Professor T. Scarlett Epstein passed away on the 27th of April 2014 at the age of 92, leaving behind many precious memories, among the most interesting ones were those of Albania. I knew her in the early days of my work in London when my diplomatic colleague Ms.Teuta Starova informed me that Prof. Epstein wanted to meet me and get to know me. That’s how it happened.
She was an Austrian Jewish lady born in Vienna and raised there until the age of 16. She resided in Albania from 1938 to 1939. Keen to know as much as possible about Jewish history, I met her with great pleasure. After that meeting with Prof. Epstein a strong friendship grew between us. She seemed to love Albania and the Albanians very much. Humbly she ‘took me by the hand’ in a confessional journey of a life that could truly impress anyone who has human feelings and desires to know and learn. She has had a long academic and research career as an economist and anthropologist, author of 14 books, numerous articles and documentary films.
She was honoured with many awards and titles including the OBE (Order of the British Empire) awarded in 2004. My last meeting with her in February 2014 at Brighton Nursing Home remains for me unforgettable.
‘Swimming against the Stream’
One day she gave me as a gift her book that she had published about her life, ‘Swimming against the Stream’. This book is on my personal bookshelf and holds a handwritten dedication from the author: She had signed it with ‘A small sign of great admiration. Scarlett’. Her confession in that book is breathtaking on almost every page of it. I thought that based on that sincere and dramatic confession of Professor Epstein I would make known her story that relates to us Albanians, on this very day when she passed away. This book that was published in English in 2005 in London contains the story of a difficult life and conveys a strong message: ‘I’m alive thanks to Albanian generosity!’.
Prof. T. Scarlett Epstein lived to be 92 years of age. Grey haired, timid, with a small body she resided in the coastal city of Brighton, UK. She was always present with us whenever we had activities in the Albanian Embassy in London.
Wherever there was a talk on Albania she was always there, telling the story of the Jews and the Holocaust and the protection that Albanians had given them in the most difficult days of their history. You could find her everywhere, in schools, universities, libraries, film festivals and at every important international meeting and in synagogues. She went to Washington DC in New York, to the University of Vienna, to the European Parliament in Brussels, to Cambridge, to Oxford and to Tirana also to meet the Albanians.
Everywhere she conveyed the same message: ‘I am alive thanks to Albanian generosity!’. Her story is a very painful one like so many stories of the Jews but with a happy ending. It is similar to the stories of the nearly three thousand Jews who escaped to Albania.
Anschluss – Vienna – Zagreb
Prof. T. Scarlett Epstein was born in July 1922, and her name was Trude Grünwald. She and her parents and brothers were targeted by the Nazis at the time known as the Anschluss or the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938. The persecutions against them were similar to those applied to Jews in Germany. Like many other families the Epstein family, now with their names changed, had to leave Vienna for a safer place. The young 16-year-old girl who was attending high school and full of dreams about her future faced the alternative of life or death. So, she took control not only of her own destiny but also of her parents. She managed to secure entry visas to Yugoslavia and with the help of her uncle who was a wealthy industrialist they settled in Zagreb. But, after three months their visas expired and they had to leave Yugoslavia or be forcibly deported to their country of origin. The only way out was to secure a visa for a country outside the influence of the Germans. This country turned out to be Albania.
King Zog and the Jews
The young girl knocked on the doors of many consulates in Zagreb at the time but they all quickly closed in front of her eyes as soon as she showed to those officials her passport with the letter ‘J’ stamped on it by the Nazis. Under these circumstances her uncle tells her that there is just one way to escape and that was to go to Albania. Another Jew who traded with Albania had told her uncle that Albania had a trade agency in Zagreb which also carried out consular actions and that they welcomed and treated the Jews generously.
According to her uncle Albania was celebrating the anniversary of its kingdom and King Zog had ordered the state officials to give visas to all tourists, even to Jews. All she knew from geography and history lessons about Albania was that it was a country that lay on the Adriatic coastline and bordered Yugoslavia and Greece. Now the Jewish family had three options: to hide across Yugoslavia and wait for the bad luck of their deportation to Austria; to return to Austria by their own will and end up in a Nazi concentration camp or go to an unknown place, like Albania. She managed to persuade her parents and knocked on the doors of that Albanian office just three days before the visa expired.
The Albanian consul met her with respect and despite the fact that she told him they were Jewish hiding from the Germans and that they had passports with the letter “J”, he provided them with visas. They immediately made their way to Split from where they boarded a ship that would land them in Durres. At the start they were followed by many Jews who were trapped in Nazi horror. With some of those people who left Split that day and went somewhere else and not to Albania, she would never be seen again, as they did not survive Nazi terror.
Durres: November 20th 1938
On this date they arrived in Albania, took refuge there and lived in the city. They were escorted to the Metropol Hotel near the port. Her description of the state of this hotel leaves no room for pleasure but the welcome that this family in complete despair received from the Albanians makes everyone feel proud. She describes Durres at that time as a city of mixed Muslim and Orthodox populations living in peace.
After a few weeks of staying at the Metropol Hotel this family were offered the opportunity to stay in a type of compound that was given to them by the City Council. There were Jews there of different nationalities whom Nazi horror had united in their fate. This housing complex was funded by the American International Jewish Relief Committee with the consent of the Government of the Kingdom of Albania.
Her life in Durres: November 1938 – April 20th 1939
The need to survive taught her more than anything else in life because the value of life doubles when it becomes uncertain. So, Scarlett Epstein started to look for work and found students who wanted to learn German. Among them were two girls. They were the daughters of the Dovana family, one of the most popular families in Durres. With this family she created a strong bond of friendship that continued to the day that she died. Under Albanian law refugees were not allowed to work.
However, thanks to her immediate friendship with the Albanians she managed to become a teacher even though she was still young. Her family was treated with special love not only by the ordinary inhabitants of the city but also by the mayor of Durres.
The episodes of Scarlett Epstein’s life in Durres are all so picturesque and interesting. What remained in her memory she often confessed to her audiences, in private conversations or even in her book where she spoke of the love she experienced in that city and how grateful she was for it. ‘Albania saved my life’, this was the subject of her every story. However, this could not be a country where Jews could live, not being allowed to work, as they are so passionate about trade and other professions.
With two brothers in Britain, Oton and Kurt, she decided to try to reunite her family over there in the UK. She managed to secure visas for herself and her mother but not for her father. Their visas would expire on April 30, 1939. Meanwhile, what Epstein was experiencing she described as an eyewitness is the following:
She witnesses the Italian fascist occupation of Albania on April 7th 1939
Epstein points out in her book that the morning of that Good Friday, April the 7th 1939, came in Durres with boats beginning to appear one after another, lots of them, on the city’s shores. Residents of the city centre where the Jewish refugees were housed were instructed to leave and go to the rural areas as their centre was next to the police station which had two machine guns.
The police station would be the main objective for the Italians to capture. That could seriously harm the residents of the centre. There were only a few Albanian Army soldiers in the town. The Jews decided to go to the cellar of a house near the City Council. The fighting and the shooting continued. The Jews were waiting to see what would happen to them and how the Italians would behave towards them.
Scarlett did not know if the Italians were as anti-Semitic as the Germans were. The Jews decided to leave, taking only the easiest things with them. They went through a field where bullets flew above their heads. They wanted to be sheltered in a house where they could be safe. The exchange of fire between the Italian and Albanian forces took several hours. She testifies that she saw people killed and left on the street.
Now it was to happen that the Italian invaders, the friend of the enemy, became the friend of the Jews. After a few hours the Jewish group confronted the Italians. With the gun bayonets open they were instructed to stop. At the front of the crowd was Scarlett, not because of her courage but because of being the only one who could speak Italian. She told the Italians that they were Germans.
The Italians immediately responded kindly to them, saying,”The Germans and Italians are friends.” They did not take note of the fact that as Jews they were Hitler’s biggest enemies and that he was chasing them everywhere to kill them. She explained to the Italian commander that they had left their home because of their fear of any Italian attack but now they wanted to return there again.
The Italian commander assured them that since they were Germans they were considered friends and would be guaranteed protection by the honouring of relations between the two countries. So, though it sounds like a joke, they were put under Italian protection and returned home, without really thinking of under whose protection they were in this situation.
With this promise they did not understand if the Italians were there to protect or punish them. With a touch of humour she tells us that the allies of Hitler, the greatest enemy of the Jews, became their protectors. The invasion was completed the next day which was Good Friday and the Italians headed for Tirana.
The Jews remained in Durres while Scarlett received a letter from the mayor of Durres, the former Italian consul who had already become mayor of the city. He asked her to continue teaching him the German language as she had done before. He promised that as long as he was in that position nothing would happen to them from the Italian army. Years later she became interested in learning about the fate of Luigi Alois, the consul who by his work had defied, not without risk, Italian fascism.
When the course of events took a different direction Scarlett Epstein had no choice but to use the English visa provided by her brothers. So, on April 20, 1939 she and her mother set out on a dangerous journey to Italy by boat and then by plane to Berlin, Cologne, Amsterdam and London. The further years of this lady’s life are full of events but stories of suffering and danger were engraved in her memory. She memorized the past and moved on to travel the paths of life prepared to meet the unexpected on her way. She began her life in England as an emigrant making great personal sacrifices, sewing uniforms for English soldiers of World War II.
But, after a while with great strength and will she did manage to pursue her undergraduate studies. She pursued a doctorate degree and became a professor and one of the best-known anthropologists in the UK.
The friendship with Professor Scarlett Epstein
With Prof. Epstein I had a strong sincere friendship based on her beautiful feelings of gratitude, hospitality and Albanian Besa (word of honour). She had two daughters, Debby and Michelle. In fact she had three. The third one is an Albanian lady, a former Minister, the adviser to the Albanian Embassy in London. She was a respected lecturer and an excellent diplomat, Dr Teuta Starova. She had become her third daughter. She spent days and nights attending talks, going to universities, synagogues and schools to talk about Albania and the Albanians. She had long phone conversations making plans on how to let the world know about the Albanian value of Besa and hospitality. In 2012 at the Wiener Holocaust Library in London a meeting was organized dedicated to Prof. Scarlett Epstein in the presence of the Jewish and Albanian community of London. Israeli Ambassador to Great Britain Daniel Taub attended this event. There Prof. Scarlett Epstein was honoured with the Symbol of the City of Tirana. Also in attendance was Mrs. Ingrid Strati, a well-known Albanian intellectual from Durres staying in Italy, a descendant of the distinguished patriotic Dovan family.
With that family Scarlett had re-established contacts only recently with the help of another Albanian Embassy diplomat, Mrs. Joanna Papacostandini. Joanna was not only from Durres but also her family were very close friends with the Dovana family. It seemed that even after 74 years that great hospitality of Dovanajave had not been forgotten by Epstein and that the gratitude to them and to Dürres had not been extinguished.
So, in the Spring of 2012 she travelled to Dürres, to revisit her old paths where old memories flashed and she went on to shoot a documentary on her history in that city. In 2012 Scarlett Epstein travelled to Washington DC to participate in commemorating Albanian efforts to protect Jews during the Holocaust.
Then having been invited by Vatra we celebrated with her the 100th Anniversary of Albanian Independence. The initial invitation was from the Albanians of New York. In 2014, after a series of activities on Albania, she gave a long speech at the European
Parliament on Albanian Besa which was received with great admiration.
The respect for this lady is endless and flows from memories of shared struggles and hardships that drew on her strength and generosity. Above all the eternal gratefulness that she had towards the Albanians remains close to my heart.
In fact Albanians have done for this lady what they do for every human who knocks on their door but she has rewarded them with so much work to make their hospitality known everywhere, wherever Albanians need recognition, support and warmth.
We visited her shortly before her death. The meetings and conversations with her were not only of particular pleasure but also of a moral obligation to a historical connection between Albanians and Jews whose two countries have secured freedom with so much suffering, pain and struggle. Prof. T. Scarlett Epstein has just passed away and will be buried on April 29th 2014 at the Jewish Cemetery in Hove, East Sussex, Brighton.
She left behind a story that must not be forgotten. This is a tribute to everything that Albania did for her and what she did for Albania.
Rest in peace!
London, April 27, 2014