Whilst doing research in the library for Holocaust Memorial Day a coffee-table book of black and white photos caught my eye: Besa: Muslims who saved Jews in World War II.
There are many stories of non-Jewish families risking their own lives to save those of Jews during the Second World War; those now honoured by the State of Israel as the ‘Righteous among the Nations’. Besa tells the remarkable story of a small contingent of Albanian Muslims who rescued Jews during the German occupation of their country in 1943-44 – a story that, because of Albania’s own troubled recent history, has only now come to light.
As Jews across Europe were targeted for destruction, the fate of the small Jewish population in Albania was already inscribed by a sacrosanct principle known as ‘besa’ – a code of honour deeply rooted in Albanian culture and in the faith of Albanian Muslims, meaning ‘to keep ones word’. It binds those who live by it to take responsibility for the lives of others in their time of need.
In Besa short testimonials and black and white photographs (collected by photographer Norman H Gershman over a five year period at the start of the 21st Century) tell the story of 59 Albanian families who sheltered the Jews of their own country as well as refugees fleeing from elsewhere. Many went to astonishing lengths to hide their Jewish guests within their own homes and communities, but there was never any question about whether this was the right thing to do. As Bahrije Seiti Borici simply puts it:
Why did we hide our Jewish family? Well of course we would. We were one family.
This book throws light on the true nature of Islam, as a humane and compassionate religion that protects the sanctity of life, and as an Abrahamic religion it has many more similarities to Judaism and Christianity than it has differences. These families saw no division between themselves and their persecuted Jewish brothers and sisters; ‘There is only one God’ states Nadire Proseku.
But the most moving and poignant aspects for me, especially today on Holocaust Memorial Day, are the stories of reunion, many years later, of these Muslim families with the Jews they sheltered:
Forty-four years later, in 1989, we again made contact with Yusa. He was living in Jerusalem and had a fine family. We have his address. It brings a tear to my eyes to say that I hope to be reunited with Yusa before I die.
– Josef Dodi, photographed at a table made by the Jewish refugee who evaded persecution by working as a carpenter in his father’s workshop.
Nearly all of the 2,000 Jews in Albania during the Nazi occupation survived and went on to start new lives; something denied to the millions of others who ended up in concentration camps across Europe. Holocaust Memorial Day is about remembering those who died, but it is also about remembering acts of kindness and sacrifice, and recognising our shared humanity. We can learn a lot from the Albanian Muslims and their principle of besa.
The Yad Vashem website includes an online exhibition based on this book, featuring five of the family stories: Besa: A code of honour.