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Besa
Albanian Muslims took vow to save Jews, photographer says
by Toby Tabachnick
Staff Writer
Jan 22, 2009 | 10028 views | 16 16 comments | 39 39 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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 tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)



Comments
(16)
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anonymous
|
October 20, 2012
Besa has nothing to do with Koran, so the sentence: There is no Koran without Besa and no Besa without Koran, is WRONG. You are mixing Koran with KANUN (CANON of Leke Dukagjini). There is no Besa without Kanun, that is right. One of the comentators, think her name was Albana, who said Besa doesn't come with Kanun-makes me feel ashamed of how ignorant she is. Kanun was the code made up from the ancient laws and Besa was only coded and enforced exactly from a Kanun.
Arta21
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October 15, 2011
@Arber, thank you!

@DonJeta etc. you people should really be ashamed of yourselves! Albanians not Muslims? MOST Albanians are Muslims! And NO they do not pretend to be Muslims, they are.

Thank God, because that is the reason why they opened their doors to strangers and helped them through their darkest hour, even though they risked their own lives.

That dear friend is the beauty of Islam. Helping and supporting others, no matter of their background, religion, color etc. Religion does influence tradition and culture!

I wished more European countries had done that during the WWII, the world would have been a better place! But no, except for Denmark, they did not. None of the Christian countries in Europe did that! Why not?!Lack of morals, lack of everything...probably because how else can you explain their mostly passive helping behavior?!

I am an Albanian Muslim and so proud that my small country showed the world how it should have been done!I am glad that I found this article because I had no idea of the support...so, so very happy and glad they did because I'm tired of excuses (I live in Switzerland) and therefore, know how my Swiss German and German classmates often debate...Help?It was difficult in those times...for if their ancestors had known humanity, they would have made in their eyes the "impossible" possible...!!!

May those millions of innocent souls rest in peace p.s. as a refugee myself, who came at the age of 8 to Switzerland, due to the Kosovo War 1998-1999, I can only say it did matter to Serbia that I was a Muslim, in the same way that it mattered to Nazis that people were Jewish.
Arber
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January 21, 2011
Are you Albanian people so boneless to write this kind of comments here? Why dont you go to: http://www.eyecontactfoundation.org/node/177

and read what the actual people who saved the Jewish families during the Holocaust have to say? Most of them actually did it because their faith taught them too. My grandfather also hosted and sheltered a Jewish family during the WWII. His name was Ali and he prayed 5 times a day, being a devoted muslim. Everybody chooses his own identity and style of life, but dont come here and write comments like you are representing all Albanians. I am proud of being the grandson of an Albanian Muslim.
DonJeta
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December 21, 2010
Hi,

I wanted to straighten out one more thing.

Please understand that, it is so hard for us to see the the name Muslim next to Albanian.

Due to the Turks that invaded and killed so many Albanians. We were in war with the Turks for 500 years.

They wanted to impose to us their religion (Islam) and traditions, but we have our faith, we are faithfull to God. That's why it is difficult to see the the name Muslims next to Albanian, because it's just an etiquette, it's not who we really are.

During 500 years lasting war, for 400 years Albanians could resist turkish oppression, only during the last 50-100 years of war, Albanians had to pretend like they converted to islam, so that they could enjoy tax reductions and food support. We had to pretend, we never really converted.

Maybe Albanians did shelter Jews in mosques and gave them muslim names, but that was ONLY to ensure protection of Jewish people.

Please understand !

We can't have others coming to continue oppression and imposing religions.

We don't want any more wars! we are in war for 2000 years now:( Albanian people today still suffer in some Balkan countries:(

Thank you for understanding!

p.s.: Thank you for the amazing movie! I cried when I saw the trailer. I'll try to ignore the muslim part, we can't think about the 500 year lasting war:(

I'm glad my people rescued innocent people! All innocent people around the world should be rescued.

( sorry for my bad English, it's not my native language)
DonJeta
|
December 20, 2010
Hi Mr Gershman,

I hope you'll read this.

As much as I would want Jewis and Palestinians to have all the luck and peace of the world, you need to stop involving Albanians in this.



By referring to Albanians as being muslim and that Jews can have good relations with muslims, that isn't helping Jews to improving their relation with arabs/ palestinians in the middle east.

You are only encouraging arabs to come and islaminize not only albanian and other balkan people, but all the other european peoples as well.



By this you are only destroying "Albanian Besa Culture". We're NOT muslim, we dont like to be called that way.

We are albanian, we believe in the right God, that's why albanian people are good people.

Albanian people are good people, Never in history albanians invaded other peoples, never we went to other peoples homes to kill them. Like others did to us:(

We are in war for 2000 years now, all of you, please leave us alone.

@ Epidamnus: where did you get that figure? 95% is ridiculously exaggerated

BTW changing your name back to your previous albanian one isnt difficult, just like turks changed your name, you can change it over in less than no time.
Epidamnus
|
November 02, 2010
I ran across this article, and I have to applaud Mr, Gershman on his work.

I am a "so called" Muslim Albanian, however the only Islam you will find in me is my last name, and you will find that this is the case for 95% of all Albanians unfortunate enough to still bear a last name that has nothing to do with who they are, or what they believe in. As much as this article makes me feel proud of my own culture, I cringe when I hear the name Muslim next to the word Albanian. Mr. Gershman has all the right reasons for writing this article, but as he compiles the facts, I would implore him to put the stories in the proper historical context. If Albanians were truly Muslims by practice, they would not have saved Jews. It is because they have a lax and tolerant sense of religion, that they were able to use their own personal moral compass and do the right thing.

As much as I would like to attribute these good deeds to Muslims, the matter of fact is that knowing my people, the most likely story is that Mr Gersham got introduced to people who "call" them selves Muslim, because that is what they are by family name. It is a commonly made mistake.

My grandfather saved a Jewish couple in 1943 from Nazzi soldiers, who were raiding Albanian homes in his neighbourhood, because they had heard that Jews were coming to Albania to hide. The couple left his house shortly after the raids had quieted down, and went back to Israel. Many years later, relatives of this couple came looking for my grandfather, and they had been turned away from Communist authorities in Albania, so he never got a chance to meet them again. I remember him telling the story over and over again to us kids, and he would say "They were such nice people. They were both short, and looked just like us. They knocked on my door, and asked for help, so i quickly took them into the house and we had to find a place for them to hide, once the Germans come to raid the house." my grandfather was a cabinet maker, so he had built a huge hidden compartment behind a shelf unit on a massive bed head he was building. He hid them there, while the house got searched. he said they could not pass for Albanians, because they didn't speak the language. They had just come into the country.

My point was to say that these acts were done purely out of the good heart of the people, and maybe due to the innate adherence we have to the moral code of Besa. Religion had not part in this. My grandfather was not a religious man.

However I still have to thanks mr. Gersham for this article. it is nice to see someone recognise a good deed.

My heart goes to the people of Israel! Peace be with you in your journey!

Albana
|
October 25, 2010
@Zubeta, I think it's time for Albanians to know their history better.

"Besa" DOES NOT COME from the Kanun. Leke Dugagjini's Kanun and other albania's Kanun (there is more than one) are a collection of Albanian traditional customs and cultural practices. Kanun did not set them, they were already a set of traditional Albanian "laws". Primarily oral than in writting. In anycase "Besa" has nothing to do with religion because is a code that applies to any Albanian no matter the religion: catholic, orthodox or muslim.
Virgo1
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July 14, 2010
Hi

This is a story of Humanity and heroism of the Albanians dispite what their faith is, Mr Gershman also said that not only muslim that did this also christian, but he wanted to stress on the muslim, because in the general view, maybe including you and me, the muslim sided with the Nazis during WWII, well yes, many but not all, the fact that these Albanians are muslim is nondisputible and the fact they still practice BESA is proven, so what we can make of that? i think it is very likely that Islam and its Koran doesnot contradict with BESA. wouldnt you agree?
Zubeta
|
June 14, 2010
I am Albanian American.

I was known as Muslim, but never practice Muslim religion,growing up in Albania and knowing my history, when I come to USA I got back to my ruts, I converted to Christianity,because back that out ancstery did not have choice, but to became Muslim, but today we had the choice to become who our ancestry was Christians.

It is time for the world to know the real Albanian and their history and famous tradition (BESA BES)which come from the(Ligji i Lek Dugagjinit) law of "Lek Dugagjini" called "BESA BES" and not from the Quran or Muslims!!!

At first Albanians where pagans,than later on, most Albanian become Christian, but after the Ottoman Turks occupied Eastern Europe, including Albania, they killed and slater people all over Eastern Europe, like Albania, Kosova, Macedonia,and Bosnia,and the rest of the eastern countries who now are consider to be Muslims.

They where not Muslims by choice, you free,or die,or become Muslim, so the one who refused to convert to the Muslim got slater, so they chose death because they had "Besa" they where loyal to the Christianity and did not converted to Muslim. So please do not give credit to Muslims or Quran.(The where our enemies)

So in reality Albanians are not Muslims, the history talks for its self, don't forget that Gjerge Karstrioti was 9 years old when he got abducted from Turks,which they named him "Skender Beu" he was raise to become one of the stroger Army leaders,when they send him to fight his own country, he remember that he was abducted from, and what Turks did to his family.

He did not forgot the " BESA BES" the loyalty for his country. So again please do not give credit to Muslims after what our people when through, for more information visit the website below.

http://www.albanian.com/main/culture/famouse/skenderb.html

PEACE IN EARTH

GOD BLESS ALBANIANS.
Qendrim
|
March 26, 2010
It is really got form the writer that comnised to investigate about what albanians truly did and what thay truly are. as we all know that the islam religion was brought in our country by the otoman empire, and that we dont care so much about the religion, just because most of the time we were ocupid and we had to survive thus our only consurn was our nationality, not our religion.we were devided enough;didn't need some thing else to devide us. THE ALBANIAN BESA is the strognest comitment for an albanian, and it is used when one need trust, loiality,and honisty. if someone considers us (albanians) as muslims they are wrong.cause we are the only country that our only religion is our nationality. I have a family tree and there after 7 generations is a catholic name.thus islam is something that was iposed to us by forc.
anonymous
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January 26, 2009
I am an Albanian born, leaving in USA.

I am glad you are writing in regard to the subject of how Albanian people saved the people of Israel on that time of horror. Actually right now I am watching a show through on Albanian channel, which is commemorating the January 27;

There are invited actual people that know stories of what they had to go through to save Jews from the Nazism persecution.I am in tears so is the host of the show.I just want to persist though in regard to Besa vs. Kuran matter; there is no connection there.I want to remind you that Besa/e in Albanian language means Trust, Loyalty.

I don’t know when the world will stop identifying Albanians as Muslims, Christians, or Catholics. It is very important for you to understand that the religion of Albanians is their nationality. Their nationality is their pride. I hope you will find some actual names of the Albanian families that saved the Jews, I am informed that the Jewish Government has a lot of names on their records.

Best wishes to you,

Valerie



sali
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January 23, 2009
Besa and Koran have nothing to do with each other. Besa is an Albanian thing - not a Muslim thing and all Albanians were Catholic until 70% converted to Islam due to 500 years of Ottoman Rule. My great grandfather is Catholic and I am Muslim.
Albanian
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January 23, 2009
Thes story ist really great. Albnanian e Jews have really gut relations and this ist dhe right waey.

Im living in Italy and Im Proud to be Albanian.

Have a nice day,

on Albanian
F.A.
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January 22, 2009
It has become a misconception of late that the concept of BESA is a derivative of Islam. The concept of BESA was cultivated during a time when all Albanians were Christians of some denomination. Although the author of the article is not to blame, it seems that some folks he's interviewed in Albania need to be re-aquainted with their own history. Without a doubt a high virtue, however an Albanian one,not a religious. Stressing loyalty, honesty, justice, forgiveness and hospitality it has guided many Albanians daily lives for centuries.