In November 2022, I had the pleasure of accompanying one of Amsterdam Publishers’ authors, Dr Anna Kohen, on a book tour in Albania and Kosovo to promote the Albanian version of her autobiographical story Flower of Vlora (Lulja e Vlorës). Flower of Vlora. Growing up Jewish in Communist Albania is part of the series Holocaust Survivor True Stories WWII on Amazon.
Anna Kohen was born in Vlora (Albania) in a Romaniote-Jewish family, and managed to flee the country in 1966 during the communist era together with her family. She initially moved to Greece where she earned her dental degree. With the help of several Jewish organisations, she brought 37 of her Albanian relatives to the United States in 1991 where they settled in Brooklyn, New York.
She is renowned for all the work she has done for the Albanian Jews and for the Albanians fleeing from war-torn Kosovo during late 1990s. So I decided it was a good idea to be present at the book presentations, and see a little bit of the country – if time permitted; I had never been in Albania before!
Little did I know that Anna Kohen was nothing short of a celebrity! She would give over 10 Television and Radio interviews during the week we were there, and politely turned down several others due to a lack of time.
In her autobiography Flower of Vlora. Growing up Jewish in Communist Albania (available worldwide in all online and brick and mortar bookstores), Dr Kohen tells the intriguing story of Albanians who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. Albania is the only place in which the number of Jews living in the country was far greater after the invasion of the Nazis than before. Jews from the surrounding countries also found refuge in Albania. There is no evidence that one single Jew was turned over to the Nazis; all were able to find a safe haven with Albanians – at great danger to their brave protectors. The ancient code of honor, Besa, is at the core of their way of life.
When touring the country and meeting many people, the all-pervasive presence of Besa could still be felt. Besa is the code of honor by which Albanians live. Besa goes back probably hundreds of years, and is not simply a question of hospitality and being kind to one another. In other European countries some Jews were hidden by gentiles in an attic or below the floorboards. Not so in Albania. Jews were treated as family; they were given clothing and were temporarily given Muslim names. Many Muslims risked their own lives for the sake of Jews they did not know.
Dr. Kohen’s family was one of the over 3,000 who were saved. Her parents, Nina and David Kohen, came from Janina in Greece and were living in Vlora when the Nazis invaded. Her parents fled to the mountains and hid with the Lazaj family in the small Muslim village of Trevllazer. (Son Roko Lazaj is still alive and was present at the Vlora town hall presentation in November 2022 hosted by Mayor Dritan Leli). Everyone in the village knew they were Jews but not one person betrayed them. And they were certainly not the exception. Other Jews were hiding in people’s houses in the village. The Albanian people risked their lives for saving the Jews.
Until the downfall of Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship which lasted for 46 years, little was known about Albania and the Albanian Jews. A few stories have surfaced and so far only 63 Albanian rescuers have been honored as Righteous among the Nations, but there are many more Muslim families that deserve to be honored at Yad Vashem.
The promotional tour was an eyeopener with successful presentations. We started with talks at the Prime Minister’s Building by the publisher of AIIS, Ledion Krisafi, the translator Edwin Schwartz, and Anna Kohen. The day after, the author spoke at the “Tirana Times” library in the center of Tirana together with Dr. Petrit Zorba and the publisher, an event attended by members of the Albania-Israeli Friendship Association and representatives of small but noticeable Jewish community that still resides there, and Prince Leka.
To me, the emotional highlight was the book presentation at the Town Hall of Vlora, Anna Kohen’s hometown. The room was packed and emotions ran high. After various speakers, amongst which the mayor of Vlora, people from the audience spontaneously took the microphone to personally thank Anna for all she had done – at least that is what I gathered with my rather limited knowledge of the Albanian language. The energy could be felt and afterward I heard that they indeed thanked Anna Kohen for her selfless contributions to the cause of the Albanian Jews.
Arguably the highlight of the tour was the book symposium at the beautiful National Library of Kosovo in Pristina, splendidly organized by former Kosovar Ambassador to UN, Teuta Sahatçija. Present were the Former President Atifete Jahjaga, Former Prime Minister Abdullah Hoti, Chair of Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ambassadors of Germany, European Union, Albania, North Macedonia, the Head of UNWOMEN, the Head of Women Network of Kosova, heads of many respected nongovernmental organizations, Flora Brovina, writer and former political prisoner at Serbia, and members of families who saved Jews during WWII.
It is hoped that many more stories about Albanian Jews like that of Dr Kohen will resurface. This will not be easy since the Albanians regard what they have done as normal. Why boast about it?
Amsterdam Publishers is a Europe’s prime publisher focusing on Holocaust memoirs and biographies of survivors told by 2G and 3G survivors. So far, Flower of Vlora is the only one telling the story of a Jewish family being saved thanks to the generous hospitality of a Muslim family in Albania. There are many more out there. We love to publish these stories since they teach us a lesson of humanity that is so important in today’s society.
Dr Kohen is a living example of the values that saved her family’s life. She dedicated her life’s mission to helping other Jews and Albanians alike. In 1990 she was invited to Albania to celebrate the founding of the Albania-Israeli society and was appointed Honorary Member. In 2004, the President of the Albanian Republic awarded her the medal for Special Civil Merits for valuable contributions in helping Albanians during the Kosovar humanitarian crisis. Dr Kohen has served the Albanian community for over 30 years as President of the Albania American Women’s Organization and now heads its branch in Sarasota (Florida) crowning her remarkable life story with this unique book which could serve as an educational tool to young generations so they can learn about the past and draw inspiring lessons about the present and the future.
I will most certainly visit this beautiful country with its beautiful people!
Flower of Vlora. Growing up Jewish in Communist Albania by Dr Anna Kohen is available worldwide on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and can be ordered in all brick and mortar bookstores around the world.
For more information:
Liesbeth Heenk (Publisher), Amsterdam Publishers
Lange Voort 223, 2343 CD Oegstgeest, the Netherlands