"METODO", N. 22/2006

Apostol Kotani
(Albanian Historian)

The first appearance of a group of Jews who most probably settled in the lands we call today Albania occurred in 70 AD when a ship carrying Hebrew hostages for the Roman Emperor Titus was wrecked on the Ionian coast near Saranda. While we do not have concrete facts on how many Hebrews settled in the land, a mosaic depicting a fragment of a Hebraic candleholder implies the construction of a synagogue at the time.
It is only at the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that we can document a settled community of Hebrew merchants in Durres. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Hebrews found refuge in Albania fleeing Spanish Habsburg persecution and they settled in Lezha, Durres, Vlora, Berat and Elbasan as well as in Monastir, Skopje, Prizren, and Prishtina where one can find abandoned synagogues. The good relations between Hebrews and Albanians brought about small waves of immigration from Thessaloniki, Preveza and Ioannina as these cities were added to the Greek state, to Vlora, Gjirokastra, Delvina, Kavaja and Durres. Hebrew migration in and out Albania ebbed and flowed depending on the waves of pogroms or persecutions in other countries but it was limited due to the scarce resources available in Albanian lands.
However, it was at the time of greatest need that Hebrew-Albanian friendship proved to resist the harshest trials and tribulations. In 1933 - 34, members of the Hebrew community and the High Committee for the Refugees turned their eyes upon Albania as a refugee place for Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution. Even Hebrew individuals themselves, turned their eyes upon Albania, and so during 1938 - 39 until 1943 more than a thousand Hebrews from Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece found hope and life in Albania. Although they were suffering themselves under the Fascist and Nazi invaders as well as from a worsening economic situation, Albanians clothed, fed, hid and transported Jews to safe heavens under the nose of the invaders.
For example, Mark Menahemi a Jew told me that in the beginning of 1944 when the Nazis undertook an operation in Tirana city to find and seize Jews and freedom fighters, he found refuge in Dhorka Kovaci Kolonja’s house. She got him into her marital bed and introduced him as her husband. “I’ll never forget this great act of humanity that this woman, Dhorka did” - said to me Mark Menahem. Some of the rich Jews offered money to their Albanian hosts but they did not accept. On the other hand, Hebrews gave their help to the Albanian people in their war against the invaders. Rafael Jakoeli and Nesim Levi ex - merchants in Vlora contributed giving 6000 francs per month. The same did Shemo Kohen in Delvina etc. A considerable number of young Jews joined partisan formations while others helped in the rear. Eight Hebrews Jusef Solomon Konforti, Jakov Avramovic, Isak Ruben, David Kohen, Jusef David Bivas, Leo (the partisan), Jakov Josef Bachari and Dario Arditi gave their lives fighting alongside Albanian partisans.
Incredible as it may seem, no Jews people got persecuted in Albania during the shoah. That makes Albania a unique country in Europe. After the end of the War, almost all the Jews that came during 1938 - 1943 went back to their permanent residences, so in Albania remained only those that had come before the War and a few newcomers during the War. The Albanian state never requested their removal. It was only after the fall of communism that Albanian Jews went back to Israel. As they left, they took Albania with them in their hearts-something we can verify from their correspondence. But, Albanians do not forget Jews either. They remember them as wise and hard working people, honest and very loving. This has given rise to a not inconsiderable number of intermarriages.


Testimony of Valor

The Hebrew Committee in Yugoslavia in its greetings to our Government in 1945 wrote: “While the Hebrews of Yugoslavia, Poland, Germany, etc., were exterminated through toxic gas by the Nazis fascist without differentiations, women, men and children: there was a people in the Balkans that defied against every racist theory and this was the heroic and hospitable people of Albania .. Our brothers that came back from your country told us how the Albanian families generously welcomed them in their houses and protected them from every trouble [...]”.
An engineer, Samuel Mandili writes in 20 February 1945: “All Israelis that came from Albania were saved thanks to the generous sentiments of the Albanian people that considered it as a moral duty to protect in their own houses every persecuted emigrant [...] The marvelous and noble attitude of the Albanian people needs to be known because they deserve the world’s and every cultured man’s thankfulness [...] Even the poor peasants, not only received Jews in their homes, but also shared with them their last piece of bread”. Another Jew, Nisim Bahar that got saved from the hands of the Nazis that wanted to execute him in Fier, wrote to his sister in law, Zhulia Kantozi: “I am in Ohrid I have climbed a hill on the lakeside and I see Pogradec. How I missed that country! If I could have wings to fly, I would come to kiss that holy Albanian land that saved my life”.
Miles Lerman Chairman of the Holocaust Museum Council in USA at the occasion of placing several Albanian families names upon the Memorial Wall of the Museum said: “We are here to say thanks to Albania that raised sons and daughters so noble that knew how to react in a time when Hebrews were isolated and deserted in a time when they felt like even God had abandoned them [...]”. The Director of the Rehearsal Institute of the Holocaust Museum, Mr Michel Berenbaum, pointing at the names of the 300 families placed on the memorial wall said: “everyone of these people is a lesson about human courage and nobility and a great oath for the humankind”. All of this and much more inspired me to begin work to perpetuate these historical facts as a message of peace, fellowship and love between our people. I published my book, “Hebrews in Albania during the centuries,” at great financial cost from my USD 40 monthly retirement money, adding this to all the sacrifices that my country made during the War for the salvation of the Jews.