'I AM Your Protector Event ?at MCC Features Little Known History
Johanna Jutta Neumann, née Gerechter, is a living symbol of the history of the Holocaust and Muslims' roles as protectors. She spoke at the Muslim Community Center (MCC) in Silver Spring, Maryland, at an event to commemorate the Holocaust survivors and their protectors.
Born in 1930 to a Jewish family in Hamburg, Germany, she says her family had been Germans for several centuries. With the rise of the Nazis, Jewish doctors werent allowed to practice on non-Jewish patients, judges were stripped of their positions and children were not allowed to play in the playground. Signs declaring No Jews Allowed showed up on storefronts and public places.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, in 1933, over 9 million Jews lived in Europe 1.7% of the total populationduring a worldwide economic depression. A propaganda campaign against Jews, Roma, and other targeted groups saturated German airwaves. She describes how the Nazis unleashed a wave of pogroms against Germanys Jews. On one night in a matter of a few hours, thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. This event came to be called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) for the store windowpanes that were shattered on German streets. Then 8-years-old, Johanna remembers the results of unchecked hatred.
After than night, Neumann fled with her parents to Albania where she lived through the Second World War. Her memoir, Escape to Albania, published on Amazon, chronicles the familys many protectors. The Nazis occupied Albania. Albanians have an honor code rooted in their Islamic faith: the Besa. An old Albanian proverb reads Our home is our guests house, then our house, but above all, it is Besa: The Promise. The Nazis would stage sweeps through Tiranë looking for Jews; if discovered, everyone would have been executed.
The Albanian King Zok allowed every Jew a visa. The government refused to cooperate with the German general in Belgrade who demanded the return of the escaped. They distributed the Jews among farms and placed them in a hospital, announcing that the hospital was in quarantine under typhoid fever. Neumann found an old Nazi government memo stating the Albanian government will not cooperate with us; we cannot do this as you wish without the Albanians knowingreferring to the extermination of the Jews.
The Pilkus family hosted Neumanns family before they left Albania in 1944. They had a son named Edip the same age as Neumann and they played together making the best sand balls, says Neumann.
I remember hearing my father saying to my mother that the Nazis were coming to search because they have learned of the presence of Jews. I could understand they were in great danger, said Edip Pilku, showcased in the documentary filmed on the subject. Edips father took Mr. Gerechter to a small village in the mountains for safety. The Nazis came twice to search the Pilku home and Edips mother stared them down. My mother said, Are you that suspicious to not believe a German woman? I dont know any Jews, so you are wasting your time here and if you come here again Ill complain. They saluted her and left.
Few know these stories, because Communists sealed off Albania from the outside world for almost 50 years.
Neumann pointed out over and over again the families who hosted her were all practicing, religious Muslims. She recalls Bajram (Eid Al Adha) where large holes were dug in the ground and the meat and skin of sacrificed animals was laid out for anyone in need People came and took what they needed, nothing less and nothing more.
A Muslim police officer came and spent two days at Passover, observing the Seder, learning about Jewish customs from her parents. Neumann related the story of her parents who were picked up by Albanian soldiers while speaking German in public; the police thought they were German spies. The same police officer was the commanding officer and let them go with a friendly warning.
Orhan Frasherif, also featured in a documentary about the role of Muslim Albanians in saving 2000 Jews, explained how his father helped the Jews. Father took them in, accommodated them on the second floor, giving them beds, mattresses, blankets, dishes, everything. They offered to pay for them, but my father did not accept that. They also had some jewelry, and since father did not accept money, they tried to convince him to take that. But he told them we would take care of everything.
Myzafer and Luleta Kazazi are from a large Albanian family. Luleta was the youngest, born in Tiranë during the war. I was two when the Jewish immigrants came. According to my mother, they named me Luleta. The Marvelous Allah wants people to love each other, Myazafer says.
At MCC, President Lubna Ijaz welcomed the audience. Samir Jafri, Chairperson of the MCC interfaith committee, Imam Johari Abdul Malik of Dar Al-Hijrah, and other interfaith leaders also spoke.
The founder of the local chapter of I Am Your Protector (IAYP), Nazli Chaudry, an interfaith activist and former chaplain of Hofstra University arranged the event. She said the international campaign was launched in Manhattan, celebrating those who stand up for each other across religious, racial and gender lines in order to highlight a message of unity.
Fear is a powerful emotion which can drive people to commit atrocities [Empathy] transcends ideological bonds, said Chaudry. She noted that Albania was the only country in which the Jewish population increased during World War II. There are chapters of IAYP in Geneva, Tirane and in Lahore, where Pakistani families saved several Holocaust survivors, according to Chaudry.
Also invited to speak was Rabbi Batya Steinlauf. She spoke of the oneness of humanity and our responsibility to the vulnerable. Each and everyone is responsible for the lives of others, she said. We are responsible for one another was the message she brought to the masjid. Steinlauf is the Director of Social Justice Initiatives & Inter-Group Relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council, an Israel advocacy group.
Reverand Dr. Carol Flett from the Episcopal diocese of Washington, focused on anti-racism development and how it helps facilitate interfaith dialogue. She gave the example of Prophet Isa's (may Peace be on him) love and support of the marginalized. Relaying his words according to Christian tradition which says whoever does the will of God is my brother and mother. She reminded Christians in the audience that these promises are made during their baptism.
Imam Johari Abdul Malik reminded the audience of the reality of coexistence. What ever effects one, affects all of us indirectly. The reality is that we live in a world- the ability to stand in the face of tyranny is a form of Jihad. We have a religious obligation to give [refuge] even if they are non-believers in God . [The] world is caught in the cycle of intolerance [so we must] stand for justice and establish peace," said Abdul-Malik.
If more governments had acted like Albania, more people may have survived. What the Albanians did there ? not enough [is] done to praise them" said Neumann.