When it comes to European countries where Jews endured World War II, Albania is first in the alphabet — but seldom first to mind.
Yet the story of how Europe’s only Muslim country held the Holocaust at bay even while being occupied by Nazis is one that Johanna Gerechter Neumann wants you to remember.
“I often say that little Albania saved the morality of the world,” she says.
Ms. Neumann was born in Hamburg in 1931. Now she lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. But from 1939 through 1945, she lived in Albania.
The story of how Ms. Neumann, her parents, and all the other more than 2,000 Jews who made their way to Albania lived out the war unmolested stands in sharp contrast to how Jews fared elsewhere in German-controlled territory.
On Wednesday night the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly will show a film about Albanians who rescued Jews. “Besa: The Promise” follows photographer Norman H. Gershman as he travels to Albania to photograph rescuers, and it includes Ms. Neumann’s story. The screening will be part of the JCC’s Yom Hashoah commemoration. An exhibit of Mr. Gershman’s photographs will be on display at the JCC through May.
Before the Nazis rose to power in Germany, only a few hundred Jews lived in Albania. The country’s one synagogue had been destroyed in the First World War and not rebuilt. Nestled between Greece and Yugoslavia, Albania was one of the more backward countries in Europe.
Johanna Neumann wishes she could ask her parents, Siegbert and Alise Gerechter, how they discovered that Albania could be a path for their escape from Germany. Not that they were quick to seek escape. At first, Hitler seemed like an aberration to them. Her father, she says, was a German patriot. He had fought on the front lines in the Great War, in which his younger brother had been killed. He was even awarded a special medal by Hitler, along with all the veterans of the front lines, in 1935. Her mother was from a proud Hamburg Jewish family that traced its arrival in that city to 1763.
Even as two aunts and an uncle emigrated to New York, Johanna’s parents stayed put. But then there was Kristallnacht pogrom, and “even my father had to admit there was no place for Jews in Germany,” she said.
The family — Ms. Neumann was an only child — applied to emigrate to America — but her father was from a part of Prussia that had became part of Poland, and the Polish immigration quota was full.
So her parents opened an atlas and set their sights on Albania.
Albania was ruled by King Zog — originally Ahmet Muhtar Zogolli, who had been selected as prime minister in 1925 and then assumed the monarchy in 1928. King Zog was Muslim, as was four-fifths of the country’s population of a million or so. In the early 1930s, the king had tried to encourage Jews to immigrate en masse to his country, which he wanted to modernize. That didn’t work out, but he instructed his embassies in Germany and Austria to issue visas to any Jews who asked for them, no questions asked.
“My mother went to Berlin and got the visas and off we went, at the very end of February 1939,” she said. “Not knowing where we were going, not knowing what to expect, not knowing anything about the country or anybody.”
On March 1, they arrived in the Albanian port of Durrës.
“Much to our delight and surprise there were German-speaking people at the pier,” she said, Jews who had preceded them. They planned to stay a few months, until they could secure visas to America. In fact, they did not leave Albania until after the war, when they first went to a displaced persons camp across the Adriatic in Italy before finally making it to America in 1946.
“For a young girl it is an adventure,” Ms. Neumann said of her time in Albania. She played hopscotch with Albanian girls. She made friends. She learned the language. “I often think now, how did my parents feel? It must have been very difficult for them to leave everything and go to a place with no knowledge of what to anticipate. Not the language, not the country, not anything.”
Five weeks after the Neumanns arrived in Albania, the Italians invaded and King Zog fled. Yet though Mussolini was allied with Hitler, “The Italian occupation did not bother us one little bit,” she said. “The Italians were very gracious. They knew we were Jews. We had friends among the soldiers.”
The refugees were supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee until the war stopped the flow of money. “My parents opened up a little laundry, washing clothes for Italian truck drivers. It was very difficult, very degrading. In Hamburg, my father was a manufacturer of leather gloves. Here he was scrubbing dirty underwear.”
In the years that followed, the family lived in 17 different places. They had to leave Durrës in 1940, when Italy launched an invasion of Greece from Albania; all foreigners had to leave the militarily significant port city.
In April 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia and about 2,000 Jews — by far the largest influx — fled Yugoslavia for Albania.
“The Albanian government opened their borders and allowed as many Jews as could to escape over the border,” Ms. Neumann said. “The German general in Belgrade knew who escaped. He demanded the Albanian government return these people within 48 hours.”
The Albanian interior minister took the two days to distribute the Jewish refugees among Albanian families. “He went back and said to the Germans, we looked for Jews but we didn’t find any.”
Those Jews the Albanians couldn’t immediately place in homes in the countryside were put into a hospital and labeled as quarantined with typhoid fever. “Not one was deported,” she said.
In 1943, Germany invaded Albania and asked for a list of Jews.
They were told: “We don’t know of any Jews. We just know Albanians.
“Just the fact they had the courage to say that is incomprehensible. Everyone knew we were Jews. Not one single one of us was ever denounced or deported.
“It would have been simple to say to the Germans, ‘see that woman, she’s Jewish.’” Instead, “they had the courage, they had the guts, to deny the Germans. They could have been shot on spot.”
But that’s where the Albanian ethos encapsulated in the word “besa” came in. The word means “promise,” and for an Albanian, Ms. Neumann said, “a promise is a promise, no matter what.” Further, and related, there is an implied promise of hospitality. “A stranger in my house has to be guarded, protected, at all costs,” she said. “It goes so far as to say that if something happens to a stranger, on his way to my house or away from my house, I am responsible and it’s a shame on the whole village.”
Once the Germans came, Ms. Neumann’s father hid with farmers in the countryside. Johanna and her mother lived with an Albanian family in the capital city, Tirana. The father, Njazi Pilku, was an Albanian Muslim who had studied engineering in Germany; the mother, Liza, was the German woman he married.
“From the beginning we were accepted as friends,” Ms. Neumann said. “She was very pro-Hitler, no question about it. She had a big portrait of him in the living room. We were protected by her. German soldiers came to visit her, and she would introduce us as family visiting from Germany.
“Her courage should not be underestimated. If anybody had told a soldier that’s not true, that we were Jews, she would have been shot on the spot and her children would be shot on the spot.”
In all the 17 locations, the Neumann always stayed with Muslims. They were invited to join their hosts at the mosque for Ramadan. “We were wined and dined during the holiday of Ramadan,” Ms. Neumann remembers.
In 1941, they were living in a policeman’s home, and their host asked Ms. Neumann’s father if he could join them for their Passover seders. He said yes. “To this day I can’t say how my father could explain to him what was going on,” she said.
Three and a half years later, the partisans came down from the mountains and won half of Tirana back from the Germans. The Neumanns were headed out into the countryside, away from the fighting, when shooting started.
“My father said to my mother, in German, we should quickly lie down. A partisan girl heard the German and arrested them on the spot as spies. She took us to the nearest field officer — who was the Albanian policeman who had joined our seder,” she said.
After the war, in September 1945, they were taken to a D.P. camp in Italy. There they discovered the horror of the Holocaust as they lived with survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. “As puzzling as it may sound, we did not know what going on” elsewhere during the war,” she said.
Ms. Neumann has worked with Yad Vashem to honor the Albanians who protected her family.
And she believes the story of how Muslims protected Jews has a contemporary relevance.
“We’re making a terrible mistake in this day and age when we say that because one Muslim is a terrorist, all Muslims are terrorists,” she said. “The way prejudice is here in America now, that’s frightening. I try desperately to point out that people should not be prejudiced.
“Human beings are human beings. We were created by one God. Among everybody there are good and bad elements. People need to be made aware of the fact that there were good and courageous Muslim people, even at the risk of not only their own lives, but of their whole families.”