Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha: The challenge of ‘never again’ requires individual conscience and collective action

TIRANA — How can humanity ensure that the mass murder of vulnerable minorities never happens again?

With the United States and Canada each officially commemorating the Holocaust with similar ceremonies on the same day, the leaders of each nation offered complementary answers — coordinated governmental action and individual moral choice. Both responses are right, and neither can be effective without the other.

In an address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum accompanied by concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel, President Obama eloquently recalled the Nazi Holocaust as “a crime unique in human history” and called upon the world to recognize that “remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture” and “awareness without action changes nothing.”

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Obama proposed that “many tools — diplomatic and political, and economic and financial, and intelligence and law enforcement and our moral suasion” be brought to bear to prevent mass atrocities around the world. He created the first-ever White House unit dedicated to this task, the Atrocities Prevention Board, to muster the resources of every government agency to prevent brutality before it takes place. In other actions, Obama initiated new sanctions against human-rights abusers who make use of information technology, requested a national intelligence estimate of the risk of mass atrocities, directed the Treasury Department to deploy financial tools against atrocities, and ordered the military to incorporate the prevention of atrocities into its doctrine.

Meanwhile, at the Canadian War Museum, Prime Minister Stephen Harper discussed how, even in a small country, people can find the courage and compassion to save their neighbors from mass atrocities. Introducing a touring photographic exhibit from the Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem at the Canadian War Museum, Harper explained how Albanians — 70 percent of whom are Muslim — rescued more than 2,000 Jews when the Nazis occupied their nation during World War II.

While people in other countries courageously concealed Jews in their attics or basements, many Albanians went one step further, giving Jews new clothes, new identification papers and Albanian names and treating them as members of their families. Because ordinary people displayed extraordinary heroism, Albania not only saved its own Jewish citizens but also rescued many more Jewish refugees from neighboring nations. While there were only about 200 Jewish Albanians before World War II, there were some 2,000 by the end of the conflict.

Harper asked, “What is the reason for this magnificent example?” He attributed Albanians’ heroism to their national code of honor — “besa,” which literally means “to keep the promise.” But to Albanians, from a prime minister to a postal worker, the word “besa” stands for the highest ethical code in our country. “Besa” means keeping one’s word and caring for our fellow men and women, whatever their background or beliefs, so that people in need can trust us with their very lives.

“Besa” saved the lives of some 2,000 Jews in Albania in the midst of the Nazi Holocaust, and all of humanity can derive some hope from the heroism that delivered them from evil. As prime minister of Albania, I would not suggest that the virtues and values that my countrymen and women displayed are unique to our own tradition. History records that in many countries — among them Poland, the Netherlands, Norway, France, Italy, Greece and Germany herself — there were righteous people who rescued Jews and other members of other vulnerable minorities from the horrors of the Holocaust.

The examples of these heroes from so many societies should guide us as we strive today — individually and collectively — to answer Obama’s call that “ ‘Never again’ is a challenge to nations.” On behalf of Albania, a nation brutalized by Nazi occupation and communist tyranny and traumatized by ethnic atrocities during the 1990s, I bear witness to the history and the hope that the worst crimes against humanity can still bring out the best in the human spirit.

Let every nation find and follow its own “besa.”

Berisha is prime minister of Albania.