Ancient history

Besa, the Albanian code of honor that saved hundreds of Jews in World War II

Last updated:2022-07-25

In these days when religious fanaticism is showing how miserable the so-called rational animals can be -nothing new under the sun-, I bring you this story in which religious differences are put aside to make way for values ​​such as honor, solidarity, compassion... and all of this is precisely Besa. [Kiss e shqiptarit nuk shitet pazarit , the honor of an Albanian cannot be bought or sold in a bazaar]

At the beginning of World War II, Albania was a monarchy economically and militarily dependent on Italy. So when the Italians occupied it and King Zog I fled - albeit with as much gold as he could - little changed. At this time, the number of Jews in Albania barely reached 200... when the war ended there were more than 3,000 . Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied countries found refuge in Albania... a country with a Muslim majority . Government agencies provided Jewish families with false documentation that allowed them to blend in with the rest of the population, and Albanians provided their homes and scarce resources to take them in.

Things got complicated in 1943 when it was the Nazis who, at the request of Mussolini, took Albania. As they did in the rest of occupied Europe, the Nazis asked the local authorities for the lists of the Jews residing in the country… but they got no for an answer. Why would a country with a Muslim majority get involved in saving the Jews at the risk of his own life?

We didn't do anything special. It is Besa - this is how the Albanians respond - .

According to Professor Saimir Lloja , of the Albanian-Israel Fraternity Association,

Besa is the golden rule, it is a moral code, a norm of social conduct, as well as an ancient tradition. […] Besa is, in essence, about not being indifferent to someone who suffers or is persecuted. It is a moral self-demand that asks every Albanian to live honestly and, if necessary, also sacrifice.

Ali Sheqer Pashkaj, photographed by Norman Gershman. His father, also called Ali, saved the young Jew Yasha Bayuhovio, wearing a Mexican hat in one of the photos

Herman Bernstein , US ambassador to Albania in the 1930s, wrote:

There is no trace of any kind of discrimination against Jews in Albania […] Albania has become a rare place in Europe today, where there is no religious hatred or prejudice, even though the Albanians themselves are divided into three religions.

Besa:The Promise Trailer from Besa:The Promise on Vimeo.

Sources:eSefarad, WebIslam