By Ardian Shaholli
As the child of Albanian immigrants, it took a trip to the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum in Dec. 2019 for me to fully appreciate my ancestral homeland’s heroics during World War II.
My parents and grandparents had told me stories about the nation’s robust rescue efforts during the war. However, I assumed these initiatives involved a few organizations and activists. I was not aware of the meticulous collaboration between the government and the people that resulted in Europe’s only Muslim-majority country refusing to turn over a single Jew to the Nazis. It was an emotionally sobering moment that led to uneasy questions. First, why did my teachers never mention this in my history classes? Second, why did they mention Swiss neutrality every time they talked about the Holocaust, but never highlight its consequences or juxtapose it with Albania’s collective moral courage?
By 1950, Switzerland had a GDP per capita of $11,541 – well above the respective world and Western European averages of $3,351 and $7,263. By contrast, Albania’s GDP per capita stood at a meager $1,546. Switzerland’s life expectancy of 69 years vastly surpassed the respective averages of 63 and 55 years for Europe and Albania.
For International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is incumbent upon everyone to reflect on how absurd and tragic it was that a wealthy nation with the resources to help people in dire need chose instead to enable their persecution, while a much poorer nation, more vulnerable in its own right, chose to protect the persecuted.
SWISS TREATMENT OF JEWISH REFUGEES
Neutrality is not inherently virtuous. Rather, it cultivates a transactional convenience whereby it cloaks the aiders and abettors of oppression with a superficial veneer of decency. Switzerland’s status as a “neutral” nation during World War II is no exception.
During World War II, Switzerland adopted reactionary policies to Jews fleeing persecution that often veered into blatant antisemitism.
In total, Switzerland provided refuge to approximately 30,000 Jews. However, around 39,000 refugees (of which 24,400 were Jewish), were barred entry by Swiss authorities.
Switzerland was not ignorant of the consequences of its decisions. Switzerland enacted tighter immigration restrictions after Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. The Swiss government coaxed the Nazis into denoting Jewish passports with a “J” stamped on them. Ostensibly, this directive intended to help Swiss border guards identify and assist Jews fleeing persecution. However, intimate knowledge of these events make Switzerland’s decision to fully close off its borders to Jewish refugees in 1942 even more grotesque.
Unsurprisingly and tragically, a significant number of the rejected refugees are believed to have been killed in concentration camps.
Those refugees granted entry into Switzerland received anything but a warm welcome. Thousands of Jewish refugees were locked up in internment camps, where they were forced to work for paltry or no pay. Family separation was commonplace, while a special “Jew-tax” was imposed on the mildly affluent – no similar taxes were levied on refugees of other faiths who were predominantly Christian.
CONFISCATION OF JEWISH ASSETS
Switzerland’s misgivings over accepting Jewish refugees did not mirror its sentiments towards the Jewish capital. By 1934, the Swiss National Bank enacted reforms enabling depositors to maintain their anonymity. Consequently, Jews seeking to flee Nazi persecution in Central and Eastern Europe began opening Swiss bank accounts in hopes of persevering their assets. Many of these individuals were killed during the war. However, their wealth was not transferred to their surviving family members.
As recently as 1996, Swiss banks held billions of dollars in assets owned by Holocaust victims. During the Washington Agreement of 1946, Allied Nations tried unsuccessfully to persuade Switzerland to restitute these assets – eventually arriving at a compromise where only 12% of pilfered assets were recompensed to the victims’ families. To add insult to injury, a significant portion of the stolen assets were redistributed to Swiss nationals whose property had been expropriated by Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe.
Not only did the Swiss government know about Nazi persecution of Jewish people when it closed off its borders, but Swiss National Bank executives were aware – at least by 1941 – that the Nazi deposits they accepted were stolen from those rounded up in concentration camps. Bank executives even neglected to differentiate between stolen and regular gold deposits.
In 1998, the Swiss National Bank pledged to donate approximately $108 million to various Holocaust humanitarian funds. However, this is a drop in the bucket relative to the over $2 billion of Nazi gold handled by the bank.
Aiding and abetting Nazis is unconscionable. This should not be a controversial statement. However, it is even more sinister when a wealthy nation throws the persecuted under the bus.
Meanwhile, the people of one of Europe’s poorest nations challenged the oppressors and protected the persecuted. Thus, exposing that there is no “strategic constraint” behind cowardice – or as the cowards call it, “neutrality.” Instead, the foundation of neutrality is composed of the bodies of the persecuted upon which the cowards stand.
While dancing on graves is considered poor taste, profiting off them is just business.
ALBANIAN TREATMENT OF JEWISH REFUGEES
Albania was one of only two European nations whose post-war Jewish population exceeded pre-war figures. In fact, Albania was the only country where no Jews were killed in death camps or surrendered to Nazi authorities.
For perspective, 90% and 88% of Poland and Germany’s Jewish population was wiped out during the war. In neighboring Greece, this death toll stood at an appalling 77%.
Governmental agencies forged documents enabling Jewish families to live among the rest of the population. In September 1943, when Italy relinquished rule of the nation, two Jewish residents (Rafael Jakoel and his brother-in-law) sought assistance from the mayor of Vlora. The mayor promised to keep them safe but advised traveling to Tirana, the capital, where they would be protected in a more official capacity.
While in Tirana they met with Interior Minister Xhafer Deva. Deva showed them a list of Jews requested by the Germans that he had concealed from them. Deva agreed to provide suitable refuge for Rafael and his brother-in-law.
Meanwhile, the vice mayor of Vlora housed Jakoel’s father, alongside his father’s brother and sister. When the Germans approached Vlora, the extensive refugee network located a family that could temporarily house them in the city of Kavaje.
When three members of the Jakoel family were arrested by the Germans, Rafael and his brother found sympathizers in Tirana who bought their release for 3,000 gold coins.
The plight of the Jakoel family highlights the methodical and courageous efforts of Albanians – from the highest levels of government to the ordinary citizens – that made Albania one of the few safe havens for Jews in Europe during World War II.
A poor nation also ravaged by fascist Italy’s occupation, Albanians still refused to yield to the Nazis. Meanwhile, rather than utilize its extensive wealth and sovereignty to provide refuge to the persecuted, the Swiss government leveraged its privileged position to fatten the coffers of bankers.
Unfortunately, the Allied Nations did not reward Albania’s moral courage. Under the Marshall Plan, Switzerland was allocated $250 million to rebuild its infrastructure, while Albania received nothing. Even the Soviet alternative, the Molotov Plan, did not mete out any funds to Albania.
On this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must upend historical narratives that exaggerate the accomplishments of those with so much who sacrificed so little, while erasing the true story of those with so little who sacrificed so much.