March 4. 2024. 5:36

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Albania to open Holocaust museum after Israeli call for Europe to step up antisemitism fight


The Albanian Culture Ministry has announced the creation of the ‘Besa Museum’ in the capital of Tirana to celebrate the history of Jews in Albania and the actions of the Albanians that sheltered and saved them during WWII.

Albania has historically had a Jewish population including Saranda, Berat and Vlora, with the latter two having Jewish quarters. During World War II, Jews flocked from neighbouring countries and were welcomed by Muslim and Christian Albanians. They were sheltered and hidden, given ‘Albanian’ names, and not handed over to Nazi or invading fascist Italian forces.

It was the only country in Europe to have more Jews living in it at the end of the war than at the start.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said: “It is another very important moment in Tirana’s history, urban development, and architecture, and I believe that we will finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief from a long-standing burden of obligation in relation to our children and visitors to our country, which is related to perhaps the most glorious page of Albanian history, the rescue of Jews during WWII.”

The museum will be located in a historic building, currently empty and once belonging to the Toptani Family. It embodies typical 19th-century Albanian architecture and has been designated a Cultural Heritage and Cultural Monument. Rama announced the establishment of the new museum at a gala event honouring Albanian “Righteous Among the Nations” during his recent visit to Jerusalem.

Albania’s Culture Ministry announced an open design competition for architecture design proposals, funded by Israeli philanthropist Alexander Machkevitch, with the goal of finding the best design solution for the museum’s construction.

“I am humbled to be a part of this important project that will memorialise the bravery of Albanians who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust… This project is a testament to the power of solidarity and compassion in the face of darkness, and I hope it will inspire future generations to continue this legacy of kindness,” Machkevitch said.

According to the Albanian government, the “Besa” Museum will pave the way for the creation of a destination of the glorious history of the salvation of Jews during the Second World War, as well as of Jewish history, tradition, culture, and art. It will include a museum, dialogue centre, and educational facilities and will also act as a tourist attraction.

Other Jewish sites of interest in the country include the Jewish Quarter in Vlora and the Solomon Museum in Berat. There is also a memorial to victims of the Holocaust in Tirana’s lake park.

Albanian Culture Minister Elva Margariti said: “The rescue of the Jews during World War II is one of the most beautiful pages in the history of the Albanians. Christians and Muslims sacrificed everything to protect them. The Besa Museum will be a bridge of communication between generations, a dialogue space for sharing the best values of our peoples”.

The museum’s name, Besa, is an Albanian word meaning promise or trust and relates to a traditional concept of giving one word to honour and protect and keep it no matter what.

At the end of January, Israeli President Isaac Herzog urged the European Union to step up the fight against what he called surging antisemitism.

“You must read the warning signs, detect the symptoms of the pandemic of antisemitism, and fight it at all costs,” he said. “Unfortunately, the picture is disturbing. Deeply disturbing. Antisemitic discourse festers not only within dark regimes but within the heartlands of the free, democratic West.”

Speaking at the European Parliament on the eve of the annual commemorations of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, Herzog said EU countries and the 27-nation bloc’s officials should use legislation, education and security to eradicate antisemitism.

“The distance between a viral video and a physical attack hardly exists at all,” he added. “The distance between a Facebook post and the smashing of headstones in a cemetery is shorter than we would think.”

(Alice Taylor | Exit.al)