When the Muslims of Albania saved Jews from the Nazis

The scars of Nazi brutality are deep rooted in the conscious of many European nations but Albania’s positive contributions are remarkable if unknown.

A nation of under a million citizens managed to save almost all of its 200 native Jews whilst absorbing 400 from Germany and Austria. After the war, almost 2,000 Jews made Albania their new home.

Michael Berenbaum, a former project director of the United States Holocaust Museum, told the New York Times: “Albania was one of the only European countries that had more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning of the war.”

So why did Albania resist the Final Solution when others capitulated? A mixture of faith and culture inspired ordinary Albanians to take great personal risk by passing off Jews as family members.

Between 1938 and 1945, the religious make-up of Albania was overwhelmingly Muslim (70 per cent), the other main religious groups were Orthodox or Catholic. Interfaith relations transcended cultural and political norms.

A tenet of Islam, which promotes the idea that saving a life is a sacred act, fused with the cultural norm of “besa” encouraged Albanians to offer sanctuary and safe passage to anyone in need of protection. For in Albania, a promise is worth more than simple platitudes. Failure to meet the promise of protection invites shame and a loss of honour.

Italy, then Germany took turns during the war to occupy Albania, and impose restrictions among the Jewish population. In 1943, the Nazis requested a list of all Jews living in the country, but the Albanian government refused, in an effort to secure their safety.

One remarkable example of individual Albanian resistance happened in the city of Vlora. The Nazis drew up a list of Jews in the city and planned mass arrests. But many ordinary Albanians left their homes with a song in their voice and the rhythm of dance in their feet in symbolic defiance. A defiance that convinced the German army to leave the city of Vlora without a single arrest made.

The story of Albanian resistance is all the more remarkable as the Final Solution claimed the lives of 90 per cent of Poland’s 3.3m Jews, 88 per cent of Germany’s 840,000 Jews and around 80 per cent of the Netherland’s 140,000 Jews.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust museum, counts 69 Albanians among its Righteous Among Nations (a number that only reflects the known cases not the actual number of rescuers). It took the collapse of Albania’s repressive Communist government for others to learn of this war-time heroism.

In 2013, a joint project between Faith Matters and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, highlighted the role Muslims played in saving the lives of Jews during the Second World War.

At a time when relations between Jews and Muslims in the UK feel fractured, finding commonality in the stories of heroism in times of war, will help bridge the divide between faiths at a time of rising counter narratives.