According to the Albanian concept of besa, a sort of code of honor, a person in need must be provided with every possible measure of protection and assistance. It was thanks in no small measure to this idea that nearly all of Albania’s 2,000 Jews — and hundreds of foreign Jewish refugees — were spared as World War II tore through Europe.
In April, journalist and amateur Holocaust historian Jack Goldfarb witnessed the unveiling of a granite monument devoted to Albania’s heroism, thus fulfilling his own personal pledge of besa that began more than eight years ago. The monument is displayed at a Holocaust memorial park in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
“I have a tremendous satisfaction knowing that both my Albanian friends and those that carried out the heroic work have been honored here in New York,” Goldfarb told the Forward.
Goldfarb first learned of Albania’s wartime history during a series of trips he took to the region in the 1990s, just as Albania was emerging from decades of communist rule.
In 1943, the Nazis asked Albanian authorities for a list of the country’s Jews. They refused to comply. “Jews were then taken from the cities and hidden in the countryside,” Goldfarb explained. “Non-Jewish Albanians would steal identity cards from police stations [for Jews to use]. The underground resistance even warned that anyone who turned in a Jew would be executed.”
Goldfarb worked with Israel’s Yad Vashem and with Bernd Fischer, a specialist in Albanian history at Indiana University -Purdue University Fort Wayne, to compile the material necessary for the approval of the new monument.
“This is a story that needs to be told,” Fischer told the Forward this week. “There were actually more Jews in the country after the war than before — thanks to the Albanian traditions of religious tolerance and hospitality. In Albania, when someone crosses the threshold of your home, your honor depends on defending him.”