In one of the darkest times in the history of mankind, the Second World War, Albanians came to the defense of the Jews, hiding them in their families, to save them from the Nazi genocide. Albania is the only country in Europe where the number of Jews after the war was greater than before it, from 200 before the Holocaust to about 2 thousand after the war. Among the Jews saved in Albania was Johanna Jutta Gerechter [Numann] and her family. VOA spoke with Mrs. Gerechter's son, Benjy Neumman, and family members of Njazi and Lisa Lotte Pilkut in Albania, who had helped Mrs. Gerechter's family.
This photograph was taken in August 1942, in the village of Shkozet, near Durrës.
The girl seen in it is 11-year-old Johanna Jutta Gerechter.
After the start of World War II, in 1939, she and her family were forced to leave Hamburg to escape the Nazis and went to Albania.
During the time when Albania was under the Italian occupation, the country was transformed into a paradise for Jews, remembers Mrs. Gerechter's son, Benjy Neumann.
"Albanians were very hospitable. The Jews found jobs, our family as laundresses. My grandfather drew symbols for businesses. In Albania they found a way to survive", he says for the Voice of America.
But, in 1943, after the Germans invaded Albania, the situation changed.
Despite the great danger, the Albanians continued to secretly shelter the Jews.
"The Holocaust reminds us of a very dark moment in the history of the world. I don't know what it can be compared to. Then we see a glimmer of hope in Albania. The government and religious leaders did their part. But there were also the people themselves. They believed that they should take care of the guests. Their house is God's house. We are all children of God, regardless of religious belief. This is part of the Albanian culture. Albanians, Muslims or Christians, gave their allegiance and did the right thing", says Mr. Neumann.
He is grateful to the Albanian families, especially to that of Njazi Pilku and his German wife, Lisa Lotte Pilku.
It was the German origin of the housewife that helped Johanna Juta and her family survive the Holocaust in Albania, the descendants of the Pilku family tell the Voice of America.
"On one occasion when Utah's mother and Utah were on the beach, they were stopped by the Germans. They spoke German very well because they had lived there. The grandmother's defense was that they are my cousins ??from Germany", says Ortenca Pilku, granddaughter of Njazi and Lisa Lote Pilku.
Elmaze Pilku, wife of the son of Njazi and Lisa Lote Pilku
"If it was dictated that he was protecting the Jews, he would suffer, he could be killed...", says Elmaze Pilku, the wife of the son of Njazi and Lisa Lote Pilku.
Mr. Neumann says that he tells this story constantly, so that other peoples can learn from the humanity of the Albanians in that period.
"Because I really believe that Albanians are an example that should be followed. Especially when I talk to kids in high school, that's my message to them. Don't hide behind others. You can be a leader. Albania was a small country, but it stood up against the Nazis and made a difference," he says.
After the end of the Second World War, in 1945, Albania fell into the hands of the Communist Party. The Gerechter family was forced to leave for the United States.
For years Mrs. Gerechter tried to contact the Pilku family, but without success. Albania was closed as a result of one of the most brutal regimes in the world.
Therefore, until recently she did not know that shortly after her family left Albania, the communist dictatorship shot the humanist and engineer, Njazi Pilku.
“Enver Hoxhës nuk i leverdisi, sepse nuk i donte të zgjuarit dhe më 9 janar më 1945 e pushkatoi”, thotë Elmaze Pilku, bashkëshortja e të birit të Njazi dhe Lisa Lote Pilkut.
“Për pushkatimin e gjyshit tim Juta mori e vesh në momentin kur erdhi në Tiranë dhe ka qenë shumë e trishtuar. Imagjinoje pas 46 vitesh, ajo ka kuptuar se gjyshi im është pushkatuar”, thotë për Zërin e Amerikës Ortenca Pilku, mbesa e Njazi dhe Lisa Lote Pilkut.
Zonja Gerechter vdiq në prill të vitit 2017. Kujtimet e saj, ajo i la në një libër me titull “Ikja në Shqipëri: Kujtimet e një vajze hebre nga Hamburgu”.
Kontaktet mes familjarëve të saj dhe asaj Pilku në Shqipëri vazhdojnë.
"The gratitude of those people, the love they gave, I don't know how to explain and what to say about the Israeli people, the Jewish people. An event that happened around the years '43-'44. They had not forgotten what my grandparents had done. These are things that happen very rarely", adds Mrs. Pilku.
"It is a powerful bond that was created by them, but that is preserved even now. This is what we feel about Albania. It's the right place to be if you're in trouble," says Mr. Neumann.
In 1998, the Pilku family became part of the list of persons honored by the State of Israel for saving Jews during the Holocaust.
This list includes 75 Albanian families, but the number of those who helped is believed to be much higher. /VOA