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Albanians and Jews: An Historic Milestone in Israel

On November 1, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, recognized Albanian heroism in saving every Jew who either lived in Albania or sought asylum there during World War II with the opening of “Besa: A Code of Honor/Muslim Albanians who Rescued Jews during the Holocaust.” This exhibit by fine art photographer, Norman Gershman, an American Jew, documents the courage and compassion of the rescuers and their families—approximately 65 percent of whom were Muslim and 35 percent of whom were Orthodox and Roman Catholic—who saved more than 2,000 Jews from death at the hands of Italian fascists and German Nazis.

As Yad Vashem exhibition curator Yehudit Shendar said in her opening remarks on November 1, Norman Gershman’s exhibit is unique in a number of respects. His “sensitive photographs combine to highlight a little known, but remarkable aspect of the Holocaust.” In addition, Shendar said that the exhibit brings to light “the extraordinary story of Albania—where an entire nation, both the government and the population—acted to rescue Jews.”

This is the real significance of the Albanian response to the Holocaust: It is not only that every Jew was saved, making Albania the only European country with a larger Jewish population after the war than before it, but that Albanians everywhere hid and protected Jews. They did so out of the predominant moral code of besa, which was described by Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, at the ceremony on November 1 as “a basic, human value of helping one another, even at the risk of one’s own life.” This value of besa, Shalev said, “goes much further than the culture of higher education that did not stem the cruelty and brutality in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.” Albanians, he concluded, “showed what humanity can be at its finest.”

The role of Albanians in rescuing Jews is virtually unknown in the West to this day, because it was concealed throughout forty-six years of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist Communist dictatorship in Albania. The stories of Albanian religious tolerance and heroism were also suppressed under Marshal Tito in the former Yugoslavia ( Kosova, Montenegro, Macedonia, and the Presheva Valley), where three and a half million Albanians have experienced torture, arrest, expulsion, and genocide for more than a century. Although the Albanian American Civic League and the Albanian American Foundation share Norman Gershman’s principal and important concern of demonstrating, in the aftermath of 9/11, that there are Muslims who have saved Jews, we are equally concerned with the ongoing suppression and distortion of Albanian history, culture and reality that puts the Albanian people at risk.

The continuing challenge for Albanians is to uncover a buried history, to reveal that Albanians are Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians who have lived side by side in harmony for centuries, and to counter the misrepresentation of Albanians in the Slavic and Western press as a potentially terrorist, fundamentalist, Muslim force in the heart of Europe. Even though this is not his focus, Norman Gershman has made a significant contribution to this Albanian effort through his photographs, which were created through the help of Professors Petrit Zorba and Apostol Kotani in Albania, rescuer Mustafa Rezniqi and Xhangyle Ilijazi in Kosova, and the Albanian American Foundation in New York.

As the timeline that follows demonstrates, the revelation of Albanian heroism during the Holocaust began with the 1990 visit of Congressman Tom Lantos and former Congressman Joe DioGuardi to Tirana, as the first U.S. officials to enter Albania in fifty years. Seventeen years later, it is fitting that Congressman Lantos commemorated the November 1 ceremony at Yad Vashem on the floor of the House of Representatives. At the conclusion of his remarks, he turned to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and said: “Madam Speaker, as a Holocaust survivor who survived certain death due to the kindness of strangers, I am immensely grateful to the Albanian people for their bravery, selflessness, and generosity in risking their lives to hide and protect so many Jews during one of the world’s darkest hours. I am delighted that this exhibition is finally giving Albania the recognition it deserves for the vitally important role its citizens played during World War II, and I am grateful to my former colleague and friend Joe DioGuardi and the Albanian American Civic League for their efforts in ensuring that this information becomes publicly available.”



Part Two


As the timeline that follows demonstrates, the unique role that Albanians played in saving Jews during the Holocaust was buried for more than forty-five years because this information was suppressed by two Communist dictators, Enver Hoxha in Albania and Marshal Tito in the former Yugoslavia. The revelation of Albanian religious tolerance and heroism in World War II began in 1990 because of two pivotal developments: The Albanian government gave the archives about Albanians who rescued Jews to Congressman Tom Lantos and former Congressman Joe DioGuardi, when they traveled to Albania as the first U.S. officials to enter the country in fifty years, and Josef Jakoel and his daughter, Felicita, embarked on the secret and dangerous mission that would lead to the exodus of 300 Albanian Jews to Israel in 1991. Seventeen years later, the vast majority of Westerners still do not know about the saving role of Albanians during the Nazi Holocaust and its roots in the Albanian moral code of besa. Because of this, and because the history, culture, and reality of Albanians has been concealed and distorted for more than a century by their oppressors, it is important to document and understand how this story came to light and is still unfolding.

May 1990

Congressman Tom Lantos and former Congressman Joe DioGuardi are the first U.S. officials to enter Albania in fifty years. Seeking to ingratiate himself with Tom Lantos, a Jewish American Holocaust survivor, then-dictator Ramiz Alia presents never-before-seen archives containing letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, and other records of the unpublicized heroic deeds of Albanians who rescued Jews during World War II. Upon returning to the States, DioGuardi sends the files to Israel, where they are authenticated by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.

Josef Jakoel, a leader of the Jewish community in Albania, and his daughter, Felicita, meet with DioGuardi in Tirana to tell him about their plan to arrange for the exodus of Albanian Jewry to Israel. Felicita subsequently obtains an exit visa to travel to Greece and then, in violation of Albanian law, travels to Jerusalem through the help of the Israeli ambassador to Greece. Felicita gives a secret list of all Jews living in Albania to the Jewish Agency in Israel. The Agency in turn solicits the Israeli and Italian governments and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to prepare for the Albanian exodus.

January – May 1991

Josef and Felicita Jakoel lead 300 Albanian Jews out of Albania to begin a new life in Israel.


Josef Jakoel, who was in ill health before arriving in Israel, dies. The Albanian-Israeli Friendship Association is formed, and Refik Veseli, who was the first Albanian rescuer to be recognized by Yad Vashem as a “Righteous Gentile,” becomes its first president.


All Albanian Righteous Gentiles are invited to Israel as the guests of Jewish American philanthropist Harvey Sarner and are honored by the State of Israel for their heroism.

February 1995

The Albanian American Civic League and Foundation makes the addition of Albania to the “Righteous among Nations” section of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum a reality. Three Jewish Congressmen—Ben Gilman, Tom Lantos, and Jerrold Nadler—cochair and speak at a Civic League-sponsored ceremony and reception commemorating the installation.


Based on the information authenticated by Yad Vashem in 1990 and extensive text and photographs from Josef and Felicita Jakoel, Harvey Sarner publishes Rescue in Albania to call international attention to the unique role of the Albanian people in saving Jews from the ravages of the Holocaust.


The Albanian American Foundation begins the distribution of 10,000 copies of Rescue in Albania to publicize the courage and tolerance of the Albanian people during World War II and to bring to the attention of the Jewish people the plight of the Albanians in Kosova living under a brutal occupation at the hands of then Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. (At the request of Harvey Sarner, Congressmen Lantos and Gilman and former Congressman DioGuardi write forewords to the book.)


Norman Gershman, a resident of Basalt, Colorado, contacts Joe DioGuardi (whom he had known twenty-five years earlier when he was a businessman in New York), after reading Harvey Sarner’s Rescue in Albania and discovering Joe’s introduction and the Albanian American Civic League’s phone number.


The Albanian American Foundation raises funds to help Jewish American fine art photographer Norman Gershman photograph Albanian families and their descendants, from Albania and Kosova, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. He travels to Albania, where he is assisted in his search for the rescuers and educated about Albanian history by Albanian-Israeli Friendship Association Director Dr. Petrit Zorba and his codirector Professor Apostol Kotani, author of Albania and the Jews (1995) and The Hebrews in Albania throughout the Centuries (1999).

Norman Gershman holds the first exhibition of his photographs of Muslim Albanians who saved Jews during the Holocaust at Aspen Art Museum in Aspen, Colorado. Joe and Shirley DioGuardi attend. (Although Albanians rescuers were Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Catholics, Gershman’s focus is on Muslims saving Jews.)

May 2005

The Albanian American Foundation and Civic League host “A Salute to Albanian Tolerance, Resistance, and Hope: Remembering Besa and the Holocaust,” on the occasion of the 60 th anniversary of the Nazi death camps. Congressman Tom Lantos and Senator Charles Schumer are the keynote speakers, and Harvey Sarner, Local 32BJ President Mike Fishman, and Norman Gershman are the honorees. Then House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Henry Hyde and former Chairman Ben Gilman also address the 800-person event, along with Rabbi Arthur Schneier and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the head of the New York Board of Rabbis. Gershman shows for the first time a 22-minute film of his work with the rescuers in Albania. The Civic League brings Petrit Zorba and Apostol Kotani from Tirana and the late Roman Catholic Bishop Mark Sopi, Fr. Shan Zefi, and Fr. Lush Gjergji from Kosova to Manhattan to participate as honored guests.

Gershman travels to Kosova and investigates the role that Albanians played there in saving Jews during the Holocaust with the help of Kosova-Israeli Friendship Association codirectors Mustafa Rezniqi and Xhangyle Ilijazi.

September 2005

Local 32BJ Service Employees International Union, under the leadership of its president, Mike Fishman, sponsors a poster commemorating the strong bridge between Jewish and Albanian peoples and distributes it to thousands of Albanians who are members of the union for placement in the buildings and restaurants where they work.

October 2005

AACL Balkan Affairs Adviser Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi gives a presentation, including a showing of Norman Gershman’s short film, to the Oral History Association’s annual conference in Providence, Rhode Island, about the role that Albanians played in saving Jews from the Holocaust.

The Civic League begins work with the American Jewish Congress in preparation for international recognition of the unique saving role of Albanians in World War II.

The Albanian Canadian Community in Toronto, led by Civic League board member Saimir Lolja, hosts a public meeting with leading Jewish organizations and distributes in advance 500 copies of Harvey Sarner’s Rescue in Albania to Canadian politicians, members of the media, Jewish groups, schools, and museums.

January/February 2006

Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi publishes “Jewish Survival in Albania & the Ethics of ‘Besa’” in Congress Monthly, the magazine of the American Jewish Congress.

Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi gives a speech to the Rotary Club in Manhattan about besa as the source of Albanian religious tolerance and response to the Holocaust.

Harvey Sarner gives the Albanian American Foundation permission to reprint 20,000 copies of Rescue in Albania, which the AAF distributes to synagogues.

June 2006

U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and John McCain introduce S.Res. 521, “commending the people of Albania on the 61 st anniversary of the liberation of the Jews from the Nazi death camps, for protecting and saving the lives of all Jews who lived in Albania, or sought asylum there during the Holocaust.”

July 2006

Joe and Shirley DioGuardi travel from Prishtina to Tirana, at the request of the Albanian government, to discuss with Prime Minister Sali Berisha and Deputy Foreign Minister Edith Harxhi plans for increasing international awareness of Albanian heroism during the Holocaust.

September 2006

The Albanian American Civic League gives Senators Schumer and McCain their annual Balkans Peace Award for their Congressional efforts to recognize Albanians who saved Jews. Edith Harxhi and American Jewish Congress Executive Director Neil Goldstein attend the ceremony in the U.S. Capitol. The Civic League brings Harxhi to meet members of Congress with responsibility for foreign policy.

February 2007

Harvey Sarner dies at the age of 73 in Palm Springs, California, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. His body is buried in Jersualem.

November 1, 2007

Norman Gershman’s traveling exhibit, “Besa: A Code of Honor,” opens at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. In a reception and ceremony, Albanians are recognized for their unique role in saving Jews during the Holocaust. Joe and Shirley DioGuardi, Xhangyle Ilijazi, Felicita Jakoel, Apostol Kotani, Mustafa Rezniqi, and Petrit Zorba attend this historic event.

January 27, 2008

Norman Gershman’s exhibition travels to New York City and opens at the United Nations Headquarters on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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