The picture shows Kadri Cakrani along with the others in Berat, Albania during the war.
The July 2018, Wexner Foundation newsletter included a piece I authored titled “How Keeping Promises Saved Jews in Albania.” It was about how Albanians, the majority of whom are Muslim, gave refuge to Jews during the 1930’s and ‘40s. Since writing that piece, my involvement with the Albanian diaspora and the people and governments of Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia has continued to grow, and I continue to be fascinated with the area, the people and the history.
In Chicago I co-chair the city’s Petach Tikva, Israel Sister City Committee, one of Chicago’s 29 Sister Cities around the globe. Sister Cities is a part of World Business Chicago (WBC), Chicago’s public-private economic development agency. A few years ago, WBC’s General Counsel told me she’d like to introduce me to her friend, a fellow lawyer of Albanian heritage, who had a family history I’d probably be interested in learning about.
Her friend, Liz Vrato, a lawyer in Chicago, is the great-granddaughter of Hajredin bej Cakrani. Cakrani was a signer of Albania’s Declaration of Independence in 1912 when Albania became an independent nation after having been part of the Ottoman Empire. During the Second World War Liz’s grandfather, (Hajredin’s son,) Kadri Cakrani, was the Commandant of Berat in southwestern Albania, first under the Italian Fascists and then under the German Nazis. Cakrani was a leader of the anti-communist National Front, and as Commandant he knew he could protect the locals including the couple of hundred Jews in that part of Albania.
When Cakrani got word of Nazi sweeps to find Jews, he told his soldiers and the community when and where the Nazis were going to conduct searches. This allowed the Jews being sheltered to move from one part of the city to another in order to stay undiscovered and safe and one step ahead of the patrols. Meanwhile the number of Jewish refugees grew to the hundreds, including those from Poland, Germany and Macedonia. Cakrani even hid Jews in his own home and told Nazi officials over and over again when interrogated that he had no list of Jews to give them.
In 1943, Cakrani wrote in a now-archived letter, saying, “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.”
Cakrani also saved three American nurses who were stranded after their plane crashed off the coast of Albania in 1943. He sheltered them, provided them with fake IDs with his own last name as his family and arranged to have them safely escorted out of Albania back to the allies.
Cakrani escaped Albania in November 1944 with the assistance of British Intelligence and ahead of a death warrant from Enver Hoxha, the dictator who ruled from 1944 to 1991. He escaped on a small boat and fled the country leaving behind his significant assets, including 6,000 hectacres (15,000 acres) of olive trees and all other lands and houses. His uncle and brother were not so lucky and were hung in the town square the next day.
Cakrani became a political refugee in Italy and Syria and finally the U.S. He was placed at the top of Hoxha’s enemies list and had a death sentence waiting for him in Albania. Hoxha even held a treason trial for Cakrani, but Hoxha was unable to extradite Cakrani, despite having written Truman, Churchill and Stalin, asking for their help to have him captured and repatriated to Albania. But that still didn’t stop Hoxha from continuing to fabricate stories to discredit Cakrani’s reputation and legacy and to paint him as a Nazi collaborator.
Stories of Albania after the Second World War, and still under the rule of Hoxha are still coming to light now, more than 70 years after they occurred. Antisemitism flourished and religion itself was outlawed under Hoxha. The couple of hundred Albanian Jews did not have even the limited protection that diplomatic relations with the United States or Israel could provide to keep their families safe.
Albanians knew they would endanger family and friends if they talked openly about having saved Jews. Families destroyed documents that proved their assistance in case their homes were searched. Under Hoxha’s ideology, listening to Beatles music or chewing gum could get you arrested and religion was outlawed, so the people stayed quiet.
The United States granted Kadri Cakrani political asylum, and Cakrani worked with U.S. Intelligence for the rest of his life to bring democracy back to Albania, going so far as to go to Spain to wait with a group of patriots to be parachuted into Albania as the new democratic government. But the mission was called off by U.S. Intelligence. He died in Philadelphia in 1972, still waiting to restore Albanian democracy and to talk about World War II events.
Albania recently built a Holocaust memorial in Tirana, its capital. It honors not just Jews, but also honors Albanian Muslims and Christians who risked everything and put themselves “under the bullet,” as Cakrani described it to protect their Jewish neighbors and guests. And Berat now contains Albania’s first Jewish history museum, the Solomon Museum, to share this story.
I represent the family, and we are working to bring the story of Kadri Cakrani to light and to gain Cakrani the recognition and recompense he deserves. We hope to see him honored at Yad Vashem as a righteous gentile for all he did to ensure the safety of the Jews in Berat.
We also hope to recover assets lost when Cakrani fled Albania with only the clothes on his back and became a refugee in order to save his life. We hope the government will be happy to embrace this Founding Father’s family and help them recover their assets and reintegrate into Albanian culture and history, righting one last wrong left from the Hoxha era.
WHP Alum Daniel Shure (Chicago II-99) is active with Chicago Sister Cities International Program where he Chairs Chicago’s Petach Tikva, Israel Sister City Committee, and is on the Council of Presidents. He can be reached here.