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The objective of the planned documentary Back from the Brink (for further details, see my letter in AJR Journal, December 2009) was to express gratitude to individuals and/or countries that helped us Jewish refugees to survive. I personally had felt for a long time the need and desire to thank Albania and its population for having saved my life since after Kristallnacht Albania was the only country that was prepared to offer my parents and me a safe haven. This made me keen to include scenes filmed in Albania in our documentary. However, my failure to secure sufficient funding made it impossible to cover the cost this would have involved. Fortunately, the Albanian embassy in London was prepared to enable me and a cameraman to spend three days filming in Albania.
Thus, after 71 years I was finally able to return to Albania - the country that had saved my life. It turned out to be a wonderful experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. Everyone I met in Albania made me feel at home. This included HRH Prince Leka, the grandson of HRH King Zogu, the Director of the Albanian Association of Friends of Israel, and the former Ambassador of the Republic of Albania to Israel as well as many ordinary men and women I met in the street who heard my story when they curiously watched us filming. The only thing that marred the joy of my return was that I couldnt find a single individual still alive whom I had known during the five months I stayed in Durrės, Albanias port city, before the war.
Though I vividly remember the generous hospitality Albanians offered us Jewish refugees in 1938-39, I must admit I had not been aware that Albania is the only country in Europe with more Jews after than before the war: there were 200 Jews before and 2,000 Jews after the war. This clearly shows that Albania became a safe haven for Jews during the last war because Albanian families were prepared, even at the risk to their own lives, to offer shelter to Jewish refugees.
HRH Prince Leka and the Honorary Consul of the State of Israel to Albania kindly arranged for me to view in Tirana, the capital, their recently made film Rescue in Albania. This shows Jewish refugees who survived the war in Albania telling the story of how kindly Albanians had treated them. It also shows The Jewish Daily News of 14 July 1935 reporting that King Zogu offered German Jews visas and even passports to come to Albania and help his countrys development. Even Albert Einstein took refuge in Albania for a few days in 1935 before continuing his journey to America with an Albanian passport. Many of the refugees who survived the war in Albania ended up in Israel, though some also went to America and Canada. The film was formally launched in Washington DC on the recent Holocaust Memorial Day and my hosts kindly gave it to me on a DVD (anyone interested in viewing this film please contact me via the Journal).
My hosts also took me to the Tirana Museum, of which I was given a conducted tour. The Museum displays much of the countrys historical past, including a list of the names of all Jewish refugees who survived the war in Albania as well as of Albanian families who sheltered them. The majority of the families appeared to be Muslims. When I asked how it had come about that Muslims had risked their lives to shelter Jews, my hosts explained that central to Albanian tribal culture is the concept of besa. In accordance with this concept, each Albanian family, disregarding their different religions, is expected to treat every guest or visitor as if they were members of their family. Besa thus helps to explain the fairly unusual religious harmony that was responsible for the survival of Jewish refugees under the very difficult conditions that prevailed during the last war in Albania and for the religious harmony that still exists today in Albania. My hosts presented me with a large book entitled Besa Muslim Families Shelter Jewish Refugees, written by a Jewish refugee who survived the war in Albania and is now in America.
I hope this article will help to secure Albania and its population the
recognition the country and its people deserve for their outstanding
friendliness towards Jews.
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My parents and I are indebted to Albania for granting us asylum. Our attempt to leave Vienna was almost too late. After frantic attempts to apply for visas, Albania was the only country prepared to grant a temporary transit visa, which gave my father sufficient time to obtain sponsorship from a north of England business contact for my parents to work as domestic helps in their large house in Leeds.
In Durazzo (now I believe called Durrės) we were housed and fed in a camp run by what must have been a charitable organisation. If any reader has any information about this latter, I would be very pleased to hear (via the Journal). Cooking and cleaning were done on a rota system and I recall making our own beds and furniture from materials supplied by the camps organisers.
As a six-year-old, my memory of that time is of an extended seaside holiday in a warm land, with many playmates of my own age. Only a few images remain in my mind: the distribution of second-hand clothing and visits to a harbour-side cafe where bearded men were playing chess at shady tables. Only later did I become aware of the trauma my parents were undergoing at that time.
I would be very pleased to exchange thoughts and memories with any reader
who also experienced the Durrazzo camp. So far, I havent come across any.
La représentation de la famille Royale d'Albanie ą Paris
Profondément attristé par le décčs de M. Isni Gjanaj,
survenu le 28 mars 2010, ą Bruxelles
nous présentons nos sincčres condoléances ą sa famille et ą ses proches.
Nous tous, ses amis et la cause albanaise, avons perdu un ancien et fidčle serviteur du Roi et de la monarchie.
Nous garderons en souvenir les meilleurs moments que nous avions partagés avec lui.
Partia Lėvizja e Legalitetit
Bulevardi Zog I, Tiranė.
Tel&Fax: +355 4 2230076
Te nderuar miq,
Me hidherim te thelle ju njoftojme se ka nderruar jete Isni Gjanaj, i vellai i Sulejmanit, mikut tone dhe N/Kryetar i PLL.
Adresa email e Sulejmanit eshte email@example.com, ndersa numri i tij i celularit eshte 0032475326751.
Me poshte po ju percjellim mesazhin e ngushellimit qe kryetari Spahiu ne emer te PLL i ka derguar familjes Gjanaj per kete humbje.
Zyra e shtypit e PLL
Tiranė, mė 29 mars 2010
E nderuar familja Gjanaj!
Me hidhėrim tė thellė mėsuam pėr ndarjen e parakohshme nga kjo jetė e djalit Tuaj tė dashur, Isniut. Kjo ėshtė njė humbje e rėndė pėr prindėrit, bashkėshorten, fėmijėt, vėllezėrit, tė afėrmit, miqtė dhe tė gjithė leglistėt kudo qė ndodhen.
Gjatė kėtyre muajve ne kemi qenė nė dijeni tė luftės qė Isniu me njė kurajė tė pashoqe bėri ndaj sėmundjes sė rėndė dhe kujdesit Tuaj tė pamasė ndaj njeriut tė dashur. Ne jemi lutur gjithė kohės qė Isniu tė shėrohej sa mė shpejt dhe lajmi i rėndė na goditi pa masė.
Nė kėto momente tė rėnda ne ndodhemi shpirtėrisht pranė Jush, nė lutje e ngushėllime dhe lusim Allhaun e Madhėruar qė shpirti i Isniut tė prehet nė Xhenet, qė Juve tjua lehtėsojė dhimbjen dhe tju japė forcė pėr kapėrcimin e kėsaj humbjeje tė madhe.
Me pikėllim nė zemėr,
Kryetar i PLL