27 April 2008

Holocaust: Albanian heroes

This week, as the world approaches International Holocaust Remembrance Day on May 1, there will be many stories about what happened during this terrible period of history: stories of people, of tragedy and heartache, but also of heroism. This story focuses on the Jewish experience in Albania and the Muslim people who saved many Jews.

Somebody saved Anna Kohen's family. When Nazis marched into Albania in 1943, a few years before she was born, Kohen's parents fled the coastal city of Vlora for a village in the mountains. Six decades later, Kohen still wonders about the Muslim family that absorbed her own Jewish one.

"I want to go and find the ones that saved my parents," she said recently from her Manhattan dental practice, where a file holds two clues she unearthed last year: the rescuers' first and last names. "I always knew that they saved us. I never forgot."

Obscured in the history of Nazi conquest and European complicity is the story of Albania, a country on the Balkan Peninsula that shielded every Jew within its borders and saved as many as 1,800 others. Many of these rescue stories have been lost to the era's confounding flux of people, to time and to the humility of the samaritans themselves.

This month, the Federation, Jewish Communities of Western Connecticut began a search for those anonymous heroes. Its goal is to find some of these altruistic among Waterbury's large Albanian community, and honor them. Odds are against them.

As of 2007, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority whose responsibility includes recognition of "Righteous Among the Nations" had honored more than 22,000 of these righteous individuals from 44 countries. Of those, an estimated 1,700 are still alive.

Some have been captured in stirring black-and-white photographs by Norman Gershman, now on exhibit at the Jewish Federation's Southbury facility.

Yad Vashem in Jerusalem continuously searches to honor the Righteous Gentiles, non-Jews who helped Jews during those terrible times. It is still possible as clues still turn up.

In 1998, Yad Vashem found a former school cleaning lady from Lithuania whose family saved hundreds of Jews. Danuta Venclauskas' photo hangs above the desk of the Jewish Federation's executive director. She never shared her story until a year before her death.

"It was a matter of fact," he said. Or, too painful. "Who was Danuta? She used to clean the schools. She lived in this old rundown house. Nobody knew who she was until one of the young boys she hid ... put her in to be recognized."

There were more Jews in Albania at the end of thje war than at the beginning. The reason for this, in a mainly Muslim nation, was termed "besa," a code of honor. It means to keep the promise and combines pride, honor, trust and hospitality.

"Besa means trust. When I trust you, I give you anything because I trust you," Medi Coma explained from a desk at the Albanian Culture Center and mosque in the Overlook section of Waterbury, where the 60-something grandfather serves as president to the 4,000-member organization, one of two in the city.

Many ethnic Albanians live in the Balkans, as borders changed under various occupations. When the Ottoman Empire expanded to Albania, the people converted to Islam, and despite being outlawed for five centuries, their language survived.

In 1943, as Nazis closed in on the heavily Jewish Macedonian town of Manastir, Coma's cousin, Shabedin Aga, led a caravan of 18 donkeys carrying several Jewish families to safety. He brought them to his village near the border-straddling Lake Ohrid, about 50 miles away. It's a story Coma, of Wolcott, grew up hearing, one whose relics sat for years in his cousin's home.

Aga, a supplier, regularly trekked across Albania, from the seaside town of Durres to Manastir, where he delivered salt and other commodities to Jewish shopkeepers. On one trip, the shopkeepers asked Coma's cousin to help them flee their city, which sat precariously on a rail line connecting Germany and Greece. Word was Nazis were pushing south. The desperate Jews offered Aga money for passage to, and shelter in, Albanian villages. He declined the money. Instead, he recruited Coma's father, Vebi Coma, and a cousin to guide about 35 Jews through the mountains on donkeys. Coma's father told him what happened when they returned a second time to pick up more Jews.

They had all been wiped out. Coma relates a story of a Jewish family that left a large stack of money in gratitude. His cousin kept it for the family, and says the money is still somewhere here, even now. His cousin died nearly 50 years ago.

When Norman Gershman began traveling to the Balkans in 2003 to photograph Muslim families who helped Jews, he was continually shown items they left behind and asked if the owners would return to get them. They assured him that the Jewish possessions are still safe.

Gershman's exhibition of black-and-white images came to the town from the United Nations.

For the complete story, click here for the Waterbury (CT) Republican-American.


  1. Thanks for the reminder! I've placed Yom HaShoah on the Genea-Bloggers calendar. For the past few years, rather than focus on Bring Your Child To Work Day, or Secretial Week, at the end of April, I always look forward (that may not be the right wording but putting the Holocaust into words is important) to what I call the "Week of Remembrance, Tolerance and Justice."

  2. Thank you, Thomas.

    It is important for all to focus on remembrance, tolerance and justice.


  3. Greetings!

    I am particularly glad to have read this post - given that I am an Albanian citizen and also have a special interest in researching the Jewish experiences in Albania during the Holokaust. In fact there might be a Jewish strand back in my family's history, which I am trying to trace.

    Having studied at Columbia University, I have had the exciting opportunity to meet and become friends with a great number of Jewish young people. Indeed, at some point I realized that the majority of my college friends have a Jewish background :):)

    I am currently in the process of accumulating primary sources/critical reflections/etc. on the history Albanian-Jewish relations. It is only in the post-1990 period that it is possible to access relevant information/documentation in Albania - given that during the totalitarian communist regime such a thing was virtually out of reach or better beyond imagination. In the recent years, there has been an emergence of occasional literature (newspaper articles, and a handful of presentations in international conferences) on the Albanian dimension of the Jewish experiences in the XXth century.

    In this context, I would be highly appreciative if anyone who has relevant information or advice on this issue could direct me to relevant links/library resources/or even contacts of Jewish people who have a special connection with Albania. Any bit of information would comprise a valuable piece of puzzle in my research - whose short- to medium-term goal is the elaboration of a comprehensive analytical text and current bibliography on the matter. I find it of particular significance that the Albanian heritage of compassion and tolerance be articulated and also included in the available bibliographical resources.

    So there it is, in a few words my research committment - as well as my appeal for contributions from people in this blog.

    My name is Albi and I can be reached by email at ab2028@columbia.edu. If indeed this posting sparks the kind interest of any people who happen to be in New York (or else are connected to others who live here), I would be glad to meet over a cup of tea - given that I will be staying in the City for a few more months.

    Thankful in advance for any relevant help and advice.