Promoting the Connection Between Albania and Canada

Published: August 7th 2010
in News » Local

The Jewish Street, Vlora, Albania
Pic: Dr. Anna Kohen
Shopkeeper in Kruje, Albania holding up her family's Yad Vashem Certificate
Pic: Rachel Algom, Tel Aviv
Vera Held

For Vera Held, a chance meeting eight years ago has led to an exciting upcoming trip to Albania.


A local coach, facilitator, speaker, writer, and PR consultant in Toronto, Held joined the Columbus Centre (a multicultural community centre in Toronto) 8 years ago. Although consisting predominantly of Italian and Jewish members, one member is from Albania.


“When he got to know me he brought me a book, and asked me if I knew about the Albanian-Jewish connection,” said Held in a conversation with Shalom Life. “I said no. My first introduction was then.”


That Albanian-Jewish connection of which this gentleman was talking about is the fact that during the Holocaust Albania saved about 3,000 Jews from several European nations, in addition to the Jews that had already lived there. Under Besa, an Albanian code of hospitality, the country takes care of those in need and practices very generous hospitality.


“[The Jews] Managed to escape and they got full help in Albania,” explained Held. “They didn’t go into hiding. They lived full lives. Because of Besa they were put with Albanian families and taken in as their own, and they were brought into their registers and given their family surnames. I have a friend here in Toronto who has a second cousin who’s Jewish, whose grandfather brought her into the family and raised her as his own.”


Besa also includes complete religious tolerance, a fact which Albanians are well-known for. “Albania to this day is religious tolerant,” explained Held. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re born Muslim over there, or Christian or Greek Orthodox. The truth is everybody gets along and they don’t place any emphasis on religion.”


Fighting and war atrocities did occur in Albania; it was an occupied country during World War II. In April 1939 the Italian Army attacked and occupied Albania. The German Army left Albania in November 1944. Despite the horrors of war, the salvation of European Jews took place as a result of Besa, the code of hospitality in conjunction with Albania's belief in religious tolerance.  Albanian officials and the population at large took part in the rescue of Jews.


The fact that Held is the firstborn child of a Holocaust survivor, as well as the fact that she lives near a predominantly Albanian neighbourhood in Toronto, contributed to her growing interest in Albanian’s Jewish history. A chance meeting with the producer of a local Albanian television show led to her appearing on the show and speaking on the Jews of Albania.


“We did a 15-minute segment about how the Albanians saved the Jews during the Second World War and I talked about my future trip to Albania so then of course we had to make it happen,” said Held. After the television show aired, Held went on a quest to find sponsors for a future trip to Albania.


“The first people who jumped on board were Sunny Shores Travel. He was a Kosovar refugee in 1999. I sent him my full letter and I asked for his help with a ticket. I sent him the e-mail at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and at 8 o’clock he wrote back saying: ‘Ms. Held, you have your ticket. In 1999 the Canadian government sponsored me and brought me and my whole family here. I know what the Canadians did for me and I know what the Jewish Canadians did for me in helping that happen.’”


After Sunny Shores, the list of sponsors continued to grow and now includes over 20 sponsors, from all sectors and from different types of businesses around the city – all to support Held’s not-for-profit trip to Albania.


Related articles: (Albania, Holocaust, Vera Held, Besa)

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