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Albania's untold story

Thousands of Jews found refuge in Europe's only Muslim state, where an ancient honor code saw all as guests.

A portrait of King Lekka, son of Albania’s King Zog, who helped rescue Jews including the family of Fritzi Weitzmann Owens is included in an exhibition by American photographer Norman Gershman called ‘Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews In World War II.”

Photo Courtesy of Norman Gershman

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Fritzi Weitzmann Owens came from a "cultured city." So in 1938, when Hitler's invasion of Austria forced her to flee her native Vienna, Albania – "a backwards country," as far as she was concerned – wasn't her family's first choice.

But few places in Europe were willing to accept Jews, and the United States had a quota system. Albania, one of Europe's least developed countries, became her family's refuge. Offered visas by King Zog himself, the Weitzmanns spent four months in Albania before finally getting papers for the US.

They lived in a "junk pile" hotel with no running water, but the king – an old friend of her father's – helped them establish a photography business and the locals brought them homemade cakes.

"I feel that we were very lucky because without this little part of history, we would have died," Mrs. Weitzmann Owens says from her home in New York City. "We are grateful every single day."

She is one of thousands of Jews to have been saved from the Holocaust through Albania, Europe's only Muslim country at the time. Amid better-known tales, such as "Schindler's List," this instance of Jewish rescue went largely unknown for decades because of a postwar dictatorial communist regime that left Albania's borders closed to the world. Today, a growing body of research is finally shining a spotlight on this story of hospitality, sacrifice, and religious harmony.

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