By: Saimir Lolja
There has been an 80 year old citation for Albania as constituting of 70% Moslem, 20% Orthodox and 10% Roman Catholic. That religious distribution is nowadays still cited outside Albania. Though such a record is uncertain for its period, at the present it is completely outdated and incorrect. Themselves, Albanians do not care for such a “religious distribution”, because the religious beliefs are personal and the Albanian nationhood is above anything personal. A confirmation comes from the Parragon Encyclopaedia of World Facts 2002 exposing that about 3/4 of the Albanian population is not religious. Seen in its entirety, the Albanian harmony of believers and non-believers is a sacred Albanian value and one of the nationhood pillars.
Amongst Albanians, Islam does not have any ethnic base and they belonged to the Christian spiritual domain before centuries-long subjection to the Ottoman occupation. For Albanians, Islam was the religious endowment of the callous Ottoman invaders. The sword of such occupiers, that cut off heads and inhumanly took the very young boys away from their families to make Janissaries, did not educate love, hospitality, harmony, tolerance, or Besa. It educated only brutality and suppression to the very edge of existence. The Ottoman Empire suppressed Albanians cruelly and by all means, in particular their national education. During the Ottoman occupation, the mainstream of Albanian uprisings came from Albanians with “Moslem” names. From a religious viewpoint, the majority of Moslem Albanians was and is Bektashian, of the most liberal form of Islam. In the 19th century, the Albanian Renaissance leaders were of different faith backgrounds and locations. Yet, they knew that the religion of an Albanian was the Albanianism, and by means of this and Besa they united and enlightened Albanians.
Even before 170 years ago, group conversions to Moslem side occurred. That was typically made by name change only and for the purpose of survival in the face of Ottoman occupiers and all-time assault (even today) from our neighbors. A similar situation appeared after 1990 for many Albanians who were forced to change their own names in order to be allowed to work as immigrants in Greece. From a religious viewpoint, Albanians are liberal and this is also affirmed by frequent jumps from one shoreline to another. An example comes from a picture fixed by the Besa Exhibition <http://ifyokoye.com/2008/12/28/besa-muslims-that-sheltered-jews-in-wwii/>. Here, there is an old Albanian woman, a savior of Jews, with a book of Koran (pretty sure she cannot read its Arabic language) and with a glass of Raki (a strong alcoholic drink) on the other hand.
The social behavior towards the total rescue of Jews during the holocaust, and in similar cases as well, did not come from religious pulses. All religious Albanian domains acted and cooperated to save Jews and the rescuers were from the whole population. This mirrors the 23788 persons from 45 countries and with different spiritual backgrounds that have been recognized (by the end of 2010) as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for their heroic deeds in saving Jews during the holocaust. Therefore, emphasizing Moslem Albanians and not the Albanian people as a whole in saving Jews does give only a portion of the whole picture and does not fully explain the Albanian social conduct. For those who are in lack of full knowledge of the Albanian history and culture, and the story of Jews rescued in Albania before and throughout WW2, the hearing of “Moslem Albanians saved Jews” simply puzzles or biases their minds. For Albanians, the religion is neither a representative platform nor a unifying one. Therefore, the use of religion (a personal belief) to explain such a social behavior for the entire Albanian population does not suit to the Albanian case.
In the period of WW2, the education level of the Albanian population, including the majority of the rescuers, was low and the focus was only on the Albanian language. It was unlikely that people of that time read religious bibles, including Koran printed in non-Albanian languages (e.g. Arabic or Old Turkish in Arabic letters). Hence, it was unlikely that the Albanian rescuers acted to save Jews and Italians inspired on “a Besa found in Koran”; at least, there is no Besa in Koran and no reason to be. The Albanian loyalty to a community was sociological rather than pious. Religious identity was something that came from one’s kinship and family. Inter-faith marriages were not implausible and today they are common.
After WW2, the education spread onto the Albanian population through a communist filter. For half a century, the communist propaganda squeezed the minds of people (including the children of the rescuers) and they got older with minds filled with communist propaganda. After 1990, those children of the rescuers still alive were exhausted and too old to read or understand any religious book. Therefore, any saying such as “There is no Koran without Besa and no Besa without the Koran” is not accurate. What is correct is that the Kanun and Besa bond together unbreakably.
KANUN AND Besa
Besa is an Albanian word. Foreigners say Albania instead of Shqipëria, the language Albanian instead of Shqip, and people Albanians instead of Shqiptarë (in the Albanian language). The Albanian language (Shqip) is the oldest language in Europe and it is at the root of the tree of all Euro-Indian languages. Besa is a noble principle that has originated from the soil of Albanians. It cannot be born on a desert.
Besa cannot be found in the Koran and does not belong to it, because it is the fundamental part of the Kanun. The Kanun is a very old protocol for the Albanian society. The concept of the Guest, and not of that of the foreigner, does exist in the Kanun. For example, The Book 8, Chapter 18 of the Kanun writes: “The house of an Albanian belongs to God and to the guest… Every guest must be given the food eaten in the house…. The guest must give you the weapon to hold as a sign of guardianship, since after you have said Welcome, he must have no fear and know that you are ready to defend him against any danger”. The Kanun is principally a collection of Albanian traditional laws that regulate all aspects of conduct within one’s family, village, clan, with members of other clans, and with strangers. The Kanun has been the foundation of Albanian society for centuries. The author of the Kanun is Lekë Dukagjini, an Albanian knight and a Catholic prince living about 500 years ago, before Ottomans conquered the Albanian lands. He fought against Ottoman occupiers both under the command of George Castrioti Scanderbeg, the Albanian national hero and a European figure, and later after his death in 1468.
Besa has several meanings, ranging from faith, unbreakable trust, treaty, and a word of honor to a sacred pledge and responsibility to keep one’s word to provide welcome and security. It engages stubborn protection of a guest, even to the point of sacrificing one’s own life. Besa is a promise, but not simply a promise. It implies essentially and spiritually not to stay indifferent to someone in need or being persecuted. Besa requires to an Albanian to sincerely open the door to anyone in need. Besa is a moral pledge (first to self) to live honestly and truthfully, and to sacrifice oneself for what is right. Above all, Besa is an Albanian legacy and cannot be taken from or gifted to others. In the past, Albanians have lost a lot in their culture (due to ignorance, indifference, etc.) to Greeks, Slavs, etc. Therefore, Albanians have a natural mission to care of and secure their own heritage, tradition and history. Hence, it is expected that the genuine friends of Albanians help in this direction. Any misuse of the Albanian Besa is both wrong and invalid.
The ancient Epos of the Albanian Bravehearts (legendary stories) is full of Besa instances. For example, the story of the “Besa of Konstandin” is still preserved and sung by Arbërshes in Sicilia and Calabria, south of Italy. In this story, Konstandin kept his promise to her mother to bring back his daughter by resurrecting from the grave…. In South Italy, everything is written both in Albanian and Italian; there is an Albanian University, etc. From a religious viewpoint, they are Christian. However, they have the same Besa and Albanian culture and language as all other Albanians. They have always been in the leadership of Albanian national movements. They are an example of the Albanian cultural preservation detached from Islam influence.
By Kanun, when a person refuses to honor or follow Besa, the society, village or town condemns him. That person has to go away from the place of living, because he has so lost all his credentials. If someone is not able to provide protection for his own guest, then his honor is spoiled, his honor and social position is torn down forever. The shelter given to a friend is associated with the honor word of Besa. When an Albanian gives his word, Besa is sealed. As an oath, Besa is eternal. Besa constitutes the foundation of the Kanun. Besa is a moral code, a norm of social behavior, and an ancient tradition. Besa given to a friend or guest is never sold. When Jews landed in great numbers at the Albanians domains after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 and Portugal Inquisition of 1497, the Kanun was the governing body of laws throughout Albanians.
BESA the Golden Rule
Besa is the Golden Rule and it is sacred by the Kanun. The Golden Rule or the Ethic of Reciprocity requires to “treat others the way you would like to be treated”, because “Noblesse oblige“. Besa is similar to another example of the Golden Rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn. —Talmud, Shabbat 31a, the Great Principle“.
Only in the 20th century, Albanians exhibited the same social conduct as they did to rescue Jews throughout the holocaust in the following examples: towards soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Army after its capitulation in 1917; towards soldiers of the Italian Army after its capitulation in 1943; towards Greek citizens and wounded soldiers during WW2 and Civil War in Greece after the WW2; and towards Albanians of Kosova expelled by Serbs in 1998-1999. If Besa had been of religious Moslem origin, it would have (frequently and with Albanian dimensions) been encountered in the Near East, Middle East, Far East, Indonesia, Malaysia, Asia, all Africa, Russian Federation, Europe, etc. For a comparison, a very close example is Moslem Bosnia where there existed no rescuing conditions for Jews throughout the holocaust as it was amongst Albanians.
At the same time that Albanians were saving Jews, for the period of September 1943 – November 1944, they were saving ten times more Italian soldiers (more than 25000 soldiers). Those noble deeds had nothing to do with “Moslem” Besa, but they came naturally from the bottom of a noble spirit. Both for Italians and Jews, the salvation was an Albanian entirety, because they were saved not only by those who sheltered them and organized their allocation to safe houses, but also by neighbors who knew, cooperated and did not spy, and by Albanian officials.
The Albanian newspaper Panorama published the following story on 19 January 2011. It depicted a case of Besa towards Italian soldiers to the heartbreaking extreme. The ex-German soldier (Johann Arendt), who later came to Koplik, Shkodra, after 30 years to retrieve his watch left there, told the following story: “…It was the end of war in Albania, November 1944. The ex-Italian soldiers were extensively helping partisans. German soldiers had orders to find Italian soldiers and kill. They went to a house where they suspected was an Italian soldier. The man (Vehbi Hoti) of the house said: No, there is no Italian inside our house. They took them all out of the house, about 10-12 persons. The Italian (Andrea Fabbrizi)) was among the family, but not distinguished as he had the same clothes. They threatened that all will be killed if the Italian soldier does not come out. Then, a boy came out of the group and said: I am the Italian. One of the German soldiers instantly shot him dead. The German soldiers left. The boy on the ground was the son of the house…”.
The communist regime closed Albania, including the story of the rescue of Jews, for 45 years. The result was that the majority of Albanian rescuers and rescued Jews passed away unnoticed and to date Yad Vashem has awarded as “Righteous Among the Nations” only 69 Albanians instead of hundreds.
The story of Jewish rescue in Albania flied out of Albania for the first time when US Congressman Tom Lantos and ex-Congressman Joseph DioGuardi visited Tirana in June 1990. They received from the Albanian President a thick dossier of letters that rescued Jews had mail to their Albanian rescuers in the past 45 years. The letters did not reach the Albanian rescuers because “Sigurimi i Shtetit” had censored them and hid in the archives. Those letters were later sent to Yad Vashem and constituted the base for the book “Jewish Rescue in Albania, Brunswick Press, Cathedral City, California, 1997″ by Harvey Sarner.
The Albanian Besa is an Albanian Besa and cannot be relocated or taken away from Albanians. The Albanian Besa is neither for sale nor on sale. Therefore, anytime: 1) It is inappropriate the use of an Albanian heritage, Besa, placed on a platform with only one leg, religiously Moslem, for a non-Albanian purpose and contest. 2) It is inappropriate the accentuation of Albanian Moslems in saving Jews instead of the entire Albanian population, wherein every piece is complementary to other pieces and cannot be understood or presented alone. 3) It is inappropriate the connection of Besa with Koran and not with Kanun. 4) It is inappropriate the presentation of Albanians through divisions of religious beliefs. (Edited by Jakov Ilia Solomon).