Ali Sheqer Pashkaj (pronounced AHH-lee SHEH-cher pash-KAI) was a shopkeeper in Puke, a small town in the mountains of northern Albania, when the Germans invaded the country in 1943. Shortly thereafter, a German truck rolled into town carrying 19 Albanian prisoners, one of whom was a Jew the Nazis intended to kill: Yehoshua Baruchowic, then 18 years old.
Sheqer spoke German and invited the Nazis into his shop, where he plied then with alcohol until they passed out. He then passed a secret note to Baruchowic, urging him to escape to the forest.
When the Germans awoke and discovered the prisoner gone, they were furious. They interrogated Sheqer repeatedly at gunpoint, but he refused to confess. Eventually, they gave up and left.
Sheqer later retrieved the man from the forest and sheltered him in his home for three years until the war was over. The man, Yehoshua Baruchowic, survived the war and eventually made it to Mexico, where he became a dentist.
“My father was a devout Muslim,” Sheqer’s son Enver told a reporter in 2007, on the occasion of meeting Baruchowic for the first time. “He believed that to save one life is to enter paradise.”
Sheqer was recognized by Yad Vashem in 2002 as a Righteous Among the Nations, the designation the Israeli Holocaust museum gives to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Sheqer’s actions were part of a broader effort on the part of Albanians to protect Jews from the Nazis, both natives and refugees alike. The effort is often attributed to the Albanian cultural tradition known as Besa, which literally means “pledge of honor” and refers to a quality of faithfulness or loyalty. Albania is the only country in Europe that had more Jews at the end of World War II than it had at the beginning.