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. Zain Tzu

    The Afghan Pashtos and certain other individuals in the Islamic faith have a similar code as well. The bottom line is you protect your guests no matter what.

    August 4, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • Xhani

      No matter what but only if you're not an American or British or Australian or Christian...

      August 4, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
    • Xhani

      BESA stands above the religion or ethnicity. Besa, this unique Albinian code of moral, means that when your even worst ever enemy comes to your own home and asks for help, you are bound to protect that person with the real meaning of no matter what.

      August 4, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
  2. Xhani

    The code is fueled in part by the tenets of Islam under which saving a life is a blessed act?!!! Besa has nothing to do with any religion at all. Besa is a unique Albanian code of honor, so unique that BESA as a word cannot be translated in another language.

    August 4, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  3. Lobelia

    Why should it be so remarkable that Albanians, including muslim Albanians, saved Jews during WWII? Jews and muslims lived fairly peacefully side by side for centuries. It was with the creation of Israel that things started going downhill fast.

    August 4, 2012 at 8:15 pm |
    • whattf

      religious nutters freak me out. do good, follow the golden rule and shut the... up

      August 4, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Xhani

      It seems that you have never heard of one of the most macabre genocides ever called holocaust!

      August 4, 2012 at 8:42 pm |

      I'm sorry to break this to you but Jews never lived "peacefully" anywhere. After being persecuted and murdered for centuries Israel was created to end their suffering.
      It's also untrue that Muslims/Arabs lived peacefully side y side. Just google: "Jaffa Riots".

      August 4, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  4. Alex D

    Read also this about Bulgaria saving its jews:

    August 4, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  5. James

    Muslims have throughout history tried to live peacefully with people of other religions. It is only a few extremists that are grabbing all the headlines and giving them a bad name. The anti-muslim sentiment presently so prevalent in the U.S. is just what these extremists need to get new recruits. Recent history has shown that terrorist acts are more likely to come from deranged americans than from terrorists coming from abroad. Readily available semi-automatic weapons just make it easier for these tragic events to take place.

    August 4, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  6. Alex D

    The Albnians are not the only uropean country that saved its jews. Bulgaria saved its 50,000 jes from going to the camps. Read this:

    August 4, 2012 at 7:33 pm |
  7. carl

    Jews were the Cause of the Fall of the Roman Empire just like whats happening to the Current Republic of the USA . ! let Jews (Scam artists) into your country and Watch it FALL!!!

    August 4, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Cathe

      Carl, how is it that you function without the benefit of a brain??? You belong in the Guinness Book of Records!! What a stupid little turd you are to say such an ignorant, hateful, bigoted thing....

      August 4, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • originalnancy412

      Carl, you are really a confused sad person. Your hate will one day bite you right in the butt. I hope you get the help you so desperately need.

      August 4, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  8. carl

    could you please get over WW2, is that all Jews talk about? how about all the years of suffering Jews have put on people since the 1st century not to meantion the IRISH slave trade they ran. or the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade? What Jews have done to people over the centuries far exceed what happened to them in the Holocaust. quit Complaining jewish people, for you Own the entire media, politics, Shipping, MEDIA, what else do you want. Cry me a river!!

    August 4, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • Roscoe Chait

      You just made up all that cr*p. Time for you to get back on your meds.

      August 4, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  9. horrendousarticle

    Two things:

    1. Asking "how many" then answering with "Albanians would" makes no sense. "Albanians would" isn't a number or an amount.

    2. Sounds like this is specific to Albanians, not Muslims.

    August 4, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Abdel

      That is not true
      During the France occupation by the Nazi, while the French police were rounding up Jews for the Nazi to deport them, more than few Muslims at the Paris's Mosque, help hundreds of Jews by providing them Muslim birth certificates or/and baptism certificates.
      In Algeria (a Muslim country), then a French colony, on orders from the religious leaders, each and every occupied Algerians refused to carry out Vichy's Nazi orders to force Jews from their homes and/or business or help French police in persecute them.

      August 4, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  10. Greg

    Besa meaning " to keep the promise".
    In this day of blurring morals and values this is a great concept for kids to learn. Do you think it will be embraced by the masses in the States since it is not a religious belief but a way of life?

    August 4, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  11. Mr. Smith

    To any Jew who has a horrendous Payot. Do yourself a favor. Shave it or throw it in the garbage as soon as possible.

    August 4, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Mr. Smith

      Oh, I forgot, take a 3 day bath while you are at it.

      August 4, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
  12. Ronn

    For all the people who don't know . "besa" is a value of Albanians costumes and it's born with the Albanians....it was born since no one known the concept of religion ,,,,,it was born hundred and thousand years B.C so it dose't has nothing to do with religions.There are four religions in Albanian and people live here like all have just one religion.Its just because the tolerance and the respect we have for each other.We don't hate someone who is christian or Muslim but we respect them for what they are and what they believe.One thing is 1000% true ,Albanian costumes are the same for Christians Muslims and other religions in Albania.

    August 4, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • PAUL

      Protection Is Always Right!!


      August 4, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  13. Johnny America

    What a nice story. Too bad you wouldn't have seen the roles reversed during that horrible time. Jews are not taught to be compassionate. Deutt:20:12 covers it pretty clear.

    They are still chasing after old men who are are dying anyway...they are not compassionate or forgiving people.

    August 4, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • Greg

      Jesus called the Jews of his day out on that very issue when he repeated the prophet Hosea "I desire mercy, not sacrifice".

      August 4, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Ray

      Your sweeping generalizations and prejudice comments indicate your hateful views. People like you are part of the problem rather than the solution. This article is about compassion yet you find it in your heart to hate other people just because of their ethnicity, religion, race, etc.

      August 4, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    August 4, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
  15. Mr. Smith

    @LOL So you calll Madoff a sucess? It is not a conspiracy. I will tell you what it is. It is something caled embezzlement!/

    August 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Mr. Smith

      F R E E P A LE S T I NE! (from an US born citizen)

      August 4, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  16. Albanian

    I as an Albanian (Muslim ) feel offended when i read that (almost) only Albanian Muslims get credit for saving Jews during WW ll.
    Besa has NOTHING to do with Muslims or Christians, Besa is pure Albanian Code of Honor ( Oath,Promise...etc)
    My Besa is NOT stronger or Weaker then one of my fellow Christian Albanian, in other words Mr. Gershman, you are not doing me nor readers a favor.
    We Albanians Appreciate your hard work , but, PLEASE do it right and be FAIR with us all !!!
    Besa pre-dates Islam, if not even Christianity in Albania.

    August 4, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • SR

      You are right 100%.

      We go way back With the Code !

      August 4, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Guest

      I am muslim too, but not Albanian. I also have to admit that I have never heard of this story before. I just don't understand why you are so offended by the author. Islam gets blamed because some muslims do "honor killing" or prevent their daughters from going to school. Islam gets even blamed for terrorism. These practices have obviously nothing to do with Islam. Now, that some muslims have done something good and the article reports them as "muslims" and not just "Albanians", why are you so mad?

      August 4, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Albanian

      @ Guest,
      I'm not mad, i just don't agree to credit something that doesn't deserve credit.
      Besa is way to old to consider it Muslim or Christian, we Albanians have 500+ years affiliation with Islam, 2000 years with Christianity, before them we were Pelasgian ! (see illyrians, ancestors of Albanians)
      Islam and Christianity are like Garnish to a dish of your favorite food, when it comes to Besa!

      You said it:
      "Now, that some muslims have done something good and the article reports them as "muslims" and not just "Albanians", why are you so mad?"

      This is exactly the reason i disagree with Mr. Gershman!
      Why should you or anyone else see Besa as an religion concept?

      August 4, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Guest

      I see your point. I don't see it as a religious concept. The same way I don't see all the other bad practices as coming from religion. The article doesn't read "The muslims who saved jews BECAUSE THEY WERE MUSLIMS". It just reads that some muslims did provide help. I was hoping that the article would actually make you happy since often in the US, muslims get associated with all the horrible things that a tiny fraction of muslims have done. This tiny fraction didn't do these things because they were muslims, but just because they were bad, plain bad. I guess I am writing this because I am the one who is mad. I just hate how often Islam and muslims get associated with obscure practices that have nothing to do with religion. Just reading the posts here gives an idea of what people associate with Islam. Anyone who has any knowledge of Islam that doesn't come from the media would know that these things are wrong.

      August 4, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • ana_vlora

      Completely agree with you! I loved this article, and I think it had good intentions, until I read the part where it was attributed to Islam. The phenomenon of harboring and saving the Jews from the nazi persecution was not seen in any other muslim country; it happened in our Albania only!!!!! It had nothing to do with Islam, but all to do with our Albanian Honor Code.

      August 4, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
    • Albanian

      @ Guest
      I'm glad you see things as they are!
      I feel disgusted when i see/ hear/ read generalizations, be it Religious, Racial or National !
      I guess, we the Human beings can not live in peace, History proves it!
      It's sad.

      August 4, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Stu Huck

      Iin the movie and in the book, Mr. Gershman credits ALL Albanians for saving Jews and notes that Besa is an Albanian custom. That this did not make it into this review is not Mr. Gershman's fault.

      August 4, 2012 at 8:23 pm |
  17. Ben

    This is the Islam that I personally know! Not the horrible hijacking by the Terrorist Extremeists calling themselves Muslims!

    August 4, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Nicley put. This is the islam I know of too very stable and peace loving.

      August 4, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • ana_vlora

      What Albanians did had nothing to do with Islam, but all to do with our Albanian Honor Code! This was a poorly written article that failed to showcase the great humanism of Albanians, regardless of religion. We are not ruled by religion. We are ruled by our Honor Code.

      August 4, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  18. Mr. Smith

    Is it just coincidence that Jews own every single major media outlet?  Not some.  Not most.  Every single one, as in every single one. Is it just coincidence that the international banking families are virtually all Jewish? Is it just coincidence that the fellows who conceived of and pressed for the Gulf War are all Jews? Is it just coincidence that Jews possess true power positions in government at all levels ten to twenty times that of their population percentage (2%)?

    August 4, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • I wonder

      Mr. Smith,

      What do you think is the reason (cause) for all of this (if true)?

      August 4, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Lol

      It's no coincidence, they're just smarter than you are.

      August 4, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • Lol

      It's a conspiracy!
      No........no, you're just too stupid to be successful too...........

      August 4, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • krspainting

      Because they work hard for it moron...what do you think...? That's the kind of thoughts that Hitler had towards the Jews...Hitler...biggest LOSER of all time and hater of all humanity...even Germans.

      August 4, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • carl

      MR. Smith you said it better than most would. I think people are waking up . hopefully they can put two and two together and realize that a jewish owned 100 percent monopolized Entire World they own and why such Holocaust stories are constintly driven in peoples heads. why? get over it Rich Jews! next time you walk by an expensive high rise apartment complex tell me how many Gentiles are walking in and out.. NOT counting the Trash Guy (who is a gentile) Jews need to shut up and quit complaining... what else do they want? they already own the world!!!

      August 4, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Acul2000

      Mr. Smith....they own it because they worked for it while you are home drinking beer. Carl, i fail to see where in the article you see a Jew complain about anything. The article has nothing to do with the Jewish people, but with the concept of an Albanian belief that is wrongly associated to muslim instead of a culture of a country. The fall of the roman empire hs nothing to do with the Jews. You are truly an uneducated person

      August 4, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • Ruby

      Ah yes, and don’t forget they also control all the medical services, and grocery outlets…
      If this is a problem the solution is simple: don’t use the news services or the banks.

      Mr. Smith is obviously a very sick man and I wish I knew what town he lives in, sure wouldn’t want to attend any movie theaters there! When these psychotics snap it can be nasty.

      August 4, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  19. Chimera

    There are four different religions in Albania: Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic and Bektashi, the latter is an order deriving from Muslim on the 13th century. Now Bektash is totally distinct. Their rituals are very different from Islam, they dance, drink alcohol and women participate at the same level as men. They share bread and confess sins. Many foreigners confuse Bektashi with Muslims. Because of the family names Bektashi are confused with Muslims.
    Also, "besa" is not a Muslim concept, it is Albanian dating back centuries before Islam was forced on Albanians by the Ottoman Empire. When it comes to religion Albanians do not really care. Inter-religious marriages are more common than same religion marriages in the country. I would say that Albanians are agnostics more than anything else.

    August 4, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  20. AnneSD

    The truly sad thing is that protection of strangers was the minority action, not the common thing throughout Europe. Based on the comments in this article and many others I read, I have to believe that in similar situations, too many people here would still give up their neighbors to death or improper imprisonment. The lessons of history are either ignored or people don't think it applies to them.

    And before people in the US insist that we are different, our own history from the same time is not that pretty. Bigotry and intolerance allowed the government to seize property and inter over 100,000 people with very little dissent from the people. Yes, it could happen here; it could happen again.

    August 4, 2012 at 4:47 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.