In memory of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, Arwa Aburawa shares a little-known story of our Albanian brothers and sisters who saved Jews from the Nazis, as seen through the lens of American photographer Norman H Gershman.
In the darkest hours of history, when a world war raged and Nazi extermination camps were systematically slaughtering the Jews of Europe, a small Muslim country did something extraordinary. It extended a hand of humanity and saved the lives of 2,000 Jews, who were complete strangers, whilst putting its own livelihood at risk. This is the little-known story of the heroic actions of Muslim Albanian who put the value of life above everything else and — because of their faith — could never turn away a stranger in need.
As Nazi forces advanced through Europe during the Second World War, Jews from countries such as Poland, Germany and Hungary fled Hitler’s forces in desperate search of safety. They scattered across the world, but those who ended up in the poor country of Albania had finally found refuge. A tiny state located in southeast Europe, Albania is a majority Muslim nation that lives by a unique code of honour called Besa. This code of honour was to be the Jews’ salvation. ‘It was like a gift from God,’ explains photographer Norman H Gershman, a US-based Jew and Sufi who discovered this hidden chapter of history during research at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum complex in Israel.
‘Besa, which is unique to Albania, means that if there is a knock on the door and someone asks for help, it’s inconceivable that they would be turned away — even if they are your worst enemy. You help them — no questions asked.’ When Jews by the hundreds showed up at Albanian doorsteps, they were instantly taken in and made to feel at home. This act of compassion helped to save thousands of lives when the Nazis occupied the country. ‘It was so unusual,’ says Norman, who after learning about the incident, was determined to tell this story of compassion to the world. ‘I mean, who ever heard of Muslims saving Jews? Most people don’t even know where Albania is!’
In 2002, Norman travelled to Albania to photograph Muslims who had saved Jews during the Holocaust. The result is a unique exhibition that has been hosted in over 75 locations including the UN headquarters, the Israeli parliament and places as different as Turkey and Texas. What struck Norman was the exceptional treatment that the Jews received at the hands of the Muslim Albanians. According to records, not a single Jew was handed over to the occupying Nazis, making Albania, along with Denmark, one of only two countries in Europe to have more Jews after the war than before.
‘Not only did they shelter Jews, unlike in Denmark, the Muslim Albanians treated them as guests,’ says Norman. ‘They didn’t have to live in attics and cellars like in the rest of Europe. Rather, they were treated as fellow citizens and the Jewish children were raised amongst their own children. That’s how they were treated by everyone — by all Albanians. Besa was a true blessing.’
Whilst Besa is a traditional concept that preceded the advent of Islam to Albania, Norman found that many linked Besa to the Islamic belief that if you save a life, you save humanity and earn a place in paradise. ‘Now, you won’t find the word “Besa” in the Qur’an, but the Islamic faith inspires it. I remember I met an Albanian who said, “There is no Besa without the Qur’an”. In fact it was the Muslim leader of Albania at that time, Medi Frasheri, who sent out a profound message of compassion during the war which read: ‘The Jewish children will sleep in the same bed of your children, the Jewish children will eat the same food as your children and be your family. We Bektashi (an Islamic Sufi order which is common in Albania) see God everywhere and in everyone — God is in every pore and every cell, therefore all are God’s children.’
What makes these acts of compassion even more extraordinary is that many Albanians see nothing remarkable in what they did. During his trips to Albania, Norman came across a young man who didn’t understand why he was so interested in Albanians who saved Jews. ‘I told him “Well, your family saved some Jews during the war” and the young man responded “So what! Any Albanian would have done the same thing, it’s no big deal.” And he really meant it. Now that’s amazing and the message I want to bring to the world is that there are ordinary people out there who have done amazing things. I want to honour these people.’
At a time when Muslims and Jews rarely see eye-to-eye due to the conflict taking place in Israel and Palestine, this exhibition is a welcome reminder that things have not always been this way. This story also reminds us of the lessons of the Holocaust: the importance of humanity and compassion that crosses racial and religious boundaries. ‘In some respects, it’s a little story,’ admits Norman, ‘We’re not talking about hundreds of thousands Jews that were saved but it’s a really powerful story of human compassion, and in that respect, Albania has a lot to teach the world.’
This article originally appeared in the March / April 2011 issue of Aquila Style magazine