Before World War II, only 200 Jews lived in Albania, but after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, hundreds of Jews crossed into Albania from Yugoslavia, Germany, Greece, Austria and Serbia. When the Nazis occupied the country in 1943, the local population refused to comply with orders to turn over lists of Jews living there. There were more Jews in Albania after the war than before.
This assistance was grounded in Besa, a code of honor, meaning literally “to keep the promise.” One who acts according to Besa is someone who keeps his word, someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family. There were more Jews in Albania after the war than before.
“Why did my father save a stranger at the risk of his life and the entire village? My father was a devout Muslim. He believed that to save one life is to enter paradise.” - Enver Alia Sheqer, son of Righteous Among the Nations Ali Sheqer Pashkaj, featured in the BESA exhibition.
According to Lime Balla, whose photograph appears in the exhibit (see the BESA link below):
All of us villagers were Muslims. We were sheltering God’s children under our Besa.American photographer Norman Gershman spent four years photographing Muslim Righteous Among the Nations and their families in Albania. The exhibit features 17 of the portraits with explanatory texts. Of the 22,000 people so far recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, 63 are from Albania.
I was born in 1910. In 1943, at the time of Ramadan, seventeen people from Tirana came to our village of Shengjergji. They were all escaping from the Germans. At first I didn’t know they were Jews. We divided them amongst the villagers. We took in three brothers by the name of Lazar.
We were poor - we didn’t even have a dining table - but we never allowed them to pay for the food or shelter. I went into the forest to chop wood and haul water. We grew vegetables in our garden so we all had plenty to eat. The Jews were sheltered in our village for fifteen months. We dressed them all as farmers, like us. Even the local police knew that the villagers were sheltering Jews. I remember they spoke many different languages.
In December of 1944 the Jews left for Priština, where a nephew of ours, who was a partisan, helped them. After that we lost all contact with the Lazar brothers. It was not until 1990, forty-five years later, that Sollomon and Mordehaj Lazar made contact with us from Israel.
The Hebrew/Arabic exhibit opened at the Ramle (Israel) Museum with the participation of Yad Vashem chair Avner Shalev, Ramle Mayor Yoel Lavie with city Arab-Israeli high school students.
For the next three months, groups of the city's Arab and Jewish students will visit in special programs run by Vad Vashem's International School for Holocaust Studies, in cooperation with Ramle, with the support of the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport.
“It is our hope that this important exhibition will further understanding of the Holocaust, offering a glimpse into the difficult choices that people faced. We are committed to providing accurate and comprehensive information about the Holocaust to as wide an audience as possible. Over the past year, we have launched a website and YouTube channel in Arabic, providing those who wish to know, with the tools and information they need to combat ignorance and denial.”
For more information on BESA, to read some of the stories and see some of the photographs, click here.
For more information about the Righteous Among the Nation program, click here.