(photo credit: AP)
World War II was over and Dr. Anna Kohen, then a small child, was walking with her mother in Vlora, Albania, when a woman ran toward them, crying and calling her mother by an unfamiliar name.
Kohen was stunned as the women hugged and cried.
Her mother later explained that the Muslim woman was from a village where she, Kohen's father and other Jews had hidden during the Nazi occupation before Kohen was born. To protect themselves, Kohen parents, Nina and David, had taken Muslim names.
"Everyone in the village knew they were Jews, but no one betrayed them," Kohen recalled Wednesday as the Anti-Defamation League praised Albania as the only occupied country where no Jews died at the hands of the Nazis, thanks to the country's Christians and Muslims.
The league posthumously honored a Muslim Albanian man and his son for protecting six Jewish families.
The organization presented its Courage to Care Award to three relatives of the late Mefail Bicaku and his son Njazi. The two led the six families - a total of 26 people - to safety in the mountains of central Albania.
For months, the Bicakus shared their home and food - bread, beans, dried meat - with the families while guarding them with a carbine, the league said. Mefail's wife, Xhevrie, washed their clothes.
When some suggested that the Bicakus turn the Jews in to the Nazis and claim their wealth, the family refused, according to the league. When the Nazis arrived in the mountain hiding place in 1944, no Jews fell into their hands, according to the league.
"In the moral void that engulfed the world in those nightmare days when the cruelty of the Nazis ran rampant, the Bicaku family was among those few shining stars," said Michael Salberg, the league's director of international affairs. He presented the award to Mefail's son Muhamet and Njazi's daughter, Elida Hazbiu, and son, Qemal Bicaku.
Kohen, whose parents took refuge in another village, said Muslim and Christian Albanians' "humanity and compassion" at that time has been "little-known."
Although records from that period are incomplete, Salberg estimated that several thousand Jews fled to Albania from surrounding countries in Eastern Europe.
"All of them were saved," Salberg said. "Albania is the only country occupied by the Nazis that had more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning of the war, which is a reflection of Jews having sought refuge in Albania and survived."
Adrian Neritani, Albania's ambassador to the United Nations, said acknowledgment of Albanians' "bravery and humanity" was "long overdue."
"No single Jew was allowed to be captured by the occupiers," Neritani told the more than 100 people gathered at the ceremony.
Muhamet Bicaku traveled with Hazbiu from Albania to New York for the ceremony; Qemal Bicaku came from New Hampshire.
With Kohen translating, Muhamet Bicaku thanked the Anti-Defamation League said he was greatly honored to accept the award on his father's behalf. His father was jailed in 1961 for "collaborating with Jews" and died in 1969, he said.
"I'm very proud of what he has done," he said.