Albanian Muslims keep Holocaust-era Promise in terrific doc

An important challenge for 21st-century documentary filmmakers is connecting the distant history of the Holocaust to today, and making it relevant for younger audiences.

More often than not, it’s the children and grandchildren of survivors, rescuers and perpetrators who supply the necessary link between the past and present.

In her riveting, revelatory and profound “Besa: The Promise,” director Rachel Goslins depicts an Albanian man’s extraordinary efforts to fulfill the vow his late father made to the Jewish couple he hid during the war. The marvelously crafted film, with a fine score by American composer Philip Glass, simultaneously honors the broader efforts of the entire Albanian population to protect its Jews from the Nazis.

From “Besa: The Promise”

“Besa: The Promise” makes its world premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in a co-presentation with the Anti-Defamation League.

These days, Albania is often dismissed as one of the  most broke, backward provinces in Europe, but the country deserves better. Immediately before Mussolini’s troops invaded and drove him into exile, King Zog granted citizenship to every Jew living in Albania.

Following their beloved king’s lead, and in keeping with their highly developed code of honor, the populace assumed the responsibility of sheltering its Jews. Some 70 percent of the Albanians who saved Jews were Muslim, and “besa” — the word for the inviolable Albanian vow — is intended in part as a rebuke of the conventional wisdom that Muslims and Jews are natural and eternal enemies.

Admittedly, Albania is a small country — about 2,000 Jews were saved, but every life and every act of conscience counts. That’s the attitude of Norman Gershman, a tireless American who embarked a decade ago on a campaign to find, photograph and extol the Albanians who aided Jews.

“Besa: The Promise” artfully weaves the historical overview and the aging Gershman’s solo crusade with the fascinating, nearly unbelievable persistence of an unassuming toy seller named Rexhep Hoxha. Born in 1950, he grew up hearing his father’s story of hiding a Bulgarian Jewish couple and infant during the war.

When the family fled, they left three prayer books — treasured family items that, if they were stopped en route, would have betrayed their Jewishness — in their benefactor’s care. Hoxha’s father had promised to return them after the war, but to his dismay was never able to locate the family, nor did they or their children ever show up to reclaim them. Ultimately, his son inherited the “besa.”

What gives the film its tension is the mysterious behavior of the Jews, whose inexplicable failure to seek out and thank their rescuers after the war (of greater importance, arguably, than recovering their property) contrasts with Rexhep Hoxha’s unwavering persistence.

The trail eventually leads to Israel, where we watch with apprehension to see if the people of the book will be embarrassingly and insultingly cavalier about Rexhep’s remarkable commitment to return their precious books, or if they will match the singular character of the Albanian (and his son) we’ve come to admire.

Goslins, a lawyer-turned-filmmaker who graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz and is executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, has made a terrific, galvanizing film. One wishes, though, that she hadn’t gone all Ken Burns with slow zooms in on Gershman’s mesmerizing black-and-white portraits, and had the faith in her audience to allow us to absorb the quiet power and beauty of Gershman’s compositions.

That’s the smallest of quibbles for a rare film that lets us spend an hour and a half awed by the best qualities of human beings, and inspires us to manifest our own.

“Besa: The Promise” screens at 12 p.m. July 29 at the JCC of San Francisco, 11:55 a.m. July 30 at CineArts, and 2:25 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Piedmont.