The year was 1943. The place was Puka, a small village in Northern Albania.
When the day dawned, it promised to be just another in the life of Ali Pashkaj, an Albanian Muslim who owned a general store and tavern.
Hours later, he was staring down the barrel of a Nazi soldier’s rifle. “Do you know where Yeoshua Barchowic is?” the soldier thundered, pointing the gun at Ali for the fourth time. Ali denied any knowledge of the prisoner’s whereabouts.
Ali had lied. He knew where the prisoner was. When the prisoner had approached Ali after giving the Ali had sent the Jewish prisoner instructions to escape the soldiers and wait at a specific place in the mountains. In the meantime, Ali plied the soldiers with enough wine to make them drunk so that he could enable Yeoshua’s escape.
After their questioning yielded no result, the soldiers left Ali alone. Ali then retrieved Yeoshua from the designated place in the mountains, and he stayed with Ali’s family for two months, before making his way westward.
Ali’s story is just one out of many World War II stories that emerged from Albania, a country with a Muslim majority. After years of communist rule, during which the files were hidden, these extraordinary stories have come to light.
What’s amazing is that Albanians didn’t just take the Jews in; they actively arranged for their safety.
All of this because of an honour code called “besa”, roughly translated into “keeping a promise”. Besa is a part of Albanian culture, and people value it very highly. It mandates taking care of guests, considering them part of their own family.
So, when the Jews came knocking on Albania’s door, first, they were let in without any questions. Remember that Albania, which is north of Greece and just across the sea from Italy was under Italian occupation at the time. The hosts arranged for fake documents and fake Muslim names for the guests, so they could escape persecution. They often hid the guests in their homes for years, at the risk of torture or even death at the hands of Fascists and Nazis.
As Besa was such an intrinsic part of their culture, Albanians did not give their action a second thought, and are quite surprised by all the publicity now.
The numbers say it all: While there were only 200 Jews in Albania at the beginning of World War II, by the time it ended their numbers had increased tenfold. Albania is the only European country where the Jewish population increased during World War II.