Hannah Rosenthal serves as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the Department of State.
In my job as Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, I often reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust and how best to educate people about it to prevent such genocides from happening again. I often talk about the good people, the righteous among us, who saved people like my father, often at great peril to themselves. When I think of these righteous people, I often think of the nuns who sheltered children, of the urban Parisian families who hid their neighbors, or the farmhands in Poland whose sheds became shelters from the gas chambers. And I always tell people about Albania — a country whose entire government and society were righteous, saving all of the Jews within their midst. Drita Veseli, an Albanian Muslim who sheltered Jews during World War II, once said, “There are no foreigners in Albania, there are only guests.” And indeed, that is the attitude with which Albania approached Jews during the Holocaust — an approach of unconditional hospitality unmatched in the world.
Albania, at the time a newly independent European State with a majority Muslim population, is the only country to have saved its entire Jewish population during the Holocaust. According to historians, Jews had been living in Albania since the seventh century. At the start of the Holocaust, the Albanian Jewish population was small — only 200 or so persons. It would have been simple for the Albanian government to turn their Jews over to the Nazis, to march them to their deaths like the local police did in other European countries. But instead, Albania responded courageously. Albania provided refuge to Albert Einstein as he fled Nazi Germany. The Albanian Embassy in Berlin provided visas to Jews when no other European country would even consider it for fear of Nazi retribution. Albanians banded together to protect the Jews within their midst, as well as those fleeing the Nazis. Indeed, Albania was not merely a country of some righteous individuals — the country itself was the protector, providing a place where Jews could be sheltered when the rest of the world stood silent to their pleas. The Albanian Jewish population, by the end of the War, had grown to 2,000 people — a tenfold increase!
Last year, Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith and I launched a campaign called 2011 Hours Against Hate. Now in its second year, 2012 Hours Against Hate is a virtual campaign where young people around the world are asked to donate an hour of their time to walk in the shoes of someone who doesn’t look like them, pray like them, or live like them. At its heart, it is asking our youth to practice respect and embody Drita Veseli’s statement. This applies not only to respecting religious differences, but also race, ethnicity, gender identity, and disability. Farah and I, a Muslim and a Jew, have traveled the world together promoting this campaign for tolerance and, perhaps without realizing it, promoting the Albanian model of acceptance. 2012 Hour Against Hate’s message and poignancy not only has attracted the attention of youth on Facebook and Twitter, but has been adopted by mayors across the globe and even by the 2012 London Olympic Committee. From the start of this campaign at the OSCE in February 2011, Albania was the first country to invite Farah and me to visit. I have very much looked forward to visiting Albania, a country that practices respect with great sincerity.
Speaking about 2012 Hours Against Hate here in Albania today is an honor. Farah and I have traveled throughout the world together speaking about the power of pluralism, mutual respect and acceptance — and illustrating it as a Jew and a Muslim who support each other’s communities. Being in a country whose history is one of Muslim-Jewish friendship and tolerance for all peoples is truly inspiring. After all, Albania’s history of acceptance and protection is one which all Albanians, and indeed all Muslims, should be incredibly proud. Standing up to the tyrants of history to do what is right is neither easy nor safe. But it is the right thing to do.
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Cross-posted from the State Department’s DipNote blog.