Nazi Holocaust survivor Johanna Neumann stood in front of the crowd and spoke about how she and her family were saved by Albanian Muslims. Neumann’s story was one of many messages at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center’s (ADAMS) Holocaust Remembrance gathering on Jan. 29 at the group’s Sterling community center and mosque.
The messages delivered by speakers had a special significance coming on the same weekend as President Donald Trump’s executive order effectively banning immigrants and refugees from several Muslim-majority countries.
ADAMS Board of Directors Chair Rizwan Jaka and Ray Daffner of the Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation denounced Trump’s executive order and stressed the importance of different communities coming together to support each other.
“We must be each other’s protectors, we must stand up against any injustice anywhere and ADAMs is absolutely committed to that,” Jaka said. “We will stand in solidarity together, no matter what the challenges are. We know that there are challenges right now with the executive order and we are standing as the interfaith community for peace, for respect, for the constitution, for religious freedom.”
“We live in times of uncertainty and many in our communities are fearful of what the future may bring. This is the time we must dig in our heels. Together we much strive to make our world a better place, one community at a time,” ADAMS Ashburn Interfaith Leader Sarwet Abbasi said.
“Our history, the history of the human race has given us a valuable lesson, one that is too often overlooked — united we stand, divided we fall,” he said
Neumann, 86, was originally from Germany. As she and her family experienced increasing discrimination for being Jewish, they tried to immigrate to America, but were unable to because of a quota system for visas. Albania had no quota, so she and her family fled there, where she said they were welcomed with open arms.
“There was not one person who gave us away,” Neumann said.
Albania, a Muslim-majority country, had been working for years to help settle Jewish refugees despite being financially reliant on Italy, Neumann said. The Albanian King said Albanian embassies should issue visas to all Jews who wanted them, despite Italian protest. She and her family arrived in Albania five weeks before Italy occupied the country, and at one point, there were 2,000 Jewish refugees there.
While Italians looked for the Jewish refugees, the Albanian government officials helped refugees get settled with Albanian families. Those they could not settle they took to hospitals to be quarantined for typhoid fever, and safe from persecution, Neumann said.
Germany occupied Albania in 1943, and the Gestapo asked for a list of Jewish refugees. Neumann said the Albanian government told the Gestapo they didn’t know any Jews, just Albanians.
Neumann and her family moved 17 times through Albania and were always able to either rent a room from a family or work in exchange for a room. Sometimes Neumann would stay with her mother while her father lived with another Albanian family. She and her mother lived with one family and posed as cousins. Even the children stuck to this story line when questioned by German soldiers.
“We were a part of the family. We were not strangers, we were not refugees, we were part of the family,” Neumann said.
Albanian families faced mortal risk for helping Jews, Neumann said. One family that was hiding Jews was found out by the Germans and their house was blown up with everyone inside, she said. She witnessed it with her own eyes.
“He who saves one life is as though he saves the world, Neumann said. “I have four children, I have 14 grandchildren, and as of last week I have 19 great-grandchildren. None of that would have happened if it hadn’t been for the good Albanian Muslims who saved us.”
After hearing Neumann’s story, the audience learned about other genocides around the world, including Bosnia, Syria, the Rohingyas of Burma and Crimean Tartars.
Mike Ghouse of the Center for Pluralism spoke on the importance of learning from one another and that education must fuel activism.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) echoed this, saying that everyone must come together for a shared dialogue. Comstock also spoke against the immigration ban, saying that while people coming into the country need to be screened, it cannot come at the expense of civil liberties. She also said she does not support bans based on religion.
Ghouse awarded the first “American Amin Award” to Jaka. The award recognizes Muslims who are dedicated to peaceful societies by building relationships with all people regardless of any differences.
Jaka said everyone must remember the Holocaust and work together to make sure nothing like it happens again.
“We work diligently to build cohesive societies where no American has to live in fear of the other,” Ghouse said. “We must acknowledge our failings and work on fixing them. The antidote to divisiveness is … a simple does of being together.”