Understanding besa, the Albanian code of honour

| September 2, 2010 | 1 Comment
 Rachel Goslins, director of the upcoming film, Besa: The Promise, with Baba Haxhi Dede Reshat Bardhi, in Tirana, Albania.

Rachel Goslins, director of the upcoming film, Besa: The Promise, with Baba Haxhi Dede Reshat Bardhi, in Tirana, Albania.

“All Jewish children will sleep with your children, all with eat the same food, all will live as one family”
— Albanian Prime Minister Mehdi Frashëri, 1943


As the only country in Europe whose Jewish population grew 10-fold during World War II, and included refugees from all over Europe, Albania, with its 70 to 75 percent Muslim population, would seem an unlikely candidate to stand alone in its way of providing unwavering support of Jews.
Yet, King Zog and his foreign minister led by example, rescuing people from outside their borders, and most often unknown to them. People from every walk of life joined the informal underground to shelter anyone fleeing the Nazis. It was reminiscent of the underground railway between the North and the South during the U.S. Civil War.
A secret statement by Prime Minister Mehdi Bej Frashëri, a Bektashi Muslim, declared: “All Jewish children will sleep with your children, all will eat the same food, all will live as one family.”
Here, Jews, who had escaped from other countries and who had literally been branded on the forehead with a J, were astonished to learn that the local population was jostling amongst themselves for the honour of sheltering them, for the honour of saving their lives.
Neighbours even shared the privilege, based on their ability to contribute to the welfare of their “guest.” In one case, a rich neighbour fed the people in their care, while a poor neighbour gave them a bed to sleep in each night. No threats of punishment or death could cause these people to waver in their commitment.
Now, as these extraordinary, ordinary individuals are rightfully coming into the world’s consciousness, we need to honour their simple requests. In some cases, they want to restore to the Jews the things — the money, the possessions — they left behind for safekeeping. After these 60 years, they hope that someday, some way, a letter or knock on the door will reunite them with the people who temporarily became family and, for most, are still sought out as long-lost relatives.
Beyond their wish to find the people they sheltered, they are perplexed at the attention — at why someone would even want to photograph them and tell their stories to the world. Some 50 years of oppressive dictatorship and then the harsh rule of Communism has dampened but not defeated their spirit. Each one said that if the knock came to their door today, they would answer it again. Some of them answered the knock many times, giving shelter not only to Jews, but also to some 25,000 Italians fleeing the Nazi wrath — and even to Nazi defectors. It must be noted that Muslims were by no means the only rescuers, though being the predominant group in Albania, they saved the largest number of Jews. In fact, relative to their populations, Catholics and Orthodox Christians equally sheltered and protected Jews.

From left: Neil Barrett, director of photography, with film director Rachel Goslins, and photographer Norman H. Gershman on set in Tirana, Albania.

From left: Neil Barrett, director of photography, with film director Rachel Goslins, and photographer Norman H. Gershman on set in Tirana, Albania.

When he heard of these stories, photographer Norman H. Gershman, a former Wall Street broker and headhunter, felt compelled to document them. The results of many years of travel, interviews and photography are three-fold. There are photographic exhibitions that travel the world; there’s his book Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in WWII; and there’s the soon-to-be-released film Besa: The Promise, originally titled God’s House.
After speaking with many Albanians and Kosovars, Mr. Gershman came to understand how a deeply-ingrained cultural virtue saved thousands of lives from the Holocaust.
For centuries, Albanian conduct has been guided by the Kanun and besa. The Albanian word besa is usually translated in English as “faith,” “trust” or an “oath of peace,” but its real spirit is “to keep the promise.” Besa lies at the heart and soul of trust in Albanian personal and familial life.
Besa first gained prominence in the Kanun, a set of customary oral laws started in the 15th Century, passed down through generations, and not written down until the 19th Century.
The Kanun says: What is promised must be done. According to the Kanun of Lek, article 601: “The house of an Albanian belongs to God and the guest.” Article 603 says: “The guest must be honoured with bread and salt and heart.” Article 609 adds: “Receive a guest also with a fire, a log of wood and a bed.”
While the Kanun of Lek (the best-known kanun) is often perceived as archaic or even feudal, its modern interpretation is really the essence of honour. Mr. Gershman was told: “Without the Koran, there is no besa, and without besa, there is no Koran.”
He established The Eye Contact Foundation to use art as the primary form of expression to break down stereotypes and build upon the deep roots of humanism that cross racial, ethnic, religious and national boundaries. His photographs are purposeful. What is reflected in his portraits is his overriding belief in the goodness of people.
Besnik Konci, Albania’s ambassador to Canada describes besa as an Albanian code of honour that means “to keep the promise” and “word of honour” and “to protect someone in need regardless of faith, race and nationality.”
“Besa is an important part of personal and familial standing and is often used as an example of ‘Albanianism,’ he says. “Based on besa, Albanians saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. During one of the darkest period of human history, Albanians, by their example, showed that the spirit of humanism was alive, and even strong.
“Promoting the principles of besa is a great service to the peoples of our world. We all want to live, and can live, in full peace and harmony free of prejudices and mistrust. This is the fundamental message found in Mr. Gershman’s photos, exhibits, books, videos and upcoming documentary.”

How can we learn how to “keep the promise?” Promise implies taking responsibility for others. We should ask ourselves: If there is a knock on our door, would we, as individuals, take responsibility?
If those are the questions, then the principles of besa is an answer. Mr. Gershman’s photographic exhibition should serve as an inspiration, on its own, for generations to come. Many around the world have already seen it.
Yad Vashem, also known as the “Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority,” is Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and was established in 1953. The name comes from a Biblical verse: “And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (Yad Vashem) that shall not be cut off.” The organization opened the first exhibition of Gershman’s work in 2007, finally bringing faces to a story shrouded for 60 years behind the Iron Curtain. It’s had subsequent international showings in South Africa, Italy, Turkey, the U.S. and Israel and at the UN and the European Union for the 60th anniversary of its founding declaration. Its newest international exhibit, specially designed for Canada, will be opening in Toronto in November and will see a 2011 date in the UK.
Yad Vashem, which on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, gave the official title Righteous Among the Nations to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, has already documented 63 Albanians who saved Jews. Recently, with help from Mr. Gershman’s Eye Contact Foundation, Yad Vashem awarded the Rezniqi family from Kosova the “Righteous Among the Nations” designation. (Mustafa Rezniqi was also co-founder of the Kosova-Israel Friendship Society with Xhangyle Ilijazi.)
Mr. Gershman has since found many more rescuers with help from Apostol Kotani and Petrit Zorba, both of the Albanian-Israel Friendship Association, as well as from the corresponding Israel-Kosova and Israel-Albania Friendship Societies and from Mordechai Paldiel, former head of Yad Vashem’s division to honour righteous non-Jews.
But, as the war gets further and further away, time is running out. The Eye Contact Foundation and Yad Vashem are looking for people who were saved — or those who saved these fortunate Jews. Stories and photos are not enough. Corroboration is needed to help honour those who have done so much and who expect nothing in return.
Mr. Gershman has also taken on a promise, his own besa. He believes that every story of heroism, anywhere in the world, even incomplete, may be a missing piece of an important puzzle. Wherever they are, people must be inspired in these troubled times to choose dialogue, goodness and trust. The Eye Contact Foundation’s mandates are specifically to continue the recognition of those rescuers from this period, and to encourage young photographers to look for goodness in the world and to document it for future generations.
“During my travels in Albania, I met the children of rescuers, their widows and, occasionally, the elderly rescuers themselves,” says Mr. Gershman, “people like the Hoti family, who sheltered a young Jewish girl named Rashela Lazar for almost a year, even though Germans occupied the lower floor of their home.
“(I met) people like the Veseli family, whose youngest brother, at 13, smuggled Rina Mandil and two Jewish families out of Tirana dressed like Muslim villagers, through a German checkpoint, and then walked with them for two days to the safety of their mountain village.”
Photographing these rescuers in Albania was not easy. Mr. Gershman rarely saw a lamp. Electricity and even water were rationed. “Yet the people always welcomed me with fruit, candy, their national drink of raki (distilled from fermented grapes and other fruits), and warmth. None spoke English and none sought any compensation. They wished only to honour their family tradition and to be remembered. In turn, I gave them unadorned portraits that, I believe, reflect their simple dignity, and I thanked my Muslim hosts on behalf of the Jewish people for what they had done during World War II.”
No fewer than three separate travelling photographic exhibitions are on loan around the world in Holocaust memorial and education centres, galleries, museums, synagogues, churches, community buildings, universities and soon, Islamic centres.
In addition to Yad Vashem’s on-line and worldwide travelling show, currently in Vancouver, Simon Fraser University’s Teck Gallery and Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures are sponsoring The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion exhibit until October 29. The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre at the Jewish Community Centre houses the exhibit from Nov. 8, 2010 through May 27, 2011, creating educational programs for students, teachers and community groups. This exhibit normally only tours within the U.S.
A third exhibit, Besa: Albanians Who Saved Jews During WWII, is curated by the U.S. Embassy in Albania and primarily tours the Balkans. It is the most comprehensive as it includes all rescuers of Albanian descent from Albania and Kosova.
All three exhibits feature up to 70 compelling photos and stories that give a glimpse into the mettle of Albanians and why they chose — and as importantly, still choose — to exercise a moral honour to protect and shelter any “guest in need” in their home. The answer often heard by Mr. Gershman was that it was “not their house,” in fact it was “God’s House.”
Shining the light of recognition on all acts of goodness anywhere in the world is the greatest gift and inspiration we can give to ourselves and others. Towards this goal, we have miles to go and promises to keep.

Randi Winter is a Vancouver-based travel writer. To contact photographer Norman H. Gershman, email normgersh@sopris.net or see The Eye Contact Foundation at www.eyecontactfoundation.org

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  1. M says:

    Besa is a code for all Albanians and is not associated with any religion.

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