I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Albanian code of Besa directs people “to keep the promise.” It is a pledge of honour that guided the Muslim community of the country to protect Jews from the Nazi killing machine.
Photographer Norman Gershman, created an exhibit of how the Albanians saved Jews. He notes that Besa is deeply rooted in Albanian culture, and describes it as “… a code of honour [that] goes back probably thousands of years. It is more than just hospitality. If someone comes into their aura, they will lay their lives down for anybody.”
Besa implies a level of trust that extends to protecting the lives of not only family but also strangers.
Fascists Occupy Albania
In April 1939, Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini ordered the invasion and occupation of Albania. By September 1943, Italy was out of the war and Mussolini was dead.
Seeing the collapse of Italy was close, Hitler ordered the occupation of Albania to protect his southern flank. By August 1943, there were 6,000 German troops in Albania and, along with the soldiers, came the most sinister wings of the Nazis, the SS and Gestapo.
With the occupation, the Nazis set about rounding up Jews to be sent to the extermination camps. But, as recounted by Yad Vashem, Israel’s centre for Holocaust research, the storm troopers ran into a problem in Albania: “In an extraordinary act, [Albanians] refused to comply with the occupier’s orders to turn over lists of Jews residing within the country’s borders.”
In a little known fact of history, in Muslim Albania, not a single Jew was handed over to the Nazis during World War Two because opening your door to strangers is entrenched in an ancient Albanian code of honour, Besa.”
Documentary maker Heda Aly
The resistance went further than just a refusal to obey orders. Jews were given Muslim names and Muslim clothes to wear. Doctors bandaged up the faces of Jews and then hid them in their clinics.
The sanctuary was not restricted to Albanian Jews, but extended to thousands of others who escaped the Nazi round-up in countries such as Greece, Italy, Serbia, and Bulgaria. As the Jewish Telegraph Agency notes, Albania “is perhaps the only Nazi-occupied country that had more Jews after the Holocaust than before.”
The Courage and Cost of Defying Nazis
In a documentary, Randi Winter tells the story of a Muslim family that was hiding a Jewish boy. The Nazis came to the door and demanded “Give us the Jew.” The father replied that there were no Jews in his house, only his two Muslim sons.
Winter tells how the Nazis said they knew he only had one child. The father “turned to his son and said, in a quiet voice, ‘Now is the time to show who we are.’ And when they asked for the Jew his own son stepped forward and they shot him on the spot.”
All Jewish children will sleep with your children, all will eat the same food, all will live as one family”
Albanian Prime Minister Mehdi Frashëri, 1943
Alberto Colonomos and his family were among those hidden from the Nazis. David Weinberg, writing for Voice of America reports that, “A wealthy man who worked in a tobacco factory took in the Colonomos family. Unlike many Jews in other parts of Europe who survived the war in cellars and attics, Jews in Albania were … treated as honoured guests.” Besa dictated that the welfare of guests was put before that of family.
Colonomos, who was ten when the Germans arrived, said the host family knew of the risks they were taking: “They really hid us with their lives. They knew … the consequences if they catch them were very, very stiff. So they would be shot. But when they have that Besa, they will not denounce their guests. They were amazing people.”
It’s estimated that as many as 2,000 people were saved from the gas chambers by the actions of Albanian Muslims.
Story of Albanian Audacity Almost Unknown
After World War II, the Communist Iron Curtain fell across Europe and Albania became an almost closed society, having little contact with the world outside its borders.
The story of the Muslims who protected the Jews from persecution was almost unknown until Norman Gershman decided to document it. Through his Eye Contact Foundation he tracked down and photographed many of the surviving family members who gave sanctuary to the Jews. He also found some of those who had been saved, many of whom had fled to Israel after the war.
Toby Tabachnick in The Jewish Chronicle writes that, “Gershman sees his calling as finding and honouring families who saved Jews, regardless of their religious heritage or cultural background.”
Tabachnick quotes Gershman as saying that his goal is to “break down stereotypes and build upon the deep roots of humanism that cross racial, ethnic, religious, and national boundaries.”
- In May 2004, Xhemal Veseli, an Albanian Muslim, was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous among the Nations. This is an honour bestowed on non-Jewish people who risked their lives to save Jews during the Shoah (Holocaust). Veseli hid seven Jews and the 89-year-old told The Jerusalem Post “Muslim religion says, ‘If people are in need of help, no matter who they are, or what they are―whether it’s Muslim, Orthodox Christian, or any religion, Islam tells us that we should help these people.”
- Rexhep Hoxha’s family hid Jewish refugees and says everybody was in on the secret except the Nazis: “Not only the police knew, but all the neighbours knew as well. There was a circle of silence. It’s something connected to our culture. You don’t betray your guest, and you certainly don’t betray your neighbour.”
- “Albania’s BESA.” Heda Aly, CBC The Current, November 17, 2010.
- “Muslims Save Jews in Untold WWll Story.” Voice of America, David Weinberg, December 8, 2010.
- “BESA: A Code of Honour.” Yad Vashem, undated.
- “Albanian Muslims Took Vow to Save Jews, Photographer Says.” The Jewish Chronicle, Toby Tabachnick, undated.
- “How a Muslim Albanian Family Saved Jews During the Holocaust.” Ilanit Chernick, Jerusalem Post, November 27, 2019.
- “What Made Muslim Albanians Risk Their Lives to Save Jews from the Holocaust?” Cnaan Liphshiz, Jewish Telegraph Agency, January 16, 2018.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on January 15, 2020:
BESA is amazing! We should all live by this code. I have not heard this story before, but it has inspired me.