By Ermira Babamusta, Ph.D./
“Unto Every Person There Is a Name” was the theme for the Holocaust Memorial Day 2015 two-days service held on April 18-19, 2015 at Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson, Texas. Eleven commemorative candles were lit in remembrance of the 11 million victims who died in the Holocaust. A memorial candle was lit at the special Beth Torah service paying tribute to the Albanian people who helped save over 3,000 Jews during the Second World War. The annual Holocaust Remembrance Vigil is organized by the Congregation Beth Torah Men’s Club Yom HaShoah Committee, namely, Ed Matisoff, Jeff Markowitz, Earl Bills, Laura Matisoff, Steve Popik and Rabbi Elana Zelony.
“The Holocaust, after more than 70 years its enormity is still hard to grasp. In just six years, Nazi Germany and their allies methodically murdered six million Jews and an estimated five to six million people of various nationalities, persuasions, and cultures. Each of these individuals had a name. Each had a story. We honor them as we try to comprehend our loss, by reading as many names during a 24 hour period. ‘Unto Every Person There Is A Name’ highlights the urgency of gathering oral histories on the Holocaust before the generation of survivors passes from the scene,” said Ed Matisoff, co-chair of Reading Names Program at Congregation Beth Torah.
Rabbi Elana Zelony welcomed everyone to the Congregation Beth Torah, followed by Jeff Markowitz who gave the opening remarks. Earl Bills read the poem titled “Unto Every Person There Is A Name,” written by the Israeli poetess Zelda. The program continued with the candle lighting ceremony and with the name reading. Since 2014, Albanian community leaders have been included to participate in the Beth Torah Holocaust memorial service. In 2014 and 2015 Beso Buranaj Hoxha presented an exhibit of Albanian rescue stories of the Jews.
“Last year was the first year that Albanians participated. At the end of the event, Jeff Markowitz noted the record participation of non-Jewish groups and said simply, ‘We are not alone’,” stated Earl Bills, who is in charge of community outreach for the Committee.
“As long as there are Albanians on this earth, there will always be somebody to protect the Jews,” said Beso Buranaj Hoxha during the Beth Torah presentation “History of Jewish Refugees in Albania”.
24-Hour Reading the Names
This year marks the 14th Annual 24-Hour Reading of the Names and “Bearing Witness by Listening” sponsored by Congregation Beth Torah Men’s Club, recipient of the 2003 Solomon Schechter Silver Award for Excellence in Synagogue Programming. Over the years, Beth Torah in Texas has mentioned nearly 75,000 spoken names thus far, about 5,000 names are read each year. The names have been gathered from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, YadVashem, and the B’nai B’rith International Center for Jewish Identity.
The Saturday, April 18, 2015, 9:00 pm service began with the Havdalah service, which marks the end of the Jewish Sabbath. Usually Havdalah is a joyous ceremony, but this on night Rabbi Zelony related each of the Havdalah symbols (wine, spice, fire) to the Holocaust.The evening continued with a special candle lighting ceremony, followed by the reading of the names for 24 hours.
Reading of the Names began on Saturday, April 18 at 9:00 pm at Beth Torah in Richardson, and continued throughout the night. On Sunday morning, April 19, participants gathered for breakfast and to watch the film “Besa: The Promise,” which tells the story of Albanians risking everything to shelter Jews during World War II. Reading of names was continued by Roz Prupes of Dallas the following day at noon. At 8:45 pm, the community joined together in the traditional “Circle of Life” as the members took turns in reading names of the Holocaust victims from the lists and from their own families. This is a very moving and meaningful ceremony as the Yom Hashoah Vehagvurah (Day of Holocaust and Heroism) evokes a very personal meaning for each participant and the community.
“Many of the Holocaust victims’ names have not been mentioned or spoken in over 70 years. Most of the time, the victims were only known by their number, and never received a proper memorial. The Dallas Community has the opportunity to rekindle the victims’ spirit and honor the 11 million who were mass murdered as we try to understand our loss by reading and listening to the victim names during a 24-hour vigil,” said Ed Matisoff.
The Candle Lighting Ceremony
On April 18, 2015 eleven candles were lit during the candle lighting ceremony held at Congregation Beth Torah in Dallas to remember 11 million Holocaust victims of all faiths and nations. Six memorial candles were lit, each symbolizing one million murdered Jewish Souls. An additional five memorial candles were lit, each symbolizing one million Non-Jewish murdered Souls, including one to honor the Albanian people who saved Jews during the war.
The Shamash Candle (“helper” or “servant”) was lit in honor of all Veterans. The eleven candles were lit in memory of all the lives lost in the Holocaust, including: “all the spiritual leaders lost in the Holocaust, all the boys who did not live to become men, all the girls who did not live to become women, all the children lost in the Holocaust, all the unborn generations lost in the Holocaust, the past and present generations of the Jewish Community that will forever be affected by the Holocaust, all the Righteous Gentiles lost in the Holocaust, all the leaders lost in the Holocaust, all the families lost in the Holocaust, all the academic communities lost in the Holocaust, and for the Albanian people who saved the Jews.”
The Eleventh candle was lit “in honor of the Albanian people who saved the Jews within their borders” by Doc Vranici and Beso Buranaj Hoxha. “We shall not forget!” was chanted by the audience after each lighting of the candle and reciting of its symbolism.
The Role of Albanians in Rescuing Jews
The award winning documentary “Besa: The Promise” was screened on Sunday, April 19, 2015 as part of the Beth Torah Holocaust remembrance program in Dallas, Texas. The compelling documentary tells the story how Albanians risked their lives to rescue Jews during WWII, motivated by the Albanian moral code “Besa”, a sacred promise and pledge to offer protection and care. For an Albanian, Besa is an obligation protected with his/her life, a sacrifice every Albanian is willing to make to keep the honor code of Besa.
The documentary follows Rexhep Hoxha in his quest to find the Bulgarian Jewish family his family sheltered and Norman H. Gershman, a renowned Jewish-American photographer who documents first person accounts of Albanians who rescued Jews during the war.
Directed by Rachel Goslins and edited by Christine S. Romero, the documentary “Besa: The Promise” shows the rescue of Jews in Albania as a unique experience in the Holocaust history, “where fleeing Jews were welcomed not as refugees, but as guests.” Because of this Albania became the only country in occupied Europe that had more Jews at the end of WWII in 1945, than it did at the beginning of the war in 1940.
Following the movie, Doc Vranici, the Executive Director of the Albanian-American Cultural Center gave a speech about the meaning and reasoning behind “Besa” and the religious tolerance in Albania. Beso Buranaj Hoxha presented the exhibit titled “History of Jewish Refugees in Albania.”
“Someone asked me a question the other day while sitting at the Synagogue, ‘why’ she asked! And my answer was “because we can relate to the Jews”. We can relate to the exodus, to the diaspora, to the ethnic oppression, and to the genocide. And as long as we have that painful connection, our relations will always be grand, our alliance will be crucial, and our cause will be noble,” said Beso Buranaj Hoxha.
“History of Jewish Refugees in Albania” Exhibit
Beso Buranaj Hoxha of Albanian Roots Organization presented an exhibit showcasing Albanian Jews and Jewish refugees in Albania, followed by Q&A. The exhibit was a collaborated effort of the research team Beso Buranaj Hoxha, Gjergjian Gjeloshi and Pirro Bardha. The presentation included rescue stories from Albania and Kosova, among others highlighting the rescue stories of the Babamusta family: Beqir and Rabihane Babamusta (Qemal, Neki, Merushe and Bukurije); the Zyba family: Dyl, Sel and Haxhi Zyba; another Babamusta family: Mehmet, Fitnete and Fatime Babamusta, etc. In the city of Kavaja, Albania hundreds of Jews were rescued, only 178 Jews are recoded in the Albanian State Archives thus far.
Neki Babamusta was eight years old when his parents Rabihane and Beqir Babamusta risked their lives to shelter the Jews, who were later sheltered at the Zyba family and then safely escorted to Bari, Italy by Qamil Babamusta on boat.
“My father, Beqir, communicated with the Jewish family in Italian. My mother, Rabihane treated the Jews as members of our family, looked after them with care and love, to make them feel at home. I was eight years old and I would be on guard with my siblings at the house gate to inform my parents when detecting any movement of German soldiers in our neighbourhood street. We lived under fear of control, afraid that the Nazis would discover we were hiding the Jews and would shoot us all. We also were afraid of German inspections because my brother Qemal, was a partisan in the mountains of Peza fighting against the Germans. When in danger, my mother would stay hidden with the Jewish family at the hiding place, the animal cottage, ready to sacrifice her life to protect the Jews. One frightful night, the Nazi soldiers turned everything upside down in the house, even checked the attic under the roof. They threatened to burn the house and directed their guns at us the kids, screaming at my mother to tell where the Jews were hiding. Luckily, at this time of the house control, we had sent the Jews to the Zyba family, in preparation to send them to Italy at our Italian family friends. My parents gave their besa to rescue and save the Jews. No one in Albania turned in the Jews to the Nazis. Every single Jews was rescued,” said professor and historian Neki Babamusta, witness to the Holocaust persecution events, whose family sheltered Jewish refugees during WWII.
Haxhi Zyba, today 90 years old living in a small village near Kavaja, Albania recalls rescuing two Jewish families of two brothers: David, a carpenter, his wife and four children, and Luiz, a tailor, his wife, son and daughter. The Jewish families were escorted safely to Bari, Italy on a boat they build themselves, escorted by Beqir’s nephew, Qamil Babamusta. Haxhi Zyba also remembers written correspondence with the Jewish families, years later when they were in Israel.
Fatime Babamusta, the daughter of Mehmet and Fitnete Babamusta also remembers her family sheltering several Jews. She recalls David, his wife, daughter Adela (1-2 years old at the time), and David’s sister, and on a separate a young Jewish woman.
Mehmet Babamusta (court secretary, National Hero), his brother Isuf, and Mihal Lekatari (named Righteous Among Nations) worked at the Court of Kavaja. They worked in hiding to prepare Albanian IDs/passports for the Jews that took refuge in Kavaja, Albania, a total of 178 Jews as per Albanian State Archives. Albania’s Minister of Finance, Et’hem Cara and Inspector of Education Ministry Ibrahim Babamusta, also helped from the capital, Tirana in coordinating efforts to find shelters, transportation and other needed services. Additionally, Ragip Babamusta, Halit and his wife Hamide from Vlora, would provide information about the Jews hiding in Vlora, to find them shelters in Albanian families in Kavaja town.
Today the Babamustas and the Zyba families are trying to reconnect with the Jewish families they sheltered during the war.
The Albanian Promise “Besa”
“The Albanian people showed extreme courage and humanity when they took Jews into their homes to hide them from the Germans. They did it as a matter of fact with no demand for compensation. In fact when one of the Jewish families after the war wanted to pay their savior, he was told “BESA” is never for sale!” said Johanna Neumann, who was rescued in Albania during the Holocaust.
“Our Talmud teaches us that he who saves one human life is as though he has saved the world. Indeed, I am here, I have 4 children, 14 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. That could not have happened if it had not been for the Albanians who saved us!” she added.
Inspired by the documentary “Besa: The Promise” Rabbi Elana Zelony wrote a poem with the same title.
“Every year when we commemorate those killed in the Holocaust I learn something new. Often it only adds to my feelings of loss, but this year I learned something that was a spark in the darkness. I learned that the Albanian community saved Jews, and it helped my heart hurt a little less,” said Rabbi Elana Zelony of Congregation Beth Torah.
Upstanders Not Bystanders: Albania and the Holocaust
To honor and commemorate the role of Albanians in saving Jews during the war, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas’ “Texas Diversity Committee” presented a special program at the company’s Richardson headquarters on April 16, 2015. The program was titled “Upstanders Not Bystanders: Albania and the Holocaust” featuring Doc Vranici of the Albanian American Cultural Center.
Doc Vranici talked about the heroic actions of Albanians of saving Jews from Nazi persecution. Albania is the only country where 100 percent of Jews in Albania were rescued from the Holocaust.
“The people of Albania did something extraordinary. During World War II, the people of Albania refused to hand over their Jewish neighbors to occupying Axis forces. Citing ‘Besa,’ the Albanian code of honor that requires uncompromising protection of a guest, even to the point of forfeiting one’s own life, Muslim and Christian Albanians protected their Jewish neighbors and thousands of others who managed to reach their borders. They were upstanders. Upstanders are those who stand up for others when they see them being mistreated. An upstander is not a bystander,” said Earl Bills. (Fotos by David Duchin.)