Albania's History of Saving Jews
International leaders have been marking 70 years since the liberation of Jews and others from Nazi concentration camps throughout Europe. Recent camps that have been highlighted have been Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau. Little has been said about Treblinka and the thousands of Jews from the former Yugoslavia who lost their lives there. Nor have we heard much about the more than 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos that were established by the Nazis, while they focused on killing as many Jews as possible in the worst genocide ever to take place on Earth.
Global Jewish statistics estimate that there were 17-19 million Jews living before the Holocaust. There are 12-15 million Jews living today. As one Yad Vashem guide put it, “We are not caught up to where we were before.”
There is a silver lining in these remembrance days of the horrors of the Holocaust, and that is the courage of the Righteous among the Gentiles who gave Jews refuge during WWII. In a recent ceremony at Yad Vashem, Albanian government minister Edmond Panariti and his cousin Agron were acknowledged because the Panaritis saved a Greek family from Thessaloniki, hiding them in their home in Albania.
Edmond Panariti serves in the Albania government today as Minister of Agriculture, Rural Development, and Water Administration, and previously served for a short time as Foreign Minister. He shared why the Albanians are a people who have a custom of providing refuge to others.
“This is a part of our tradition. Albanians are a very friendly people and a hospitable people… They think that a guest enriches them.”
During WWII, Nazi Germany invaded Greece and was terrorizing the Jewish Community. So the Jews were forced to escape. Since Albania is a neighboring country, they sought refuge there.
Edmond says it was not easy. “Albania was invaded at that time, as well. It was under Nazi terror. It was very risky and dangerous because they put warnings everywhere, so anyone who would host or accompany a Jewish family would be immediately executed. Despite that, we thought it was our duty to help people in need, especially people whose lives were at risk.” The Panariti’s understood that if the Jews failed to receive help, they would be deported or murdered by the Nazis.
Edmond’s cousin Agron explained that his father was a partisan who went to Thessaloniki to buy supplies. The owner of the hotel where he was staying shared with him the plight of a Greek Jewish family. One of the family members had been shot by the Nazis and the Nazis were coming after the rest of the family. So Agron’s father put them in his vehicle. He dressed the husband like an Albanian. He made the wife look like she was very ill and needed to lie down. He put the daughter in a big suitcase. They went to the border, gave the Germans some cognac, and passed through to Albania. The husband joined the partisans. The wife and daughter stayed hidden in the Panariti’s basement for well over a month until they were considered safe and could be transferred elsewhere. The Nazis came to the door twice, knocked, and looked for the Jews but could not find them. The neighbors kept quiet. At one point, the Panaritis changed the daughter’s hiding place to a closet for better protection.
After the war, the Panaritis established a longstanding friendship with the Jewish community members that remained in Albania. Though the communist regime was against Israel, there were secret ties with the Jewish State and ongoing communications. The Panaritis also visited the Jewish Greek family who eventually were able to return to Thessaloniki.
The practice among Albanians during WWII was to hide Jews in their cellars, and give them fake names and false documents. Someone with the name Solomon became Suleiman, Isaac became Esau. Jewish men would grow beards like the Muslims and Jewish women would wear traditional Muslim garb. There were a lot of strategies implemented to cover up Jewish identity. Today, the older people in Albania still remember what happened during those times.
Meanwhile, very few Jews survived in Thessaloniki, while Albania did not lose one. In fact, there were 202 Jews living in Albania before the war, and 1,800-2,000 after the war. At least 600 of them came from Greece. Not a single Jew living in Albania died at the hands of the Nazis. Albania is the only country in Europe with this record of success.
Edmond Panariti is proud that his family and others hosted the Jews of Greece. “They were lucky because they were hosted and saved from Nazi terror. I don’t know whether in Greece they would have had the same circumstances. I cannot say that. But, the fact is that Jews left Greece, massively, and were refugees in Albania because in Albania they felt safer.”
Albania’s Foreign Minister told this writer in an interview last year that his country could assist the EU in understanding the plight of the Jews in Europe today, who are experiencing a sharp increase in violent anti-Semitism. Because of the experience that Albanians had in hiding the Jews during the reign of Hitler, there is an unusual sensitivity to this particular people group that is unique to the Albanians.
Edmond said it not only has to do with Albania’s tradition and culture. “We are the only country in the region that has a religious tolerance. This is not the case with our neighbors. The most amazing thing, and we are taking pride in it, is that we have coexistence between religions.”
Edmond explained that tolerance between religious groups happens because the communities accept each other, and respect one another’s beliefs and their history. “We are trying to do our utmost to preserve this. We’ve seen, recently, attempts to radicalize this situation; especially from fundamentalists who are trying to interfere with these favorable ties that exists between different religions… Christians and Muslims.”
According to Edmond, Moslems attend Christian celebrations and vice versa. “I have not seen it elsewhere. It is happening in Albania. We are not doing enough to promote this.”
He thinks it was the hospitality towards the Jews, with this climate of understanding and living together with these other communities, that helped protect the Jewish community in Albania during WWII.
After visiting Yad Vashem and seeing the vast resources there that explain, from beginning to end, what happened during the reign of Hitler, the Panariti’s were shocked by the enormity of the tragedy. Edmond spoke about the caustic environment in Europe that led to the Holocaust.
“This is a clear message that we are getting. We see signs now, in our civilized world, signs of hatred. By coming here, you are given a clear message -- how it can start and how it can end up.”
Albania was in the forefront of rescuing Jews during the worst systematic killing of the Jewish People in world history. Jewish leaders would do well to seek the advice of elders in Albanian communities who lived through that time period, to learn how those rescues were carried out. Jewish organizations may need to apply such historical evidence in developing new strategies for protecting European Jewish communities during future emergency times, until they can be airlifted to Israel.
C. Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, and military issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.