The Jews in Albania
I owe my life to King Zog in particular and to Albania in general
As a young 15 year old girl in Vienna I was subjected to the horrible treatment that was leashed out against the Austrian Jewish population after Austria became part of Germany in March 1938. I was thrown out of the High School I had attended and had to join a catchment school for Jewish youngsters and like all other Austrian Jews I was subjected to extreme measures of anti-Semitic persecution. As a result I was catapulted into adulthood and managed in July 1938 to get tourist visas for three months from the Vienna Yugoslav Consulate for my parents and myself.
We stayed in Zagreb with my mother’s sister but once our three months were up the Yugoslav Authorities told us that we had to leave. Unless we could go to another country they would put us back to the German border and we knew that this would mean next stop concentration camp. My parents were suicidal but I was still young and wanted to live. Thus I went to all the different Western Consulates in Zagreb trying to get visas for us. Though these various countries claim with hindsight that they cared for us persecuted Jews but none of them was prepared to offer us visas in October 1938 when they saw our passports with the big red “J” that indicated we were Jewish. I was almost giving up too. No country was prepared to offer us asylum until my uncle told me to try the Albanian Consulate.
King Zog in particular and Albanians in general offered a welcome heaven to Jewish Refugees:
I knew preciously little about Albania and was not aware that King Zog had instructed Albanian Embassies and Consulates to offer visas to Jewish Refugees disregarding the red “J” on their passports and even to offer Albanian passports to persecuted Jews who had no passport. I was thus presently surprised when in stark contrast to the rather rude reception I had experienced when I called at the Western Countries Consulates I was welcomed by a kind official when I got to the Albanian Consulate. He introduced me to the Consul who made me feel welcome and immediately issued the visas I required.
I was overwhelmed by the friendly reception I was given which cheered me up a lot after all the rejections I had suffered. I was wondering what life would be like in Albania and was pleasantly surprised when the ship on which we had travelled from Split (now Spalato) docked at Durazzo (now Durres) and a couple of Viennese Jewish Refugees welcomed us to the country. They immediately reassured us that we had nothing to worry about as King Zog. in particular and the Albanians in general all pursued very friendly interfaith relations. We soon moved into the house the group of Jewish Refugees had rented next to the local police station. They received financial support from the JOINT an American-based international Jewish aid agency.
The warm welcome we received in Albania was a wonderful relief after having experienced the extreme persecution to which we had been submitted under Nazi rule. Though the majority of Albanians had under the Ottoman Empire converted to Islam there were also two minorities of Christians and Greek-Orthodox. Yet they all did and still do share friendly interfaith relations. Since this was a very unusual feature I set about to enquire the reason of its existence.
I quickly learned that the country’s population regards itself foremost as being Albanians and pursuance of different religions is allocated secondary importance. This makes them continue BESA , their traditional Code of Behavior disregarding the different religions they now pursue. BESA obliges families to offer hospitality and help if needed to any stranger who may turn up in their homes. This seems to have motivated also King Zog, though he was also a Muslim to provide a very friendly heaven for individuals and groups of people who needed help and accounts for him to have offered asylum to Jewish refugees.
My life in Albania before the last war:
I spent almost five months in Albania during which I learned a lot about the country and its friendly population. As I walked about exploring my new environment I was dressed like an Austrian girl, Thus I differed greatly from the veiled appearance of local young girls. This attracted a group of young Albanian men most of whom had been educated in Italy. They were keen for me to tell them about what life used to be like in Vienna I thus explored Durazzo like the “Piedpiper” followed by a growing group of local young men. One of them, a Mr. Dovana soon invited me to teach his two younger sisters German, French and Mathematics, which I gladly accepted. I liked teaching these two young Dovana girls five days per week.
The older women of the family though we had no language in common made me feel really welcome and proudly showed me some of their antiques which I much enjoyed. I learned that they followed the Greek Orthodox faith. They were just as concerned about my future life as were the policemen, our neighbours, most of whom were Muslims.
When Italy occupied Albania on Good Friday in April 1939 they were worried we Jewish Refugees would be killed in the fighting and made sure we would shelter. I found this very moving . When I left Albania for England in April 1939 because the World War !! was on the horizon having finally received a visa as an unskilled laborer I felt sorry to leave my many Albanian friends. The Dovana family posted me a Certificate about the teaching I had done expressing their regret that I had to leave and sending me their best wishes. I still treasure this Certificate after all these years and am happy to have recently established relations with the grandniece of the two Dovana girls I taught before the last war.
Paying the Debt I owe Albania:
Wanting to pay the debt I owe Albania for having saved the lives of my parents and myself I decided to volunteer my Developmental Expertise first of all to get the get the British public at last to recognize that Albanians had risked their own lives just to save thousands of Jewish lives before and during the last war. I managed to get the British INTERFAITH FORUM to present to the London Albanian Ambassador the GOLDEN INTERFAITH MEDALLION in recognition of the Albanians courageous behavior. I wish the rest of the world would accept Albania’s BESA Code of Honor as their model and thereby life safer and better for future generations.
Dr. T. Scarlett Epstein OBE Director: PEGS (Practical Education & Gender Support) 5, Viceroy Lodge, 143 Kingsway, HOVE BN3 4RA UK