Albanian Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Saved Jews During WWII

"For 6 months in 1943, we sheltered the Solomon family."--Ali Kazazi

When I teach, discuss, or train people in Christian nonviolence, there is always one common critique: What about the Nazis? Nonviolence wouldn’t work with them.

The truth is that there are thousands of stories that exemplify how creative nonviolent resistance was employed by civilians during WWII. Photographer Norman Gershman has uncovered another one.

When post-World War II Europe found itself devastated by the loss of its Jewish population, Albania was the only country to boast a larger number of Jewish people than it had housed prior to the Holocaust.  More than 2,000 Jews from Albania, Greece, Austria and Italy were hidden in the homes of Albanian Muslim families throughout the war.  Between 1943-1945, it is estimated that the people of Greater Albania saved between two and three thousand lives.

In 2003, photographer Norman Gershman embarked on a project to find and photograph Albanian Muslim families who had sheltered and saved Jews – both Albanian nationals and refugees from neighboring countries – during World War II.

Gershman said it wasn’t just Muslim families who shielded Jews from the Nazis, but also Orthodox and Catholic families. All of them were motivated by an Albanian code of honor called “besa,” a concept that can be translated into “keeping the promise,” Gershman says. The Albanian villagers were motivated to risk their lives by the simple concept of helping one’s neighbor. “We chose to focus on the Muslims because, who ever heard of Muslims saving Jews?” Gershman said in a telephone interview from Israel, where he is at work on his next project. (Project explores Muslims who saved Jews)

By 2004, after two photographic journeys to Albania and Kosovo, Gershman had discovered roughly 150 Muslim families who had taken part in the rescue of the Jews due to their belief in Besa, or honor, an ancient code which requires Albanians to endanger their own lives if necessary to save the life of anyone seeking asylum. An Albanian proverb says, “Our home is our guest’s house, then our house, but above all it is God’s House.”

Before the war, Gershman estimates from his research, only about 200 Jews lived in Albania, a country that is about 70 percent Muslim. During the years of occupation, 10 times as many Jews streamed into Albania to escape persecution from Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Greece and Italy. Gershman says it was the only country in Europe where the Jewish population grew by the end of the war. (Project explores Muslims who saved Jews)

Besa is, to this day, the highest moral law of the region, superseding religious differences, blood feuds and tribal traditions. Gershman’s portraits serve as historical documentation of the Albanian Resistance.

The exhibit of 30 photographs includes one of Lime Balla, born in 1910, who told Gershman that a group of 17 Jews came from the capital city of Tirana to her village of Gjergi in 1943 during the holy month of Ramadan. “We divided them amongst the villagers,” Balla said, according to Gershman. “We were poor. We had no dining table, but we didn’t allow them to pay for food or shelter. We grew vegetables for all to eat. For 15 months, we dressed them as farmers like us. Even the local police knew.” (Project explores Muslims who saved Jews)

Gershman’s research eventually led to an exhibit of his photographs, Besa: A Code to Live By and a book, Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II. The Besa exhibit has also traveled extensively worldwide, and recently was on display at the Knesset in Jerusalem.

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