Discussion Papers Series
The papers are based on remarks delivered at the United Nations Civil Society Briefing, “A Matter of Humanity: The Rescue of Jews in Albania during the Holocaust”, held at United Nations Headquarters on 31 January 2019.
Besa: All Will Live as One Family
by Ms. Majlinda Myrto, family of rescuers1
Shyqyri Myrto, my father-in-law, didn’t see himself as particularly heroic for sheltering his friends Josef and Keti at his house in a small little town of Albania in 1943.
As a citizen of an occupied, poor and freedom-thirsty country, my father-in-law, Shyrqyri was fortunate to witness some of the most humane, civil and noble acts of Albanian people. Resisting the occupation, the Albanians sheltered and shared the war's grievous days with thousands of Jews who chose Albania as a place of refuge during the Holocaust.
My father-in-law became friends with Josef Jakoel, a Jewish boy, while they were both students in the same school in Albania before the Second World War. After the Nazi occupation of Albania in September 1943, the situation for Jews in Albania was very fragile. Josef’s family used to live in Vlorë, a town with a lot of Jewish people, but with a new wave of Jews fleeing from Greece and telling terrible stories about the tragedy they had endured there, Josef did not feel safe continuing to live in Vlorë. He contacted my father-in-law and asked for help. And thus, Joseph and his sister Keti came to live in the Myrto’s house.
Albanian families were very large at the time, and Josef and Keti shared rooms with the other family members and became part of the family for almost two years. The Jakoels wore traditional Albanian dress and continued with their life inside and outside of the house in full view of the soldiers. While most Jews across Europe in hiding stayed invisible, in Albania they lived in the open, as friends, guests or family members.
One night, the soldiers raided the Myrto house to find the Jews in hiding. My father-in-law and Josef escaped from the house and ran until they reached the country house about a mile away. Josef’s sister Keti did not try to escape but stayed with the women of the family in a room where males were forbidden to enter. The soldiers were convinced that they could not enter this room, because of the family's Muslim practices. It was no secret in the town of Kavaja that two of the "extended family members" living with the Myrtos were Jews, but nobody betrayed them.
During one of those night raids, the soldiers arrested my father-in-law’s brother Ramazan because he was not “friendly to the occupiers”. He was tortured and dehumanized. Despite this, he never betrayed his Jewish friends hiding in his house. Even with Ramazan’s arrest and his being sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp, from which he never returned, the Jakoels were kept safe and sheltered.
In November 1944, Albania was liberated. With the withdrawal of the German Army, Josef and Keti Jakoel stayed with my father’s family for a while longer until then moved to Tirana. It was then that Josef learned the news that his older sister, Eftihia Matalia, and her family who had been living in Corfu, Greece, did not survive the Holocaust.
The friendship between my father-in-law Shyqyri Myrto and the Jakoel family lasted until both Shyqyri and Josef departed from this life. Josef and his family were very good friends with my father-in-law and were considered as family by all of us. It was around 1985 when I first met these wonderful people. I remember Josef as a quiet gentleman and very patient with us and staying for hours with Shyqyri talking. I remember the day they separated when the Jakoel family left for Israel. My father-in-law and Josef cried as they thought they would never see each other again.
In 1991, Josef and Keti Jakoel and their families emigrated to Israel after the communist regime in Albania began to crumble. In 1992 with the help of an American Jew, a group of Righteous Albanians, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, including my father-in-law, went to visit Israel and were honoured by Yad Vashem The World Holocaust Center as Righteous Among the Nations My father-in-law and the Jakoel family were reunited one last time in Israel: Josef died in 1993 and Shyqyri in 1998.
This is but one of many stories to be told. Fifteen years ago, while doing research at Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Norman Gershman, Founder and Chairman of the “Eye Contact Foundation” stumbled across a bit of little-known history that inspired him to begin a photographic investigation into the history that had laid dormant during Soviet rule in Albania since the Second World War. Through interviews with Albanians, Gershman found repeated reference to Besa as a motivating force for the response of Albanians to the plight of their Jewish compatriots and Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. Besa is a traditional Albanian code of honour which holds that if someone is in need, they must be given sanctuary and protection. To his great surprise, Gershman found out that all the Albanians gave Jewish citizens and Jewish refugees their Besa and they protected them despite the danger of being killed by Nazis. The government and the people of Albania refused to hand over the lists of Jews living there.
Another man told Gershman that his father had housed several Jewish families but needed to move them to another village as the Nazis were going from house to house with dogs looking for Jews. The Jewish children began to cry because they didn’t want to leave the safe place they were in. His father replied, “… wherever you go in Albania, the Albanians are there to protect you”2.
The Albanians risked their lives and their family’s lives. Many remain humble about it and don’t understand what the fuss is about, as, based on their code of honour anyone would risk their lives to help strangers.
This story is so important to share with the world. It is such a human story. It shows how good people are. As one woman said, “We welcomed them with bread, salt and our hearts”3. Together we can create a more just and peaceful world. Let us make Besa a global motivation.
1 This paper is based on remarks delivered at the United Nations Civil Society Briefing at United Nations Headquarters in January 2019.
3 Gershman, Besa: Muslims who Saved Jews in World War II. Page 42.
They Took Us Among Themselves
by Dr. Anna Kohen, family of the rescued4
In remembering the Holocaust, we look back on those dark times with tear-filled eyes and broken hearts trying to find lighter moments to ease the pain. Diverse people are brought together in the attempts taken after the tragedy to restore hope to the victims and to heal the wounds inflicted upon them by fellow human beings. The Holocaust is not only going to be remembered for the millions of lives destroyed by the flames of hatred. It will be also remembered for the humanity of others who tried to help the Jewish people.
There is a small country in Europe called Albania, where I fortunately was born. Albania is a small country with a great heart - where hospitality to foreigners is part of the national tradition. During the Holocaust, Albanians shared their homes, souls, food and lives with their Jewish compatriots and Jewish refugees. My family was one of many saved. I am not a survivor but I’m a child of survivors, born in the ancient city of Vlorë.
My parents, Nina and David Kohen, and my grandparents, Elijah and Annette Kohen, had come to Albania from Ioannina, Greece. They lived in the city of Vlorë. When the Nazis invaded Albania, my parents and grandparents fled to the mountains and hid in a small Muslim village called Treblasa. They changed their names to Muslim-sounding names. My grandmother Annette became Fatima. My grandfather Elijah became Ali; my father David became Dawood and my mother, Nina became Bulle. Everyone in the village knew they were Jews, but no one betrayed them.
The Albanian people risked their lives for Jewish people. I would not be alive were it not for the courage and generosity of the people of Albania, who took us among themselves and made us feel like we were at home, not like haunted animals.
The Albanian response was greatly motivated by the tradition of harmony, tolerance and Besa. Besa is a moral code and norm of social behaviour. It’s a promise. Besa is an ancient Albanian tradition in which the concept of guest exists but not the concept of foreigner. Motivated by Besa, Albanians were not silent, they did not look away, they were not indifferent.
May the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust not the only be an act of remembrance but a remembrance to act - to act on behalf of any individual or political, religion or ethnic group that is being attacked and dehumanized.
I ask you today: never condemn an entire people, culture or religion. Instead see each person individually and treat them all with tolerance and the respect they deserve. Each person has a name and an identity. Though there is evil, try to see the goodness in others who wish to live among us in peace and harmony. Each person is a universe - as the Talmud says, “He who saved a life, has saved the world entirely”.
It is appalling that many people today still have little knowledge or understanding of the Holocaust5. We have a commitment to remember the victims who perished, respect the survivors still with us and reaffirm humanity’s common inspiration for mutual understanding and justice. We should never forget.
Albanian Jews living in Albania, and around the world will never forget the actions of the Albanian people, and for saving their Jewish compatriots and refugees. Honouring the compassion and courage shown by Albanians during the Holocaust, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation has proclaimed the Republic of Albania a “house of life”6 - a beautiful and well-deserved tribute7.
5 See for example, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights: “Experiences and perceptions of antisemitism: Second survey on discrimination and hate crime against Jews in the EU” (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2019) ; The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, “The Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Study”, 2018.
7 The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation proclaimed the Republic of Albania a House of Life on 27 January 2019.
1. Why is it useful to know the history of the response of Albania?
2. The authors discuss Albania’s role in protecting their Jewish population and refugees from surrounding areas. This national act of courage was rare. From 6 to 15 July 1938, delegates from thirty-two countries met in Evian- les- Bains, France to discuss the Jewish refugee crisis caused by Nazi persecution. None of the countries present, except for the Dominican Republic, agreed to accept refugees. What impact did this outcome have on the perpetrators and the victims?
3. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as of June 2018 there were 68.5 million forcibly displaced persons including 25.4 million refugees worldwide. Of what value is learning about the history of the Holocaust for countries and international organizations faced with the refugee crisis?
4. According to the authors, what role did Besa play in Albania in protecting the Jews? Consider some other factors which could have influenced individuals to help Jews during the Holocaust, at risk to their lives.
The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.