By George E. Johnson
Few Americans have heard of Besa, but Besa is the reason that during the dark days of the Nazi takeover of Albania not a single Jewish citizen of Albania, nor any other Jew seeking refuge in Albania, was turned over to the Nazis or sent to the death camps. Besa, which in Albanian means “to keep the promise,” is an honor code unique to Albania, practiced by Albanians of all faiths, that requires individuals who have given their word to protect anyone in danger, regardless of religion or politics, and regardless of the costs. And so, from the fall of 1943 until the liberation of Albania on November 29, 1944, Albania welcomed as guests more than 2,000 Jews.
On April 23, Washington, DC congregation Adas Israel paid tribute to Vesel and Fatima Veseli, who gave sanctuary to two Jewish families during the Holocaust. Attended not only by two Veseli grandchildren, but by the Albanian Ambassador to the United States Floreta Faber, the event in honor of Holocaust Memorial Day drew poignant parallels between Muslims seeking protection in the West and, in the case of this DC congregation, providing support for a Syrian refugee family. Hamid and Xhemal Veseli, two of the children of Vesel and Fatima Veseli, are quoted in the program for the event: “Our parents were devout Muslims and believed, as we do, that every knock on the door is a blessing from God. We never took any money from our Jewish guests. All persons are from God. Besa exists in every Albanian soul.”