I heard about this on NPR the other day, and have been so busy with work and life I only got around to blogging about it now.
It seems that Albanians in general, Muslims and Orthodox and Catholic, have a code called Besa, which requires that one opens one's home to people in need. On the program I was listening to, one old Albanian Muslim said (and I'm paraphrasing) that he'd rather his son die than that he betray the Besa code.
During the Holocaust, then, Besa took the following form: Albanians of all religions, but mostly Muslim, took in Albanian and non-Albanian Jews and hid them from the Nazis who were demanding that they be handed over. They gave these Jews Albanian names, Albanian peasant clothing, and claimed when pressed by the Nazis that they were relatives. This despite the grave danger that the Nazis would realize the ruse, and simply exterminate the Albanians along with the Jews they were sheltering.
On the program, they had an interview with an elderly German Jewish woman who had been saved by Besa-observant Albanians. In her accent, so familiar to me because it sounded much like my grandparents on both my mother's and father's side, she simply and heartbreakingly put it this way (again, not an exact quote, I am paraphrasing from memory): "Here were the civilized Germans, with all their poets, and writers, and their composers, committing this crime. And then there were the Albanians, 80% of them illiterate, peasants really, saving us from the Nazis."
This hits me where I live. I am very German in my heritage, the hair is still blue, the eyes used to be blonde -- scratch that, reverse it. Given that my father's German-born parents were Lutheran, and my German-born mother was Catholic, my family never was on the receiving end of Hitler's hatred of Jews. So I have always been simultaneously proud of my heritage and chastened by it -- I take the Holocaust very personally, because it is my tribe (so to speak) that committed it, even if none of my ancestors were Nazis themselves.
So for Albanian peasants to save Jews -- even foreign Jews like the woman above who fled from Hamburg, Germany -- is an extraordinary act of moral courage, one that humbles me and literally reduces me to tears. God bless them.
This came at just the right time after 9/11's anniversary, because it was a useful reminder that the enemy is not of any one particular faith -- there are evil men, fanatics, of all religions, and of none at all. We should not forget that most Muslims are not remotely sympathetic to Al Qaeda, and that what I call the Tolerance War should only be fought against the vicious extremists, with our true allies being all tolerant folks regardless of faith.
I only wish those very Islamic extremists who deny the Holocaust would talk to the Besa-observant Muslims in Albania and open their eyes, but that's unlikely in the extreme, alas. Still, the rest of us know the truth, and that is enough.
For more, go to the Center for Islamic Pluralism
UPDATE: I found Norman Gershman's video documentary on Besa here.