Not quite two weeks after being knighted by Pope Francis and made a member of the Papal Order of St. Sylvester, Park East Synagogue’s Senior Rabbi Arthur Schneier received Albania’s Presidential Medal for Special Civilian Merits at a ceremony on May 8th held at New York’s Russian Tea Room.
Addressing a roomful of international consuls general, representatives to the United Nations, New York City political personalities, His Excellency, President of the Republic of Albania — Bujar Nishani made the presentation. He touted Rabbi Schneier for “his contribution, his tireless and unsparing work for more than a quarter of a century in favor of peace, understanding and tolerance, in support of Albanian issues and forging historic ties and cooperation between Albanians and Jews.”
President Nishani declared: “I am honored to be here among you — our ancient Jewish friends. I can tell you without an iota of hesitation that together we feel at home though we are away from home.” Expressing thanks to “this huge country, its government, and strategic partner, the United States,” president Nishani cited President [Woodrow] Wilson “who defended with deep detemination the fragile independence of Albania.”
Rabbi Schneier responded: “ I first learned about Albania when I was eight years old in my birthplace Vienna, Austria in 1938. Following the Anschluss. We were trying to escape…many countries closed their doors and as a child I remember Albania welcomed Jewish refugees from Germany…My first experience with Albania was [during the 1991 Reconciliation] when I went as head of The Appeal of Conscience Delegation and then Secretary of State Jim Baker was welcomed by 300,000 Albanians.”
What was alluded to—but not fully articulated — was the extraordinary behavior of Albanians [many Muslim] — toward both their own Jewish neighbors as well as Jewish refugees who sought asylum during WW II. At Yad Vashem there are posters listing the Jewish Holocaust victims in all the Nazi-occupied countries. Albania’s poster is the only one with a Zero!
At a 2007 Hidden Child Foundation/ADL event paying tribute to Albanians who had rescued Jews, were Muhamed Bicaku whose father Mefail and Elida Hazbiu whose mother Njazi had risked their lives to save 26 Jews whom they shepherded to the backwoods of Quarrishe. Few in the audience knew of the Albanian peoples’ rescue.
At that event it was reported that: “In 1943 the Orthodox priests of Struga in Macedonia came to Bicaku asking him to help save Jews from the Germans. The Bicacus shared their food with 26 people; his wife washed their clothes. The whole region knew that the Bicacus were hiding Jews but “because of the complex rules of the behavior in the mountains and the family’s reputation no one betrayed him or his charges!” In 1961, Bicacus’ father was arrested by the communists for “collaborating with Jews.” It took five decades for the full story to come out.
Also honored at the reception was outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Albania Rosemary DiCarlo.