In 1934, American Ambassador to Albania Herman Bernstein proclaimed, “There is no trace of any discrimination against Jews in Albania, because Albania happens to be one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist, even though Albanians are divided into three faiths.” Indeed, as Jews across Europe were being massacred en masse as part of the Nazi final solution, one country in Europe didn’t have a negative Jewish growth rate and that country, Albania, had a Muslim majority.
Prior to WWII, only 200 Jews lived in Albania, yet by the end of the war, about 2,000 Jews lived within the country because so many Jews fled Greece, Austria, and other locations in Europe to take shelter there. Other Jews, such as Albert Einstein, used Albania in order to pass on to other countries. Immigration officials in Albania permitted Jews to enter even if they didn’t have the proper paperwork and when the Nazis took over, the local inhabitants protected the Jews who lived within their country, providing them with paperwork stating that the Jews were Albanian Muslims. As a result, the Jews who fled to Albania were spared the horrors that the rest of the Jews of Europe endured.
Indeed, the Albanian Muslims have an honor code known as besa, meaning to keep the promise, which mandates hospitality and protection of guests as if they are members of ones own family. Because of this Albanian honor code, many of the Albanians who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust often don’t feel that what they did was particularly extraordinary, for they assert that any one in their culture would do the same. Yet, the reality is that other peoples in Europe did not live by the besa code, thus preventing what happened in Albania from happening elsewhere. The Albanian Muslims truly live by the Quranic principle, which is also cited in the Talmud, “If one saved a life, it would be as if he saved all humanity.”
Yet, Albanian Muslims living within Albania were not the only Albanians to help save Jewish lives. Dervis and Servet Korkut, who were Albanian Muslims that hid the Sarajevo Hagaddah from the Nazis, also saved the life of Mira Papos. When Mira’s parents were murdered by the Nazis, Mira escaped to the forests and joined the partisans. After the partisans suffered some horrendous defeats, they ordered Mira and the other young children to return to Sarajevo, which Mira viewed to be a death sentence. However, she also understood that remaining in the forests without assistance would also lead to death.
So, when she returned to Sarajevo, she met someone who worked with her father and begged him for help. He brought her to Dervis Korkut, who immediately took her into his home. Even though Nazis lived nearby, no one suspected them because they dressed Mira in traditional Muslim clothes, gave her a Muslim name, and told people that she was hired to take care of their baby. She was instructed not to speak to people outside the family, so she wouldn’t be detected as non-Albanian. Thanks to them, she survived the war. The Korkut family lived by the besa code and thus took it upon themselves to save Mira, in addition to one of the oldest Hagaddah prayer books in Europe. This demonstrates the marvelous ethics demonstrated by the Albanian people.
To watch a documentary on Albanians saving Jews during the Holocaust, see below!
By Rachel Avraham