Monday 18 November 2013

Besa - a story of honour from Albania

Besa is an Albanian word meaning "faith" but which is sometimes translated as "to keep the promise" or "word of honour". It is also the title of a documentary film screened on the last day of this year's UK Jewish Film Festival which tells the story of how the application of Besa saved the lives of perhaps 2,000 Jews during the Second World War.

When the war commenced, Albania was home to about 250 Jews. By the end of the war, and despite being occupied first by the Italians and then by the Germans, this number had increased several times as Albanian citizens took in both fellow countrymen who happened to be Jewish and refugees fleeing from other countries. I was familiar with this story to some extent due to having read Irene Grunbaum's Escape Through the Balkans some years ago, which tells the story of how she fled Belgrade and was given refuge with a number of different families in Albania and so survived the war. However, the rescue of the Albanian Jews is one of the less well known stories of the Holocaust, which no doubt helped attract a sell out audience at the Tricycle.

Besa refers to various rescuers and rescued but focuses on the efforts of Rexhep Hoxha to locate the  Jewish family who they had sheltered during the War and who had left behind three religious books for safe keeping. Rifat Hoxha had expected them to return after the war to collect the books, but when the iron curtain descended on eastern Europe in the late 1940's, the Albanians found themselves cut off from the outside world and no contact was possible. The film shows how with the help of various intermediaries, Rexhep finally manages to track down the son of the rescued family to fulfil Besa and hand the books back - with many challenges along the way. 

The Albanian ambassador spoke before the screening and explained that Besa is an Albanian concept and not peculiar to a specific religion. In the Q@A afterwards, one of the film's producers, Jason Williams, reinforced this saying that Albanians describe themselves as just that - Albanians - not as Muslims, Catholics or Orthodox Christians. He also reinforced how different the behaviour of ALbanians was to most other Europeans during the course of the Holocaust citing Thessaloniki, just one hundred miles from Tirana as an example. Thessaloniki lost almost 98% of its Jews - with many locals happily participating in the roundup.  

Norman Gershom, a photographer who played a significant part in the film's story photographed many of the rescuers and rescued and you can see his work in his book Besa. Many of those involved have passed away since the film was made but together with Gershom's book, it acts as a lasting legacy. A great finale to this year's UKJFF - how did it pass so quickly?

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