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Documentary seeks to explain why Albanians saved Jews in Holocaust
Norman Gershman and Stu Huck discuss a portrait in a documentary about Albanians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
August 3rd, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Documentary seeks to explain why Albanians saved Jews in Holocaust

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.

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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.

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“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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Culture & Science • Holocaust • Islam • Judaism • Movies

soundoff (512 Responses)
  1. Wondering999

    What a wonderful story! I certainly hope that film comes to my area so I can see it.

    August 4, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  2. historian

    this is the reason why the jews got the US to get involved in Kosovo and Bosnia, the Bosnians saved some jews too

    August 4, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  3. Degrin

    Yea this is before the Jews stole their land.

    August 4, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  4. simbad

    haters from both sides take your coments somewhere else

    August 4, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  5. historian

    Jews have always had it better living under Muslim rule than christian Europe, and look how they repay them

    August 4, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  6. Nope!

    Nuri Iirian,
    Ggjilberta Lucaj is not lying!

    August 4, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • INPERATORE

      Albanian aren't Islamic, we are Catholic. I am catholic too! But after numerous regimes over the centuries umpteen changed religion with violence and someone being islamized... Now, I return to the theme, for us is still so sacred "BESA" so Izrael in tribute for us please recognize Kosovo Independence. Hello from Kosovo!

      August 4, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • adem

      Albanian is 70% Muslim, Kosovo like 99%, no one forced Islam on you, look at Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria, they were all under ottoman occupation yet aren't muslim.

      August 4, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • Xhani

      Adem, you're just showing publicly how little you know about the Albanian history and you're also giving me the impression that you never heard of the great Albanian hero, Gjergj Kastrioti Skenderbeu – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skanderbeg

      August 5, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  7. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    August 4, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  8. Dalta

    I am Albanian and it is the first time that I read that "Besa" as a virtue of our people is attributed to Islam. You never ever hear this in Albania. "Besa" is a virtue of our culture, of our being as a nation and has nothing to do with religion. It defined us long before the Otoman Empire forced Islam upon Albania in the 15th century.

    August 4, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • alba

      Yes, you are absolutely right. It is an insult to the rest of the people who belong to different religion, and offered the same act of humanity and kindness. Besa is as old as Albanians- religion not so much.

      August 4, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • adem

      You must be christian

      August 4, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • alba

      Hate to disappoint you, but I am not. I am atheist like most of the Albanians.

      August 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • adem

      Really is that so many are fasting now

      August 4, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • samneutron7

      It's a great, untold story – but I don't think that the author says that besa is a muslim value. It was clear to me, reading it, that it was a uniquely Albanian one. It belonged to the culture, not the religion.

      August 4, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Dalta

      @ samneutron7. This is a quote from the article: "The code is fueled in part by the tenets of Islam under which saving a life is a blessed act." .....Misinformation!!!!

      August 4, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • David Golding

      Too bad the rest of the world doesn't understand "BESA" it would be a much better place for us all! You would think that in 2012 that people would have moved further up the ladder, and tried to search the truth for themselves, instead of silly innuendos that are baseless and ignorant statements from grown people..

      August 4, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
  9. Rosstrex

    CNN when will you stop spreading Propaganda about Muslims? One Muslim may have helped once upon a time. So what? Muslims are Raping, Murdering, Jailing and Subjugating ALL other religious groups in Islamic Countries. Christians saved Jews, Muslims, Gypsies and many many more from the Nazis. Where are the articles about them? Oh yeah CNN is too busy writing Negative Attack Articles about Christianity.

    CNN = Crescent News Network

    August 4, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
  10. OK

    Why does CNN not mention about the Armenian holocaust when Turks murdered more than 1.5 million of them, including nearly 1 million Assyrians as well during WWI?

    August 4, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • BrettinMN

      And just what does that have to do with this story?

      August 4, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • honesty

      He's showing the compassionate side. Imagine if he told of how the vatican was busy helping and protecting catholic hitler.

      August 4, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • Daniel

      This is about ALBANIANS, not ARMENIANS.

      August 4, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • George

      Adolph Hitler (Rothschild), Father: Alois Hiedler. Jewish Grandfather: Barron Salomon Mayer Rothschild

      August 4, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • JLS639

      The Holocaust atrocities are in recent memory. Before World War II, the atrocities of the Young Turks during World War I (especially against the Armenians) were the embodiment of evil on Earth. Almost nobody from that period is still alive anymore, and those that are still alive were very young children at the time. There are still people who remember hearing about the Holocaust when they were young, and not many generations have passed since then. This is why we talk about Hitler along with Pol Pot and Stalin, but we don't talk about Talaat. How many people here have heard of Mehmed Talaat?

      It is also why we don't talk about Otto de Langry, Louis XIII or Hong Xiuquan, all of whom presided over some of the most infamous atrocities of their day and whom are largely forgotten now except among historians and the occasional history buff.

      We will forget the Holocaust, like it or not. Give it just a little while longer.

      August 4, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  11. jezabel

    my b a lls are itchy

    August 4, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  12. bribarian

    How many holocaust stories can CNN possibly write?

    August 4, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Thor

      As many as Israel orders...

      August 4, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • .

      They need to read John 3:1-21 and knock off the traditions of mad men.

      August 4, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  13. OMG

    Islam is a religious cult. Don't believe anything that says "Muslims saves non-Muslims", especially Jews and Christians.
    That's why they constantly blow themselves up, fly planes into buildings, murdering gays, bombing churches/synagogues, destroying temples, etc. !

    August 4, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • John

      A cult is just a religion that has not received a critical mass of acceptance. If Islam is a cult then so is Christianity.

      August 4, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Patriotic

      There is extremist in every religion. Hitler and his followers (Christians) were extremist and that is why they murdered everyone doesn't share their believes and agree with their doctraine.
      Can we blame all Christians for he did ? Of Course not.
      YOU SOUND VERY IGNORANT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      August 4, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • truth be told

      Hitler and his followers (Nazis) were Nordic or atheists.

      August 4, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • George

      Oh really Patriotic, argue these facts

      Adolph Hitler (Rothschild), Father: Alois Hiedler. Jewish Grandfather: Barron Salomon Mayer Rothschild

      August 4, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Sammy

      Wow. I think you need to get out and get exposed to cultures other than you own. I personally know many muslims, all of them kind, compassionate, and accepting of different faiths. Islam has its problems, just like all other religions. Islam carried the intellectual torch while Europe was mired in the dark ages. It tolerated other religions while European christians were persucuting and torturing heretics and disbelievers. You need to recognize the good and the bad. Islam isn't bad, its just different.

      August 4, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  14. portis

    Are there some trustworthy Jews?  Sure.  But not many.  My experience has proven otherwise.  It is not coincidental that Jews are avaricious, cunning, verbal and always angling for an opening, an opportunity to get on top of others.  What, exactly, does "I can get it for you wholesale" suggest to you?  That the speaker is Jewish, of course.  There is a reason, just as there is a reason why the word Jew became a verb, as in "to Jew someone down."  And that same reason is why the verb form now is verboten in our society, of course.

    August 4, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  15. More Secular, More Altruism

    Religion should not be a barrier to helping people.

    Oliner and Oliner (1988) and Varese and Yaish (2000), in their studies of heroic altruism during the Holocaust, found that the more secular people were, the more likely they were to rescue and help persecuted Jews.

    From: http://www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/zuckerman/Zuckerman_on_Atheism.pdf

    August 4, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • John

      These studies are insightful. They show that religion is not necessary to be altruistic and moral and religion might actually get in the way of being good.

      August 4, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  16. portis

    @Hey portis SHALOM

    August 4, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  17. NativeUSA

    Knew they would find some humanitarian muslims if they looked long enough in history......

    August 4, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  18. Samantha

    Acknowledge the fact that Albanian is not just a Muslim country. There are Christians as well, and I guarantee the Muslim community was not the only one up holding Besa. I think all of Albania should be honored in helping those in need during a horrific period in history.

    August 4, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Samantha

      sorry the first part of my sentance was cut off.

      it should read :

      The article should acknowledge the fact that Albanian is not just a Muslim country. There are Christians as well, and I guarantee the Muslim community was not the only one up holding Besa. I think all of Albania should be honored in helping those in need during a horrific period in history

      August 4, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Stu Huck

      Samantha,

      Mr. Gershman always makes sure that he praises all Albanians for what they did. In the book and in the movie he says that Albania is about 70% Muslim and 30% either Catholic or Orthodox Christian. All Albanians, not just Muslims, saved Jews. Besa is a trait of all the Albanian people.

      August 4, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Samantha

      Im not saying Mr. Gershma isnt Praising Christians. I am saying this article. This article is making is seem like only Muslims helped the Jews during WWII.

      August 4, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • honesty

      at least he didn't mention the truth about the vatican aiding Hitler and the Natzi's. What a filth pit the vatican is.

      August 4, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • alba

      And you are absolutely right. I just posted a long comment at the end.

      August 4, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  19. LOL

    LOL yah n now the jews ae killing the muslims how embarassing

    August 4, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  20. portis

    This group of humans is apparently so special, so great, so awesome, so incredible, so protected and possibly so powerful that a strange situation has arisen in the Western World. We non-Jewish humans can write about most any other group of humans, but we cannot write about this group called "Jews" without a creating a firestorm.

    August 4, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
    • Hey portis

      why don't you stop being such a pathetic little bitch?

      August 4, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • George

      Hey portis – Adolph Hitler (Rothschild), Father: Alois Hiedler. Jewish Grandfather: Barron Salomon Mayer Rothschild

      August 4, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
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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.