By Laura Koran, CNN
(CNN) – How many people would lay down their lives for a stranger?
It’s the question at the center of the new documentary “Besa: The Promise,” which premiered last weekend at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
The filmmakers’ answer: “Albanians would.”
During one of humanity’s darkest chapters, when millions of Jews, gays, communists and racial minorities were rounded up across Europe, many Albanians put up a fight to save complete strangers.
They risked their lives to shelter displaced Jewish families under Italian, and later German, occupation during the Holocaust. Many in the small, predominantly Muslim country in southeastern Europe took refugees into their homes despite the risks and the cost, passing their guests off as family members to keep them safe.
CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories
At the core of this effort was a concept called “besa,” an Albanian code of honor that holds a person’s oath as sacred.
Under besa, a guest in one’s home must be protected at all cost. The code is uniquely Albanian and is cited in the new film as the main reason that Albanians opened their borders and their homes to displaced Jews when many others in Europe turned them away.
The code is fueled in part by the tenets of Islam under which saving a life is a blessed act.
Until recently, this chapter of history remained relatively unknown, hidden by the decades of isolation that Albania fell under following World War II.
Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter
“Besa: The Promise,” which will be shown in different parts of the country in coming weeks, tells the story of Albanian rescues by focusing on the overlapping journeys of two very different men.
The first is Norman Gershman, a Jewish-American photographer who for the last decade has photographed many of the Albanian Muslims who joined the effort to shelter Jews. He has traveled to Albania to meet with them or their surviving family members, documenting their tales of heroism.
The film’s second protagonist is an Albanian shopkeeper named Rexhep Hoxha, who was born after World War II but has struggled for decades to fulfill an oath that his now-deceased father swore in the 1940s.
Rexhep Hoxha holds one of the Hebrew prayer books left behind by the Jewish family his Muslim father rescued in Albania during the Holocaust.
Hoxha’s parents sheltered a Jewish family during the Holocaust. When members of that family fled to Israel, they left behind a set of religious books, which the Hoxhas promised would be returned to them one day.
But Hoxha never saw them again.
Lost to history
Albania is Europe’s only majority-Muslim country, and its Jewish population before the war was about 200 people.
To some, those facts may make it even more surprising that Albania succeeded where the rest of Europe failed.
According to Yad Vashem, the Israeli museum that holds the world’s largest repository of documents and information related to the Holocaust, there is not a single known case of a Jew being turned over to Nazi authorities in Albania during its occupation.
Incredibly, Albania’s Jewish population actually grew during World War II.
The reason so little is known about Albania’s unique role during the Holocaust has a lot to do with the country’s post-war history. Once the war was over, Albania fell under communist control and spent the next half-century behind the Iron Curtain.
Families who risked everything to save lives in the 1940s are only now getting recognized for their contributions.
'The documentary gods'
Rachel Goslins, who directed the documentary, is as familiar as anyone with the history of the war.
In her first short film, “Onderduiken,” she recounted her family’s ordeal hiding from the Nazis in the Netherlands. Yet Goslins said she was “gobsmacked” when she first heard about Gershman’s discoveries in Albania.
“It just seemed like such an important piece of history,” Goslins said. She was even more amazed when she and her crew came across Hoxha.
Hoxha’s quest to return the books that were placed under his father’s protection brings the story of what happened decades ago into recent times, illustrating how the principles of besa have endured.
When she heard about Hoxha’s mission, Goslins said she thought that “the documentary gods have dropped a gift in your path.”
The film takes Goslins and her crew from Albania to Israel, charting Hoxha’s commitment to a promise he inherited from his father and his fear of passing it on to his son. Until he finds the family that his parents' sheltered during the war, he continues to carry a burden.
'We did nothing special. It’s besa!'
For some in Albania, the recognition they’re starting to receive for their Holocaust heroics has come as a surprise. The concept of sacrifice is so deeply rooted in Albanian culture that many do not understand why they are considered unique.
Time and time again, when Gershman visited the families of Albanians who had sheltered Jews during the Holocaust, he found people who were quick to downplay the significance of that act.
Gershman recalls how one man, whose parents had been involved in the effort to save Jews, said to him, “So what? Anyone in Albania would have done the same thing. We did nothing special. It’s besa!”
The concept stipulates that a person must put his guest’s safety above that of himself and his family. One Albanian man told Gershman, “I’d sooner have my son killed than break my besa.”
Gershman said, “Anyone in need, if they knock on your door, you have an absolute obligation to save them, to take care of them, irrespective of if they’re friends, enemies, whatever."
The lessons of besa
The makers of “Besa: The Promise” said they see the film as a lesson in interfaith cooperation. “Seeing Muslims as heroes, and seeing them as heroes to Jews, is not a particularly common story in our world,” Goslins said.
That’s something she said she hopes she can change.
It’s a message that has become a mission for Gershman, whose collection of photographs from Albania has been exhibited around the world and who has published a book called “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II.”
Gershman takes the stories he heard in Albania to middle and high schools in the United States. He said he hopes to introduce the concept of besa to a new generation, thousands of miles from Albania.
Hello everybody I am shocked reading all comments to find some prejudice up here. Oh we are muslims and the we are proud of the culture at that time which jews were here in albania we have islamic culture which toght us respect the strangers or 'mysafir' canon is for fued people have to have to do with hospitality .
Even Albert Einstein escaped with an Albanian passport to the States. Read this if you like more on this topic: http://www.raoulwallenberg.net/press/albanian-muslims-sheltered/
Can we say all about this: Albanians helped some people based on human values, not because they benefited or asked them to pay back for the act. But they were Jews, risky for that time! There were and still are people that pay more respect to spiritual values than to material ones. I do think westeners need more spiritual, familiar,... life. Visiting Albania and meeting Albanians a way to find this retreat (some advertising here :)
My grand-grandfather sheltered a Jewish family in Kosova (Kosovo). I want to explain one thing, because I see some are misunderstanding it. 'Besa' is an Albanian tradition, not muslim tradition!
When will the people who write this kind of article get the facts straight. BESA has nothing to do with ISLAM, CHRISTIANITY OR ANY OTHER RELIGION. This is so offensive to all Albanians. I understand that the politics require this, but if you want to honor what Albanians did for the Jews, DON'T DISHONOR them by associating BESA with ISLAM. THIS IS SHAMEFUL AND DISRESPECTFUL! There were plenty Christian Albanians who saved Jews too.
I would like this story better if it was simply the truth with no political religious colors.
Why do Albanians have to get involved with Jews Muslim relationship??
We have albanian muslims Catholics orthodox Protestant bektashian other religious, Besa it belongs to all of them it is older then their religion, the writer says: The code is fueled in part by the tenets of Islam under which saving a life is a blessed act.
Has no connection with that I would love to se you to fix those mistakes go a little deeper and just say the truth which is more beautiful and would still make you famous and rich.
Besa it's not something that you give it to anybody they knock on your doors and you welcome in and give the Besa !!!! It's strictly a momentum personal decision that the head of the house hold takes before he let's the person inside his house, it is comon that when someone in need knocks on your door you most likely let them in, but if a thief a killer or any kind of criminal or an enemy and you know they are that you don't let them in ( it did happend in the past that a mans son got killed and the killer runing for his life cause The guys friends and other brothers wanted to revenge him, went and hide at the fathers victim house without knowing and explaint him, that he killed some one by mistake in a "bar fight"and didn't know where to hide and he took him in his house gave him the Besa that till he decides to leave no one will touch him, when he finds out that his son was killed forgives the man because of the Besa) now you give the Besa or put some one under your protection only after you heard the explanation and you agree that that man woman or child needs your protection and then you give your Besa. It's a "free world" don't mix us with religious wars that you guys have in middle east we don't need that we are fragile as we are, as everyone you don't need a lot to start a fire, we did you guys a favor... Pay us a favor back or don't. But please just say the truth.
Well done to Albanians this is proof that they are good and honest people.
I have been to both Kosova and Albania, and believe me that I have met a lot of Albanian Christians who have kept the faith even though they have been pressed for more than 500 years to accept Islam as their religion. Albanians are honest people, they believe in God and a strong family relation. They are known to keep the word. They Love the Americans and the Jews. As a matter of fact i noticed that these people are the most supportive people to America and its politics. Yes I agree, I have seen a Kanun and read parts of it, but Kanun has nothing to do with Koran, by the way Kanun is written by a Christian called Lek Dukagjini.
Besa and Kanun are mandatory for both, Muslim and Christian Albanians. My grandfather Ahmet (a Muslim Albanian in Kosova 1896-1988) sheltered in his house many Jewish families escaping from Bosnia and Serbia.
So ridiculous, so now the muslims are being blamed for the Halocaust. I don't hate anyone , but let's come clear here. WHAT BIAS. OK so even if the Albanians followed a code that was from a book of their own, it was still amusli country and they helped. Shame on all you people, such hypocrites. It was the not the only instance where muslims helped. Muslims from Fance of Tunisian background saved many Jews!! Read up about it. They were muslim immigrants and they saved them and hide many many people. I know someone who wrote a book about this, a jewish woman.
Your hate for other, for muslms, isnno different than the way the CHRISTIANS and all of EUROPE were responsible for the darkes chapter in History ..... the HALOCAUST! Such a an unthinkable , barbaric and inhuman act was done by none other than christian countries in Europe. Let's go back in history and you will also fnd the crusades also done by no other than the |CHristian europeans. Again let's go back even more... The Africain slve trade , done by no other than the european chrsitian countries. Let's not pont fingers. The mufti in Palestine didn't hate jews , he wanted his land as the Israelis want it know as well. Muslims in Europe felt for the jews and saved them whenever possible.
What did most European countries do , and some of the local inhabiants like the polish were very cruel.... they closed their doors to the jews who needed help , and not only closed their doors but shot the when hey came for help, as in Poland.
so now you are sayng it was the christians in Albania who helped more, do u really think that is true! Well where the hell were all the kind European christians to help in the restof Europe who clozsed their doors to the jews even though they had large populations of Jews. Who started this whole damn Halocaust, the |European Christians. Let's be honest its not all christians but the European chrsitians have always been racist, aggressive bunch of people.
anita by the name I think you are albanian and I can prouve that by your comment .if I could speak in albanian I assume that my speaking you know very well how should be for your so low thoughts writing down in your comment.So the only that I personnaly say to you is Shame on you and learn the history in the right way.It's true that albanian family they sheltered not only the jews family during the ll war but also the italian soldgers after their fashist end.
Well done to Albanians this is proff that they are good and honest people.
My family is a Turkish-Albanian mixture and I have brought up with the stories how my grandfather saved two Jewish families, and afterwards he also needed to escape from Nazis and joined the fight against Nazis. I don't understand why Jews and Muslims are now in this situation. I hope people will try to understand each other better in the future.
Besa is from the Kanun, not the Koran. There is a huge difference between these books and they aren't related at all. The Kanun is a code of law the Albanians followed, the Koran is a religious text. Albanians of other faiths saved many Jews as well.
VERY well said, thank you! :)
Nice and fresh to see that not all Nuslims were as racists fascists as the supreme Islam leader in palestine Haj Amin al–Husseini Grand Mufti Hitler's ally, who visited Auschwitz in 1944 and urged at the German Nazis to speed uo the genocide, and who intervened to STOP the saving of children (who were about to escape to Palestine/Israel the historic homeland of thyeir forefathers, long before the Arab setllers invaded it) from being burned in Auschwitz... The NMufti also "founded" the entire Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1920s (motivated by the typical dual bigotry of ethnic Arab racism and fanatic Islamic-bigotry, he was termed in 1938: 'the Hitler of the Near East'), he lignited the massacre in Hebron 1929, the Farhud pogrom 1941 in Iraq, the Coup d'Etat of Raschid Ali / called (May, 1941) for a "holy war" against the British and FOR the Nazis, and the 1943 (and on) Muslim-Nazi divisions to commit atrocities against Serbs in the Balkans.
You wrote: "...see that not all Nuslims were as racists fascistst as the supreme Islam leader in palestine ...". Well Kelly, majority of Hutu in Rwanada who commited genocide are Christians! So it is appropriate if someone would glory Christians and say "see that not all Christians were as racists fascists as the Christians in Rwnada, or in Bosnia..."!?
Besa is based in Kanun (Canon) and not Kuran. There are Christian Albanians that saved Jews as well as Muslims. They did a right thing. Albanians gave shelters even to Italian soldiers after Italia capitulated. They wouldn't kill them, instead they gave them shelter and food. Nothing wrong. Besa means if you are in need, an Albanian will protect you and if need be, will sacrifice his/her life to save yours.
Thanks Drin for this important clarification, of course it's NOT connected to "koran."
Free Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani
"If one amongst the Pagans ask thee for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the Word of Allah [God]; and then escort him to where he can be secure." The Holly Qura'an, Surah Tawba, verse 6
"If any one saved a life. It would be as if he saved the life of the whole people."The Holdy Qura'an, The Table Spread, verse 32
There was an event in Munich/Bavaria where Hitler lived shortly after WWI which was very similar to the French Revolution. After the lost WWI godless communists or bolshewists which also had same Jewish leaders tried to take over rule in Germany in a very cruel way. Center of that communist movement was Munich. Possibly when Hitler became eyewitness of that awful events, he became an Anti-Semite. The communists wanted to found a Soviet republic in Germany.
Hitler was a Darwinist.
What was the reason of the Holocaust? Only Hitler's ill delusion?
I guess that the Holocaust has something to do with the French Revolution, when the godless mob took over rule 1789-1799 in France. Up to this terrible event Europe had been the Christian Occident (today some moronic politicians still say that Europe would still be the Christian Occident, but that is a nonsense). Up to the French Revolution Europe was quite Christian, whereby, of course, the pope had caused some serious distortion of true Christianity. Every now and again Jews were persecuted, but not in the way like the Nazis did it. The French Revolution infected also Germany and workers began to revolt. The point is that by the French Revolution a process of destruction of the Christian heritage of Europe began. This prepared the soil for Nationalsocialism and Holocaust.
Some demands of the workers were okay, but the great mistake of the labor movement was its godlessness which was outrageous regarding the history of the Christian Occident. Hence, a lot of established Germans resisted that movement and a long lasting struggle emerged which actually lasts up today. The issue is that the demands of the workers are justified, but their political impact always causes damage and destruction of the economy.
Intellectual Jews were leaders and founders of the labor movement of the 19th century. In the same century Jews, also ordinary Jews, had got great relief by the conservative German state. They were allowed to built big synagogues, had own newspapers, could become politicans, soldiers, scientists, artists, writers, merchants, bankers, etc.. In the end of the 19th century a German Jew had the same rights like a native German, and they even called themselves Germans of Jewish faith.
German Jews fighted for Germany in the First World War which was a showdown of the European nations. It was very bad, but not as bad as the Second World War. Both wars cannot be compared with each other.
Now comes the decisive point. Even during the First World War the labor movement promoted great strikes of German industrial workers. The conservative German Establishment and military certainly perceived that as betrayal and the stab-in the back legend was born. It is a legend, because probably Germany had lost the war even without strikes.
Hitler's logic was simple: Jews were responsible for the destructive labor movement, the labar movement was responsible for the defeat of the WWI by promoting strikes, hence the Jews were the misfortune of Germany.
Hence, the Holocaust was simply a revenge of Hitler and some Germans which he had seduced for the defeat of the WWI.
Of course, there was a second problem that many German Jews had easy jobs which caused the envy of the Germans. But that alone had not caused the Holocaust. The decisive virus was the stab-in-the-back legend, made-up by the conservative Germany military (Ludendorff, Hindenburgh) and pronounced by the Mouth Hitler.
P. S.: Probably during the end of the 19th century Jews were nowhere more welcome than in Germany, at least by the German/Pruzzian administration. Yet, I think it was a mistake to intergrate the Jews too much against the will of the German population. Similarly today in Germany the Muslims get super-integrated into German society by the German government which could also cause the wrath of the ordinary Germans. It will cause damage when governments ignore natural conditions.
Christian culture and Muslim/Jewish culture cannot be united completely or perfectly, that our rulers should realize. The maximum of "life together" is a "modus vivendi". Let us admit that we (Christians, Jews and Muslims) cannot be very close friends, that would be too much to ask for. We can live together as citizens of a state under certain reasonable orders, doing some business together, but we will never be close friends.
You mean the Muslims can expect to end up the same way as the Jews?
Yes, but time is not ripe, and the current situation of Germany is completely distinct from the situation of Germany in the time between 1914 and 1933 (1933 Hitler assumed power).
The USA has got such an extrem military power today that it is hardly imagineable that Germany will do anything against the will of the current American president, because that could have unpleasant consequences.
Jews did not have "easy jobs." Beginning in the Middle Ages, many principalities and countries passed laws that prevented Jews from being employed in many jobs or belonging to guilds. This left areas like banking and trade. So, it was the European's own laws that forced Jews into more lucrative careers, and their jealousy of that success which led to the genocide.
Your assertion about Hitler blaming the JEws for labor unions is off-base. Hitler's hatred of Communism also extends to the "christian" leaders of the movement, which predominated the German branch of Communism. Hitler hated Jews because they were Jews, not because of the jobs they held. If no Jews was ever involved in Communism, Hitker still would ahve found cause to kill them.
Most Communists of the time were in fact not Jewish, but those who grew up in the Christian faith. Every Nazi grew up in a Catholic or Lutheran Church, not a Synogogue. I find it curious you seek to lay the blame for the Jewish Genocide at the feet of the Jews themselves....and the only reason for the genocide is that Jews were communists and labor leaders and teh Germans were a nation of Jew-loving Israelophiles until those damn labor unions came along...
I see Nazism is still alive and well...
"Beginning in the Middle Ages, many principalities and countries passed laws that prevented Jews from being employed in many jobs or belonging to guilds. This left areas like banking and trade. So, it was the European's own laws that forced Jews into more lucrative careers, and their jealousy of that success which led to the genocide.", you said.
I agree with you, I have read about that in several historical books. Yet Luther (he did not hate the Jews) said that the Jews should be allowed to do other jobs than bankers or merchants.
Concerning communism or bolshevism: Actually it doesn't matter if Jews really did promote communism or not. Two things are fact: Some communist leaders were Jews, and Hitler got the subjective impression (maybe objectively wrong) that Jews are responsible for communism in Germany and thus responsible for Germanys doom.
I condemn the Holocaust, it was the one of the most terrible crimes of all history. Hitler will spend eternity at a very hot place together with his accomplices.
Germanys actual problem was and is that we have no healthy culture, no healthy awareness of nationality. Germans are only defined by their gross national product, but this is an operand which only suffices to evaluate robots.
German people are a mixture of nominal Christians, which deny Jesus in daily life (more than the half of the population), and a lot of socialists and ecofreaks. Actually we are very anti-Christian. A usual German only aspires for money, good job, big house, big car, of course on the cost of love and righteousness. Religion plays no role.
Germany needs again a righteous government, which seeks not only economical success, but also the happiness of the Germans. Beside we need a Reformation of the Catholic and the Evangelic Church. They must tell their members that baptism becomes only meaningful in connection with a faithful life, and that baptism is meaningless without a faithful life.
Prayer changes things .
Oh, how did it help about 6 million jews and 3-4 million other people of all faiths who were killed in the holocaust?
Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.
An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.
The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!#
It has nothing to do with religion as Albanians see Jewish people as their own plus Albanians have been persecuted in the same way as Jews by Nazi Germans.
I am an Albanian and when I hear the stories of Albanians kept Jewish because of the Besa and this is because is fueled with religion belife I feel like Gosh does the writer nkow what he or she is talking about. Kanun which is the main honor cod was established before Otmman Empire concoured the Balkan so pleas when you make such a statement read history because it just sound so amattoure so I can't digested. Albanians do not unite based on religion we do unite based on our language culture and our heritage which goes way back before religions.
Thank you for your honest assessment of the issue and origins of Besa. Your concerns have been echoed repeatedly throughout this message board.
Make no mistake, this "story" is just that. A story. Mrrs.Gershman and Huck are nothing more than liberal tools who have hijacked your culture's concept of honor. They have applied it to a group that has an abject lack of honor in an effort to give a false appearance of Muslims "caring for oppressed Jews" in an effort, as noted earlier, to "whitewash" Muslim association with Nazis during WWII. Please see page 1 of comments for more information.
This story is a sham, and the Albanian people should be righteously indignant about their cultural honor being hijacked and then misrepresented for leftists political purposes.
My Dear fellow Albanian(brother/sister),
The writer wrote: "At the core of this effort was a concept called “Besa,” an Albanian code of honor that holds a person’s oath as sacred."
What can't you understand about this message? It clearly says: Albanian, which is a nation obviously not religion as you've tried to interconnect Besa-honor code with it! Yes, fortunately those Albanians who saved those Jews majority of them were of Muslim religion! The producers have done an outstanding job with this TRUE story and we are being represented by our own people's human acts and it doesn't matter what religion they were, but we sure have to give the Albanian Muslim community a great credit for that. However, we are Albanians first and foremost and we never put religion first so that's why we are so distinguished from the rest of the world.
Remember our famous motto: -Albanian's Religion is Albanianism .- Therefore, everything else comes next Shqipe.
No, the story is not 'just tha't or a 'sham' as you put it, actually is a GREAT one. I'm proud to be part of a nation with the highest religious tolerance and yes, those saviors were Albanian-Muslims. So, deal with it.
Religion of Albanians is Albania.We all are Albanians before any religion. A human in need should be helped no matter he's /her Religion
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.