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The Aspen Institute presents Norm Gershman and Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in WWII

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

Norm Gershman at the Aspen InstituteNorm Gershman at the Aspen Institute ASPEN, CO -“I don’t take photos at things, I take photos of things,” says world-renown portrait photographer and humanitarian Norm Gershman, reflecting on his latest work, before a captive Aspen audience. “I don’t photograph war, destruction, murder…I photograph people. Good people. Many years ago, my wife and I were at dinner and she was talking about a horrible attack in Central Park the night before. I said to her, ‘You know what else happened last night? 3 million people made love. Which should we focus on?’”

Such is the hopeful outlook which fueled Gershman’s six year adventure and revolutionary new project, finding, photographing and documenting the stories of Muslims in Albania and Kosovo, who sheltered Jews from the Nazis during WWII. Gershman visited Aspen on Friday, June 18, as part of the Aspen Institute’s Fireside Chat series. The book is "Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in WWII" and is now available, world-wide, while the documentary film of the adventure, "God’s House", produced by the award-winning JWM Productions, is slated to be released in late 2011.

After WWII, Albania was essentially isolated from the West for over 50 years by a closed off, Stalinist regime, so contact between the rescuers and their beneficiaries, as well as any oral history, was sealed off as well. And so Gershman traveled with talented assistant and photographer Stu Huck, through backroads, alleyways, to stairwells and basements and parts obscure in both Kosovo and Albania, in search of living legends and stories not yet heard by the outside world.

Yet, the impetus for the project was both personal, as well as historical. “First of all, I’m a Jew, so finding anyone who saved Jews is a mitzvah (a blessing.) But Muslims who saved Jews? Who ever heard of such a thing?” shares Gershman. From the Jewish Foundation of the Righteous in New York, to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel, he began to track down the names of specific individuals. The trail led to the Israeli-Albanian Friendship Association, then to the Albanian-Israeli Friendship Association, as Gershman uncovered the names of around 35 families who’d saved Jews.

“Of ten Albanian families who saved Jews, 7 were Muslim,” says Gershman. “I chose to focus on these Muslim families.” It’s estimated that Albanians hid about 2,000 Jews, joining Denmark as one of two countries who refused to collaborate with the Nazis. While Jews were harbored in Denmark, they were hidden or stowed away; but in Albania, they were taken in as guests and treated as members of society, regardless of potential hazards.

But why? Why risk your life for strangers? Why would Muslims risk saving Jews, endangering themselves and their communities?

”Really, my father did nothing special,” said the son of one heroic man; “Any Albanian would have done the same.” Upon closer examination, Gershman discovered a larger reason: a strong moral and tribal imperative, a code of ethics indigenous to Albanian culture and its interpretation of the Islamic faith. This code is called Besa, which means sanctuary, taking care of those in need, being hospitable, keeping your word and ultimately, protecting anyone in danger - regardless of their race, religion or politics - and putting this duty ahead of all but God.

Besa is an Albanian credo that goes back thousands of years, and is interpreted by practitioners as such: “First, there is God, second, there is besa and third, there is family.” Gershman documented various examples of Besa, illustrating the fierce commitment of the Albanian people when faced with an opportunity to serve others.

He tells the story of the owner of a general store who greeted German soldiers as they drove through town. He invited them in, fed them and got them drunk, using the opportunity to pass a secret message to their Jewish prisoner, waiting outside. He told the young man to run into the woods and wait for him, and that he’d come and rescue him later that night.

Once the German soldiers discovered the young boy missing, they came back to the store owner and demanded to know “the Jew’s” whereabouts. The owner denied any knowledge of him and while the soldiers threatened to kill him and destroy his village, he nevertheless stuck to his story.

After much griping, the soldiers eventually left the village. The boy was rescued from the woods, and the owner sheltered him for two whole years. He lived amongst the villagers as one of their own and when the war ended, he was finally freed. He’s now a dentist, in Mexico.

The reason for his good fortune during his time of need? Besa.

Besa, in printBesa, in print

“Albania is quite a tribal culture and there are frequently family feuds,” continues Gershman. “A man kills a man from another family, and the feud begins. The man knocks on that family’s door, being chased by the Nazis. The victim’s family takes him in, shelters him and literally walks him to the border to safety. They tell him, ‘Now, if you ever come back, we will kill you.’ That’s Besa,” declares Gershman.

One rescuer described Besa: “If you’re seeing a good face, you’re seeing the face of God. I praised God that I could now actually practice my Islamic faith, instead of just read about it.” Said another: “There is no Besa without the Koran, and no Koran without Besa.“

And so, many years later, the project sheds light on a little-known historical development, Muslims saving Jews, while challenging some commonly-held cultural and religious stereotypes. “Look, we’re cousins, the Jews and the Arabs,” said one of the families. “We pray to one father; we both bury our dead in coffins and five times a day, a religious Muslim prays to Abraham.”

Ultimately, it’s widely-held stereotypes which Gershman hopes to change, and narrow perspectives which he hopes to broaden. “I’m bringing to the surface a reality that flies in the face of the paranoia in our country. Many of the terrorists we fear are national terrorists, not religious terrorists. The Muslim faith, especially in Albania, is practiced as a compassionate faith and even enemies are brothers and sisters, through Besa.”

There are now over 70 exhibitions world-wide, including an historical first in the Middle East. “The Israeli Parliament, or Knesset, has displayed the exhibit and in so doing, has honored Muslims for the first time ever,” shares Gershman, with awe.

The upcoming film, "God’s House", is directed by Rachel Goslins, Head of Cultural Affairs under Michelle Obama. “The President will surely see this film,” says Gershman. “I hope it’s important to the rest of the world out there, as well, to know there are so many good people in the world. We can’t paint everyone with a broad brush, saying, ‘All Jews are moneylenders. All Christians are crusaders. All Muslims are terrorists.’ The exhibit is about completing the circle – Christian, Muslim, Jews – it’s about good people. And there are good people everywhere.”

The Artist, at easeThe Artist, at ease

For more info on The Aspen Institute Fireside Chat series, the Aspen Ideas Festival and other upcoming events, visit www.aspeninstitute.org