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On the Screening of the Film Besa

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Washington , DC
United States

April 26, 2012

Prime Minister Berisha, ladies and gentleman,

The National Endowment for the Humanities is proud to have helped fund this documentary.  We are particularly proud because Rachel Goslins who so wondrously heads our sister institution, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, was director of the film.

By background, the NEH funds research and documentaries in history and related disciplines, including comparative religion, a subject which in this case is part and parcel of the story at hand.

With regard to Jewish history, NEH support has ranged from seminars on such subjects as “Free Will and Human Perfection in Medieval Jewish Philosophy,” to expansion of the Center for Jewish History’s digital collection of historic resources, to documentaries on the Story of Zionism, the Rape of Europa (a saga of Nazi cultural looting), and, soon to be released, an Anne Frank-like story of the life and death in the last weeks of World War II of an extraordinary Hungarian poet who was thrown into an unmarked mass grave, his pockets lined with his last poems.       

All historical analysis is by definition retrospective.  Within this parameter, one of the fundamental aspects of Holocaust era reviews is the imperative tie to questions of retroactive justice.

Here let me reference a Congressional circumstance that bonds with the subject matter of this film.  In the last decade of the 20th Century I served as chairman of a Congressional committee on banking and financial services.  Because a new wave of historical research in the 1990s underscored pervasive complicity of private citizens, banks, insurance companies, and commercial concerns, within and outside Germany, in Nazi crimes, and because art historians had come to record more fully the magnitude of the largest displacement of artworks in history, I held four years of hearings on Holocaust avarice.  

A review of history and the consequences of historical events is unusual for a legislative body.  But because the crimes were so heinous and took place on such a vast scale, their brutality had obscured the degree to which the Holocaust was the greatest mass theft as well as greatest mass murder in history.

In the stories of the victims and their persecutors we unearthed an axiom about the nature of evil:  the genesis of evil may begin with perpetrators of violence and injustice, but complicity too frequently lies beyond the perpetrator in those who cloak themselves in the legitimacy of private business and genteel society while manipulating manifestly oppressive circumstances in furtherance of self-interest, oblivious even to crimes as searing as genocide. 

How this relates to the subject at hand is two-fold.  Just as justice must be brought to those who commit atrocities, so the righteous who stand up to power and refuse to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the oppressed demand attention.  Retroactive honor is their due.  Retroactive honor is particularly relevant in an age when history’s deniers still exist, some in high office in important lands. 

Spotlighting the courage of individuals of one religion protecting individuals of another faith thus has the salutary effect of denying the deniers.  Its remarkableness is compounded by the subsequent act recorded in this documentary of an Albanian Muslim traveling to Israel to return prayer books to the son of a Jewish refugee who his father had sheltered six decades earlier, prayer books which may have been the last tangible tie that individual and his family had with the past.