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BESA - The Promise

Pinner Shul has an evening honouring the Rescue of Jewish refugees by Albanians during the Holocaust
Thursday January 16, 2014
- by Brian Eisenberg

Until communism fell in Albania in the 1990’s a little known fact about the role Albanians played in saving the lives of persecuted Jews in Europe was untold.

Albania was the only occupied country in Europe to end the war with more Jews than at the beginning and it has been recorded that not one Jew was surrendered to the Nazi-occupiers.1  There are 69 Albanians remembered in the Row of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Over the past 18+ years more and more has been revealed about the remarkable role this small country played and on January 16th over 400 people, gathered in the Synagogue to hear the untold story. The Albanian  ambassador His Excellency, Mr. Mal Berisha gave a brief address introducing a  film “BESA – the Promise” about the code of conduct of Albanians which ensured that Jews fleeing persecution were welcomed and protected even during the Nazi-occupation.

The film, shown publically only for the 2nd time in the UK (the first being during the recent Jewish film festival in London), portrays  the first-hand account of Muslims2 who sheltered the Jews (risking their own lives) follows a trail for one family to fulfil the ‘Promise’ made by the father of the central figure, to return a set of special prayer books to the family. The journey ultimately ends in success in Israel, where the son of the rescued family lives, having changed his surname.

Produced by Jason Williams3 and directed by Rachel Goslins, the film took more than 7 years to complete, highlights how Albanians, from King Zog through politicians, the police, organised religion and ordinary men, women and children, observed “BESA”, the code of honour. Jews were sheltered, fed, sheltered, hidden and offered aliases – all at personal risk to the rescuers. To Albanians involved in this code, it was simply - “what one did”.

The event was part of the Harrow activities recognising Holocaust Memorial Day and taking place on Tu Bishvat, appropriately, Gaby Glassman the evening Chair, presented the Ambassador with a certificate acknowledging his visit to the Synagogue and the planting of a tree in the Lord Sacks Forest in Jerusalem ‘in grateful appreciation of the courageous acts of the Albanian people in rescuing and sheltering Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.

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1 We have discovered that the grandfather of a member of Pinner synagogue was rescued because his wife, who was already in the UK, was able to obtain a visa from the Albanian consulate in London.

2 At the time of the rescue portrayed, 70% of the Albanian population was Muslim with the others being Roman-Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.

3 Norman Gershman, a renowned Jewish-American photographer, travels to Albania in order to document first-person accounts of the Albanian Muslims who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. He hears about Rexhep Hoxha, a Muslim-Albanian who must fulfil the promise made to a Jewish family his father rescued during the Holocaust to return a set of Hebrew books they left behind. The film documents this search and ultimate successful ending.


"The Ambassador has invested much energy in promoting the Albanian story over the past few years and he was therefore particularly appreciative of having such a responsive and large audience. He was also genuinely pleased that a tree was planted in his name."

"It was great, excellent, emotional to see all those people participating in that evening and watching the film.
I am still under the strong feelings of those emotions."

"The event struck me as a tremendous success and if your goal was at minimum to ensure that many more people know about Besa and Albanian heroism during the dark days of the Shoah, then this was surely achieved.  I recall the sharp collective intake of breath of the audience when you mentioned that Albania was the sole country in occupied Europe with more Jews at the outturn of the war than at the beginning."

"The most important aspect is that through your efforts these incredible stories are now beginning to become more widely known and that this new narrative can create a different paradigm in our troubled relationships. It is only by Shuls like yourself coming together with other people of goodwill that a educated and informed dialogue can be created."

 

Pictures from Julian Knopf at Gander Photography. More are available in his gallery.

The Faith Matters booklet on the Role of Righteous Muslims is available for download from their website.

 

 

 

Thursday, January 16, 2014 -
8:00pm to 10:00pm