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New film challenges hoary clichés about Muslims by recalling the heroic Albanians who kept 2,000 Jews safe in the Holocaust.
|Rexhep Hoxha from his interview, holding one of the Hebrew prayerbooks left behind by the Jewish family his Muslim father rescued. | Photo courtesy of ©JWM Productions, LLC|
Rexhep Hoxha still remembers vividly the day in 1967 when his father shared a family secret that he would go on to guard for nearly half-a-century.
Then under the grip of the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, Albania had just declared itself the world’s first atheist state.
Hoxha’s Communists banned any public expression of religion and burned holy books and objects.
Thousands of mosques and churches were either destroyed or turned into cultural centres, barns, gyms and warehouses.
A Jewish family that had found shelter in Rexhep Hoxha’s house during the Second World War had left behind three prayer books, and Rexhep’s father had promised to keep them safe until they returned to collect them.
“When the purges against religion happened these books became dangerous materials and we had to find a way to hide them,” Rexhep recalls.
“They were beautiful books and we were afraid to keep them in plain view, because a curious visitor could reach for them and discover that they were religious books,” he explains.
Rexhep and his father first hid the books in a wooden box, with holes on top, which they could hide either under the bed.
Then, fearing that they would suffer from mould, they removed the books from the box and hid them behind a bookshelf.
|DP Neil Barrett, Director Rachel Goslins, and Norman Gershman on location in Tirana, Albania. | Photo courtey : ©JWM Productions, LLC|
Rexhep kept the secret books until Albania’s Communist regime collapsed in 1991, and then started searching for the owners.
Despite contacting several people through the Albania-Israeli Friendship Foundation, he had no success until one day US photographer Norman Gersham showed up at his door.
Gersham had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington and noticed a rare white spot on the map of Europe, where it seems that Jews had not been persecuted.
Enthralled by the story, Gersham came to Tirana to document the untold story of men and women who had saved the lives of nearly 2,000 Jews who moved to Albania in the war to escape persecution.
“This promise that was made was very important for the principles of my family, it’s been a foundation for my life,” Rexhep said.
“To keep one’s given word is a show of responsibility and is something that should be cultivated by all of us,” he added.
When Rexhep and Gersham met, an extraordinary and unexpected drama was set in motion, which is now part of cinematic documentary, Besa: The Promise, directed by award-winning US director Rachel Goslins.
The two men joined together in a remarkable quest to find the Jewish family that had owned the books and return them.
|Rexhep Hoxha and his son Ermal at the Western Wall in Jerusalem | Photo courtesy :©JWM Productions, LLC|
With its well researched history and emotional storytelling style, Besa: The Promise challenges some fundamental assumptions about the presumed enmity between Islam and Judaism, reminding viewers of the power of good people to transform the way we view the world.
More than seven years in the making, the film reveals the untold story of the men and women of Albania – almost all of them Muslims – who faced down the Nazis armed only with their traditional honour code, the besa and saved the lives of nearly 2,000 Jews.
“Working on this film for the past five years has been a journey that has affirmed my faith in human decency and courage,” Goslins said in a statement accompanying the film.
“The fact that Rexhep’s story not only really happened, but that we had the privilege to discover and document it, is one of those rare gifts from the documentary gods for which I will be forever grateful,” she added.
Now under restricted release, the documentary premiered in a ceremony held at the Holocaust Museum in Washington in April attended by Albania’s Prime Minister, Sali Berisha, Congressmen and dignitaries.
Berisha described the documentary “as one of the most impressive movies that he had seen in his lifetime.”
The Albanian premier was so impressed with the documentary that last week he asked his cabinet to support its distribution costs in Europe, as part of the celebration of Albania’s centennial anniversary.
“This documentary is irreplaceable in order to show the values and virtues of our nation,” Berisha said.
Although the documentary has not yet premiered in Albania, it has already set off a debate in the media on whether the history of the Albanian families who save Jews during the Holocaust is being mythologized.
But Rexhep, whose family history is intertwined with the project, says that what happened cannot be deflated.
“This is a story about human values and they cannot be demystified,” he concluded.
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.
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