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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. Ramiz Dekaj

    Hello, First I have to sai that not only Albanien in Rep of Albania but the Albanien in Rep of Kosovo have saved Hebreien people becuas of besa and of humanity. MY GRENDMATHER TOLD ME THAT HER FAMILY IN KOSOVO IN TOWN ISTOG HAVE PROTECTED 9people wich were deported from Germany and she risk her life with here hasbend her life to help the jews people during the second world war from NAZI and AGAINST SERBS WICH ALSO HAVE HATE ALBANIENS THAT TIME WHY THE ALBANIENS SUPORT AND SAVE THE JEWS FAMILY AND THIS HAD NOTHING WITH MUSLIM OR KATHOLICS ALBANIEN to do, BUT ITS THE TRUTH AND IT WAS/ BESA SHQIPTARE/ WE LOVE IZRAEL AND USA" I am orginaly from Kosovo town Istog but albanien.
    Great,
    Ramiz Dekaj from Vienna Austria.

    October 21, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • Arman Nogre

      God bless Albania and its people. Remarkable story which completely changed my view of Albanians.

      October 28, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
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    October 21, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  3. Andy

    If you try converting peolpe you will likely be arrested and deported If you just want to see Christianity's holy sights, you will be fine. Lots of peolpe do so each year without any hassle.You stir up trouble however, you will be sent homeReferences : ..

    September 9, 2012 at 1:24 am |
  4. Salma

    Oh, I could never make mayonnaise eihetr, until I got the stick blender as one of my Christmas gifts. Once I started using that it was no trick at all, and the recipe hardly seems to matter: so long as it has an egg and 3/4 cup of oil, it makes mayo of a sort, and the details (mustard, slat, what sort of oil;, etc) are open to experiment. I don't find it to be really light and fluffy, but I think the taste of fresh is better.

    September 7, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  5. tuvia

    B"H

    SHALOM, THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING.
    YOU SHOULD ALL HAVE A GREAT SHABBOS.
    HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND.

    SHALOM, YOM TOV.
    TUVIA

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    September 5, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  6. Bujar

    I love Jews,I love Israel,you are welcomed in Albania,it is your land too,it's God's land.

    August 27, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  7. Arber

    The "Besa" is a very ancient Albanian code, it does not only belong to Kanun which came to be formulated in middle ages by Leke Dukagjini. Although at that time there were some Kanuns, like that of our national hero Scanderbegs Kanun and south albanian "Laberia Kanun". In the Kanun, Besa was recorded as a part of our continues folkloric laws that was passed down to generations, mostly as a said law. Anywhere in the Balkans or further where albaninas live, whatever religion they have, they all practice BESA. I understand why the Jewish community is pressing more on the muslim part of the Albanian community, by showing that even though this part had this religion, they still used the code what made them very significant(Albanian) from other nations who had other religions. Besa code is used by Kosovo albanians, by Montenegrin albanians, Macedonian albanians, Arvanites in Greece, Arberesh in Italy, albanians in Ukraine(which moved there after the Ottoman invasion), and even by albanian living in Turkey. Is a code that is almost born in every Albanian, it has gone down from generation to generation very naturally as a part of our made. We are not perfect as we are human beings too, but there are some things that are special that makes as specific and distinguish from other nation, just as each nation has some specific virtue what makes them come more forward.

    August 27, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • Bujar

      Good job Arbër,thank you!

      August 27, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • ForTheTruth

      Very well said. I also was a little surprised about the mentioning of the MUSLIMS. Besa is not a muslim thing, it is an albanian thing. It was here before Albanians converted into Muslims. It is among christian Albanians too. The religion here is not given much importance. For the Albanians first comes the nation. (From an Albanian from Kosovo)

      August 28, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
  8. Jahudia

    Thank you BESA.
    Thank Albania.

    August 27, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  9. Brian K.

    The writer of this article is an idiot – they forgot to mention the passing of 6 million Poles as well.

    August 27, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  10. TUVIA

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    August 21, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  11. Nisim

    Tacno je to da su Albanci u Albaniji spasavali jevreje ......Medjutim to ne vazi za Albance na Kosovu.....oni su Kosovske jevreje 1944 god...poslali u Sajmiste.........

    August 20, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  12. dave

    this story is so blown up big deal 1 albanian family saved a jew it means nothing when albanian nazi ss killed so many jews and christians including priests and woman and children and other non muslims so to you cnn tell the full storry and not just this little piece and america is not liked by albanians since we have seen so many albanian terrorists busted here and over seas ,this story dont fool me and many others but america is doing the same as before giving them what they want including other peoples lands it seems america wants terrorists as friends but then they turh their backs over and over..

    August 18, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Anthony

      excuse but what u said is umm......... 100% loved America is the best nation meaning many people want to come in it. some which are albanians. America has helped Albania and albania thx them a lot. Kosovo (another albanian nation) is honored by any american they even have to streets named after U.S Presidents (Bill Clint. and George Bush) America was one of the first nations to recognize the independence of Kosovo. Heres my sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kosovo_%E2%80%93_United_States_relations
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albania%E2%80%93United_States_relations

      August 19, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Rreze

      There are many examples of Albanians and Kosovar Albanians saving Jewish families during the second WW. No matter how many mistakes CNN makes when referring to the nation on religion bases.
      Please read more about the Albanian history and their late convert to enemy religions.

      August 23, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • roky

      yes yes this is all about media man you have heard this story and you think its fake ok let me then think that what i have heard from the media where all the muslims around the world are shown as barbarian isn't real is an anti peace (islam because islam does mean peace) propaganda that will not work because the truth will come up one day.Remember real muslims are peacefully peoples.Not only the muslim albanians saved jews from the holocaust remember a history fact ottoman muslim empire also saved jews i am citing (when the Spanish government advised the Jews they would have to flee their homeland or face death, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire–the leader of the state that existed before the modern Republic of Turkey–allowed my family and our people to seek refugee in his lands, this includes what is today Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Israel, the Balkans, and other places. Not only were the Jews allowed to go freely, but the Ottoman Empire sent ships to the west to assist the Spanish refugees in their terrible plight.) said by Shelomo Alfassa a jew himself.Dave don't generalize you seem intelligent 🙂

      August 24, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • Ashraff

      Thats the hatred!! You anti-muslims CANT APPRECIATE THIS GREAT PEOPLE OF ISLAM!!

      August 25, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  13. Malesia Kreshnike

    The only problem i have with this article is the misrepresentation of the word "Besa". This word has nothing to do with any specific religion. Besa is what Albanian society ran on since ancient times. Besa is Honor,Word,Faith,Promise...etc all into one. There is no word in the english language to do it justice.

    August 18, 2012 at 1:22 am |
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    It is in point of fact a great and useful piece of info. I'm satisfied that you just shared this helpful information with us. Please stay us up to date like this. Thanks for sharing.

    August 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  15. Shefqet Gjocaj

    This is a good story, no doubt, but I still don't understand, why this is related with Muslims? Besa is not related to any religion (and everybody knows that Albanians are followers of three different religions). Besa- the promise is ALBANIAN, given promise that is still in force even in modern times. It's known as BESA SHQIPTARE (Albanian given promise) with not any other mean. I can understand that policies are to make peace between Jewish and Muslim people and nations, because of many wars in Middle East, but nobody can use (misuse) BESA for any kind of politics. Besa cannot be interpreted other ways.

    August 13, 2012 at 6:25 am |
    • bela

      see? i don't understand why u keep saying "muslims" . albania isn't made of muslims only...get your story straight people !

      August 13, 2012 at 9:40 am |
    • Kam

      If Albanian doesnt mean muslim. Then Arab, Pakistani, Afghani are also nationalities not religions. Many dont know that Shariah law practiced by Taliban is not actually muslim shariah law its traditional local law 'pakhto wali' confused with shariah. Even many jews believe pakhto wali has its link with orthodox jewish laws since monotheistic religions have many things common it is understandable why it look like shariah.

      August 20, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • Tabitha

      Vous avez de bons points il, c'est proquuoi j'aime toujours verifier votre blog, Il semble que vous etes un expert dans ce domaine. maintenir le bon travail, Mon ami recommander votre blog. Mon francais n'est pas tres bon, je suis de l'Allemagne. ENGLISH TRANSLATION: You have good points there, that is why I like always to check your blog, it seems that you are an expert in this field. keep the good work, my friend recommend your blog. My French is not very good, i am from Germany

      September 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  16. besart

    I don't know who posted this tale,but whoever did he did good job.Unfortunitly; because of the bad lidership of albanian government(bad lidership is all over the world),only citizens of Kosovo and Albania have remained to reveal our pure and oldest history around the world-through different websites.One day or another world will figure out that "Albanian" exist before century had started to count; when there were no religion at all.However, "Albanian" still are struggling to get their culture back and they will one day.

    August 13, 2012 at 1:36 am |
  17. Besa

    I'm proud to be Albanian and thanks my father who named me BESA. I feel stronger. Thank you all commenting great words and facts for the Albanians. Regards from Shkupi.

    August 10, 2012 at 5:32 am |
  18. Zana

    Thanks for the fascinating story, it is really nice for once to be recognized as hospitable people that us Albanians are. I do think the sentence "The code is fueled in part by the tenets of Islam under which saving a life is a blessed act" is not completely correct, because based on the folklore and archaeological findings, Besa existed in our culture long before Islam arrived with Ottomans in Albanian populated regions! Lets not forget people converted here from one religion to another, but Besa never changed!

    August 9, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  19. Fatmir

    Besa is an Albanian tradition. It has nothing to do with religion. It existed before religions and it is even so difficult to be translated in English. Two nations have in common one thing: Albanians sacrificed themselves because of tradition of motherland-mëmëdhe, and besa to their ancestors values. They never have attacked any other nation. They always have protected their land, their language, their tradition from historical times that are not even written. They protected their substantial of their existence.. Albanians had been all the time persecuted in the same way as Jews because of things like besa, but the human garbage was not able to expel them from the land. Jews had been expelled from their land because of the same thing: their tradition. Albanians have sacrificed most of their land to keep their besa. Jews sacrificed their land to keep their tradition. It is all about human dignity against mental ills of some garbage humans.

    August 9, 2012 at 1:04 am |
  20. Alb. Besa

    I.

    The legend begins in Albania, a land far, far away,
    hidden behind the mountains and valleys,
    where there was a widow that lived by the bay.
    She had ten children: nine boys and one girl,
    whose forehead was decorated with a pretty curl.
    The boys grew tall, handsome and strong,
    and the girl learned how to sing a song.
    She laughed and played with them and her dear mother
    but Kostandin always was her favorite brother.
    Kostandin was the youngest one of them all,
    he loved Doruntina way before she could crawl.
    She grew up to be beautiful and fair,
    she had golden curls for her hair.
    Like twin stars her clear blue eyes shone,
    you'd say she belonged on a queen's throne.

    II.

    Many men came to ask for her hand in marriage,
    bringing in expensive gifts and beautiful carriage.
    Naturally, Kostandin, being the protective older brother,
    kept saying "They're not good enough!" to his saddened mother.
    Then one day, a tall, dark and handsome man came from a land far away,
    Doruntina liked him, "Please, let him be the one!" she started to pray.
    Like any brother, carefully and harshly Kostandin looked at him, head to toe,
    "Relax!" the man said with an unarming smile, "I'm a friend; not a foe."
    Then Kostandin tested his conversational skills,
    whose perfection gave Doruntina the chills.
    Of course later, he tested his knowledge,
    in everything you guys now learn in college.
    Everything went completely smooth; this man had it all,
    money, jewelry, looks... knowledge, too, if you'd recall.

    III.

    Finally, slightly annoyed, Kostandin turned to his mother,
    "I have to be honest, I can't turn down one after another.
    I choose this man to give Doruntina to.
    I think she likes him, don't you?"
    His mother then said with sad eyes,
    "O son, right now, you're not being wise.
    Suppose I need my little girl with me,
    for all the future rough times and jubilee.
    Doruntina... she'll be so far away from my hand,
    please, Kostandin dear, try to understand."
    "Mother," Kostandin said, "don't you worry at all!
    The distance between you and Doruntina will be so small.
    Whenever you need her for happiness or times that are sad,
    I'll get my horse and bring her to you! It won't be so bad!"
    Mother then gave up and gave Doruntina's hand,
    to a man Kostandin trusted, but that lived in another land.

    IV.

    Three years hadn't yet passed after this when Albania, this land, was at war.
    The enemies had killed the brothers, one by one, till there were no more.
    The mother buried them in the order of their ages with tears in her eye.
    She burned her colorful clothes and to her sons she said "Goodbye!"
    The sorrowful mother, painted her house and started to dress in black,
    in the midst of her suffering, hoping her sons would be back.
    Surrounded by black walls to remind her of that day,
    when her life stopped being happy like in the month of May.
    She then went to her each son's abandoned grave,
    all of them, patriots of their land, so strong, so brave.
    She lit a candle on each man's stone,
    suffering and crying, all alone.

    V.

    But on Kostandin's stone she lit two candles that shone bright,
    "Kostandin," she said, "I let my little girl go, that was not right!
    But you convinced me you'd bring her to me,
    for future bad times or jubilee.
    I should not have done what you wanted me to do,
    that was wrong, I should not have listened to you.
    You gave me your word you'd bring her to me,
    if I needed her for good times or jubilee..."
    Then she left and went home crying,
    cursing her son for carelessly lying.
    Midnight, when the mother was gone,
    Kostandin rose from his dusty tombstone,
    which turned into a horse for him to ride.
    He definitely looked like some who had just died.

    VI.

    Kostandin got on the horse and rode away,
    till the darkness of the night turned to day.
    He then quickly arrived at his little sister's door.
    Doruntina gasped at sight of the brother she used to adore.
    "Come on, Doruntina, we have to go! I came for you.
    There is something mother needs us to do!"
    But Doruntina, still in shock, wondered what clothes to wear.
    If mother needed her for good, she'd put jewelry on her hair,
    and if she needed her to share her pain,
    she'd wear black clothes, old and plain.
    And she could not just leave like that,
    the village would think of her as a little brat,
    and the ladies would tease her man,
    harshly saying that his little wife ran.

    VII.

    Kostandin waited for his sister to leave her husband a note,
    saying she was at her mother's. She then put on her coat,
    and ran outside, where her brother was impatiently waiting.
    She'd ask him why, but she saw he didn't feel like debating.
    The way home was quiet and such a bore,
    Doruntina could not bear it anymore.
    She then started noticing things about her brother,
    and asking questions about their beloved mother.
    "Tell me, brother dear, why are you covered in dust?"
    "It's nothing, really. Just dirt brought by the wind gust."
    As they were riding in silence that broke Doruntina's heart,
    they passed by some birds singing in skillful art.
    "Oh, Oh, Look who goes by, a live girl riding with a dead man."
    "Can birds sing in human voices?" she asked. "Yes, they can,
    but pay no attention to them. They're just singing old tales."
    Kostandin carefully tried not to get into details.

    VIII.

    "Go ahead, sister dear, go home!" Kostandin said,
    "I'll be here for a while to pay respect to the dead!
    Go on! Don't worry, Doruntina, I'll be right there."
    Kostandin then went to the cemetery along with his mare,
    and Doruntina went home (she remembered the way).
    When she saw the house, all black and it was starting to decay,
    she ran to the door and knocked so mother could hear.
    "It's me, Doruntina! Open the door, mother dear!"
    "You? Doruntina?" the old woman cried,
    thinking that whoever was there had lied.
    "You're no daughter of mine, you're the Devil, that's come for me.
    Took my sons and daughter away and still not satisfied. Can't you see?
    I'm old and tired, my family's dead, but you still come for more."
    "O Mother of mine, what are you saying? Open the door!"

    IX.

    Doruntina tried to make her mother believe,
    that she was not the Devil trying to deceive.
    "So tell me then, if you're my little girl, who brought you here?"
    the mother asked, hands shaking with fear.
    "Kostandin, mother, he brought me on his mare.
    He was in such a hurry; he didn't let me prepare."
    The mother then, dropped her knees on the floor,
    you could hear her from the other side of the door.
    "Kostandin, you said?
    Don't you know he's dead?"
    "No, mother, he's alive. In fact, he's at the cemetery, said he'd be back."
    By this time, the mother must have thought this girl was on crack.

    X.

    "Mother, he came and brought me in a hurry on his mare.
    I thought it was strange, but to ask questions, I wouldn't dare!"
    Doruntina kept insisting that her brother was back.
    "It was him... strong, blue eyes, hair: jet black."
    The mother then felt death creeping up to her so strong,
    she was going to die, it wouldn't be too long.
    "Kostandin died three years ago,
    and was buried three meters below..."
    The old and tired widow then opened the front door,
    and mother and daughter, both fell dead on the floor...

    This legend shows the promise ( BESA ) this young man made,
    and how he wouldn't allow even death to let it fade...

    August 9, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • Zana

      Shume, shume bukur e keni shpjegu, gjithe te mirat

      August 9, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
    • Besa

      Nuk e di sa here e kam pare dhe lexuar dramen "Kush e solli Doruntinen" por ky spjegim ishte aq rrenqethes sa qe nuk mund ta pershkruaj. Ndoshta pse per here te pare e lexoj ne gjuhen angleze. Ju lumte!

      August 10, 2012 at 5:38 am |
    • Bujar

      Exellent,sounds good in english.

      August 27, 2012 at 5:55 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.