By Michael Curtis
October 4, 2014
The horrors committed by evil people during the Holocaust are well known and documented. Less well known are the merciful deeds performed by good people during the years of World War II. Among the least known of these decent individual are the Muslims in Albania who saved Jews. The screening in October 2014 of a film BESA: The Promise, directed by Rachel Goslins, with music by Philip Glass, is a welcome reminder of this minor but significant segment of Albanian history, in which a small number of Muslims protected Jews from Nazi Germany.
The film portrays a number of compelling and moving stories. It is based on the book BESA, written by Norman H. Gershman, a Jewish American who narrates and is the central figure in the film. Over a five-year period he collected stories and photographed members of Albanian families who acted in a compassionate way during the war years. The story remained largely unknown during the almost 50-year period after the war while Albania was controlled by the Communist regime known as the Socialist People’s Republic from 1944 to 1991. During those five decades, displays of religion were banned in what was an inhumane and brutal regime, and contacts with the outside world, especially Israel, were forbidden.
Albania is a small country rarely making news though it is a member of NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and since June 2014 has candidate status for membership in the European Union. As a result of its defeats in the Balkan Wars in 1912, the Ottoman Empire lost control of the Albanian area it had long ruled. Following the Ottoman defeat, Albania began its efforts to become an independent country in 1912. After the end of World War I it was accepted in 1920 as an independent state based on a common language, though its borders were not internationally recognized until 1926, and it was also recognized as a member of the League of Nations.
Albania was invaded by Fascist Italy in April 1939. Jews were not allowed to leave the country and a concentration camp was established in Kavaje, but Italy did not comply with the German Nazi demands to hand over all Jews. After the armistice of September 8, 1943 between Italy and the Allies, German forces invaded and occupied Albania. The Nazis ordered all Jews there to register but Albanians would not give the German any list of Jews. The Albanians did not collaborate. On the contrary, in the face of grave reprisals for their behaviour, they helped Jews to evade the Nazis and sheltered them in their own homes. They gave the Jews false documentation, allowing them to mingle in public, and forged passports for them.
In only two cases were Jews captured by the Gestapo and deported to Bergen-Belsen. Albanian border police allowed Jews to enter the country without asking questions. The Righteous persons gave Muslim clothes to Jewish women to help them evade Nazi checkpoints. They took Jews to Albanian ports and helped them escape the country.
The hatred of Jews on the part of the Mufti of Jerusalem is well known, along with his eager approval of the extermination of Jews in Europe and in Iraq, his raising of an SS Muslim Division in Bosnia, and his association with Heinrich Himmler and other leaders in Nazi Germany. BESA tells a different and compelling story of Muslim behaviour. The book and the film document the participation of some Christians but mostly it was compassionate and kind Albanian Muslims (Sunni Muslims make up about 58 per cent of the population) who sheltered Jews who had fled to their country to escape from the Nazis.
At the beginning of World War II about 200 Jews lived on Albania, mostly in the towns of Korce and Pristina. During the war more than 2000 Jews sought refuge in the country. BESA is the account of the hospitality of Albanians towards them. The Albanian word “BESA” apparently means faith or keeps the promise. It is a code of honour, an ethical code entailing an obligation to provide help. It entails hospitality, providing food and shelter to those in distress. By tradition it is a collective agreement to show kindness to and to save people in trouble.
The story deserves to be better known. The Albanians sheltered the refugee Jews or assisted in arranging transport to Italy. The dramatic outcome was the fact that 1800 Jews were alive in Albania at the end of the war. The dramatic result is that there were eleven times more Jews in the country at the end of the war than at the beginning. In comparative terms it was the only European country in which more Jews existed at the end than at the beginning of the war.
A comparison with some European countries can highlight the extraordinary behaviour of the Albanians. In Poland, 90 per cent of its 3.3 million Jews perished; in Germany 88 per cent of 240,000; in Slovakia 83 per cent of 90,000; in Greece 77 per cent of 70,000; in Hungary 70 per cent of 650,000. Even in the neighbouring Kosovo area more than 600 Jews were killed. Only Denmark where less than 1 per cent of its 8,000 Jews were murdered can compare with the record of Albania.
After the dissolution of the Albanian Communist regime in 1991 and the creation of Albania as a parliamentary regime the truth became more widely known. Consequently, Vad Yashem, the World Center for Holocaust Research, in Jerusalem, that has honoured 25,000 from 49 countries, since February 1995 has recognized 70 Albanians as Righteous among the Nations.
Photographs and the narrative in the film BESA portray the heroism of the Righteous Albanians. In the main they were simple people who did non-simple things. The film is organized around a series of conversations, often highly emotional, told mostly through their descendants. Jewish survivors tell of their gratitude to their Muslin rescuers.
The central story is a moving one, ultimately joyful, recounted by a man named Rexhep Hoxha, an owner of a toy store. He is the son of one of the Righteous, and was engaged in a search for 15 years, that took him to Bulgaria and Israel, to carry out the obligation of his father. His father had protected a Jewish family and carefully preserved three Hebrew books entrusted to him by the family until they could reclaim them. He had passed the torch of kindness, the return of the books, to his son, symbolic of dedication to the next generation. After considerable effort, the son finally located the Jewish man who had been saved by his family. In a meaningful and emotional encounter for both men the meeting took place in an apartment in Israel where Hoxha fulfilled the promise to his father to return the three books. They turned out to be a complete Torah.
What is compelling in this complex narrative is the modesty as well as the enormous courage of the Albanians who risked their lives for BESA. In a poor country, perhaps the poorest in Europe, the Righteous Muslim individuals did what they thought was right and passed on the promises they had made to their children. At this moment when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is exhibited repugnant brutality and evil, BESA is an inspiring story of Muslim heroes who opposed inhumane terrorism and treasured human life.