Buried for decades by a rigid Communist regime, the story of how Albanian Muslims saved thousands of Jews during World War II is brought to life in the moving pictorial history, “BESA Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II,” by photographer Norman H. Gershman.
Over a five-year period, Gershman visited Albania several times to record the stories and photographs of these heroic people and their families, documenting their unwavering vow, or besa, to protect their Jewish brothers and sisters.
“Besa is a code of honor of the Albanian people,” said Gershman, speaking by telephone from his home in Colorado. “It goes back probably thousands of years. It is more than just hospitality. If someone comes into their aura, they will lay their lives down for anybody.”
The book documents some 65 Albanian families, and depicts the actual heroes, if they are still alive, or their spouses, children and grandchildren.
Although there were not too many Jews living in Albania at the time, many Jews fled to Albania in search of safety. During World War II, there were only two countries in Europe “that actively refused to cooperate with the Nazis: Denmark and Albania,” said Gershman.
Through the efforts of the Albanians, more than 2000 Jews were saved.
While in other parts of Europe, gentiles hid Jews in attics or in the woods, said Gershman. In Albania, “Jews were treated like guests. They were given peasant clothing and Muslim names.”
Although besa is older than Islam, and not specifically mentioned in the Koran, Gershman explained the Albanians nonetheless incorporate the concept into their religion.
“Albanians will say, ‘There is no besa without the Koran, and no Koran without besa,’” Gershman said.
“It’s an unusual culture,” Gershman added, noting that one Albanian told him earnestly, ‘“I would sooner have my son killed than break my besa.’ It’s more than strong. It’s inconceivable for an Albanian to break his besa.”
The honor of helping someone in need is so prized, Gershman explained, the Albanian people actually fought over who would take the Jews in. And, Gershman continued, there is no evidence of any Jew ever being turned over to the Nazis by an Albanian.
Gershman, a self-described “head-hunter” in the securities industry, has a talent for finding people. His quest for these righteous Albanians began in 2003, at Yad Vashem, when he told the director of special projects, Mordechai Paldiel, of his wish to photograph non-Jews living in Europe who had rescued Jews from the atrocities of the Holocaust. Paldiel told him about the rescuers of Albania and directed him to the Israeli Albanian Friendship Association, which knew the identities of many of those people. From there, he contacted another organization, the Albanian Israeli Friendship Association, which knew the identities of many more.
Seventy percent of Albanians are Muslim, while 30 percent are Catholic or Orthodox. For his book, though, Gershman said he decided to focus only on the Muslims, because “who ever heard of a Muslim saving a Jew?”
Many Albanian families remember well the Jews they saved, most of whom fled to Israel after the war. Most lost touch with those they rescued, and long to again be in contact.
Gershman spoke of one particular Albanian family that showed him a table made for them by a Jewish carpenter.
“They asked me if I could find him. They said his name was Joseph, and they thought he went to Israel. That was all they knew. Could I find Joseph in Israel?”
Gershman sees his calling as finding and honoring families who saved Jews, regardless of their religious heritage or cultural background.
“Look, you’re not talking to someone who is pro-Arab. It’s really quite simply that there are good people in this world. I found Muslims who saved Jews. The perception of the religion of Islam as crazy is nonsense. I am a Jew to my core. I would lay down my life for Israel … However, we have objectified Muslims. They are just people. And in this little people [Albanians], they have a message for the world. I defy anyone to look at these people and say these are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.”
Through his Eye Contact Foundation (eyecontactfoundation.com) Gershman says he strives to use his art to “break down stereotypes and build upon the deep roots of humanism that cross racial, ethnic, religions and national boundaries.”
A full-length documentary, based on Gershman’s work, will soon be in theaters.
“If there’s some family that saved Jews, I’ve got to find them. I just do,” Gershman said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)