WWII History puzzle piece found, revealing the picture

Kadri bey Cakrani, Commandant-General of the National Front in Berat, Albania, wrote a letter in September 1943 during the country’s Nazi occupation. The letter states, in part:

 

“We need to urgently transport a big number of people from Berat. . . . I am talking about the Jews who are in the hundreds here, and if they are found, they will all be put under the bullet. . . . You never know what might happen to them, and I cannot trust anyone because even if I hide them with . . . documents amongst our families, I do not know how the word might get out and then I will have put all of Berat under the bullet. . . . They shouldn’t fall into the hands of the Nazi army that is on its way here, because we know what the Nazis will do to them. . . . Send someone back immediately with my courier.”  — Commandant Kadri Cakrani

We Know What the Nazis Will Do To Them

School history has taught that the Allies and people in Europe didn’t fully know what Nazi Germany was doing to Jews until the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945. Yet here in this 1943 letter, Cakrani was writing explicitly: “They shouldn’t fall into the hands of the Nazi army that is on its way here, because we know what the Nazis will do to them.” [Emphasis added]

Although Cakrani is not alive for us to ask whether he was referring to concentration camps or what exactly he knew about the Holocaust and the persecution of Jewish people throughout Europe at that time, the meaning of one sentence in his letter is clear: "I am talking about the Jews who are in the hundreds here and if they are found, they will all be put under the bullet."

 

“Under the bullet”  could be a literal reference to the mass shootings and massacres of Jews by Nazis in Poland and throughout Europe. Cakrani knew the stakes for the Jews in that moment were life and death. He knew the Nazis would seek to collect Jews and kill them, so he sheltered them. He continued to try to save their lives, despite the peril to his own life and to the community he served as a leader. His recently uncovered story is now being shared and processed with increasing momentum around the world....

Albania Holds Europe’s Best Record for Sheltering Jewish People

The courageous actions of the people of Albania, who sheltered Jews from the Nazis during World War II, constitute some of the finest hours in Albanian and European history. Albania holds Europe’s best record for sheltering Jewish people during the Holocaust. Before WWII, there were approximately 200 Jewish people in Albania. After WWII, there were over 2,000. The people of the medium-sized Albanian city of Berat alone kept over 600 Jewish people sheltered.
 

After WWII, the people of Berat could not speak publicly about the sheltering of Jews during the country’s Communist Reign of Terror (1945–1991) under dictator Enver Hoxha. Placing Albania firmly behind the Iron Curtain, Hoxha forged no diplomatic relations with the West, with the U.S., or with Israel, keeping Albania isolated from the outside world.  

 

Under Hoxha’s ideology, religion was outlawed and activities like listening to Beatles music or chewing gum were grounds for arrest, so the people of Albania chose the sensible and cautious course of staying quiet. They knew they would endanger family and friends if they talked openly about having saved Jews from the Nazis. Fearing their homes would be searched, Berat families destroyed documents linking them to protecting Jews. 

A Coordinated Effort to Save Lives

Kadri Cakrani’s strategy and operations guided the good works of the people of Berat and ensured their success. If Commandant Cakrani wanted to turn over Jews to the Nazis, he could have. People in Berat probably still would have tried to shelter Jewish people, and they may have saved some or many, but Cakrani's leadership was the key.

As we say in business, tone comes from the top. Leaders’ ethics and conduct ripple out and affect everyone in an organization or community. Commandant Cakrani brought his soldiers and the people of Berat together for a coordinated effort as the Nazis ravaged Central Europe. Because he used his authority to shelter Jewish people, the community was empowered to shelter Jewish people from the Nazis successfully. Cakrani’s outstanding courage and strength of character in telling enquiring Nazi officials over and over again that he had no list of Jews to give them strengthened the townspeople’s commitment to shelter and to protect the innocent.

 

Documenting Kadri Cakrani’s Selfless Actions 

After the fall of Communism in Albania in 1991, History’s Helper appeared: Professor Simon Vrusho. A lifelong teacher and intellectual, based in Berat, Professor Vrusho collected testimony and documents from Holocaust survivors and the sheltering families of Berat. He conducted more than 150 interviews over 20 years and collected supporting names, documents, letters, and photos, funding a private museum in 2018 to share the story. Professor Vrusho passed away in 2019, and the Solomon Museum in Berat is now run by his wife, Angjelina, with funding from the Toska Foundation. The museum has hosted thousands of visitors from over 40 countries to date. Here, Kadri Cakrani’s portrait hangs on the wall, and his story is told publicly for the first time. At the Solomon Museum in Berat, the work of Professor Vrusho is on the walls, in writings, and in archives, and it teaches us: 

  • Commandant Kadri Cakrani told the Berat community when and where the Nazis were going to conduct searches for Jewish people, allowing Jewish refugees from Central and Southern Europe to move from one part of the city to another in order to stay undiscovered and safe. 

  • Cakrani fed, clothed, and sheltered Jewish people in his own home.

  • Cakrani, bravely and steadfastly, never turned over even one Jewish name to the Nazi officers, though questioned regularly and under the penalty of death.

Shining a Light on a Missing Piece of History 

A beautiful, and critical, piece of missing WWII and Holocaust history has come into focus. With time, obstructions are removed, and perspective is gained. Commandant Kadri Cakrani trusted the people of the Berat community, both those who were sheltered and those who did the sheltering. He trusted them with his life, and they trusted him with theirs. He trusted them to remember and to tell each other—and the world—to keep the story alive about humanitarian work that defied evil. He trusted the country of Albania with his military correspondence, knowing his democratic vision of Albania and the people of Albania would outlive the dark days of the Nazi occupation and Hoxha’s cruel dictatorship. 

 

He trusted the goodness of people. Now that we know his remarkable story, history is being rewritten.