When Jews were being murdered in much of the Christian nations of Europe during the Holocaust, Johanna Neumann and her family found shelter among the Muslims of Albania.
While many non-Jews helped Jews throughout Europe, said Neumann, they did so at the risk of “being denounced by their neighbors to the government.”
But in Albania, “no one ever denounced a single Jew,” she said. “No one in Europe did what the Albanians did.”
Neumann spoke to a crowd of about 300 gathered April 27 at the Young Israel of East Brunswick for the annual Yom Hashoa commemoration of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
The event was cosponsored by the federation’s Edith and Martin Stein Endowment in memory of Beatrice Zucker.
Although Albania had only about 200 Jews before the war, 2,000-3,000 Jews were welcomed as “guests” under the country’s code of ethics, known as besa.
Neumann described how Albania’s King Zog — then Europe’s only Muslim ruler — had instructed his country’s foreign embassies to provide visas to Jews and for guards to allow entry to those arriving at the border. Among those were Neumann and her parents, Alice and Siegbert Gerechter, who were protected for more than six years after fleeing from Hamburg, Germany, months after Kristallnacht.
Until the German invasion of Albania in the summer of 1943, the Gerechters had private living quarters in the port city of Durazzo. For their safety they were moved inland from town to town, always given refuge by Muslims.
When the Germans gave the Albanian government 48 hours to turn over the Jewish exiles, the Albanians instead used the time to find new hiding places. Any remaining Jews, Neumann said, were placed in hospital quarantine rooms to protect them.
Eventually the family returned to Durazzo where they were sheltered for the rest of the war by the Pilku family. Neumann successfully petitioned Yad Vashem to have the family named “Righteous Among the Nations.”
However, King Zog has not been recognized, an oversight she said she is “working on, and I hope to change next year.”
In recent years, as communism crumbled, word about the Albanian recue has begun to seep out — much to the delight of Neumann, who now works at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and frequently speaks about the Albanian heroism.
“I sometimes have Albanians in the audience who come up to me in tears because they never knew what their parents and grandparents did,” she said.
The program also featured an exhibit by photographer Norman Gershman, an 83-year-old Bayonne native now living in Colorado, who since 2003 has been traveling to Albania and Israel photographing Albanians who saved Jews.
Gershman’s photos have been compiled in the book, BESA: Muslims who Saved Jews During World War II. The event also featured a screening of BESA: The Promise, a documentary based on Gershman’s work and his search for the saviors.
“Their code of honor says we are all human beings and brothers and sisters under one divine being,” said Gershman, who was motivated to publicize the Albanian story “because it is so needed in our world today.”
Neumann, the mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of 13, said they would likely not exist if not for “the wonderful, magnanimous Albanian people.”
Neumann’s uplifting story of survival contrasted with an otherwise somber program, which included a procession placing yellow yahrtzeit candles on a table in front of the bima in memory of family members murdered in the Shoa.
Peter Schild, chair of the federation’s Holocaust commemoration committee, read the names and place of death of victims, including his own paternal grandparents.
The Anshe Segulah Men’s Chorus from Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick performed several numbers. Young Israel of East Brunswick’s Rabbi Jay Weinstein led recitations of Kaddish and El Maleh Rahamim.