Where memory fails us, art lives on, like little frozen moments or time capsules that speak to our eyes rather than our ears. Where words fall apart, images live on, taking on their own lives without the need to decode or translate or even define. And sometimes the narrative of human courage and dignity, often overlooked in the face of tragedies and vice, are best told as they are today: captured vignettes, documented moments, preserved portraits that, when strung together, tell us the histories we crave to hear, but feel unprivileged to impart.
It’s been said that “the story of Albania’s Muslims, and what they did during World War II, is one of the great untold stories of the world.” In recent years, these private heroisms have been revitalized through the lens of Jewish-American photographer Norman H. Gershman and his collected images and oral histories that make up the traveling portrait exhibit called Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During World War II, now currently on display in New York’s Soho Photo Gallery until January 29th.
The story is quite an extraordinary one. When Hitler’s troops began invading the Balkan States in the early 1940s, Muslims across Albania took an estimated 2,000 Jewish refugees into their homes en masse and welcomed them not as refugees, but as guests. They disguised these Jews as Muslims, took them to mosque, called them Muslim names, gave them Muslim passports, hid them when they needed to, and then ferried them to inaccessible mountain hamlets. “In fact, Albania is the only Nazi-occupied country that sheltered Jews,” says Gershman. The Jewish population in Albania grew by ten-fold during World War II, and it became the only country in occupied Europe to have more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning. Records from the International School for Holocaust Studies show that not one Albanian Jew or any of the other thousands of refugees were given up to the Nazis by Albanian Muslims. “They did this in the name of their religion,” Gershman said. “They absolutely had no prejudice what so ever.”
That is because these Muslims held themselves accountable to what Albanians call Besa, which is still upheld as the highest ethical code in the country. “Besa is a code of honor deeply rooted in Albanian culture and incorporated in the faith of Albanian Muslims,” the gallery explained in the show’s press release. “It dictates a moral behavior so absolute that non-adherence brings shame and dishonor to oneself and one’s family. Besa demands that one take responsibility for the lives of others in their time of need. This Islamic behavior of compassion and mercy celebrates the sanctity of life and a view of the other- the stranger- as one’s own close family member.”
“Most remarkably, this was all done with the consent and support of the entire country. Thousands of Jews, hidden in plain sight- everyone knew- and no one told.”
And no one told for a long time “because of the shutters that went down on Albania so soon after 1945 and the draconian Communist regime,” Holocaust historian Deborah Dwork told Jim Axelrod on CBS’s Sunday Morning. “For the next half century, Albania was completely cut off from everyone, even from other Communist regime countries. And by the time the shutters lifted, what happened half a century ago was not so urgent as people’s everyday needs right then and there.”
“When I first learned of the World War II rescue of Jews in Muslim Albania and Kosovo, my reaction was visceral,” Gershman said, who learned about the story from a member of Israel’s Yad Vashem, a memorial dedicated to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. “Muslims who saved Jews? I must record this forgotten event with my camera and tell the story through the various family histories I was to meet. As a Jew and a Sufi, my spiritual connect with the beauty of Islam and Judaism is seamless.”
Over a five-year period that began in 2002, Gershman traveled to Albania to document these surviving Muslim families and collect their stories, both through pictures and words. A man who worked for the Albania-Israel Friendship Society carried a small notebook with the names and addresses of these Muslim families, and with that, an interpreter, a driver and an assistant, Gershman crisscrossed the country, finding these families in cities, villages, even at the end of gravel roads. Yad Vashem knew of 63 families on record, but Gershman’s trek led him to more than 150. “I travelled all through Albania and Kosovo where I met the rescuer’s children, who are in their sixties or even older, the rescuers’ widows, and in some cases the rescuer himself.” He took their portraits and began with the same question: What is your story?
“I asked them, ‘Why did you do this? What was in the Quar’an that you did this?’ They would only smile. Some of them said, ‘We have saved lives to go to paradise.”
“There was no government conspiracy, no underground railroad, no organized resistance of any kind-” Gershman said, “only individual Albanians, acting alone, to save the lives of people whose lives were in immediate danger. My portraits of these people, and their stories, are meant to reflect their humanity, their dignity, their religious and moral convictions, and their quiet courage.”
The saddest part of many of these families’ stories were the endings when Soviet communism cut off all communication between the Jews that fled to Israel or their native countries and the Muslims that stayed. Many of them ended with “… and then all contact was lost. We never heard from them again. Please help us find them so we can return items they left in our trust.”
“I came back with pictures and stories that are different from the ones you read in the papers every day.” Together, the images say more than words can about courage, compassion, faith, and intercultural companionship. “They’re not perfect pictures,” he said. “But what’s important is for these people to reflect themselves.” It’s a message he believes needs to be understood now more than ever.
“The paranoia that’s sweeping the country regarding Muslims is absolutely nuts,” he said. “I defy of anybody sees my pictures, especially in the West, and say that these people are militants or supporters of violence. These photographs show quite a different story.”
It’s a story that has gone on to reach further than Gershman could alone. Since a 2006 endorsement from former President Jimmy Carter and its first showing at Yad Vashem in 2007, the world has seen more than 75 exhibitions of Besa, including at the United Nations. In 2008, Syracuse University Press published the images and stories in a photobook that shares the same name as the exhibition.
When its showing at Soho Photo Gallery wraps up at the end of this month, it will travel to a new one in England’s House of Commons. Gershman attributes much of the show’s success to the fact that it contradicts popular misconceptions of not only Muslims, but also of intercultural relationships between Muslims and Jews.
“The exhibitions,” a press release said, “were shot in black and white, fittingly chosen as each of the subjects and their families understood that when it comes to saving a life, there can be no shades of grey.”
Photo courtesy of Kevin Rawlings via Flickr
Note: The photo used in this article is not part of Norman Gershman's Besa exhibition