It has been said “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 travelling portrait exhibit called Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During World War II.
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 says. “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 honour 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 behaviour so absolute that non-adherence brings shame and dishonour to oneself and one’s family. Besa demands that one take responsibility for the lives of others in their time of need. This Islamic behaviour 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.”
Over a five-year period that began in 2002, Gershman travelled 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.”