Most anywhere else in Nazi-occupied Europe, an encounter with police would have likely sealed the fate of Jewish refugees like Nissim and Sarah Aladjem and their 10-year-old son, Aron.
Instead, when the family was detained by police in the Muslim nation of Albania 75 years ago, it was the key to their survival.
The family was fleeing Bulgaria when they were detained by five police officers working for the occupation forces. Instead of turning them over to his occupiers, as he should have done with undocumented Jewish aliens, one of the policemen helped the Aladjems find shelter with other locals.
Far from unusual in Albania, the actions of that officer in 1943 — he has not been identified — attest to the prevalence and boldness of the efforts to rescue Jewish refugees in this nation situated northeast of Greece. It is perhaps the only Nazi-occupied country that had more Jews after the Holocaust than before.
Owing partly to what locals call Besa, a local code of honor and neighborly conduct, the rescue and survival of approximately 2,000 Jews by Albanians for decades had remained largely unknown. But thanks to recent studies and films, it is taking its place as a rare ray of light during otherwise dark times.
The Aladjems’ story is told in an award-winning 2012 documentary film titled “Besa: The Promise.” It tells the story of Rifat Hoxha, who ran the pastry shop to which the family was taken by the police officer and arranged their shelter.
The film follows the unlikely story of how, a decade ago, Hoxha’s son, Rexhep, returned three Jewish prayer books to members of the Aladjem family living in Israel. During the war, his Jewish guests had given the prayer books to Hoxha for safekeeping after hiding at his house for half a year.
As with many other Jews who survived in Albania — most of them refugees from neighboring Greece, Italy, Bulgaria and Serbia — the rescue of the Aladjems was “an open secret,” Rexhep Hoxha, a father of two who was born in 1950, told JTA. “Not only the police knew, but all the neighbors knew as well. There was a circle of silence. It’s something connected to our culture. You don’t betray your guest, and you certainly don’t betray your neighbor.”
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