Exhibition paints a picture of Holocaust’s unsung heroes

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At a time of hostility and distrust between many Jews and Muslims, the Manhattan College Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Center reminds us of the heroic acts of a nation with a large Mulsim population sheltering Jews from the predations of Nazi Germany during World War II.

BESA: Muslim Albanians Who Rescued Jews During the Holocaust, is on display from now until Dec. 15, and comprises photographs by Norman Gershman of Albanian Muslim families and their descendants who sheltered Jews during the German occupation of Albania. 

Besa is an Albanian ethical code that translates “to keep the promise.” It is a code of conduct that unites all Albanians, regardless of religion. “If there’s a knock, no matter who, they have an obligation to take care of that person,” Mr. Gershman explains. 

Mr. Gershman traveled to Albania, photographing the Muslim families who saved Jews. The photographs show some who still have the possessions of Jewish families they sheltered. Many of the Jews left for Israel leaving behind their precious things — prayer books, religious objects — with the hope that they would return for them at a safer time, which never came. 

The vicissitudes of history have not been kind to the Balkans. As soon as the Germans were defeated, Albania was absorbed into Communist Yugoslavia, religion was outlawed and communication with the outside world became a crime. Many families lost touch with their Jewish friends and had their loved ones imprisoned.

While there are many instances of individuals hiding Jews throughout Europe, in Muslim Albania families adopted Jewish families into their own. Remarkably, even the government participated in the effort, providing fake documents to Jews who had fled to Albania in search of shelter. 

Baba Haxhi Dede Reshatbardhi, the leader of the Bektashi Order — an Islamic sect — remembers the Albanian Prime Minister at the time, Medi Frastieri — who was also a Bektashi Muslim — saying “All Jewish children will sleep with your children, all will eat the same food, all will live as one family.”

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