The Albanian government recently revealed its intention to establish the “Besa Museum” in the capital Tirana to honor Albanians who sheltered and saved Jews during World War II and to celebrate Jewish life in this once-isolated Balkan state.
Prime Minister Edi Rama announced the creation of the museum at a gala in Jerusalem honoring the Albanian “Righteous Among the Nations,” a designation given to non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Rama said“This is another very important moment in the history, urban development and architecture of Tirana.” He called the rescues “perhaps the most glorious page in Albanian history.”
The museum is to be called “Besa” – an Albanian word meaning “promise” or “trust”, which relates to a traditional concept of promising to entrust or protect something or someone, an age-old code of honor of several centuries. It was this simple idea that saved a estimated between 600 and 1,800 Jewish life during the Holocaust.
The museum will be located in a historic building in downtown Tirana, once owned by the influential Toptani family. It embodies typical Albanian architecture of the 19th century and has been designated by the government as a Cultural heritage site and cultural monument. Other existing Jewish sites include the Jewish quarter of Vlora, where a population of Jews of Greece arrived in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the Solomon Museum of Jewish history in Berat. Tirana Lake Park also has a Memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and the Albanians who saved them.
“The rescue of the Jews during the Second World War is one of the most beautiful pages in the history of the Albanians. Christians and Muslims sacrificed everything to protect them. » said Elva Margariti, Albanian Minister of Culture. “For Albanians, it’s BESA; it is a value that we will pass on to our children, by telling them this extraordinary story. The Besa Museum will be a bridge of communication between generations; a space for dialogue to share the best values of our people.
One of the key behind-the-scenes figures pushing this project forward is the Israeli-Kazakh businessman and the philanthropist Alexandre Mashkevich, who heads the Eurasian Resources Group and has business interests in the Balkans. “I am honored to be part of this important project that will commemorate the courage of Albanians who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust,” he said in an emailed statement. “This project is a testament to the power of solidarity and compassion in the face of darkness, and I hope it inspires future generations to continue this legacy of kindness,” Machkevitch said.
The Balkans once had a small, but vibrant and well-integrated Jewish community. However, as elsewhere in Europe, many communities were wiped out by the Nazis and their collaborators. Yet there have been many cases where Muslims in the Balkans have gone to extremes to save their Jewish neighbors, even at the risk of the lives of the rescuer’s family.
Rare rescue acts
Although rescue acts were rare in Europe during the Holocaust, it is estimated that less than 0.5 percent people living under Nazi occupation helped Jews in one way or another – Albania rightly prides itself on being the only European country (and a predominantly Muslim country) with more Jews after the Second World War than before (historians). estimate 200 Jews lived in Albanian in the 1930s). Although Albania was occupied by both Fascist Italy from 1939 and Nazi Germany later, its Jewish population increased throughout the war to nearly 2,000. Some Jews in Albania feel safe enough to continue operate their business the Albanian embassy in Berlin was the only European embassy to continue issuing visas to Jews throughout the war, and Albania became an important transit point for Jews fleeing to the Americas.
The Jews of Albania were descended from Andalusian Jewish refugees, known as Sephardic Jews, who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century. Sephardic Jews settled throughout the Balkan Peninsula after being granted safe passage and safe haven by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet Fatih, and built thriving communities in the region. Many spoke Ladino, a language based on elements of Hebrew and Spanish.
Neighboring Bosnia’s response to the plight of Jews during World War II also remains a powerful example of compassion in the face of Nazi brutality during the Holocaust. The recently released film “Sevap/Mitzvah” (“A Good Deed”) is based on the true story of a Muslim woman, Zejneba Hardaga, and her family who hid the Jewish Kabiljo family in their home, risking their own lives and helping them escape Israeli-occupied Sarajevo. the Nazis in the 1940s. then moved to Israel. The Hardagas were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center, based on testimony provided by the Kabiljo family. Another typical case is Dervis Korkuta Bosnian Muslim scholar known as the savior of Sarajevo Haggadah as he risked his own life to save the precious 16th-century Andalusian illuminated manuscript from Nazi general Johann Hans Fortner, who was frantically combing Sarajevo during World War II to find it.
The stories of the rescuers of persecuted or fleeing Jews in the Balkans are relatively little known due to political isolation under the long-standing communist dictatorships, Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia and Enver Hoxha in Albania. In the case of Albania, they were only recognized after 1987, when Yad Vashem recognized at least 75 Albanians as Righteous Among the Nations. Only recently have the archives been more open to foreign researchers and historians, who work to document the Albanian experience during the Holocaust.
At the international level, it was thanks to former US Congressmen Joe DioGuardi, Republican of New York, and Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, who visited Albania after the collapse of communism in 1990, that the efforts of the Albanian people were recognized for the first time internationally. They led the First of all Official American delegation visiting Albania since 1939.
The Jewish experience in Albania was further internationalized and popularized by Norman Gershman, an American photographer fascinated by their stories who traveled to Albania and Kosovo between 2003 and 2008 to tell the stories of the righteous Albanians and their devotion to “Besa “. In his exhibition Albanian Muslim rescuers during the Holocaust, it presented portraits and testimonies of Albanian Muslim rescuers and their descendants. When he asked them why they saved Jews, their resounding response was “Besa.” According to an Albanian saying, “the Albanians would rather die than break the Besa”.
In July 2020, an inauguration ceremony took place for the new Holocaust Memorial established in Tirana. The ceremony took place in the presence of Rama, American Ambassador Yuri Kim, Israeli Ambassador Noah Gal Gendler and representatives of all religious communities in Albania. However, even as more and more attention is paid to Holocaust commemoration in the Balkans, Jewish life in the Balkans is dying. The population of Sarajevo, home to the largest of these Jewish communities in the Balkans, numbers only about 1,000, many of whom consider themselves Jewish but are not regularly observant. In other Balkan countries, such as Croatia And Serbia, Hitler’s collaborators during World War II are politically and legally rehabilitated as a new wave of right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism sweeps across the region. THE Ladino language is almost extinct and most of what remains are vague childhood memories among the older generation.
As in other parts of Europe, the economic crisis has been a boon for the nationalist right, which has taken advantage of this political dysfunction and opportunism to foment ethnic animosity, including anti-Semitism. Such attacks as well as general disinformation and misinformation, until now most often on social media, find fertile ground in part because of the lack of sufficient or accurate education in schools and in public discourse about the World War II and the Holocaust.
All this makes the Besa Museum even more valuable as a place where younger generations will be educated – but also inspired – by the deeds of the righteous Albanians.