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Albanians Who Saved Jews During WWII Honored In Pristina

Visitors at the opening of the "Besa" photo exhibit in Pristina.
Visitors at the opening of the "Besa" photo exhibit in Pristina.
PRISTINA -- A ceremony honoring the Albanian concept of "besa" and those Albanians who saved Jews from Nazi persecution has been held in Pristina, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports.

The event on October 7 was marked by the opening of the photo exhibit "Besa: Albanians Who Saved Jews During World War II," by American photographer Norman Gershman, at the Kosovo Art Gallery in Pristina.

Besa means "keeping your promise" and taking care of those in need, even under difficult circumstances. It is the backbone of Albanian culture and at the heart of Albanians' code of honor.

The exhibition displays some 70 photos that profile Albanians from both Albania and Kosovo who hosted, protected, and otherwise helped Jews during World War II, when more than 2,000 were saved from the Nazis.

Gershman said "besa" is at the center of his work. He told RFE/RL he studied the concept and traveled extensively for more than four years in Albania and Kosovo so he could publicize the untold story of Jewish survival during Nazi occupation in that part of Europe.

"To collect these photographs and the moving stories behind them, [Gershman] met with family members who remain and who bear witness to these acts of 'besa,' those who remember honoring your beautiful tradition of protecting and caring for guests as if they were their own children," said Michael Murphy, a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo. "Without Mr. Gershman and others [here tonight] these stories may well have remained hidden as they did for so many years behind the communist curtain in Albania and Yugoslavia."

Murphy added that the Albanians who saved the Jews "stood up to defend the innocent and to do what was right and what was just despite the risks."

Leke Rezniqi, whose family is one of those who hosted and saved Jews during World War II, said that "Albanians in Kosovo helped Jews to reach the promised land, as they called Albania during World War II."

The Rezniqi family is honored for its actions in Jerusalem's Yad Vashem museum on the Holocaust. The Rezniqis helped more than 40 Jewish families in the Kosovar town of Decan during the war. The Jews saved by the Rezniqis were from other parts of Yugoslavia and other European countries.

Albania is one of the few countries in Europe in which the number of Jews at the end of World War II -- more than 2,000 -- was higher than the pre-war period, when there were about 200 Jews.