Intervention of Ambassador Besiana Kadare, during the UN Civil Society event: “A matter of humanity: The rescue of Jews in Albania during the Holocaust”
(Photo by Ilir Rizaj – http://www.ilirrizaj.com)
Good Morning, everyone.
It is my great pleasure to extend a warm welcome to the distinguished panelists, Ambassadors, US elected officials, Albanian religious leaders and members of the diaspora, NGOs, and to all our esteemed guests gathered here today. A special welcome to the members of Bicaku family, honored as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem, who specially came from Albania to attend our event.
Special thanks, as well, to our co-hosts, Ambassador Lauder and the World Jewish Congress, an organization with which we have a close partnership, and to the Department of Public Information at the UN.
I feel profoundly honored to have the opportunity today to represent the people and the government of Albania in commemorating the Holocaust. As we solemnly mourn the millions of innocent people killed by the Nazis, among which 6 million Jews, let’s also reflect on the lives that were saved by righteous individuals, who refused to be bystanders during those tragic times.
The story of the Albanian protection and rescue of Jews during the Holocaust is both exceptional and inspiring. Simply put, it’s a quintessential story of humanity, a legacy of civility and a lesson for future generations.
You see, every member of the Jewish community residing within Albania’s borders, survived the Holocaust. It’s a remarkable historical fact that Albania was the only European country that had 10 times more Jews after the end of the war than before!
I can proudly say that, according to Yad Vashem, there is not a single known case of a Jew being turned over to Nazi authorities in Albania, during its occupation.
Indeed, during World War II, while millions of Jews across Europe were persecuted and deported to extermination camps, often aided and abetted by local populations, the Jews found a safe refuge in Albania. With extraordinary acts of courage and humanity, ordinary Albanian people risked their lives in order to save strangers in danger. They sheltered displaced Jewish families, bringing them into their homes, providing their guests with false documents and passing them off as family members in order to keep them safe.
The Albanian authorities refused to supply the Nazis with lists of Jews, while the Albanian embassy in Berlin granted visas to Jews from any country, when no other country would.
Not only native Albanian Jews were rescued, but also thousands of Jewish refugees that fled to Albania from Germany, Austria, Poland and neighboring Greece, Italy, and the former Yugoslavia.
Yet, until very recently, the world knew almost nothing about the extent and the boldness of Albanian efforts to save Jews.
A full picture of the rescue story emerged only in the early 1990s, after the collapse of a repressive Communist regime that for half a century, kept Albania completely isolated from the rest of the world. That is why this exceptional story, confirmed by Yad Vashem only in 2007, remains, until today, virtually unknown to the larger public.
And so, we may rightly ask ourselves: What made Albanians risk their lives in order to save Jews? What is the significance of this story of bravery, honor and respect, and more specifically, what are we to learn from it?
The rescue of Jews in Albania was a matter of tradition and values. These noble acts originated from deeply-rooted Albanian traditions of hospitality, honor, and willingness to help those in need. Our ethical code of honor is called Besa, “the promise”. Its meaning is simple: You don’t betray your guest and you don’t betray your neighbor. Under Besa, any guest in an Albanian’s home is offered hospitality and must be protected at all costs. Author Harvey Sarner expressed it well in his book “Rescue in Albania,” when he said: “There are no foreigners in Albania, there are only guests”.
But what is fundamentally different about the Albanian story, as pointed out by Randi Winter, a Jewish writer who has documented stories of rescue, is that “Jews were not rescued in secret by the exceptional good persons. Entire villages knew about Jews in their midst, and no one turned them in”. Indeed, in Albania Jews were not hidden, they were hosted.
Moreover, Albanians never expected and never took any compensation for helping the Jews.
When their story finally became public, the Albanian rescuers were genuinely surprised by the publicity and the honors bestowed upon them. Indeed, these honorable people considered their heroic acts of loving-kindness (Chesed – in Hebrew) as simply doing their duty, as they believed that given the circumstances, anyone in their place would have done the same.
I would also like to emphasize that there is a long-standing tradition of interreligious harmony in Albania. (This harmony is perfectly illustrated today by the presence of Albanian religious leaders of Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox faith). In this context, it’s notable that throughout our long history, there has never been any trace of anti-Semitism. Regardless of which religion they belonged to, Albanian Muslims and Christians alike, considered helping Jews as a matter of national pride.
Listen to what the Jewish American Ambassador to Albania, Herman Bernstein, wrote in 1934: “There is no trace of any discrimination against Jews in Albania. Albania happens to be one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist, even though Albanians themselves are divided into three faiths.”
It is a powerful and enlightened message that Albanians have sent to the world through this story of hospitality, sacrifice and religious harmony. A message that is very much needed in today’s world.
I feel proud today to honor the legacy of the Albanian people and to be part of a nation, which stood on the right side of history, at the right time, and made the right decision.
Dear participants, let us never forget the irreversible consequences of hate, discrimination and indifference.
But it is not enough to remember the horrors of the past. Future generations must be taught to always take sides and stand against hate and racism. It is our common duty to strengthen our resolve in fighting the scourge of anti-Semitism, as well as any manifestation of hate, and promote the peaceful coexistence between different cultures, religions and peoples.
In concluding, let us renew our pledge to keep the memory alive and to never forget the moral imperative of Besa: cultivate tolerance, compassion and respect towards our fellow human beings, regardless of their origin or faith. For this, indeed, is the enduring lesson learned from the Albanian rescue of the Jews during the Holocaust.