Besa, the difference between life and death

It was simple really. They lived by Besa, the highest ethical code in Albania. It means to be a person to whom one can entrust one’s life and one’s family, a keeper of promises. Albania was first annexed by Italy in WWII and then by the Germans. The resistance to the occupiers was fierce and complex, but far-removed from poor farmers like Destan and Lime Balla. In 1943, at the time of Ramadan, seventeen Jews, fleeing the Nazis, came to their tiny village of Shengjergji. The three Lazar brothers were sheltered by Destan and Lima, and the others were divided among their Muslim neighbors. They were dressed as farmers and kept safe for 15 months before being rescued by partisans - even the local police knew of their identities. Despite the villagers’ deep poverty, they neither asked for nor expected payment for their kindness. As I said, it was simple. “All of us villagers were Muslims. We were sheltering God's children under our Besa." Almost all Jews living within Albania, both native and refugee, were saved, and in fact, there were more Jews in Albania at the end of the war than before it began. For the Lazar brothers, this simple code, this Besa, was the difference between life and death. Destan and Lime Balla were recognized as Righteous Among Nations in 1992.

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