The Albanian government recently unveiled plans to establish the “Besa Museum” in the capital Tirana to honor Albanians who sheltered and saved Jews during WWII and to celebrate Jewish life in the once-isolated Balkan state.

Prime Minister Edi Rama announced the establishment of the museum at a gala in Jerusalem honoring Albanian “Righteous Among the Nations,” a designation given to non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Rama said, “It is another very important moment in Tirana’s history, urban development, and architecture.” He referred to the rescues as “perhaps the most glorious page of Albanian history.”

The museum is to be named “Besa” – an Albanian word meaning “promise” or “trust,” which relates to a traditional concept of giving a promise to entrust or protect something or someone, a code of honor dating back centuries. It was this simple idea that saved an estimated 600 to 1,800 Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

The museum will be located in a historic building in downtown Tirana once belonging to the influential Toptani family. It embodies typical 19th century Albanian architecture and has been designated by the government as a Cultural Heritage site and Cultural Monument. Other existing Jewish sites include the Jewish Quarter in Vlora, where a population of Jews from Greece arrived in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the Solomon Museum of Jewish history in Berat. Tirana’s lake park also has a memorial to victims of the Holocaust and Albanians who saved them.

“The rescue of the Jews during World War II is one of the most beautiful pages in the history of the Albanians. Christians and Muslims sacrificed everything to protect them,” said Elva Margariti, Albania’s minister of culture. “For Albanians this is BESA; it is a value that we will pass on to our children, telling them this extraordinary story. The Besa Museum will be a bridge of communication between generations; a dialogue space for sharing the best values of our peoples.”

One of the leading behind-the-scenes figures in pushing ahead with this project is Kazakh-Israeli businessman and philanthropist Alexander Machkevitch, who heads the Eurasian Resources Group and has business interests in the Balkans. “I am humbled to be a part of this important project that will memorialize the bravery 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 will inspire future generations to continue this legacy of kindness,” Machkevitch said.

The Balkans once had a small, but vibrant and well-integrated Jewish community. However, much like elsewhere in Europe, many of the communities were annihilated by the Nazis and their collaborators. Yet, there were numerous cases of Balkan Muslims going to extremes to save their Jewish neighbors, even at the risk of the lives of the rescuer’s family.

Rare Acts of Rescue

Though acts of rescue were rare in Europe during the Holocaust — it is estimated that less than 0.5 percent of those living under Nazi occupation helped Jews in one way or another — Albania rightfully prides itself as the only European country (and a Muslim-majority country) to have more Jews after World War II than before it (historians estimate 200 Jews lived in Albanian in the 1930s). Though Albania was occupied by both fascist Italy from 1939 and later Nazi Germany, its Jewish population grew throughout the war to almost 2,000. Some Jews in Albania felt safe enough to continue operating their businesses through the occupation, trusting their neighbors would not turn them in. 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 descended from Andalusian Jewish refugees, known as Sephardic Jews, who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal during the 15th century. Sephardic Jews settled throughout the Balkan Peninsula after being provided safe passage and safe haven by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet Fatih, and built flourishing 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 at their home, risking their own lives, and helping them escape Nazi-occupied Sarajevo in the 1940s and then move 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 case in point is Derviš Korkut, a Bosnian Muslim scholar who became known as the Rescuer of the Sarajevo Haggadah as he risked his own life to save the precious illuminated manuscript from 16th century Andalusia from the Nazi General Johann Hans Fortner, who was frantically combing Sarajevo during World War II to find it.

The stories of Balkan rescuers of persecuted or fleeing Jews are relatively unknown due to political isolation under longtime communist dictatorships, Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia and Enver Hoxha in Albania. In the case of Albania, they were not acknowledged until 1987, when Yad Vashem recognized at least 75 Albanians as Righteous Among the Nations. Only recently have archives been made more open to foreign researchers and historians, who are working to document the Albanian experience during the Holocaust.

American Recognition

At the international level, it was through former U.S. Congressmen Joe DioGuardi, a New York Republican, and Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, who visited Albania after the collapse of communism in 1990, that the efforts of the Albanian people were first recognized internationally. They led the first U.S. official delegation to visit 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 chronicle the tales of the righteous Albanians and their devotion to “Besa.” In his exhibition Albanian Muslim Rescuers During the Holocaust, he presented portraits and testimonies of Albanian Muslim rescuers and their descendants. When he asked them why they had rescued Jews, their resounding response was “Besa.” According to one Albanian saying, “Albanians would rather die than break the Besa.”

In July 2020, an inauguration ceremony was held for the new Holocaust Memorial established in Tirana. The ceremony was attended by the Rama, U.S. Ambassador Yuri Kim, Israeli Ambassador Noah Gal Gendler, and representatives of all religious communities in Albania. However, though more and more attention is being paid to commemorating the Holocaust in the Balkans, Jewish life in the Balkans is dying. The population in Sarajevo, home to the larger of these Balkan Jewish communities, numbers just a thousand or so, with many considering themselves to be Jewish but not regularly observant. In other Balkan countries, such as Croatia and Serbia, Hitler’s World War II quislings are being 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 seized on that and political dysfunction and opportunism to foment ethnic animosity, including antisemitism. Such attacks and general disinformation and misinformation, thus far most often on social media, find fertile ground in part due to a lack of sufficient or accurate education in schools and in public discourse about World War II and the Holocaust.

All this makes the Besa museum ever more valuable as a place where younger generations will be educated — but also inspired — by the deeds of Albania’s righteous.

IMAGE: A man walks through Hebrew Street in the Albanian city of Berat on February 6, 2019, in front of the city’s tiny Solomon Museum, the country’s only Jewish history museum. (Photo by GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP via Getty Images)