Besart Berisha is an Albanian footballer who recently helped Melbourne victory win the Australian A League final. I didn’t watch the final but the many stories of Barisha intrigued me.
The soccer mad youngster was born in Kosovo during tough times and when he was seven his family fled to Germany where his skill with the round ball was soon recognised. They spent some time a refugee camp and it was there that the boy developed a determined will to succeed.
So why the intrigue, the interest?
The Kosovo War was fought in the late 1990s between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, made up of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro, both Christian countries and the Kosovo Liberation Army, essentially a Muslim force.
The Berisha’s fled for a better life, but there was another time in the history of Kosovo-Albania when others fled to Albania in particular seeking refuge from an even greater evil – the Nazi version of Fascism.
During WWII Albania was first occupied by Italian troops and, after the collapse of Mussolini, the German army.
And only in recent times, following another collapse, that of the Iron Curtain and Enver Hoxha’s Albanian communist dictatorship, is the world hearing the remarkable story of the Albanian Muslims who saved almost the entire population of Jews in the region.
During the Nazi occupation, Muslims managed to not only save Jews, but also the lives of deserters from both occupying armies, men who could no longer obey orders from their screaming and insane leaders.
In an introduction to Besa, Muslims who saved Jews in world War II Akbar Ahmed writes: “Norman [the author] has shed light on the true nature of Islam as both a compassionate and an Abrahamic religion. For these Albanian Muslims, saving Jews was a religious calling because of the close bond between Jews and Muslims in Islam. By saving Jews they were being good Muslims.”
Given what we read today, who would have thought such people existed, but they did and they still do.
Norman H Gershman spent many years tracking down these Albanian saints and he also took part in a documentary that follows the journey of one man as he tracks down a family in Jerusalem so he can return three precious Hebrew texts left behind during the war.
Rexhep Hoxha, a Muslim-Albanian toy shop owner, said by returning the books he was following his father’s wishes: “He only wanted me to finish what was left undone.”
These Albanians were not alone. Turkish ambassadors during the war were ordered by the country’s president, Ismet Inonu, to issue visas to Jews escaping Nazi death camps. Over 100,000 were issued in France and Germany alone.
Jews in Albania were hidden in the mountains, in basements, clothed as peasants, adopted as long lost cousins from other cities, it didn’t matter, their lives had to be saved. It was all about Besa, the promse.
During the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha these stories were never told, were hidden, banned and no contact was allowed between the saved and their saviours, but now the stories have been released the world can see another kind of Islam.