Seventy-five years ago, when the Nazis began their murderous takeover of Eastern Europe, Jews by the hundreds began relocating into what is now the Republic of Albania, seeking protection.
One of the poorest countries in Southeastern Europe, Albania, where nearly two-thirds of the population adheres to Islam, seemed one of the least likely places for Jews to seek refuge.
Prior to World War II only about 200 Albanians were Jewish. At the end of the war, about 2,000 Jews called Albania home.
Besa is the reason why.
Besa is an Albanian cultural precept, usually translated as “faith,” that means “to keep the promise” and “word of honor” and descends from the Kanun, a collection of laws which regulate Albanian social, economic and religious lives, together with traditional customs and cultural practices of the Albanian society that originated in the year 1400. Besa is an important part of personal and familial standing and is often used as an example of “Albanianism.”
Besa is the subject of a new exhibit at the Museum, “BESA: A Code of Honor,” which tells the story of the Muslim families of Albania who rescued Jews during World War II through the incredible photography of American Norman H. Gershman.
At the opening reception of the new exhibit on March 13 at the Museum, the award-winning film documentary, Besa: The Promise (2012), was screened before a standing-room only crowd at the Museum. The screening was preceded by a marvelous reception catered by the Albanian-American Cultural Center.
The documentary tells the story of the incredible courage of Albanians during World War II through the contemporary journeys of Gershman, who is urgently striving to document the lives of Jewish rescuers before they die, and a shop owner named Rexhep Hoxha, who is desperately trying to return a set of Hebrew prayer books to the survivor his family protected some 60 years earlier during Nazi occupation.
The journeys of the two men intersect at a highly emotional and impactful crossroads as the cameras roll, making the documentary’s ending reveal “a story like no other,” in the words of one reviewer.
On March 23, the Museum will present a matinee screening of the film at 2 p.m. at the Museum Theater. Admission is $5 and RSVPs are required at RSVP@DallasHolocaustMuseum.come. The public is invited.
Rather than hiding the Jews in attics or woods, Albanians brought them into their homes, gave them Albanian names and treated them as part of the family, noted Mary Pat Higgins, Museum President and CEO.
“My father never talked about what he did for the Jews,” one Albanian shop keeper said in the documentary. “He thought it was normal.”
So warm was the welcome for the Jews, said another woman in the film, that her parents used to say, “We don’t know any Jews. We only know Albanians.”
Said Mary Pat: “In a time when religion continues to serve as a divisive force in the world, we are honored to tell the story of these Upstanders, who saw beyond religious difference and chose to act, based on their ethics—Besa—to do what was right and defy Nazi orders. This is history that moves us forward.”
Doc Vranici, Executive Director of the Albanian American Cultural Center, thanked the Museum for hosting the exhibit and for helping share a piece of hidden history of Albania—that Muslims saved Jews during World War II.
Bordered by Montenegro to the northwest, Kosovo to the northeast, Macedonia to the east, and Greece to the south and southeast, Albania became a Communist country, following WW II where religion expression of any kind was punishable by lengthy prison terms. As part of the fall of Eastern bloc Communism in the late 1980s, Albania became a democratic Republic in 1991.
However, the effects of the transition from a centralized economy in a rigid communist state to a free market economy in a democratic republic have weighed heavily on Albania’s people, and particularly on its poor people. Despite the economy’s robust growth in recent years, almost one quarter of the population lives below the poverty level of $2 (U.S.) a day.
Albanians treatment of Jews during World War II proves “that there are far more good people in the world than bad,” Gershman said. “This little country—they have something to teach the world.”
The Presenting Sponsor of the new Museum exhibit, “BESA: A Code of Honor,” is the Carl B. & Florence E. King Foundation. Community Partners include the Albanian-American Cultural Center, Texas-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Congregation Beth Torah. Running through June 18, the exhibit is free with admission. More information at DallasHolocaustMuseum.org
-Chris Kelley, for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance