Hidden history of the Holocaust revealed in English teacher's novel
- Credit: Archant
A largely unknown part of the Holocaust is told in an emotional World War Two novel, inspired by true stories.
Rose Alexander, who writes in the holidays between teaching English in an Islington school, weaves the tales together in the Albania-set Out of The Mountain's Shadow.
“I had never heard this story before," said the Kentish Town resident. "If anyone had asked me was Albania anything to do with WW2, I would have said I've no idea. The war has been documented in every possible way: films, TV, documentaries, you name it. I couldn’t believe this was a story I did not know. I was intrigued and knew it would make a fascinating tale for readers.”
Alexander's fourth novel is set between two eras, 2019 and 1939, and follows a Jewish family who find sanctuary in Albania after fleeing from Austria and the events of Kristallnacht. The contemporary plotline follows Ruth, a woman in her 40s struggling to find a sense of purpose and identity after losing her job and relationship.
Her journey takes her to the south of Italy, where the two stories collide in an unexpected and emotional way. Exploring themes of love, danger, and family Alexander's book considers why the Albanians acted so selflessly to help Jews they had never met - leading to 75 Albanians being awarded the accolade of Righteous Among The Nations for saving the lives of their guests.
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“The Albanian people who helped the Jewish refugees were often the poorest; though they had barely enough to eat themselves, they gave them everything,” says Alexander. “Sometimes they hid the Jewish families in plain sight and passed them off as relatives from Germany because there had always been travel between Albania and Germany. In other cases, families took their guests up to remote villages, or even to caves in the mountains, which is what happens in my book.”
The Albanians were guided by the Kanun, a book of rules dating back to the 15th century that incorporates the idea of Besa, meaning 'to keep the promise'.
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“It was this ancient code that led these people to take extraordinary steps to help the Jews,” she explains. “It tells them it's their duty to look after any guests and to place that guest's life before their own. For the Albanians who risked their lives to protect and shelter the Jews, they had nothing to gain but they did it because they believed it was the right thing to do."
The pandemic hit just as Alexander was finishing the novel and she witnessed first hand how neighbourhoods came together in an unprecedented way.
“In my street in Kentish Town, everyone clapped together, shopped for others, did charity runs and pitched in to help neighbours," she recalls. "It made a nice connection with my book. I had often wondered if people nowadays would be so brave and self-sacrificing as the Albanians I wrote about, and it's been heart-warming to see that we haven't completely lost that ability.
“Obviously, the pandemic is nothing like the horror and persecution of the Holocaust, but nevertheless it has been good to see that people can act altruistically, and something positive can come out of the terrible events of the past year."
Out of The Mountain's Shadow is published by Canelo on June 10.