The Albanian besa and the Holocaust
Geneva, March 23, 2016 (Arbanon Blog) – Ties between Albanians and Jews have remained friendly for many centuries. In one of the most challenging moments of the Jewish people, the Albanians stood shoulder to shoulder with the Jews who were doomed to extinction.
There is one historical event that is worth remembering manifesting the courageous role the Albanian people played to help a persecuted people, threatened with total elimination.
In the beginning of the Second World War, as European countries, one after another, came under Nazi occupation, a European country would soon become a safe haven for the Jews.
The name of that country was Albania.
According to the Yad Vashem center based in Israel, which specializes in the documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust, the United States Ambassador to Albania, Herman Bernstein, made a remarkable statement already in 1934 on the Albanians’ tolerance towards the Jews:
“There is no trace of any discrimination against Jews in Albania, because Albania happens to be one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist, even though Albanians themselves are divided into three faiths.”
It is widely accepted by historians that around 2,000 Jews fled during the Second World War to Albania to seek shelter and protection from the Nazis. Not surprisingly, there were more Jews in Albania at the end of the war than beforehand.
During the course of the war, only two Jews were deported from Albania to concentration camps scattered around Europe. Compared to the massive deportation of Jews from other countries, undoubtedly, Albania was the safest country for Jews.
So what triggered the Albanian population to stand up and protect the Jews from the Axis forces?
The Albanians are a proud people who have kept their traditions in times of foreign occupation and domination.
One particular custom that has survived for decades is the Albanian besa, a cultural concept and code of honor that many Albanians use to keep their words and promises.
The research center Yad Vashem has collected many fascinating stories of Albanians who sacrificed their own well-being, and even risked their lives, to provide shelter and protection to the Jews.
I would strongly advice anyone who is interested in this subject to visit Yad Vashem’s website and learn more about the role Albanians played during the Second World War.
It is worth sharing Nuro Hoxha’s impressions on the role his family played to save the Jews (link to original source: http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/besa/hoxha.asp)
“As devout Muslims we extended our protection and humanism to the Jews. Why? Besa, friendship and the holy Koran.”
Many courageous Albanians invited Jews to their homes, dressed them in local clothes and treated them as family members.
The goal was to rescue Jewish refugees from the horrors of the concentration camps in Europe.
And the Albanians did not fail to keep their promises.
In December last year, the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, paid a visit to Israel. During the press conference that was held between Mr. Rama and the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister used this opportunity to remind the Israeli public about the friendship between Albanians and Jews.
I think the following quotes summarize the mutual respect and trust at that exist between the two peoples:
“I think Albania is the only country whose Jewish population during the Holocaust actually grew because of the refuge and the sanctuary and the friendship and courage showed by the people of Albania.
“We never forget our friends, and we appreciate that display of humanity, civility and courage in our darkest hours.
“We know that the people of Albania are not merely good friends today of the people of Israel but in the crucial period of the Holocaust they stood shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish people persecuted in Europe,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said to Prime Minister Rama according to Jewish Press.
Hard times will reveal true friends, and the Albanians passed the test thanks to the Albanian besa./ Blerim Mustafa
Photo credit: I. Lulani