The Holocaust in Albania


Figure 1.--

Albania is unique in that it is the only European country occupied by the NAZIs that ended World War II with a larger Jewish population than before the War. The Albanian response to the Holocaust is especially notable because it was Europe's only largely Moslem country. Over 70 percent of Albanias are Moslem. The conduct of the Albanian people was nothing short of heroic. Albania was one of the first countries occupied by the Axis in World War II. Mussolini invaded and occupied the country in April 1939, while the world was focused on the German actions in Czechoslovakia and Poland. While the Italians did not initially conform to German policies on Jews, as the Germans became incresasingly dominate, Italian authories began complying with German demands. Even so, not a single Jew was deported or killed in NAZI occupied Albania. Not only did the Albanians protect their own Jews, but they provided a refugee for Jews from neighboring ountries. The Albanians refused to compile and hand over lists of Jews. The Balkans was a dangerous place for Jews after the Axis occupation in 1941. There were two reasons Albanian Jews survived. The first was they were protected by the Albanian people. Albania's Moslems are Bektashi, a liberal form of Islam begun in the 17th century when the Ottomans conquered Albania. The Ottomons wre more successful in converting Albanians than any other area of the Balkans. I am not sure just why this was. Albania has not only a history of religious moderation, but also tloeration and hospiltality. There was considerable inter-marriage between Christians and Moslems and this included the smaller number of Jews as well. The Jews were saved mostly by individual Albanians sheltering individuals and whole families. The second reason the Jews surived was that for most of the War they were occupied by the Italians and not the Germans. The Germans seized control after the Italian surrender (September 1943), but by that time the Jews were too dispursed and well hidden for the NAZIs to have much success in finding them. The situation in Kosovo amd other areas turned into Greater Albania by the Italians, however, was different. Jews there were targeted. The NAZIs recruited Kosovar and Bosnian Muslims for SS units and they engaged in terrible attrocities.

Albanian Muslims

Over 70 percent of Albanias are Moslem. Albania's Moslems are Bektashi, a liberal form of Islam begun in the 17th century when the Ottomans conquered Albania. The Ottomons wre more successful in converting Albanians than any other area of the Balkans. I am not sure just why this was. Albania has not only a history of religious moderation, but also tloeration and hospiltality. There was considerable inter-marriage between Christians and Moslems and this included the smaller number of Jews as well. The Albanian concept of besa is a deeply held belief. This required people aid people in need.

Albanian Jews

Albania had only a small Jewish population before the War. One source says about 2,000 people, but some etimates are as low as 200. Jewish-American Herman Bernstein was the U.S. Ambassador to Albania before the Italian invasion.

Overview

Albania is unique in that it is the only European country occupied by the NAZIs that ended World War II with a larger Jewish population than before the War. The Albanian response to the Holocaust is especially nogtable because it was Europe's only largely Moslem country. The conduct of the Albanian people was nothing short of heroic.

Albanian Monarchy

Albanian President Zogu in 1928 Zogu disolved the Albania Parliameng, even securing its approval. A constituent assembly made major changes to the country's constitution. Albania was made a king and Zogu became Zog I, "King of the Albanians." Most European governments recognized the new government. The new constiution abolished the Senate and created a unicameral legislture. The King dominated the Parliament and thus ruled with dictatorial powers. King Zog, after he was crowned, broke off his engagement to Shefqet Bey Verlaci's daughter. As a result, Verlaci began plotting against King Zog. The King continued to acquire enemies. In the clan dominated society of Albania, the King's enemies continued the tradition of blood feuds. The King vecame one of the most heavily guarded European leaders. King Zog's supporters attempted to disarm the Albania's tribes, except for his own Mati tribesmen and their allies, the Dibra. On a state visit to Vienna, Austria in 1931, the King was attacked and there was a gun battle on the steps of the Vienna Opera House steps.

Italian Invasion (April 1939)

Albania was one of the first countries occupied by the Axis in World War II. Mussolini invaded and occupied the country in April 1939, while the world was focused on the German actions in Czechoslovakia and Poland. As Hitler began his aggressions, the Italian dictator set his eyes on Albania across the Adiatric from Italy. King Victor Emmanuel III criticized the plan as risky. Mussolini, however, demanded on March 25, that King Zog accept Italian contol over his country, even offering money as an enducement (March 25, 1939). As a result, Italy invaded (April 7). Thre was some resistance, especially at Durrës, but the Ialian Army quickly gained control over the country. King Zog, Queen Geraldine Apponyi, and their small son Skander fled to Greece and then to London. Left with little choice, the Albanian parliament accepted union with Italy (April 12). King Victor Emmanuel III took the Albanian crown. The invasion was the second step in Mussolini's efforts to build an Italian Empire in the Mediterrean. The Italian occupation authorities did not immediatey begin targeting Jews. While the Italians did not initially conform to German policies on Jews, as the Germans became incresasingly dominate, Italian authories began complying with German demands.

Italian Invasion of Greece (October 1940)

Mussolini in October 1940 used Albanian base to launch an attack on Greece. Mussoline never discussed the attack with Hitler. (Hitler never discussed his major attacks in advance with Mssolini. The far larger Italian Army, however, not only failed, but were driven bback into Albania by the Greeks. The Italians were ultimately rescued by the NAZI invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece (April 1941). The Italians were given an occupation zone in both Yugoslavia and Greece.

NAZI Invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece (April 1941)

Germany's famed statesman, the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, had insisted that the Balkans was "not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier." Hitler had hoped to avoid commiting the Wehrmacht to the Balkans and made considerable progress toward that goal. Mussolini undid Hitler's carefully laid plans by invading neutral Greece through its Albania bases (October 28, 1940). Mussolini's 1940 invasion of Greece complicated Hitler's time table for Barbarossa. The invasion was not coordinated with Hitler in advance. (The Axis partners never coordinated their operations like the Allies.) Mussolini announced it when Hitler arrived on a visit. "Führer, we are on the march." The Italian troops were beaten back and the Greek troops overtook over one third of Albania. Greece had a Fascist Government that could have possibly brought into the Axis or at least would have remained neutral. Instead Mussolini turned the Greeks into a British ally. The British sent about 50,000 troops to help Greece, which they had to deplete from Egypt. This was important bercause critical to the German invasion was access to the Romanian oil fields. Germany had been relying on Soviet oil deliveries to supplement its synthetic oil production. The Soviet deliveries would end of course when Germany invaded leaving the Germans dependant on Romanian oil until the Soviet Caucauses could be seized. Greek successes against the Ilalians had created an Allied belingerant that could provide air fields to attack the Romanian oil fields. Hutler thus saw a German intervention to seize Greece and secure Germany's southern flank would be necessary. As a result, German forces in Romania were reeinforced and efforts were made to bring Yugoslavia into the NAZI orbit so that the Panzers could move through that country to attack Greece. Hitler had forced Yugoslavia to join the other AXIS Balkan partners, but the Government was overthrown necessitaing a full sacle German invasion. Hitler had to come to the rescue Mussolini. The Germans invaded Greece and Yugoslavia simultaneously on April 6, 1941. Belgrade was subjected to Luftwaffe terror bombing for rejecting an alliance with the NAZIs. The Germans swept through Yugoslavia and Greece and took Crete with a daring, but costly parachute assault. (Hitler never again allowed a parachute assault.) Greece was defeated on April 27, 1941. Despite the success in the German success, it proved to have been a strategic dissaster. The Balkans diversion delayed Operation Barbarossa by at least 6 weeks. If Hitler had started his invasion to of the Soviet Union May it seems highly likely that they would have seized Moscow if not have defeated the Red Army. As it was the Wehrmacht was stopped on the outskirts of Moscow in December, 1941.

Italian Occupation Regime

The second reason the Jews surived was that for most of the War they were occupied by the Italians and not the Germans. Italian forces in Albania and generally in Italian occupied Greece and Yugoslavia filed to participate and in some cases actively resisted the NAZI Final Solution. (This is why so many Italian Jews survived the Holocaust.) Many Italians even referred to it as “the German disease”.

Greater Albania (1941-44)

Just what was Albania became a little complicated after the NAZI invasion of Yugoslavia (April 1941). For political reasoons in carving up Yugoslavia, the Italians creayed a greater Albania. They added Kosovo-Metohija to Albania, forming in effect a Greater Albania. Kosovo was called the “New Albania”. was a part of Albania from 1941 to 1944. Other areas in southern Serbia, southern Montenegro, and western Macedonia (Illirida) were also added. Jews in Yugoslav reas of Greater Albania did not fare as well as the Jews in pre-War Albania. Here some JHews were abused by local people and not just the NAZIs. I am not sure just why this was nor do I have details on just who attacked Jews in Kosovo and other areas of Greater Serbia. At the time the population of Kosovo was primarily Serbian, although there was a substantial Albanian minority. The Interior Minister of Albania was Xhafer Deva, Kosovar Muslim. Deva appears to have been one of the most influential Albanians with both the Italians and subsequently the Germans.

Balli Kombetar (BK)

The Balli Kombetar (BK) was an ultra-nationalist Albanian group. They appear to have cooperated with both Italian and German occupation forces. Here the situation is somewhat confused. Many groups organized in Yugoslavia to resist the Axis invasion, but as the war progressed began cooperatin with the Italians and Germans, more than fighting them. The Balli Kombetar was at first noncommital after the Axis occupation. Eventually some important members committed to cooperating with the NAZIs, mny curiously and a farly late stage of the War. Three BK members joined the Rexhep Mitrovica cabinet (January 1944). [Fischer] Mitrovica was a Kosovar Albanian appointed as Prime Minister in the NAZI puppet Greater Albania regime. He was subsequentlyreplaced by Fikri Dine. a King Zoy loylist. Xhafer Deva, a Kosovar Muslim, was the interior minister. Notably BK members played a major role in the NAZI puppet state. Also notably Kosovars played a major role in the administration of Greater Albania. British liaison officers in occupied Yugoslavia reported that resistance grous was having trouble attack the Germans because of BK screening units serving with the Germans (February 1944).

Jews in the Balkans

The Balkans was a dangerous place for Jews after the Axis occupation in 1941. Authorities in neighboring Greece, did comply with its NAZIs and compile lists. As many as 90 percent of Greek Jews were killed in the death camps and the long-established Sephardic community of Salonika virtually destroyed. The situation was even worse in Yugoslavia where local authorities not only handed Jews over but engaged in the actual killing. The Bulgarians protected their Jews, but not the Jews as an Axis partner in the areas of Greece and Yugoslavia they occupied.

Italian Surrender (September 1943)

Marshall adoglio announced an armistice with the Allies (September 8). Fearing reprisals from the Germans, Badoglio with the King promply fleed Rome to reach Allied lines. The actual Armistice was signed on Malta. Most of the Italian Army was left without orders. A few units managed to stand together. Some went over to the Allies, such as the garrisons of Sardegna and Corsica. Others units stood with the Germans. A virtual Civil occurred within the military and the Fascist Government between pro-Axis cause and pro-Allied forces. The bulk of the Army wanted nothing more to do with the war. The Germans managed to disarm them and ship them north to POW camps in Germany before the Allies could land in force. Fascist Italy was the first Axis partner to fall to the Allies. The Armistice was unusual, because the Allies saw it as surrender, the Italians as an armistace. The most unusual part of it was usually an armistace ends the fighting. For the Italian people it was in many ways just the beginning of the fighting.

NAZI Takeover (September 1943)

The Germans seized control after the Italian surrender (September 1943). The Germans dropped paratroopers into Tiranë before the Albanian guerrillas could seize the city. The Wehrmacht quickly droce the guerrillas back into the hills and to the south. The NAZIs announced plans to create a neutral Albania and proceeded to set up an Albanian puppet government, including police and military forces. The German approach in Albania was different than in most other occupied areas. This presumably reflects the rapidly deteriorating German military situation. Rather than dictate to the Albanians, they set up a government with a surprising degree of autonomy. And attempted to attract popular support by supporting populasr causes, especially union with Kosovo that had a substantial Albanian population. As a result the nationalist Balli Kombëtar units cooperated with the Germans in actions against the partisans (Communist resistance). In fact BK members were given prominent positions in the puppet givernment. The NAZIs to rule Albania created an Albanian National Committee. This Committe created a Regency that finctioned as a puppet government for Greater Albania created by the Italians. SS Brigadefuehrer Jozef Fitzhum (1896-1945) was the highest ranking SS officer in Albania after the NAZIs seized control. He was in charge of internal security and the police (Hoherer SS und Polizeifuehrer, HSSPF). Fitzhum was charged with internal security (primarily the war against the resistance) and rounding up Jews for the Final Solution. By the time Fitzhum began operations, however, the Albanian Jews were too dispursed and well hidden for the NAZIs to have much success in finding them. Earlier Fitzhum had been police chief in Vienna following the Anschluss (1938-40). Here Jews were concentrated in Vienna and he had no difficulty finding them. With limited troops under his command, it was Fitzhum who created the 21st SS Division (Skanderbeg) Muslim Division. Fitzhum ordered the Albanian Regency authorities to provide him a list of Jews (Spring 1944). The Albanians refused to comply. Albanians took Jews from the cities and hid them in the countryside. The Jews were saved mostly by individual Albanians sheltering individuals and whole families. Albanians stole identity cards from occupation authotities. Jews could use these to hide in the general population. One source claims that the Albanian Resistance made it clear that collaborators turing in Jews would be targeted. I am not sure to what extent this is accurate. Other sources reports that not a single Jew was deported or killed in NAZI occupied Albania. [Sarner] Another source writes, "The German occupation forces imposed anti-Jewish laws in Kosovo. Kosovo Jews wore “J” for “Juden” or “Jew”. Kosovo Jews wore white armbands with the word “Jude” in black letters. ID cards were stamped with a red “J”." [Savich] Not only did the Albanians protect their own Jews, but they provided a refugee for Jews from neighboring ountries. Given the small number of Jews involved, the lack of cooperation from the local population, and the deteriorating military situation, it just was not worth their while for the NAZIs to expend resources tracking down Albanian Jews. Essentially by the time the Germans seized control of Albania, the country's Jews were beyond their reach. And shortly after seizing control, the Germans to begin planning for a retreat from the Balkans, giving them only limited time to find Jews in Albania. The NAZIs did, however, manage to seize some Jews in the Yugoslav areas of Greater Albania. NAZI puppet authorities suggested arresting some Jews. "According to our investigation the Jews listed below are dangerous because they are propaganderizing [sic] against the Axis (Rome-Berlin) and they want to organize and hold meetings. We think these people should be taken away from here as soon as possible to one of the concentration fields, because their staying here could be dangerous to the regime." (June 1943). The NAZIs transported 400 Jews from the Yugoslav areas of Greater Albania to Bergen-Belsen (April 1944). [Sarner] Only about 100 survived.

SS Muslim Divisions

The SS was initially conceived by Himmler as an Aryam brotherhood. Elaborate checks of ancestry back to the 18th century were initially required. This changed of course with the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union and the NAZIs began to experience battlefield losses. Perhaps the best example of this was the the 21st SS Division “Skanderbeg” recruited primarily from Kosovar Muslims. The Axis appoointed Xhafer Deva as the Muslim Interior Minister in Greater Albania. He worked closely with SS Brigadefuehrer Jozef Fitzhum in setting up the 21st Waffen SS Division “Skanderbeg”. The Division was involved in terrible massacres of Serbs in Kosovo and Bosnia. They also targetted Jews, but the number of Jews in Kosovo and Bosnia was fairly limited. They also targeted Serbian Orthodox churches and priests. There was also an Albanian (Kosovo) Muslim Battalion of about 300 men in the Bosnian Muslim 13th Waffen SS Gebirgs Division der SS “Handschar/Handzar”. Rudi Sommerer commanded the Albanian Battalion in this division. Kosovar Albanian Muslim Nazir Hodic was a prominent member of the Albanian Battalion in Handzar. This Albanian (Kosovar) Battalion would later form the core of the Skanderbeg Nazi SS Division. Note that the Moslem recruits for these SS units were mostly from Kosovo and Bosnia and not from lbania itself which was also occupied by Axis forces. We are not entirely sure why this was. We suspect that Muslims in both Kosovo and Bosnia had experinced descrimination by the Serb dominated Yugoslav Government before the War as well as attacks by Serb and Croatian militia groups while this was not the case of more ethnically homogeneous Albania itself. This the Muslims tended to see the enemu as the Serbs and Croats and not the Germans. Actions against the much smaller number of Jews was more an artifact of their NAZI leadership than any heart-felt prejudice on the part of the Kosovo and Bosnian Muslims. This may have gradually changed as the Frand Mufti of Jeursalem got involved with the units.

Greater Islamic State

Bedri Pejani was another Kosovar Albanian active in the NAZI pupper Government. Pejani conceived of a Greater Islamic State to be made up of pre-War Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, and the Sandzak/Rashka region of Serbia. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini, had taken refuge in Berlin. The NAZIs used him for propaganda in the Middle East. Husseini conferred with the SS leadership involved in the Holocaust and urged them to step up the killing process. Husseni approved of the Pejani plan hen he learned of it. He saw it as being in the interests of Islam. The NAZIs meaning Hitler, however, thoughtbotherwise. Hitler did endorse Greater Albania seeing it as a way of gaining Muslim support in the Balkans and weakening the Serbs whi were strongly anti-NAZI. Hitler was expert in giving away other people;s territiry to buy support. As far as I can tell this achieved some success in Kosovo and Bosnia, but I do not see evidence of much success in Kosovo itself.

NAZI Withdrawl (November 1944)

The National Liberation Movement (NLM) partisans were active in Albania. This was especially true after the Italian surrender when they managed to gain control over some of the Italian weapons. The Communists were the main force behind the National Liberation Movement (NLM). Legality, a third resistance organization, led by Abaz Kupi formed (December 1943). Legality was an anticommunist, anti-German royalist organization. It was particularly strong in the northern mountains. It was centered on Geg guerrillas. They withdrew from the NLM after the Communists renounced Albania's claims on Kosovo. (This was necessary because Tito's Partisans in Yugoslavia maintaned their clasim on Kosovo. The guerills harassed the Germans, but some groups esoecially the BTK cooperated with them. It was the overall military situation that forced the Germans out of Albania. The German military situation deteriorated significamtly in the Summer 1944. Rome fell (June). The Allied landed in Normandy (June) and smashed the German armies in France (July). And even greater disaster occurred in the East. The Red Army devestated Army Group Central (July), opening the way for a drive into Poland and soon after the very heart of the Reich. In such circumstances it made no sence for the Germans to maintain more than a miliion men in the Balkans, in fact, Soviet armies driving into Romania and Hungary threatened to cut them off. The Germans finally begun evacuating Greece (September 1944). Soon thereafter the Germans began noving out of Albania. The last Germans were gone (November 29, 1944).

Cold War

Partisan leader Enver Hoxha after the NAZIs withdrew (1944) created a Communist state. It was a staunchly atheistic state. Any open expression of religion could result in arrest. Albania became a Soviet-style People's Republic, but eventually broke relations with the Soviet Union. Under Hoxha, Abania was the most reclusive and poorest state in Europe. With the fall of the Communist sates in Eastern Europe, the restrints on religion disappeared. Albania Jews decided to leave for Israel. Almost the entire Jewish population of Albania were airlifted to Israel (1991).

Historical Debate

The role of Albanians in the Holocaust has become a factor in the current issue over the indepenendece of Kosovo. Serbs who want Kosovo to remain part of Serbia claim that Albanian apologists are falisfying the historical record and that Albanians did little to save Jews. One pro-Serbian author writes, "Italian forces in Albania rejected the Final Solution as “the German disease” and did not enforce anti-Jewish measures. This is why Albanian Jews were “rescued” in Albania, not because of anything the Albanians did themselves. There was no history of ideological anti-Semitism in Albania. But this was true of every country in the Balkans. A history of anti-Semitism did not exist in Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Hungary, or Romania. So Albania was not unique in this regard in any way. The small number of Jews in Albania also played a key role in why they were not killed. During the Italian occupation, they were able to disperse and blend in the general population. When Germany occupied Albania in 1943, the Jewish population was already beyond reach." [Savich] While Savich is certainly correct about the importance of the Italians, he is also incorrect about anti-Semitism in the Balkans. While anti-Semtism was not strong in some countries (Bulgaria and Greece), it was present in Yugoslavia (especially Croatia, but including Serbia), Hungary, and Romania. And there is considerable evidence to suggest that the Albanian people did generously hide Jews The Serbian record here is much less encouraging, but of course most of Serbia was occupied by the Germans rather than the Italians.

Sources

Fischer, Bernd Jurgen. Albania at War, 1939-1944 (W. Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1999).

Sarner, Harvey. Rescue in Albania (Brunswick Press, 1997), 106p.

Savich, Carl. "Kosovo and the Holocaust: Falsifying History."





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Created: March 21, 2004
Last updated: 11:16 PM 5/25/2006