A candle amidst the darkness: How Albanian Muslims saved their Jewish neighbours during WWII

This month we’ve been commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) and paying tribute to those who lost their lives in the Holocaust and the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Holocaust Memorial Day itself is on the 27th January and this day is of particular historical significance as on this date, Auschwitz-Birkenau – the largest Nazi death camp – was liberated by the Allied Forces in 1945.

Today, with rising anti-Semitism and hate crime across the board – both nationally and internationally – it’s crucial that we remember the lessons of the past and where hate can and does lead. During the Holocaust – the systematic campaign to exterminate the European Jewish population – a staggering six million Jews lost their lives at the hand of the Nazis, alongside members of the LGBT and Roma communities, people living with mental and physical disabilities and political opponents to the Nazi regime.

Where “othering” and hatred go un-checked, discrimination and persecution can and does follow. The Holocaust is a stark reminder for us all of the terrible depths to which humanity can sink and indeed did lead to during the first half of the 20th century. For this reason, we must remember, we must learn lessons and we must never forget. Yet, whilst the world witnessed immense horror and millions of people lost their lives in what can only be described as a scar on the history of humanity, there were however a series of heartwarming examples of the true goodness of humanity.

During WWII, despite the hatred, violence and persecution, there were many people who stood up and who refused to give up on their Jewish neighbours. Individuals and communities across the globe sheltered – and even risked their lives in the process – to save Jewish refugees and neighbours from persecution. In fact, over 26,000 people from at least 51 nations saved the lives of Jews facing persecution. Known as the Righteous Among the Nations, these people were later honoured for their bravery, compassion and integrity during such a dark period of humanity.

One particular heartwarming example is of the 75 Albanian Muslims honoured as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Following the Albanian national code of honour (“besa“) to protect others and keep to their word, these honoured Albanians sheltered their Jewish neighbours at a time when many others did not. In fact, this Muslim majority country had a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than before. Albania therefore stands as an inspiring example of courage, compassion and humanity.

Here are the stories of just a handful of these inspiring individuals to help us remember that Jews and Muslims are brothers and sisters and how we can and should help our neighbours in times of ease and hardship.

Beqir Qoqja

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Beqie Qoqja

“I have always been a devout Muslim. During the years of Communism all the institutions of God were closed, but not the heart. I did nothing special. All Jews are our brothers”

I am ninety-one years old and in good health. I live in the same house now, with my son and his family, as I did when I sheltered my close Jewish friend, Avram Eliasaf Gani, in 1943 and 1944. At first I hid Avram here, but when the persecution of Jews became more horrible, I sent him to the home of my parents in a remote district of Krujë. There were no roads for cars back then so each week until the end of the war I traveled on horseback to my parents’ home to provide food and all the necessities for my friend.

During those years, no one except my family knew of our sheltering a Jew. After the war, Avram returned to Tirana and we remained good friends. I have been a tailor all my life. Now I am retired and everyone calls me Babai (Father). I still like to dress with style.

Story as told by Beqir Qoqja.

On 21st July 1992, Yad Vashem recognised Beqir Qoqja as Righteous Among the Nations. 

Zyrha Kasapi and her son, Hamdi Kasapi

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Adile Kasapi with a photograph of her husband, Hamdi Kasapi

“Both Hamdi and Zyrha were devout Muslims. They believed that it is a moral duty to help one another. Religion was part of our family education. It would have been unthinkable to denounce Jews in need. Fifty years of Communism has diluted our piety.”

Hamdi Kasapi, my husband, died in 1989. He was a cinematographer and was proclaimed an Albanian Hero of Socialist Labor. He and his mother, Zyrha, have been honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. I and my sons, Naim and Francis, treasure what Hamdi and Zyrha did for the Jewish family of Mose Frances, his wife, two children and mother. They came from Skoplje in Macedonia, and were sheltered in our home in Tirana. Hamdi spoke the Macedonian language. During the German occupation, we sheltered them in our small apartment in Tirana and the home of friends in the nearby village of Babrru. It was very difficult as we had only two rooms.

In 1944 the German terror was very intense, with house-to-house searches in Tirana. By then we had given the family Albanian names and clothing and moved them to Babrru for greater safety. One day, Mrs. Frances and her children had walked to our home from Babrru for a visit, but then they were obliged to stay the night because of German patrols. That night the Germans pounded on our door. Mrs. Frances escaped through the back door that connected to another house, and the children hid in the bed with the children of our family. The Germans beat Hamdi until he was unconscious, then they left. The Frances children witnessed the Germans’ brutality against their protector. The family survived the war and returned to Macedonia.

In 1948, they immigrated to Israel. We lost all contact until 1990 when the first Albanian recognised as Righteous Among the Nations, Refik Veseli, made contact with the Frances children, Marcel and Esther, in Israel. But that was after Hamdi had passed away.

Story as told by Adile Kasapi (wife of Hamdi Kasapi).

On 14th February 1995, Yad Vashem recognised Zyrha Kasapi, and her son, Hamdi Kasapi, as Righteous Among the Nations.

Kasem Jakup Kocerri

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From left to right: Burbuqe,
Kasem Jakup Kocerri, Bino, Ana

“We have been a family of Muslims for 500 years. “To save a life is to go to paradise”. Besa came from the Koran. I salute all the Jews. May their homes be their sanctuaries. I drain my glass of raki as I want to honor all my Jewish friends. I am proud to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.”

I was born in 1915. All my life I have been a shepherd from Vlorë. I lived with our livestock in the hills. In Vlorë we had many Jewish families who were long-time members of our community. I remember Jakov Solomoni acted as the rabbi at Jewish holidays. We were the best of friends. Jews and Muslims are cousins.

In early 1944 a retreating German division came to our village from Greece. Our entire village was part of the national front of partisans. If the Germans killed one Albanian we felt the right to kill 100 Germans! The Germans were looking for Jews “to burn them alive with gasoline as Christ-killers”. I took Jakov and his family with horses at night into the hills and hid them in a barn where I kept the sheep. Part of the family were separated and hidden with other villagers in the forest. Our dogs kept all strangers and patrols away. Others in our village took the remaining Jewish families into hiding.

We sheltered parts of the Solomoni family for six months until the Germans left in late 1944. All the Jewish families of Vlorë survived. The Jews did not know of the survival of their family members until they were all reunited after the Germans left. The Germans massacred many of the partisans of Vlorë and some were deported to death camps. The Jewish families stayed in Vlorë all through the Communist period until 1991. Some then went to Greece but most immigrated to Israel. We still correspond with Jeannette Solomoni, the daughter of Jakov, from Israel. I remember Jakov taking me to a tree where he had hidden ten gold coins, which he offered me. I refused. I took no money from my Jewish friend.

Story as told by Kasem Jakup Kocerri.

On 31st March 1993, Yad Vashem recognised Kasem Jakup Kocerri as Righteous Among the Nations.

Ali Sheqer Pashkaj

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Enver Pashkaj with statue of Albania’s
national hero Skanderbeg

“Why did my father save a stranger at the risk of his life and the entire village? My father was a devout Muslim. He believed that to save one life is to enter paradise.”

Our traditional home is in Pukë. My father owned a general store with food provisions. It was the only store of its kind for many miles around. One day a German transport rolled by with nineteen Albanian prisoners on their way to hard labor, and one Jew who was to be shot. My father spoke excellent German and invited the Nazis into his store and offered them food and wine. He plied them with wine until they became drunk.

Meanwhile he hid a note in a piece of melon and gave it to the young Jew. It instructed him to jump out and flee into the woods to a designated place. The Nazis were furious over the escape, but my father claimed innocence. They brought my father into the village and lined him up against a wall to extract information about where the Jew was hiding.

Four times they put a gun to his head. They came back and threatened to burn down the village if my father didn’t confess. My father held out, and finally they left. My father retrieved the man from the forest and hid him in his home until the war was over. His name was Yeoshua Baruchowiç. There were thirty families in this village, but no one knew that my father was sheltering a Jew. Yeoshua is still alive. He is a dentist and lives in Mexico.

Story as told by Enver Pashkaj (son of Ali Sheqer Pashkaj).

On 18th March 2002, Yad Vashem recognised Ali Sheqer Pashkaj as Righteous Among the Nations.

The brothers: Hamid and Xhemal Veseli

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Hamid Veseli (left), Xhemal Veseli (right)

“Our parents were devout Muslims and believed, as we do, that “every knock on the door is a blessing from God”. We never took any money from our Jewish guests. All persons are from God. Besa exists in every Albanian soul.”

Our deceased brother Refik was the first to be honored in Albania as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. Now we both have been given the same honor for sheltering the family of Joseph Ben Joseph as well as the Mandil family. Under the Italian occupation, Joseph worked for me (Hamid) in my clothing shop and Moshe Mandil worked in our brother Refik’s photography studio. Both families were refugees from Yugoslavia.

With the coming of the German occupation in 1943, both Jewish families were moved to our family home in Krujë. Xhemal walked the parents night and day for 36 hours to reach our family home. We dressed them as villagers. Two days later we transported the children to Krujë. During the day we hid the adults in a cave in the mountains near our village. The children played with other children in the village. The entire neighborhood knew we were sheltering Jews. There were other Jewish families that were being sheltered. One day the Germans were conducting a house-to-house search looking for a lost gun. They never found the gun and executed the soldier who lost it. We sheltered the Jews for nine months, until liberation. We lost all contact with the Ben Joseph family. They left for Yugoslavia too early, and we fear that the retreating Germans may have killed them. The Mandil family also left for their home in Yugoslavia. Our brother Refik visited them after the war, and studied photography with Moshe. The Mandil family subsequently immigrated to Israel.

Four times we Albanians opened our doors. First to the Greeks during the famine of World War I, then to the Italian soldiers stranded in our country after their surrender to the Allies, then the Jews during the German occupation and most recently to the Albanian refugees from Kosovo fleeing the Serbs. Only the Jews showed their gratitude.

Story as told by Hamid Veseli and Xhemal Veseli.

On 23rd May 2004, Yad Vashem recognised the brothers, Hamid and Xhemal Veseli, as Righteous Among the Nations.

Destan and Lime Balla

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Lime Balla

“All of us villagers were Muslims. We were sheltering God’s children under our Besa.”

I was born in 1910. In 1943, at the time of Ramadan, seventeen people from Tirana came to our village of Shengjergji. They were all escaping from the Germans. At first I didn’t know they were Jews. We divided them amongst the villagers. We took in three brothers by the name of Lazar.

We were poor – we didn’t even have a dining table – but we never allowed them to pay for the food or shelter. I went into the forest to chop wood and haul water. We grew vegetables in our garden so we all had plenty to eat. The Jews were sheltered in our village for fifteen months. We dressed them all as farmers, like us. Even the local police knew that the villagers were sheltering Jews. I remember they spoke many different languages.

In December of 1944 the Jews left for Priština, where a nephew of ours, who was a partisan, helped them. After that, we lost all contact with the Lazar brothers. It was not until 1990, forty-five years later, that Sollomon and Mordehaj Lazar made contact with us from Israel.

Story as told by Lime Balla.

On 4th October 1992, Yad Vashem recognised Destan Balla, and his wife, Lime Balla, as Righteous Among the Nations.

Credits and further information:

What an incredible piece of history! A huge thank you goes to Yad Vashem for the fantastic exhibition, their continuous work and for allowing Voice of Salam to share this exhibition. Thank you!

If you’ve been touched by these inspiring stories, please do share this blog and visit the Yad Vashem website to find out more. Further information on the Righteous Albanian Muslims can specifically be found here: Besa: A Code of Honour.

If you’d like to find out more about Muslims across the globe who saved their Jewish neighbours, Faith Matters have also produced a guide in collaboration with Yad Vashem which can be viewed and downloaded here.

Text and materials: Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center (2019)

Photography: Normal Gerhshaan (Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center (C) (2019)

Yad Vashem’s easy to print, museum-quality exhibitions are designed to promote dialogue about the Holocaust, impart its universal meanings and foster a connection to the relevance of the murder of 6 million Jews during the Shoah to daily life in the 21st century.

The ready2print exhibitions are specially created exhibitions, curated by Yad Vashem’s expert staff, for local production. Yad Vashem provides, free of charge, high-resolution digital files – you cover costs of production and installation.

For further information, please contact:

Tel.: +972-2-644-3250
Email: traveling.exhibitions@yadvashem.org.il

This blog is dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust and all subsequent genocides and to the Righteous Among the Nations who helped show the best of humanity during a period of immense darkness. Rest in peace each and every one of you dear brothers and sisters. May your memory be a blessing.

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