BESA. A Code of Honor
by Alan Simons
Earlier this month in Toronto, Canada, the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem welcomed over 900 attendees to a special tribute gala bestowing in a rare ceremony a Righteous Among the Nations award posthumously to Cornelis and Heintje Roggeveen, Klaas and Boukje Feringa, all of the Netherlands, and Marie Francoise Borel of France, for their exceptional heroism in saving Jews from the threat of death during the Holocaust. Invited guests included the Ambassadors of Israel, France, Afghanistan and Albania as well as diplomats from the Netherlands and the USA.
Also featured at the gala was the Yad Vashem “Besa” Exhibit – portraits by the Jewish American photographer Norman Gershman and explanatory texts of 17 Muslim Righteous Among the Nations and their families from Albania. Two Muslim Albanian families who helped save Jews attended the dinner as guests of the Canadian Society.
Mr. Yaron Ashkenazi, Executive Director of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem remarked that while the Besa Exhibit had toured several countries across the world, this was the first time the Exhibit had been shown in Canada.
A video of the documentary “Besa: A Code of Honor” by Norman Gershman can be viewed on jewishinfoNews Video Service by clicking on the image below.
In November 2007, the late Hon. Thom Lantos, Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives for California, called the attention of his colleagues in the Congress to a ceremony that was held a few days earlier at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The ceremony recognized the unique role that Albanians played in saving Jews who either lived in Albania or sought asylum there during World War II.
Lantos said that approximately 200 Jews lived in Albania during the early 1930s, while nearly 2000 Jews resided there by the end of the war– making Albania the only nation that can claim that every Jew within its borders was rescued from the Holocaust.
He added, “when the Italian fascists invaded Albania in 1939, followed by the German Nazis in 1943, the Albanian population hid Jews; furthermore, Albanian government officials refused to comply with the order to provide a list of Jews living in Albania. While many Albanian citizens hid Jews on their own initiative, the rescue operation became more coordinated as the danger increased and ‘national liberation councils’ in towns where Jews were hiding moved them from place to place–either with false passports or disguised as Albanian peasants. Albanians living in Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro, then part of the former Yugoslavia, were instrumental in gaining safe passage for Jews into Albania.”
He told Congress, “Not only were the Albanians isolated from centuries of institutionalized antisemitism, but they also have a history of religious tolerance based on the Kanun (a set of customary laws developed in the 15th century and passed down through the generations). Its underpinning moral code of ‘Besa,’ which is celebrated in the Yad Vashem photo exhibition, emphasizes a sacred promise to keep one’s word as well as to provide hospitality and protection. As the Western concept of ‘foreigner’ does not exist within the Kanun, Albanians did not see Jews as ‘foreigners’ but rather as ‘guests’ who needed to be protected even at great risk to their hosts.”
(Photo credit: From Norman Gershman’s documentary featured on You Tube)
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