there are only guests.” Our moral code as Albanians requires that we be hospitable to guests in our home and in our country. When asked about the possibility of Albanians reporting the presence of the Jews to the Germans, my husband said that. “if an Albanian did this, he would disgrace his village and his family. At a minimum his home would be destroyed and his family banished.”
Family of Hysni Domi
Our village of Gjakova is small and everyone always knew everyone. In 1937, David Levy came to our village from Switzerland with his wife Laura and son Mario. David worked with our union tradesmen and also managed a mine. Even when the Italian occupiers conscripted the workers, he continued to manage the business. There were other Jewish families living and working in our village without any discrimination, even under the Italians. All were citizens of Yugoslavia.
When the Germans began their occupation of Kosovo in 1943, Jews were no longer citizens. They were hunted down and deported or killed. The Levy family planned to flee from the Nazis, who were coming from the north. David Levy came to our father for help. They were best of friends. David gave our father a large stash of precious jewelry for safekeeping. Our father insisted on writing out a receipt and he kept a copy and gave a copy to David with the hope that our families would be reunited.
Unfortunately the Nazis captured the Levy family. David and his son Mario were deported to a detention camp in Austria, where they were both killed in 1944, when the Allies bombed the camp. We learned from a surviving member of the Levy family that David’s wife Laura had been deported to a camp in Germany and had survived. She returned to our village Gjakova in 1945. Her health was broken and she was destitute. She knew nothing of the valuables kept by our father. She was overjoyed and tearful when our father showed her the receipt and jewelry. She insisted that he was entitled to half of the treasure, but our father refused. He had given David his word and his Besa. Finally, our father accepted a small diamond ring and gave the valuables back to Laura. Soon after, Laura left Gjakova. We think she went to Switzerland but we lost all contact.
We are the proud sons of Hysni Domi. He left us a legacy of honesty and decency to all mankind. Our father prayed in Arabic and lived his religion. This is the ring given to our father by Laura Levy. It is our family treasure.