Besa. Albanian Honor Code

The spirit of besa and tolerance permeated every moment of the event, with the acknowledgment of interfaith understanding quietly underscoring the day.

Civility has all but disappeared from the national discourse. For example, there’s no middle ground when evaluating President Barack Obama’s performance: he’s either the face of hope and change, or the worst president ever to have occupied the Oval Office. During a recent GOP presidential nomination debate the audience actually cheered the idea of allowing someone without health insurance to die. People from all walks of life are taking to the streets to voice their displeasure with our government—from the worst elements of society such as the Westboro Baptist Church and the Lyndon LaRouche cult to citizen activists like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

It’s easy to get caught up in the fervor surrounding the discontent in this country and, as usual, it’s all about the economy (stupid). I’m as guilty of it as anyone. But last week my emotions were recalibrated after attending an event that highlighted a little-known part of world history that all of us should know. It’s a story about honor in the face of adversity the likes of which we cannot imagine and, given our current behavior, are unlikely to ever know. It’s a story worth sharing and repeating. 

Like many Eastern European countries in the 20th century, Albania—a tiny coastal nation on the Adriatic Sea tucked between Montenegro and Greece—experienced the dual indignity of both the Nazi and then the Soviet occupations. The former lasted through World War II, the latter endured until 1991. Miraculously, despite the well-documented horrors that European Jews suffered during the war, Albania was the only nation to boast a greater population of Jews after the Holocaust than before the war began. In fact, not a single Jew perished in Albania during this time.

Almost nothing was known about their survival fact until the Iron Curtain fell and Albania was liberated.  The Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County recently assembled a panel of experts from around the globe to discuss this phenomenon, and is hosting a traveling exhibit through Nov. 14th.

The panel, held last Sunday on the grounds of the center, and the accompanying exhibit, explained the reason why Albania, or more specifically Albanians, provided safe harbor to Jews during the Holocaust. They call it quite simply: besa.

Besa is the code of honor every Albanian is encouraged, no, required to live by. Ferit Hoxha, Albanian ambassador to the United Nations, described the Albanian adherence to besa and its manifestation in the treatment of others. “Mik,” he says, “has a dual meaning. It means both a friend and a guest.” This understanding of relationships meant that anyone an Albanian encountered is to be “received, welcomed and honored.” There was never a doubt that Jews would be sheltered from persecution, he claims, because this action is “in accordance with our moral code, our faith and tradition.”

Ah yes, faith.

This is the point where it would be helpful, or perhaps surprising, to know that Albania is predominantly Muslim.

Last Sunday’s event and the message behind it are essential to the mission of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center, which is to teach tolerance through lessons learned from the Holocaust. “Imagine a world,” says Beth Lilach, the center’s education director, “where besa existed in every human soul.” The spirit of besa and tolerance permeated every moment of the event, with the acknowledgment of interfaith understanding quietly underscoring the day.

Faroque Khan of the Islamic Center of Long Island was invited to participate in the proceedings and introduce Qemal Bicaku, the son of Albanian Muslims, who recalled from childhood how his family rescued 26 Jews from annihilation. Khan remarked that he was “pleased but not surprised” by the story of Albanian Muslims as the Qur’an clearly outlines Muslim’s conduct of doing “no harm to non-combatants, protection of houses of worship, women and children, and are even forbidden to harm a fruit-bearing tree.” One by one, the speakers described, tearfully at times, the efforts of their family members to save frightened Jews on the run and how, even more incredibly, not one villager or neighbor ever revealed the location of someone in hiding even though everyone knew where they were.

The event illustrated how besa, a fundamentally secular concept, transcended ideology and religion while revealing itself as a core element of all religions practiced at the purest level.

Perhaps the most wondrous part of the event came at the end when the speakers and the attendees gathered around an impressive display of food prepared and donated by the Islamic Women’s Center. We are never more connected to one another than when we share sustenance. It was an emotional day inspired by revelations of sacrifice and humanity, punctuated by warm human interaction over a meal made with loving hands.

Author: Jed Morey

Jed Morey is the publisher of the Long Island Press, LI's Cultural Arts and Investigative News Journal. The Press has a monthly circulation of 100,000, and, welcomes more than 500,000 unique visitors every month. He serves on the board of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Nassau County, as well as the President's Council of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Long Island. In addition to the contributions on this blog, Morey authors a column for the Long Island Press titled "Off The Reservation" and is a staunch advocate for Indian rights. The column was voted Best Column in New York by the NY Press Association in 2010 and third overall in the nation among alternative publications by the Association of Alternative Weeklies in 2012. Morey lives in Glen Cove with his wife, Eden White, and their two daughters.

6 thoughts on “Besa. Albanian Honor Code”

  1. See where you’ve gone with this parable and why. But Balkanization has become a synonym for fragmentation for a reason. This region has been the crossroads of conquest forever, with all the ugliness such circumstances attend. And the Albanians are a tough people who assuredly aren’t all hearts and flowers. Examine how it was that Tito was able to keep a lid on all these seething ethnic/religious hostilities in this region. Then you could put that in a pill for everyone to swallow and coexist in bliss.

  2. Like all autocrats, Tito was a classic thug. Nothing magic in that pill, to be sure. That Albanians, didn’t event succumb to the Nazi rule of law then kept their sense of honor through the subsequent brutal Communist rule is still quite amazing. Alas, no, they have not emerged with some secret Utopian society as they are still ravaged by gang violence and mob rule. But the parable remains vital to understanding man’s capacity for humanity in the face of tyranny no matter how small the example. No?

  3. True to Manichean form, you have divided the world into good & evil, black & white.
    You really need to go to school on Tito who was anything but a “classic thug,” “like all autocrats.” Then you have to compare Tito to Albania’s Hoxha who ruled over Albania forever and kept them nearly as isolated as North Korea. Both were Communists, as nearly all effective, organized resistance to Nazis in the Balkans was. Subsequently, Tito emerged as the single most potent opponent to Stalin & the Soviets in the Eastern Bloc. Yes, indeed, there was an autocratic imperative at work, but it kept the kind of ethnic/tribal savagery under wraps that reared its ugly head after Tito’s passing. And not all autocrats are cut from the same cloth. Nazarbayev, for example, compares quite favorably to many callow electeds elsewhere.

  4. I’m still on that stretch of life’s journey that presumes the good in mankind. So, no, I see no silver lining in any autocrat. I do not believe in the benevolent dictator, only democracy. True democracy, not the quasi-fascist state we are morphing into. Albania is a mess as a result of three generations of abuse that institutionalized criminality and mistrust. Democracy is as foreign to them as Canadian pop-culture. But it can be learned. Besa, honor, humanity… these things cannot. My interest is in how this sense of honor can persevere through war, genocide, fear, etc. Your “black and white, good and evil” comment is well-taken, but not entirely accurate. I’m not black and white as I believe we are flawed beings but intelligent and self-aware enough to overcome them in a uniquely human way. Blind optimism, I suppose. But the best in the journalism field are inherently optimistic; if we weren’t we would surely be crazy. Or perhaps….

  5. Besa has nothing to do with our religion, it is an old code of keeping the promisse, and in case of the Jeews albanians know that jews were in a situation that albanians more or less been in themselves for the most part of their history, killed, masacred and deported in millions by muslim turkey a superpower of its time and directly after that by Slav Serbs with the support of Russia also a superpower.

  6. Besa is Albanian Code of Honor. There is mixture of Kanun (Canon of Lek Dukagjini) with Koran which is being done by foreigners. Besa is pure Albanian and NOT religious thing. Albanians-Muslims, Catholic and Orthodox saved Jews, no matter of their religion. This must be corrected!
    AS a result of Besa, if you do business with Albanians and they give you their Besa, no need for signing contract or papers. They will respect Besa more than any paper 🙂

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