Scarlett Epstein is a British Jew born in Vienna who found refuge along with her family in Albania, a Muslim majority country, when no other country was prepared to help them.
Jewish refugee in Albania
Scarlett outside the Karl Marx Hof, 1935
Scarlett with her parents and brothers 1936
“I was 15 years old when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. This marked the end of my adolescence, and I was catapulted into adulthood. Living under Nazi rule, I witnessed the horrors of their treatment to Jews firsthand. I had to find a way out for my family. Disguised as a Nazi Youth, I went to the Yugoslavian embassy and secured visas for Yugoslavia, where my father had been working. But the visas were temporary, and again we faced the terrible prospect of being transported to concentration camps. My parents became suicidal.
I still feel that I owe my survival to Albania and the generosity of its Muslim people.
Three days before our visas expired, we learned of a Muslim king in Albania, King Zog, who was issuing passports freely to Jews. This was our chance for escape. At the end of October 1938, we sailed to the Albanian port of Durres and joined a small community of over fifty Jewish refugees living next to a police station. All the officers were Muslims, and we established close and friendly relations with the police men who were always concerned about our well-being.
I was so grateful for the warm hospitality I experienced from the Albanian people. Among those I befriended was a young Muslim man who asked me to teach his two younger sisters German and French for which I was paid. It was the first time I had earned money. I loved my time with that family and fondly remember them. I still wish I could get in contact with them.
We eventually secured visas to England, where I went from working in a sweat shop in London’s East End to being honoured with an OBE. I have led an exciting and successful life, and I still feel that I owe my survival to Albania and the generosity of its Muslim people. No country was prepared to offer my family and I asylum from the horrors of the Holocaust, except Albania. The Muslim Albanians welcomed us warmly which came as an extraordinary relief after having experienced the excesses of Nazi persecution.
There were 200 Jews in Albania before the war and over 2,000 Jews after the war. This clearly shows that Albania became a safe haven for Jews during WWII because the Albanian Muslims, under their code of Besa, risked their own lives to help Jewish refugees survive the Holocaust. I hope this will provide a model to be emulated by present and future generations and thereby ensure a better world for all.”
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Stories of Coexistence
Jewish women were influential at Ottoman courts. Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi also known as Beatriz de Luna Miques, had fled from persecution in Europe, finally settling in Ottoman lands. She had leased the Israeli city of Tiberius from Sultan Suleiman ‘The Magnificent’. A synagogue is fondly named after her in Istanbul ‘La Senora’ which still stands today.