Albania's untold story
Thousands of Jews found refuge in Europe's only Muslim state, where an ancient honor code saw all as guests.
Fritzi Weitzmann Owens came from a "cultured city." So in 1938, when Hitler's invasion of Austria forced her to flee her native Vienna, Albania – "a backwards country," as far as she was concerned – wasn't her family's first choice.Skip to next paragraph
But few places in Europe were willing to accept Jews, and the United States had a quota system. Albania, one of Europe's least developed countries, became her family's refuge. Offered visas by King Zog himself, the Weitzmanns spent four months in Albania before finally getting papers for the US.
They lived in a "junk pile" hotel with no running water, but the king – an old friend of her father's – helped them establish a photography business and the locals brought them homemade cakes.
"I feel that we were very lucky because without this little part of history, we would have died," Mrs. Weitzmann Owens says from her home in New York City. "We are grateful every single day."
She is one of thousands of Jews to have been saved from the Holocaust through Albania, Europe's only Muslim country at the time. Amid better-known tales, such as "Schindler's List," this instance of Jewish rescue went largely unknown for decades because of a postwar dictatorial communist regime that left Albania's borders closed to the world. Today, a growing body of research is finally shining a spotlight on this story of hospitality, sacrifice, and religious harmony.
Census information shows that in 1931, there were 200 Jews living in Albania. According to some estimates, that number was 10 or 15 times higher after the war.
Canadian-Albanian Saimir Lojlia has produced what might be the most comprehensive list of Jews saved in Albania – according to his count: 3,160. An engineer by trade, Mr. Lojlia has spent years digging through archived documents, photographs, and objects, and has edited several books on the rescue of Jews in Albania. He says there is no evidence of a single Jew being killed or handed over to the Nazis there.
"It is the greatest untold story," he says, getting slightly emotional. "This is the only country in Europe [where] all Jews were saved.... The only country."
What is fundamentally different about the Albanian story, says Randi Winter, a Jewish writer who has helped document these stories of rescue, is that Jews weren't rescued in secret by the exceptional good person. Entire villages knew about Jews in their midst, and no one turned them in.
"They didn't save them in a way that we think of when we see these Holocaust films. They were not in sewers," Ms. Winter says.