Albanians saved Jews — now its time to reciprocate

Just as we've commemorated our own deliverance at Passover, Jews are witnessing another exodus. This time it's not a journey to freedom, but an escape from a genocide that parallels our near-annihilation during the Holocaust.

People displaced, homes destroyed, all identifying certificates of birth, death, marriage, land deeds, personal letters burned. Kosovar Albanians no longer have a place to return to.

American Jews have a special responsibility to participate in relief efforts aimed at alleviating the pressures such deportation places on countries neighboring Kosovo. Not because we must feed those who are hungry, although that is central to our tradition. Not because we must clothe those who are needy, although that is required of us as well.

Instead, it's because we must honor our debt to the Albanian people who protected and sheltered us.

Before and during World War II, every Jew who fled to Albania was sheltered by Albanian Muslims and Christians. And 100 percent of the Jewish population there survived the war. The majority of the rescuers there were Muslims, although there were Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic rescuers as well. Unlike any other occupied country, Albania had more Jews within its borders at the end of the war than at the beginning.

In an Anti-Defamation League book called "Rescue in Albania," Irene Grunbaum tells of her experiences as a Jew in wartime Albania.

"The gates of your small country remained open, Albania. Your authorities closed both eyes when necessary, to give poor persecuted people another chance to survive the most horrible of all wars. Albania, we survived the siege because of your humanity. We thank you."

Last spring, I stood with thousands of Kosovars in the daily demonstrations against increasing Serbian intrusion into life in Pristina, Kosovo's capital city. Nearby was a small group adamantly waving Kosovo Liberation Army signs. I approached to ask them why they no longer felt pacifist means against the Serbs were relevant. "This is our intifada," the leader told me, his words like spit.

Later that day, I sat with a group of Serbian, Muslim and Croatian women — physicians displaced by the Serbian nationalists from their medical work at the Pristina hospital. After an afternoon of heated and urgent conversation, one woman told me, "We are the Illurian people, ancient like the Jews, in the diaspora and persecuted from all sides."

Now, in this time of war, there are many points of view, held by both Jew and non-Jew alike. Geopolitical considerations, hesitations about the long-term repercussions of NATO's presence, anti-war, pro- and anti-Serbian protests fill the news. Like the diametrically opposed views of the Kosovars I encountered, those voices must be heard and engaged. But political debate, resolution and engagement is only one part of our responsibility. There are others.

Take these examples from "Rescue in Albania":

"It is a matter of honor," said Sulo Mecaj, a farmer in Kruja, Albania, who opened his house to 10 Jews fleeing the Nazis. He was asked: But what if the Germans set fire to the house? "My son will go into the attic with the Jews and suffer their fate."

Bequi Qogja and his friend Shyqyri Myrto, Muslim men now in their 80s, remember the raid in which they moved Josef Jakoel and his sister Eriketa, keeping them one step ahead of the Germans who were going from house to house hunting for Jews.

When asked why, Shyqyri replied, "Our Moslem religion says we must help someone who is in danger in difficult times."

Bequi added: "We all have one God and he has commanded us to help others. It's the same thing Jesus said, that Muhammad has commanded, and actually your Moses said the same thing."

There is an American folk saying that reminds us that it is impossible to both wring one's hands and roll up one's sleeves. It is time to roll up our sleeves — at the very least by sending off relief donations. It is time to reciprocate as Jews.