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.