Albania’s Culture Ministry has announced the establishment of the BESA Museum, a new cultural space in the heart of Tirana, which will celebrate the heroic actions of Albanians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. BESA is the name given to the Albanian code of honor. The museum will be housed in the historic House of Toptans embodies the best of 19th-century Albanian architecture and has been designated a Cultural Heritage and Cultural Monument. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced the establishment of the new museum at a gala event honoring Albanian Righteous Among the Nations during his recent visit to Jerusalem.
Albania’s Culture Ministry has launched an open competition for architecture design proposals, funded by Israeli philanthropist Alexander Machkevitch, with the goal of finding the best concept for the museum’s construction. “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,” said Machkevich. “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 honor 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.”
According to the Albanian government, the BESA Museum will pave the way for the creation of a destination of the glorious history of the salvation of Jews during the Second World War, as well as of Jewish history, tradition, culture and art. The museum will set a new standard for spaces of this type in Albania in terms of mission, concept, architecture, management, direction, exhibition creation, storytelling, education, and community engagement.
“It is another very important moment in Tirana’s history, urban development, and architecture, and I believe that 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, which is related to perhaps the most glorious page of Albanian history, the rescue of Jews during WWII”, said Rama.
Albanian Minister of Culture Elva Margariti, commented: “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. 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.”
The BESA Museum will serve as a meeting point, a dialogue center for cultural exchanges, and beyond. It aims to be an added tourist attraction in Tirana, as well as a center for education and community engagement.
Albania is one of the few countries in Europe, if not the only country, that had more Jews after the Second World War, than before the war. The Albanian people refused to hand over a single Jew to the Nazis, and many Albanians risked their lives to protect Jews from persecution.
There is no history of antisemitism in Albania, a country located on the southeast coast of the Balkan Peninsula. Albania’s pre-Holocaust population numbered 800,000 of whom only 200 were Jews. There are no accurate figures regarding Jews who found refuge in Albania during the war, but estimates range from 600 to 1,800. Suffice to say that following the German occupation in 1943, the Albanian population in an extraordinary act of courage and humanity hid many Jewish families, provided Jews with false documents and, in general, protected both the resident and refugee Jewish population.
Towards the end of 2007, an exhibition by American photographer Norman Gershman of Albanians who rescued Jews was opened at Yad Vashem. Some of the rescuers and/or their descendants were brought to Israel for the occasion, and some of the people rescued attended the opening of the exhibition and its attendant lectures.
Netflix and foreign films
■ NETFLIX KEEPS adding to its global movie offerings that give viewers a better understanding of the customs, religion, mentality and lifestyles of people in other parts of the world. It also helps people with a certain understanding of foreign languages, to improve their polyglot abilities. The movies available, cover a vast time span. Many were produced more than half a century ago, and some are quite recent, dating back only a year or two.
A must-see for Israelis is a Palestinian feature film: When I Saw You, made a little over a decade ago, with the focus on Palestinian refugees in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War. It does not justify Palestinian terrorism, but it gives viewers an understanding of how and why Palestinians formed militia groups with the aim of reclaiming their homes and the environment in which they had been raised. Families had been separated, and every time a new truckload of refugees pulled into the refugee camp in Jordan, wives and children rushed to see if their husbands and fathers were among the new arrivals. Reunions were rare and frustration was rampant. But what will grab viewers who are conversant with the pre-state history of Israel, is the sense of familiarity. The fighting spirit and the youth that characterized the Haganah, the Irgun and Lehi when they fought the British Mandate authorities, was not much different from that of young Palestinians fighting the Israelis. The film, which stars Mahmoud Asfa, who was then a highly talented child actor, also touches on a problem facing many elementary school children today. Tarek, the 11-year-old character played by Asfa, has a brilliant mind, can solve complicated math problems in his head – but can’t read. The refugee camp school teacher won’t let him come to class because he is a distraction, so Tarek leaves the camp in search of his father. Along the way, he joins a group of fedayeen whose behavior is quite different from what we’ve been fed in our own narratives, just as Israelis do not conform to the Palestinian narrative.
■ THOUGH REGISTERED in New York. The nonprofit Jewish Records Indexing Poland is chiefly the baby of Stanley Diamond of Montreal, Canada, who is the Executive Director of JRIP, and Robinn Magid of Berkley, California, who is the Assistant Director. Because Poland had the largest pre-Holocaust Jewish population in Europe, there are more Jews tracing family roots in Poland than anywhere else. Creating a family tree often begins with a child’s school project in which parents are asked to help. The youngsters quickly get bored, but the parents get hooked, and many spend the rest of their lives in genealogical research with every evidence of progress akin to finding a gold nugget.
Diamond and Magid are focused on making search experiences simpler for newcomers while maintaining advanced features for experienced researchers. Their new town explorer is a virtual tool for finding Towns and Settlements in their database. This is particularly valuable because so many places in Poland have similar names, and some researchers tend to get confused. Researchers can now search for town names and see where they are on the map, and what other towns and settlements there are in the surrounding area. In this way, they discover new potential locations in which to investigate their family roots. A growing number of Poles have developed an interest in the Jewish communities that once lived in their towns, and have engaged in research themselves, acquiring expertise that has led them to become volunteers to help Jews search for roots.
What also makes it very difficult for people to trace family roots is that European Jews were nomadic, and even though they have retained the sound of their surnames the spelling changed from country to country. The new tool also provides alternate spellings for surnames.
■ AS TERRIBLE as the terrorist attacks of recent weeks have been, they cannot compare with the Coastal Road massacre, the 45th anniversary of which will be commemorated at the end of next week.
On March 11, 1978, members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization led by Dalal Mugrabi, killed 37 Israelis including 13 children and left 75 wounded.
Israel subsequently invaded southern Lebanon which was then a PLO stronghold. Known as Operation Litani, its stated objective was to eliminate all PLO bases south of the Litani River, in order to provide better security for the north of Israel and to help the Christian militias engaged in Lebanon’s civil war.The Lebanese government which claimed that it had no connection with the PLO, submitted a strong protest against the Israeli invasion in a letter to the United Nations Security Council.
In response, the UN Security Council on March 19, 1978, adopted a resolution calling on Israel to cease its operations in Lebanon and to immediately withdraw its forces from Lebanese territory. The upshot was the establishment of UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon which was tasked with confirming Israeli withdrawal, restoring international peace and security and helping the Lebanese government to regain its authority over Southern Lebanon.