26 September 2023

Thank you Albania for great WW2 heroism

Brothers Hamid (left) and Xhemal Veseli,
whose family saved Jews from the Holocaust
honoured in Yad Vashem.

saving Jewish Families of Kavajë.

In the late C15th Spanish Inquisition, the Turkish Sultan in­vited Jews to live under Moslem rule in the Ottoman Empire. This br­ought Sephardic Jews to Albania, a small mountainous Balkan country. Jews continued to em­igrate from Greece in C18th-early C19th, settling in Vlora.

In the late Ottoman era, Alb­anian national ideology claimed affiliation with no one religion and aimed for reconciliation between the nation’s faiths. After Albania's independence (1912), the Post-Ottoman government legislated for religious equality under benev­ol­ent dictator King Zog (1895-1961).

After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, new Jews sought refuge in Alban­ia from Germany and Austria. The Jewish comm­un­ity was well integrated into Albanian society, and in 1937 the com­munity was granted off­icial recognition by Zog.

Pe-WW2, Alban­ian Jews lived in the south. The Jewish comm­un­ity in Alban­ian-majority Kosovo num­b­ered c500. During the war, c2,000 foreign Jews sought refuge; they were tr­eated well by the locals, despite Albania-proper being occupied first by Fascist Italy.

When Italy surrendered in Sept 1943, Germany occupied Albania. The Germans demanded a list of Jews living in Albania, but the Alb­an­ian government refused, reassuring their Jews that they would be prot­ection. However, this could not guarantee safety because only in late 1944 were the Germans driven out of Albania-proper. 

Why were Jewish survival rates in Albania-proper so different from th­ose in Kosovo? Some showed the traditional code of honour, besa, play­ed an important role in Albania’s culture. Others sug­gest­ed the cause was the relative lenience of the Italian occupiers in 1941–3, Germ­any's failure to seek out Jews in Alban­ia in 1943–4 as thoroughly as they had elsewhere, or the Kosovo Albanians' distrust of foreigners. 

Rugged mountaineers led by Dervish abbots, lawyers, gendarmes and peasants
gave the Nazi invaders no rest. February 1, 1944. AP

King Zog actually aided Jewish refugees integrate into Albania since some German and Aust­rian Jews were escaping their countries as the Nazi Party gained pow­er. The Albanian embassy in Ber­lin issued visas to Jews until late 1938! Once USA reduced its visas to Jews in 1938 and It­aly invaded in 1939, Jews had to stay in Albania for the war - luckily!

In Mar 1939 Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered King Zog’s acc­eptance of an Italian military prot­ector­ate over Albania. Zog re­fused, and in April, Italy invaded Albania and deposed the King. A new, collabor­ative Albanian National Assem­bly voted in favour of an econom­ic and political union with Italy; the Viceroy General implem­ent­ed laws that prohibited Jewish imm­ig­ration to Albania.

A list of European Jews was compiled at Berlin's Wannsee Conference in Jan 1942, Albania having 200. 

After Yugoslavia was invaded, the community grew as Jews from Macedonia and northern Serbia, as well as Germany, Austria and Poland came to Italian-controlled Prist­ina in Albanian-annexed Kosovo. 1,000 ref­ug­ees arrived, not experiencing pers­ecution at the level Jews experienced in the German control­led territ­or­ies. The Italians did arrest c150 Jewish refugees and tran­sferred them to Berat, but they were protected by locals.

Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Greece

Jewish refugees were taken to Albanian ports on the Adriat­ic where they could travel to Italy. Others hid in remote mount­ains, while some joined resistance movements.  In any case, the Italian laws were ordered in a tepid man­ner so imm­igration of foreign Jews to Greater Albania continued. When Jews were found crossing the border, they were re­leased by the Albanian authorities into shelter. 

Smaller numb­ers of foreign refugees hid in the capital Tirana. But many of these foreign Jews were turned over to the Nazis, and 400 were shipped to Bergen-Belsen.

Soon after Italy surrendered to the Allies in Sept 1943, the Germans invaded and oc­cupied Albania. The Ger­man authorities then be­gan to target all of the Jews living in the Albanian domin­ated reg­ions of Axis-occupied Yugosl­av­ia. The Jewish community in W Macedonia, which had remained safe under Italian occup­ation, was deported.

In Sept the Alb­anian National Committee was est­ab­lished under German sponsorship, recognised by Germany as the official govern­ment. Xhafer Deva, a Kosovo Albanian collaborator with Germany, was then appointed the Minister of Interior. Foreseeing the arrival of German troops from Sep 1943 on, the Jews of Albania-proper hid in the countryside.

Even with the collaborative government, the Albanian authorities wouldn't provide the Germans with Jewish Lists for deport­ing. In June 1944, Jewish leaders sought help from Alb­ania's collabor­ationist Prime Min­ister, Mehdi Frashëri. He refused to hand the list over to the Germans, resenting their  interference in Albanian affairs.

In May 1944, a Kosovo Albanian Waffen-SS Mountain Division was formed to arres­t and deliver hundreds of Jews in Pristina to the Germans. They were deported to Bergen-Belsen death camp where 281 of them were murd­ered.

NB almost all Jews in Albania-proper in WW2 were saved from Hitler’s Final Solut­ion, even when it was under Italian rule, a circumstance that wasn't found in any other Axis-occupied country (except for Denmark and Bulgaria). How was the stark contrast in survival rates in Albania and Kosovo explained? Impressive assistance was given to the Jews by the various governmental agencies, providing Jewish families with false document­ation.

Jewish Museum Berat
Times of Israel
Kosovo Albanians tended to be more hostile towards foreigners, an att­itude ?due to the Albanian–Serbian conflict and persecution suf­fered at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Thus most Kosovo Alban­ians wel­com­ed the defeat and partitioning of Yugoslavia, and were very grateful to any power helping them retaliate against local Serbs.

In Albania-proper, when anti-Semitic legislation was adopted by the Italians in 1940, it was applied lightly. Jews felt little need to hide their identities in the Italian period, even marking their holydays in public. The Albanians' tolerance tow­ards the Jews was encour­aged by Albania-proper's religious diversity.

From Oct-Nov 1944, the Yugoslav Partisans, supported by both Western Allies and Soviet Union, and assisted by the forces of the Bulgarian Fatherland Front and the Albanian partisans, retook Ko­sovo as the Germans withdrew. The area was reincorporated in­to Yug­os­lavia.

In Nov 1944 the Nazis were ejected by local communist partisans and Albania became a communist state under Enver Hoxha (1908–1985). Meantime Axis forces in the Albanian-annexed regions of Kosovo and western Macedonia were defeated by the Yugoslav Partisans, reinc­orporating these areas into Yugoslavia.

Hoxha impl­emented a total­it­arian St­al­inist government that outlawed all rel­igious activity in the country, including for the c1,800 Jews in Albania-proper who survived WW2. Most of these survivors emig­rated to Israel; several hundred remained in Albania until the fall of Comm­unism in the early 1990s before doing the same. So stories of Albania in WW2, and under Hoxha, were hid­den. Albanians knew they would endanger families if they talked openly about having saved Jews, destroying docu­ments in case of searches. The war stories could not be told until the 1990s.

Grand Park of Tirana
memorials designed by Stephen Jacobs

One part of Tir­ana's National Historical Museum was dedicated to the Holocaust in Nov 2004. The film Rescue in Alb­an­ia (2009) was rel­eas­ed. Kosovo’s Government er­ected (2013) a plaque honouring their Jews who were killed. Many Albanian Muslims were recognised by Yad Vashem Jer­usalem (2018) as Righteous Among the Nat­ions. Berat’s Jewish History Mus­eum op­ened (2018). And a marble mem­orial (2020) in Tirana’s Lake Park honours heroic Albanians.


BBC News said...

Nothing much has changed.

Violent clashes have taken place in Kosovo between ethnic Serbs and police belonging to the Albanian-led government. NATO is deploying an extra 700 troops to the country after more than 30 of its peacekeepers were injured. Many Serbs see it the birthplace of their nation but of the 1.8 million people living in Kosovo, 92% are Albanian and only 6% Serbian.


jabblog said...

Since most of what I hear and read about Albania is negative, this made a pleasant alternative.

My name is Erika. said...

This is really interesting. Albania is one of those countries you don't really hear much about, especially historically. I didn't know much any of this, and I'm glad you shared it. Hope your new week is going well.

Hels said...


and something is even happening now, AS WE TYPE!! Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh began a mass exodus toward Armenia after Azerbaijan defeated the breakaway region's fighters in a conflict dating right back to the Soviet era. Nagorno-Karabakh's 120,000 Armenians did not want to live as part of Azerbaijan, fearing of persecution (The Guardian).

Hels said...


Hoxha was not the first dictator in the world to become increasingly paranoid about his political rivals. But he was a true horror! In his long regime he had many many thousands of his citizens executed, sent to forced labour camps or starved.

Hels said...


that is absolutely true. I have travelled all through the Balkans, going from Greece to Macedonia to Serbia to Bosnia Herzegovina to Croatia etc, and didn't know the first thing about Albania.

You will enjoy "Wonders of Albania" by Bettany Hughes on the BBC, although I would like her to do a longer analysis of the 20th century nation.

Hels said...

I am very grateful to the Yad Vashem documents called "The Rescue of Jews in Albania Through the Perspective of the Yad Vashem Files of the Righteous Among the Nations". Dr Iael Nidam-Orvieto and Irena Steinfeldt have done a wonderful job writing up the files regarding Albanian rescuers, files that were submitted after the regime change in the early 1990s.

Fun60 said...

As I am in Albania at the moment, you timed your post perfectly. I have found the scenery excellent, the people very friendly and the food delicious. More detailed accounts when I get home next week.

roentare said...

An old professor who supervised my integrated research work in Swinburne university (it was just easier to do this diploma here at the time) loved to talk about Albanian history. Yet, it was never about the humane interesting history like what you have written here.

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

Extremely interesting to this lover of history

Andrew said...

Very interesting and I had no knowledge of Abanania's protection of Jews. Pity it all went so wrong when Hoxha came to office.

mem said...

So Interesting . I had no Idea .
I think the last King of Albania was married to an Australian .

mem said...

Yup! Susan Cullen Ward ( daughter of a sheep grazier) married King Leka who was the son or grandson of Zog ( what a name !! )

Hels said...


I would have published my post later this year, but then I saw from your blog where you were just now. Thanks for the inspiration :) I can't wait to read about your experiences.

Hels said...


it depends when your professor left Albania. There was a silence enforced in Albania for such a long time that he/she truly may have not been aware of the nation's history until the fall of Comm­unism in the early 1990s. Especially dangerous if the professor's family had been in hiding.

Hels said...


People who are fascinated with history tend to know all the Big Stories, but one of the joys I have discovered in the main history blogs comes from Small, Hidden but True Stories.

A few years ago I wrote a post called My Favourite History Blogs for that very reason:

Margaret D said...

Amazing history you have written about. Jews in the past sure didn't get a fair go of it, very sad.
I've heard of read little of Albania.
I recently watched a Jewish story/series on Netflix.

Rachel Phillips said...

I recommend the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, first winner of the International Booker prize a few years ago. His book The Doll is semi-autobiographical about his mother and family growing up under Hoxha. I bought a few of his books whilst in Albania last year. English translations are available at the airport in Tirana. He is a very good writer. I enjoyed your post and visited the places you mention. I loved Albania very much.

Hels said...


1.During the 1st Balkan War pre-WW1, Serbia and Montenegro carried out terrible crimes against the Albanian population, after expelling Ottoman Empire forces from present-day Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia.
2.Prime Minister Zog became President and dictator in 1925, suppressing civil liberties in alliance with Italy until 1939.
3.Hoxha was just another tragic era, covering 1946-85.

Hels said...


Thank you...yet another surprise.
Leka was born at Tirana pre-WW2 and left when Mussolini invaded Albania. When dad died in 1961, King Leka I was crowned in Paris, but was expelled on political grounds. During his unsettled world travels, Leka met a very distant cousin Susan Cullen-Ward in Sydney. The newly married couple moved to Madrid, where they were befriended by King Juan Carlos, until they were expelled. They then fled to Rhodesia and then to South Africa.
Finally they went to Albania where Leka wanted to rule as the real king in 1997.

Hels said...


I too still have a lot more to read. Thank you for the Netflix reference.

Hels said...

Thank you for referring to The Doll by Ismail Kadare, 2020. The Guardian wrote an excellent review:

The Doll is full of compelling details of life in a changing Albania, as the citizenry come to terms with various hues of communist rule under Soviet-backed Enver Hoxha.

Along many of Kadare’s familiar concerns, The Doll is rich with the folkloric roots of modern life or the absurdity of Albanian politics. But the poignant observation, bitter irony and misspoken fear running through the narrator’s central relationship with his mother are what dominate this fascinating study of a difficult love.


Luiz Gomes said...

Boa quarta-feira e com muita paz e saúde. Parabéns pelo seu excelente trabalho de pesquisa, minha querida amiga.

Hels said...


I am glad you found the post useful, especially if you have never been to Albania, nor read any of that country's history.

Hels said...


King Zog's real name was Ahmed Muhtar bey Zogolli :)