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Story of ‘Everyday Heroes’ of Albania Told at OKC Holocaust Remembrance Day Event

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Two film’s about Albania’s WWII aid to Jews will be shown at Rodeo Cinema in OKC.

The story of Albanians who assisted Jews during World War II is personal for one Oklahoman.

Andi Dema, 34, grew up hearing about a Jewish man from Yugoslavia who arrived on his family’s doorstep in Fier, Albania, seeking employment during the war. It was an extremely dangerous time for Jews and those who came to their aid, however many Albanians helped them because they lived by “Besa,” an honor code that means “to keep the promise” or “word of honor.”

“For a full year, my family risked their lives for Josef Comforti,” Dema said Sunday at a Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance event in Oklahoma City. “At that time, if Albanians were caught harboring Jews, their homes would be burned down and their livelihoods would be at risk.”

Dema’s family story was a highlight of the program that drew about 200 people to Heritage Hall, 1800 NW 122, which partnered with the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City to host the event. The Jewish Federation hosts the community program each year to commemorate Yom HaShoah Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Albania a surprising haven during World War II

Jewish Federation leaders said this year, they wanted to focus on the heroic story of Albania, which was a predominantly Muslim country when it provided a haven for Jewish refugees during World War II, giving them Albanian names and treating them like their own family members. The country ended the war with a larger population of Jews than it had before the war.

Michael Baron, Lyric Theatre’s artistic director, and moderator of Sunday’s event, said there were an estimated 600 to 800 Jews who were given refuge from the Nazis during the war.

“The Albanians went out of their way to assist the Jews,” he said.

Adam Brooks, president of the Jewish Federation’s board of directors, said the Yom HaShoah program is one way the Jewish community consistently keeps its commitment to telling the story of the Holocaust — the World War II genocide of the European Jews by Nazi Germany — so that it won’t ever be repeated.

“It’s always important to remind people about what happened when we say ‘never again,'” Brooks said. “We can’t live up to that unless we tell the story and understand what really happened.”

A code of generosity ‘instilled’ in Albanian culture

Dema told the crowd he was born in Albania and his family moved to Bloomington, Indiana, when his mother received a Fulbright scholarship. He said he came to Oklahoma to attend Oklahoma City University. Currently, a Casady School teacher, he said he became a U.S. citizen in 2017, about a week before his parents gained their U.S. citizenship.

Dema said Albanians “are givers” and love visitors. He said the Besa code is part of the Albanian culture of generosity, no matter how little or how much they may have themselves.

“It was instilled in me,” the educator said.

Dema wasn’t the only Albanian native at Sunday’s event. Gregor Menga, 55, of Albania, said he was visiting his son, Jozef Menga, 22, a University of Central Oklahoma student who served as pianist for the program. He said he remembered Jewish people visiting Albania over the years to express their thanks for the citizens’ willingness to harbor Jewish refugees despite the risks.

The elder Menga said he was touched that his native country was recognized and honored by the Oklahoma City Jewish community.

“You know, we did our part, but when people are grateful, and they don’t forget, that’s valuable,” Gregor Menga said. ” That’s great, that’s so sweet.”

Meanwhile, several Heritage Hall drama students participated in the program by sharing the names and stories of Holocaust survivors and victims with Oklahoma ties. The Holocaust survivors’ relatives lit candles after their loved ones’ stories were shared with the audience.

The student participants included Ruby Harris, 13; Avery McKirahan, 16; Charlie Zeigler, 17; and Noah Ram, 17. They each said they were interested in the powerful story of the Albanians’ courage.

“It made me realize how much more story there is that isn’t talked about,” said Ram, who is Jewish.

McKirahan talked about being moved by the risks that Albanians took for Jewish refugees.

“It’s incredibly touching,” McKirahan said.

The daughter of Rabbi Vered Harris and her husband, Benjamin, Ruby Harris shared the story of her great-great-grandmother Ida Eckstein Fischer, who died in the Treblinka Nazi German concentration camp and extermination camp near the village of Treblinka in Poland. 

Rabbi Harris, spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel, said it was important to highlight the stories of “everyday heroes and the culture of a community that expects all people be treated with respect.”

“We can learn a lot from the Besa ethic of Albania, particularly when it comes to how we treat people today in Oklahoma who are discriminated against because of being LGBTQ+ or not Christian or facing financial insecurity and the deficits that come with it,” she said.

Films to share stories

Rachel Johnson, the Jewish Federation’s executive director, said the Oklahoma City community has an opportunity to learn more about Albania’s commitment to Jews during World War II. She said two films featuring true stories about the Albanian code of “Besa” will be shown on Tuesday and Thursday at Rodeo Cinema, 2221 Exchange Ave.

“The Albanian Code,” a documentary film by Yael Katzir, follows a Jewish woman named Annie Altaratz-Francis, who survived the Holocaust after escaping from Yugoslavia to Albania with her family. The film chronicles her return to Albania to thank the country that offered her family refuge from the Nazis. Another film “Besa: The Promise,” tells the story of Albania’s Besa honor code through the prism of two men, one an Albanian Muslim and the other an American Jew.

Source: The Oklahoman

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