Johanna Neumann was nine years old when her family escaped from Nazi Germany to seek refuge in Albania. They spent six years there and survived the war thanks to a number of Muslim families who sheltered them along the way.
Neumann’s is one of many stories that demonstrate Albania’s often forgotten efforts to shelter Jews during the Holocaust and which inspired the new documentary, Besa: The Promise.
For Neumann, who was raised Jewish, the predominantly Muslim Albania was a culture shock. She describes the experience in the documentary:
“We heard the muezzin call the faithful to prayer, five times a day, and that sound is so familiar to me that when in this day and age I hear the same it’s very heartening to hear it again. When we went to the mosque, it was interesting how they do things similar to the way Jews do it in Islam.”
Neumann may have been young at the time, but the impact these Muslim families played on her life was not lost on her. One family — the Pilkus — made a particularly strong impression. In an interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Neumann said:
My mother met Mrs. Pilku and it’s the family Pilku who rescued us, saved us, hid us in their home during the German occupation. Mrs. Pilku was a German, and this is actually how she met my mother because I guess somehow or somewhere she heard her speak German and so she introduced herself. And we became very close friends with the Pilku family. Mr. Pilku, he was a Muslim. I do not know whether she did or did not become Muslim—that’s irrelevant. She was German. She certainly was a sympathizer with the regime in Germany. Her father apparently had been one of the early supporters of Nazi Germany. And she had a rather large picture of Hitler, framed in her living room.
Despite Mrs. Pilku’s apparent allegiance to Germany, Neumann said, the Pilkus sheltered her family and repeatedly lied to the German soldiers about who they were. “These are my mother’s cousins from Germany,” the Pilkus would say, “and they are visiting with us.”
The complicatedness of human behavior I think is something that we see probably every day in our lives. I think people have many complications. They have many orientations. And I think this just in some people comes out in different fashions, and in different degrees. But I think we all have conflicts within ourselves. And at a time like this in such an upheaval in the world, I mean that’s really what it was, a total upheaval, this is not a normal life at that point at all.
In 1998, Neumann, who also serves as the Associate for Planned Giving and Endowments at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, honored the Pilkus’ names on the wall in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.