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Statement by Congressman Tom Lantos, Chairman of the House International Relations Committee




HON. TOM LANTOS of California

in the House of Representatives

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mr. LANTOS. Madam Speaker, I would like to call the attention of my colleagues in the Congress to a ceremony that was held on November 1 at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. This ceremony, which recognized the unique role that Albanians played in saving every Jew who either lived in Albania or sought asylum there during World War II, marking the opening of “Besa: A Code of Honor/Albanians who Rescued Jews during the Holocaust.” This exhibit by Jewish American photographer Norman Gershman documents the heroism of the rescuers and their families–65 percent of whom were Muslim–who saved more than 2,000 Jews from the ravages of the Nazi Holocaust.

Few people are aware that all Jews who lived in Albania during World War II or sought asylum there were saved from likely death during the Holocaust. Approximately 200 Jews lived in Albania during the early 1930s, while nearly 2000 Jews resided there by the end of the war– making Albania the only nation that can claim that every Jew within its borders was rescued from the Holocaust. When the Italian fascists invaded Albania in 1939, followed by the German Nazis in 1943, the Albanian population hid Jews; furthermore, Albanian government officials refused to comply with the order to provide a list of Jews living in Albania. While many Albanian citizens hid Jews on their own initiative, the rescue operation became more coordinated as the danger increased and “national liberation councils” in towns where Jews were hiding moved them from place to place–either with false passports or disguised as Albanian peasants. Albanians living in Kosova, Macedonia, and Montenegro, then part of the former Yugoslavia, were instrumental in gaining safe passage for Jews into Albania.

Not only were the Albanians isolated from centuries of institutionalized anti-Semitism, Madam Speaker, but they also have a history of religious tolerance based on the Kanun (a set of customary laws developed in the 15th century and passed down through the generations). Its underpinning moral code of besa, which is celebrated in the Yad Vashem photo exhibition, emphasizes a sacred promise to keep one’s word as well as to provide hospitality and protection. As the Western concept of “foreigner” does not exist within the Kanun, [[Page E2367]] Albanians did not see Jews as “foreigners” but rather as “guests” who needed to be protected even at great risk to their hosts.

Information about the safe haven that many Albanians provided to Jews who were being persecuted during the Holocaust was suppressed by the communist regime of Enver Hoxha, who controlled the country for five decades. When former Congressman Joe DioGuardi and I became the first U.S. officials in 1990 to enter Albania in 45 years, Albania’s new leader, Ramiz Alia, showed us never-before-seen archives with letters, photographs and newspaper clippings about Albanians who saved Jews during World War II. Congressman DioGuardi sent this material to Israel, where the documents were authenticated by Yad Vashem. In cooperation with former Congressman Ben Gilman and the Albanian American Foundation, Albania was added to the “Righteous among nations” section of the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in 1995.

The Yad Vashem exhibit was created with the help of the Albanian American Civic League and financial support from the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Jewish Communal Fund, the New York State Department of Education, the McBride Family Foundation, and the Albanian American Foundation. It will be on display for two months at Yad Vashem before traveling to museums and Holocaust memorial sites around the world. It will be displayed on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

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. 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. Madam Speaker, I wish to formally recognize the opening of this remarkable memorial and encourage all of my colleagues to visit it where possible

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