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Albania's untold story

Thousands of Jews found refuge in Europe's only Muslim state, where an ancient honor code saw all as guests.

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In many cases, the Albanian government was directly involved in rescuing Jews. Apart from giving visas to Jews when no other country would, government officials refused to hand over lists of Jews to the Nazis, according to Harvey Sarner, author of "Rescue in Albania." Government documents show that negotiations took place with German commanders for the release of arrested Jews.

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But Mr. Sarner points out that the picture wasn't completely rosy. The Albanian government did adopt anti-Jewish regulations in 1938-39, before the Italian occupation of Albania, though it appeared not to enforce them. And in the annexed territory of Kosovo, Jews were gathered into areas surrounded by barbed-wire fences (though they still went to the cinema, watched football games, and celebrated Jewish holidays). He recounts one case in Kosovo in which a group of Jews was transported out of the territory and killed. But Sarner argues that even there, the Jewish survival rate was much higher than in most other countries.

An anomaly in Europe, Albania – now largely secular – is still a traditional society where, in many parts of the country, turkeys run wild on streets, bicycle-led carts double as taxis, and blood feuds take place. Entrenched in Albanian culture is an ancient social protocol called the Kanun. Dating back to the 15th century, it was passed down orally until it was finally codified in the first half of the 20th century.

According to the Kanun, an Albanian's home is first the home of God, and second, the home of the guest. Among the fundamental elements of the code is the concept of besa – a moral pledge to keep one's word and uphold one's honor.

This sense of duty is what drove impoverished Albanians to take in Austro-Hungarians after they capitulated in 1917, to shelter their former Italian occupiers after they switched sides during World War II, to welcome Albanian Kosovars in the late 1990s... and to take in Jews during World War II.

Scarlett Epstein remembers going from embassy to embassy in 1938, shopping for a visa, but limited by an Austrian passport that featured a big "J."

"Everyone slammed the door in my face when they saw my passport," she says from Britain, where she now lives. But at the Albanian embassy, "I got quite a different reception." She got the Albanian visa on the spot.

Johanna Neumann and her mother were sheltered in the Pilku family's home during the Nazi occupation. One day, a German officer visited the home and, unaware of her mother's identity, told her: "If I was ever confronted with a communist or a Jew, I would kill them on the spot." (She lived to tell the story.) A painting of the main mosque in the Albanian capital, Tirana, now hangs on Mrs. Neumann's Maryland dining-room wall.

Other Jews were given Muslim names and dressed in hijabs to hide their identities. Many of them maintain relationships with their rescuers to this day.

This Albanian hospitality is referred to in the title of a book called "Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II," by American photographer Norman Gershman, who traveled to remote parts of Albania to document the stories of rescuers while they were still alive. The result is a series of portraits that have toured the world, including Israel, the United Nations, and the US.

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