Thursday, November 18, 2010

Where do your loyalties lie?

I think that it's worthwhile considering what you would do in an impossible situation. It speaks to who you are as a person. Too often we go through each day ignoring or even hiding from the realities of the lives that surround us. We protect our own - our own families, our own comfort, our own social spheres.

Most of us are fortunate enough to go through life without ever being confronted with a choice that tests the very thread of our moral fabric - a choice that, regardless of which way we choose, will forever alter the course of our lives. Yesterday, I heard a story about a man who had to make such a choice.

I was driving Chloe to her Wednesday morning class and listening to the Current. The story itself was incredibly uplifting, one of those stories that reminds a cynical bastard like me of my own faith in humanity. A photo exhibit now on at the Vancouver Holocaust Museum and soon to be coming to Toronto and Ottawa documents the little known history of how in Muslim Albania, not a single Jew was handed over to the Nazis during WW2 because a code of honour, Besa, forbids turning away a stranger. In fact, according to the Current story, the closest word in the Albanian language to stranger translates roughly as guest.

Apparently the Albanians did everything they possibly could to foil the Nazi occupiers. From the highest leadership in the country down to city mayors, the country's officials insisted there were no Jews in Albania, only Albanians.

The story, however, that left me in awe, and made me consider my own values was the story of a father and son's choice. The family was at home when Nazi officials came to the door and demanded that the father hand over the Jewish man living in his house. The father was standing with two young men at the door and claimed that he was harbouring no one, and that he had two sons. The Nazis insisted he had only one, and demanded again that he hand over the man he was harbouring.

The father turned to his own son and apparently said, in Albanian, "now we will show them who we are." Of the two young men, the son stepped forward and claimed that he was the Jew. He was shot on the spot.

If I did a decent job of relating this story, your jaw has probably dropped as mine did. If you want to listen to this story, go to the Current's web site at,

I'm not going to use this blog to get into the implications of this choice in terms of what it says about Albanian culture or ours. For one thing, I don't know anything about Albanian culture. I'm sure one could write a book on the subject, and I hope some day that happens. I'll simply point out that it's highly doubtful that many Canadians or Americans in the same situation would make the same choice.

We value the integrity of the individual, but the individual as part of the family first and the community second. We have no qualms about protecting our own, even if this means abandoning others, and society generally blesses this approach. And I'm not condemning this cultural fact, just observing it.

To me, the father and son in question made three statements, and they are powerful:

a) no person's life is worth more than another's, regardless of race, creed or tribe;

b) I challenge and rebuke your ideas surrounding race and superiority in the strongest manner possible; and

c) I choose the future of us all and the highest potential of our species over my son's life, over my own life.

And what would I choose if I were put in this situation? I hope to hell I never have to find out. Because either way, I don't know if I'd be able to live with myself.

Family loyalties run deep. They're supposed to. It's in our DNA. We're meant to be survivors. Perhaps we are where we are, to a great extent, because we continually choose tribe over community.

Then again, am I really being fair to western democratic cultures? How much did the Albanians' deeply religious beliefs influence their choices? Although it's important to point out that, according to the report, Christian as well as Muslim Albanians, the latter being in the majority, helped to harbour Jews during the war. Can you believe that by the end of the war, the Jewish population of Albania had increased ten fold! And this wasn't the first or last time the Albanian people sheltered the oppressed and persecuted.

Please feel free to comment on this story or on anything I've written.

1 comment:

  1. Either way, this is an increadibly sad choice to make...very interesting and amazing story!