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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. *Sarah

    Rolandi,
    Please forgive the lack of honor in the previous post comment.
    Honor is something rare in this world and those who lack it, attack those that do out of shame and ignorance.
    To be able to have faith in your own people, no matter their religion is amazing and I could only hope that one day, my fellow Americans will understand that.
    To know such people exist on this planet, gives me hope and has inspired me.
    Again, I hope that you can see past the ignorance and know there are many more who appreciate your people and history, but hate seems to always get more attention then love.
    Today, I hope you accept my love and appreciation for your people.

    August 5, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Lol! Hitler was a christian.

      August 5, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • truth be told

      Hitler was an atheist and killed Christians as readily as others.

      August 5, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  2. Eno_Albaninan

    I will say just one thing to all of them who dont know Albanians and to them who are albanians but not feel in that way dont ever try to say something different about "BESA" or to mix BESA with religion .. please dont do it that coz you dont know nothing THE TRUE ALBANIAN PEOPLE IF THEY SAY : " I GIVE THE BESA TO YOU " HE NEVER CHANGE THAT WORD DOSENT MATTER IF HE DIE IN THAT DOSENT MATTER IF HE LOSE ALL THINGS HE KEEP THE WORD " BESA" WITH ALL MY RESPECT TO ALL ALBANIANS IN THE WORLD ..

    August 5, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • tallulah13

      And Hitler was a christian

      August 5, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • truth be told

      And hitler was an atheist who killed and persecuted Christians at every oportunity

      August 5, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  3. Vald

    The religions have nothing to the with the Besa, a code of honour, the highest ethical code in Albania. The albanians didn't save jews because they were muslims, christians or orthodox. They saved jews because they are ALBANIANS, because they always saved the strangers in risk, greeks and italians too. Under besa, a guest in one is home must be protected at all cost. The Albanians can give their lives for a guest. And Albanians always loved jews. They have a lot of common things even today.

    August 5, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • lightandsalt

      you just reminded me of another astonishing fact- Albanians of Albania saved even the Italian solders who were left here when Italy surrendered and the Nazis came in Albania. They took care of them just as if they were members of their families.

      August 5, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  4. lightandsalt

    I am 99% sure that if you would ask Rexhep Hoxha if he practices Islam, he would say "no". He may celebrate the Muslim holidays just like any Albanian would do, but nothing more. We are all pointing at this as it seams to me that whoever wrote the article or made the film is making a point on the Muslim thing, but that's totally pointing in the wrong direction.

    August 5, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Vald

      How the Albanians celebrate religious holidays, only Albanians can understand. I agree with you when you say if you would ask Rexhep Hoxha if he practices Islam, he would say "no". We are no longer Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, we are all Albanians. Our religion is Albanism.

      August 5, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  5. lightandsalt

    Congratulations for this article and especially to the film producers. As an Albanian it is very encouraging to read it, even though there is a huge misunderstanding and error that comes from lack of knowledge of the Albanians history- besa, it is not a concept transferring from the Islam. Besa is well known and practiced especially in the northern part of Albania, inhabited by the Catholic Albanians. Besa is connected with the Leke Dukagjini Cannon, and Leke was a Catholic Albanian. Also, Albanians were never committed Muslims as they were forced into Islam during the 500 years that they were under the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, for that reason even to this day there is a religious tolerance just for the fact that all Albanians would say that we all used to be Christians prior to the occupation by the Turkish Empire. So saying \'Muslim Albanians saved Jews\" is completely irrelevant. They saved Jews not because of being Muslims, but because of being Albanians who have suffered a lot throughout the history and they know what does it mean to be persecuted. I hope that you will study the history of our nation better, so that you can be more accurate. All the best

    August 5, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  6. E mann

    FYI......the greatest physicist Albert Einstien was one of those Jews that came to America through Albania with an albanian passport..

    August 5, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  7. Albanian girl

    "BESA" is nothing to do with Religion, is part of Albanian culture. Culture is different from Religion. Albanians are known for religion tolerance. It doesn't matter what religion you are, BESA is an oath.
    BESA is unique only Albanians practice.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  8. Mentori

    Besa has nothing to do with religion, it is an old Albanian tradition to welcome people at their homes even they are strangers from different culture, racial or religiouos background they will be looked after and they will be respected and welcome with whatever the host can afford as we say: Buke Krip e Zemer, (Bread, Salt and Heart)

    August 5, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  9. Rozelita

    Besa is an Albanian cultural precept, usually translated as "word of honor" "and to keep the promise". Besa has nothing to do with religions. It means to have faith in the persons word of honour, not in god.The word's origin can be traced to the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, a collection of traditional Albanian laws, customs and cultural practices which are based on four pillars:
    Honour
    Hospitality
    Conduct
    Kin Loyalty

    August 5, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • dita

      . That's how far away we are in understanding the religion. Besa-Besa...

      August 5, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • tallulah13

      Besa four pillars of cultural epitomy combined with our five pillars of faithful following is a great concept this world has come to know of because of this article posted by sister Laura Koran I applaud the honesty and integrity

      August 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  10. neil

    Please help save these jobs
    http://www.indiegogo.com/save-our-jobs
    Anything you can do is welcomed.

    August 5, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  11. magnum12

    The code is fueled in part by the tenets of Islam under which saving a life is a blessed act.

    That verse was removed from the Islamists' Koran and replaced by "killing an infidel is a blessed act"

    August 5, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  12. 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 5, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  13. magnum12

    Great story, but now I fear for the safety of those Albanian Muslims when this comes to the ears of the evil Islamists.

    August 5, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • jeton

      don't be, We Albanians have four religions have also been able to live near each other for centuries, even today in Albania, Kosovo, western Macedonia and other countries where Albanians live this tradition is maintained.

      August 5, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  14. Dita

    BESA has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the Albanian culture.

    August 5, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  15. more likely

    Albanians spared a few to make change at the quick-e-mart for them.

    August 5, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  16. .

    And where are all those kind muslims today?

    August 5, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • fair good chance

      They are blowing something up (along with themselves)

      August 5, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    August 5, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • magnum12

      I agree.

      August 5, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Jesus

      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!#.

      August 6, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  18. Albanian

    I read some of the comments here and Im much surprised with the arrogance and insanity of some of the people commenting here, taking in consideration that they have no clue over a religion or a culture. you all have to know that religion is not equal to culture. If we go and make that mistake like they are trying to do it it's one of the biggest mistakes that was crated.
    For those who are arrogant enough not to understand: BESA is an oath that one give in doing something very noble, so that is part of the culture, why I say so Albanians are of three confessions : Christian, Islam and orthodox Christians and at three confessions you have BESA, now based on this fact you come to understand that Culture and Religion are not the same and should not be mixed together. Culture is much older then religion if you didn't know.
    I could even say for some of the Arrogant persons who just for the sake of saying something without knowing anything I'm telling them that they are talking nonsense. Why, let me bring a example. When Albanian buiild Churches the rest of the Europe they were still pagans, believing in many Gods and killing each other for whatever reasons. The first church appearance in Europe started sometime 3rd century (Rome) and that is pagan sacred place adopted to church, but in Albania you can find Churches build at 2 century. Now the oldest know orthodox church is in Istanbul, (still present and always talking for Europe) but the second oldest church is located in Albania.
    Just an example Danmark, was converted onto Christianity on 11 Century almost 900 years after Albanians did embrace Christianity as religion.
    Albanians never fought among themselves because of the religion there is no tale or writings that says so. We are one people who respects the freedom of religion what ever that be. And what is more interesting for those arrogant people to know is that AMONG ALBANIANS YOU HAVE FAMILIES SAME BLOOD ROOTS THAT ARE OF TWO CONFESSIONS ONE IS CATHOLIC AND THE OTHER ONE IS ISLAM CONFESSION.
    Now to us Albanians fighting about religion or even worse killing for religion is so embarrassing and low level of culture that can be considered as to times of Paganism. That's how far away we are in understanding the religion.
    PROUD TO BE ALBANIAN.

    August 5, 2012 at 5:43 am |
    • harlan hoffman

      I agree with your assessment of culture vs religion: culture is what it is, there're few moral questions among those of the same culture. Whereas in religion there're dogmas, and codes and control over individual thought on many fundamentally cultural issues. I think that the point of your article is that and is a good debating issue. thanks for helping me to see it.

      August 5, 2012 at 7:17 am |
    • Good for you

      I appreciate your assessment,however, I stopped trivial conversing with the ignorance on this site. In particular, if you are not stereotypical, conservative "w" American, anything you believe is wrong to the "arrogant" ones. Just a shallow and ignorant group of people that are doomed to failure, as history will always repeat itself. No one stays on top forever!!!

      August 5, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • Wcatholic

      Albanian,

      Sad to say but as far as some of the comments to which you refer seems to indicate a sort of mocking Irony. It doesn't even approach the level of arrogance. Its a post-modern 'so what, its all subjective anyway' shrug.

      August 5, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Albanian girl

      Thank You very much for this message, I hope those dummies will understand and learn something from it !!!

      August 5, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  19. Stebe

    Thank you Albania and Albanians, this story has lifted my spirits.

    August 5, 2012 at 5:26 am |
  20. rolandi

    as on albanian from kosovo we din't do no thing special we just did what what is good to save human been from EVEL thet calls BESA god bless great albania

    August 5, 2012 at 4:26 am |
    • .

      Then why are you here, roli? If Albania is so great, go home.

      August 5, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      abcdefghij

      August 5, 2012 at 4:44 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.