The Albanian Culture Ministry has announced the establishment of the ‘Besa Museum’ in Tirana, the capital city of Albania, to celebrate the history of Jews in Albania and the bravery of Albanians who sheltered and saved them during WWII. The museum is named after the Albanian word ‘besa’ which means promise or trust, reflecting the traditional concept of giving one’s word to honour, protect, and keep it no matter what.
Albania has a long history of Jewish settlement in cities such as Saranda, Berat, and Vlora, with the latter two having Jewish quarters. During WWII, Jews from neighbouring countries fled to Albania and were welcomed by Albanians from both Muslim and Christian communities. They were given Albanian names, hidden, and sheltered, and not handed over to the Nazi or invading fascist Italian forces. Albania was the only country in Europe to have more Jews living in it at the end of the war than at the start.
The museum will be located in a historic building once belonging to the Toptani Family, a typical 19th-century Albanian architecture, designated a Cultural Heritage and Cultural Monument. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced the establishment of the new museum at a gala event honouring Albanian “Righteous Among the Nations” during his recent visit to Jerusalem. The Culture Ministry has announced an open design competition for architecture design proposals, funded by Israeli philanthropist Alexander Machkevitch, to find the best design solution for the museum’s construction.
The Albanian government hopes that the “Besa” Museum will be a destination for tourists to learn about the glorious history of the salvation of Jews during the Second World War, as well as Jewish history, tradition, culture, and art. It will include a museum, dialogue centre, and educational facilities. Albania’s other Jewish sites of interest include the Jewish Quarter in Vlora and the Solomon Museum in Berat. A memorial to the victims of the Holocaust can also be found in Tirana’s lake park.
Albanian Culture Minister Elva Margariti said that the rescue of Jews during WWII is one of the most beautiful pages in Albanian history. Christians and Muslims sacrificed everything to protect them. The Besa Museum will act as a bridge of communication between generations, a dialogue space for sharing the best values of Albanian peoples. Israeli philanthropist Alexander Machkevitch, who is funding the design competition, said that he is humbled to be a part of this important project that will memorialise the bravery of Albanians who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. This project is a testament to the power of solidarity and compassion in the face of darkness, and he hopes it will inspire future generations to continue this legacy of kindness.
The establishment of the Besa Museum is timely, as Israeli President Isaac Herzog recently urged the European Union to step up the fight against surging antisemitism. Speaking at the European Parliament on the eve of the annual commemorations of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, Herzog said that EU countries and officials should use legislation, education, and security to eradicate antisemitism. He also noted that antisemitic discourse is not only prevalent in dark regimes but also within the heartlands of the free, democratic West. Herzog urged the EU to read the warning signs, detect the symptoms of the pandemic of antisemitism, and fight it at all costs.
The Besa Museum will serve as a reminder of the kindness and bravery shown by Albanians during WWII, and as a beacon of hope for future generations. It will showcase the power of solidarity and compassion in the face of darkness and honour the promises made to protect and keep the Jews safe. Photo by By haunted by Leonard Cohen, Wikimedia commons.