Albania’s government has announced plans to establish a “Besa Museum” in the capital, Tirana, to honour the Albanians who saved the country’s small Jewish community from Nazi persecution during World War II, and celebrate Jewish life in the once isolated Balkan state.
Prime Minister Edi Rama announced the establishment of the museum at a gala event honouring the Albanian “Righteous Among the Nations” during his recent visit to Jerusalem.
During the event, Rama said: “It is another very important moment in Tirana’s history, urban development, and architecture, and I believe we will finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief from a long-standing burden of obligation in relation to our children and visitors to our country, related to perhaps the most glorious page of Albanian history, the rescue of Jews during World War II.”
The museum is to be named “Besa”, Albanian for “promise” or “trust”, which relates to an honour code dating back centuries. It was this idea that saved hundreds if not thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
The museum will be located in a building once belonging to the influential Toptani family. A typical 19th-century Ottoman Albanian building, it has been designated a Cultural Heritage and Cultural Monument. Other existing Jewish sites in the country include the Jewish Quarter in Vlora and the Solomon Museum in Berat. There is also a memorial to victims of the Holocaust in Tirana’s lake park.
“The rescue of the Jews during World War II is one of the most beautiful pages in the history of the Albanians. Christians and Muslims sacrificed everything to protect them,” Elva Margariti, Albania’s Minister of Culture, said.
“For Albanians this is BESA; it is a value that we will pass on to our children, telling them this extraordinary story. The Besa Museum will be a bridge of communication between generations; a dialogue space for sharing the best values of our peoples.”
One of the leading behind-the-scenes figures in pushing ahead with this project is Kazakh-Israeli businessman and philanthropist Alexander Machkevitch, who heads the Eurasian Resources Group and has business interests in the Balkans.
“I am humbled to be a part of this important project that will memorialize the bravery of Albanians who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. The Albanian people, and particularly Prime Minister Edi Rama, have shown great commitment to preserving the memory of these heroic acts, and it is an honour to work alongside them. This project is a testament to the power of solidarity and compassion in the face of darkness, and I hope it will inspire future generations to continue this legacy of kindness,” Machkevitch said.
The Balkans was once home to a small but vibrant and well-integrated Jewish community. However, much like Jews elsewhere in occupied Europe, their communities were all but annihilated by the Nazis and their quisling forces.
However, some Balkan Muslims went to extremes to save their Jewish neighbours even though to help a Jew then meant risking the lives of one’s entire family – a daunting prospect.
Acts of rescue were rare throughout Europe during the Holocaust, and it is estimated that less than one half of 1 per cent of those living under Nazi occupation helped Jews in one way or another.