Tears welling in his eyes, an elderly Holocaust survivor on Thursday embraced the son of the Albanian man who saved him from the Nazi death camps, highlighting an event recognizing the little-known role played by European Muslims in helping Jews during World War II.
The two met for the first time at a photography exhibition at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, honoring Albanians who sheltered Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Albania, a tiny European country with a Muslim majority, sheltered about 1,000 Jews who, with the exception of one family, survived Nazi occupation, according to officials.
“This is a very unique story,” said Yehudit Shendar, the exhibition’s curator. Though Islam has an anti-Jewish image, these were “Muslims who endangered their own lives to save Jews,” she said. Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II.
Albanians sheltered between 600 and 1,800 Jewish refugees, risking death or imprisonment, officials said. At the end of the war, Albania was the only European country with a larger Jewish population than before the war.
Yoshua Baruchowic, 84, wore a grim smile as he retold the harrowing story of his rescue. He stood next to Enver Alia Sheqer, the Albanian whose father saved him. For decades, Baruchowic exchanged letters with Sheqer, 50, and his father, Ali Sheqer Pashkaj, who died in 2004. They often sent family photos, and he called Sheqer his “Brother.”
Despite many invitations, Baruchowic, who moved to Mexico after the war and became a dentist, refused to visit Albania while the Communist were in power, and later because of political turmoil.
Meeting Sheqer on Thursday, he said, “It’s glorious. It’s something I waited to do all my life.”
In 1941, a Nazi convoy transporting Jews passed the Sheqer family’s general store deep in the Albanian mountains. Sheqer’s father offered the soldiers food and wine. When they became drunk, he handed a message - hidden in a melon - to one of the prisoners, the 18-year-old Baruchowic.
Though they had never met, Baruchowic agreed when Ali Sheqer urged him to flee to the woods. The young Jew hid while Sheqer’s father feigned ignorance as he repeatedly stared down a Nazi gun barrel. He held out until the Germans left and then retrieved Baruchowic, hiding him for three years.
“My father was a devout Muslim,” Enver Sheqer said. “He believed that to save one life is to enter paradise.”