Honorable President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Distinguished Mr. Gershman, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I feel greatly honored from the invitation and the warm welcome you have offered to me and the accompanying delegation and that is why I would like to sincerely thank you!
The black and white photographic and photo-journalism snapshots of the master, Norman Gershman, which seem to not have escaped his sharp eye by digging deep in the common Albanians’ souls, mainly Muslim ones, makes us ponder and breathe profoundly because in front of our view are being displayed the figures of those silent heroes who risked everything, even their own lives to rescue and save Jews.
The photographs of Lime Balla, of the legendary spiritual Father of Bektashians Haj Dede Reshat Bardhi, of Leka Zog I, of Edip Pilku who proudly displays the honorary certificate proclaiming him as “Righteous among Nations”, of Biçaku or Koca family, of the descendants of the distinguished Domi or Frashëri families, of Ali Ohri or doctor Zyma or Tef Pogu from Scuttari, of Ali and Ragip Kraja’s sons, of Petraq Xhimitiku, of Afërdita Gjergjani or Refik Veseli and Beqir Qoqja and many and many others, remain engraved in the memory for as long as times lives on, because heroism and altruism carries only the singular name “honest and righteous Albanians among nations.”
Besa, this unique characteristic and virtue of Albanians is not simply the code of honor of Albanian Muslims, but also of Bektashians, Roman Catholics, even of Eastern Orthodox or Evangelists. It is a certain kind of genetically inherited heritage passed on and fed from generation to generation throughout centuries by my ancient people which are autochthonous on its own soil of the Balkans peninsula.
Albania was and remains the only country in Europe where the number of sheltered Jews after the end of Second World War was far more greater – about two thousand according to the historically documented statistics, than those who found sheltered in our country before or during the War and who initially reached at that time the number of roughly 200 souls.
This ten fold of the Jewish population in my country came as a consequence of the ancient Albanian custom of welcoming, honoring and accepting the guest and of those who could be different: of Besa, our code of hospitality and word of honor. We in our country and on every soil inhabited by Albanians live and strictly respect and obey to an ancient and very meaningful axiom: “The household of the Albanian belongs to God and to guest as well.”
At the present day in Albania are officially recognized and freely practice their religious belief six communities, among which, the lesser in number but not the least and ancient and meaningful one as well is the Jewish community.
Under my and the First Lady’ special auspices we have managed to transform into a meaningful and beautiful tradition the annual celebration of Chanukah, of the Lights’ Festival in the President’s Office in order to remember and recall every year that war, inhumanity, oppression and slavery due to religious pertinence from ancient times and on have not yet been eradicated.
Ever since the ancient Maccabaeus time, who remained undefeated in the legendary castle of Masada and to the present day, tyrants have tried to deny the free expression of their faith to people and the legitimate right to live freely. Chanukah symbolizes the heroic fight and attempts of all people that aim to triumph over such oppressions and on the miracle that humanity can achieve when it is filled and based on unwavering conviction and courage.
The annual celebration of that holy day, but also of our holy religious days, which we share with one another regardless of Muslim or Christian pertinence give birth to the conviction that faith and persistence represent the unwavering columns upon which we erect and base ourselves during difficult times by helping us to overcome disagreements, differences and lack of tolerance and enable us as well to live in peace and harmony.
That celebration takes on a very specific meaning in Albania where religious harmony and freedom stand at the foundation of nation and democracy. And this freedom of belief, this unique harmony and cohabitation is also enjoyed by the small, but old Albanian-Jewish community which proudly reflects and embodies faithfully and with dignity the best traditions, values and characteristics of the two nations it stems from.
Our peoples and countries are connected by a friendship and understanding that is enrooted in centuries, which were forged especially during the dark Shoah period, but also throughout the historical turmoil which we have faced and above all we have triumphed by unconditionally supporting one another.
I wholeheartedly wish that the friendship and cooperation among Albanians, Jews and Americans to be further deepen and strengthened based on this tradition forged throughout year’s long challenges and difficulties and also through our common willingness and labor.
I would like to conclude my brief, but sincere remarks by expressing and emphasizing the immense pleasure I cherish for the opportunity provided to me in order to appreciate also one behalf of the entire Albanian people in the capacity of the President of the Republic, Mr. Norman Gershman with the highest official award of the Albanian state: with the National Flag Medal.
The master of photography, who sculpted in eternity our most precious values and virtues, deserves not only to be lauded in the name of the Albanian state, but also to be commended for his artistic and spiritual capabilities in making known and spreading all over the world a certain kind of humanism which is both Albanian typical and rare and at the mean time, so inclusive and pan-humanitarian and that makes the world we live in a much better and hopeful one.