“Besa: The Promise” is a small movie about old people. These are people with a story to tell, one that can only be told now when it is almost too late. The story is about how a predominately Muslim nation worked to save the Jewish minority and how a country that began with a few hundred Jews ended up increasing the Jewish population. It is a story about faith surviving adversity, first of the Nazi variety and then under Communism.
Before World War II, an estimated 70 percent of the population was Muslim, 20 percent was Eastern Orthodox Christian and 10 percent were Roman Catholic according to the CIA World Factbook. King Zog I, the King of the Albanians was first a prime minister of Albania, before becoming the president (1925-1928) and then the king (1928-1939). That might sound like the rise of Adolph Hitler who ran for election, finished second, but was then appointed chancellor before he became Germany’s dictator. Yet King Zog swore his oath on both the Bible and the Quran and, in 1938, he opened up the borders to Jewish refugees.
The documentary begins with a man with gray hair and a black hat. He rings a door bell and we hear it buzz. A voice says, “Shalom” and asks if the man can speak English. He can’t speak English. The man says, “I am Rexhep Hoxha. I come from Tirana.”
Hoxha is about to meet a man who once came to his house with his father and mother. Hoxha explains, “Father never spoke about what he did for the Jews. He considered it normal. He wanted only that I finish what was left undone. My father was the son of an imam.” Hoxha’s story serves at the backbone of this documentary.
The 2012 movie began when Norman Gershman, a Jewish American photographer, learned a curious thing: Muslims saved Jews in Albania. He had known of many other incidents of people saving Jews during World War II, “But Muslims who saved Jews? Who ever heard about that?” Through his investigations, he captured the faces and stories of some people who passed away before the documentary was finished. He also came upon the story of Hoxha who was burdened by his father’s besa.
Besa is a long-held historical custom. One woman explains, “In Albania, a stranger in your house is to be protected at all costs.” That is besa. Hoxha’s father, Rifat, promised a man that he would keep three books until the Jewish refugee returned for them, but the man never returned. Now Hoxha carried that besa.
Was it besa that made the King Zog open the borders? His only child, Leka Zogu, explains, “Why did he allow the Jews to come? Because he felt it was not a human act that the Germans would carry out. Zogu added, “I once heard 400 passports were handed out” and he has no idea how many visas.” The king and his family fled in 1939 and the king died in France (1961). The queen and heir eventually returned. His widow died in Tirana, Albania’s capital, in 2002 and son, which we see in this documentary, died in 2011.
Although the Albanian king was gone, the Muslims in Albania continues to save Jews. A Jewish woman recalls being asked to wear a head scarf, but her blonde hair and blue eyes attracted the attention of a German soldier as they passed the check point. She is asked to remove her head scarf, she calls his bluff and modestly refuses. She and her Albanian protectors are able to pass, but the men admit, “to tell the truth my knees were shaking with fear.”
The documentary consists of small snippets of memories and photos of the people who put their lives at risk, but the major thrust is about how the man from Tirana ends up buzzing that doorbell. Hoxha’s father, Rifat, made a promise; he would keep three precious books for a Jewish man. Until the grip of communism loosened in 1991, his father could not search for the man. The man could also not return. In 1967, religion was banned in Albania. Possession of those three books and the family’s own Quran were against the law, but one person confesses, “We always kept religion in our hearts.” Legally, those books should have been burned.
Yet communism fell. Hoxha’s father was now dead, but Hoxha had also made a promise. In the end, the promise is fulfilled and a man who had never spoken about his experiences to his son and seldom cries is brought to tears. So the son of Rifat, meets the son of Nissim Aladjem and completes his besa.
“The besa of an Albanian is heavier than a gold bar” one interviewee explains and Ghershman strongly feels that “this little country, doing what they did, has something to teach the world” but those lessons won’t be learned if no one knows about the Albanians during World War II because “hidden history is meaningless.” In a world that is so quick to condemn all Muslims because of the actions of some Muslims and dismiss predominately Muslim countries, this documentary, “Besa: The Promise,” is timely. During World War II, 30,000 Albanians were killed and 100,000 were left homeless. It is likely that more stories of besa and Muslim kindness were lost then and in the decades before Gershman’s investigations. Yet an estimated 2,000 Jews were rescued by the Albanian people and of those people, a few lived long enough to testify to the beauty of the Albanian besa.