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.

e-Vatican: 142 Years of Official Documents Go Online

Benedict and RowanFrom 1865 until 2007. From Pope Pius IX to Benedict XVI. There will no doubt be much scholarly debate on this new online content once these 142 years of monthly Vatican reports get translated out of Latin (!) into something the contemporary world understands.

The initial point of interest seems to be the unofficial texts relating to the period around the Second World War. These documents are separated out in files of their own.

The Catholic Church’s role in WWII has long been a tension between Jewish leaders and the Vatican. One the one hand Pope Pius XII signed the Reichskonkordat between Germany and the Vatican in 1933 to support Hitler’s moves against Communism; and many Catholics at every level of the society aligned with the Nazis in their “purity” campaign, including assisting in exposing and killing Jews. On the other hand, there was a strong underground Catholic popular movement to resist Hitler and to protect Jews from harassment, imprisonment, and execution.

The newly accessible Vatican files should offer greater understanding of the dynamics of the time and hopefully bring greater honesty and authenticity to Catholic-Jewish relations. When Pope Benedict XVI visited the Great Synagogue of Rome in 2009, some Jewish leaders asked him to open “all Vatican archives” regarding the pontificate of Pius XII, from 1939 to 1958, and to thoroughly investigate his policy regarding Jews. Now, that has been done.

The Vatican has proved itself capable of transparency on the very difficult issue of WWII and the Holocaust. Will it be so bold to act with transparency on the pedophilia scandal?

Here’s an excerpt from Luigi Sandri’s article on the new online content:

The documents show that during the pontificate of Paul VI, from 1963 to 1978, there was concerted discussion on accusations of “silence” by Pius XII during the Second World War on the Holocaust.

Accusations were that Pius XII never openly and unequivocally protested against the Holocaust and some historians have accused him of accepting actions of Nazi Germany under its dictator Adolf Hitler.

The Vatican has often rebutted this accusation by saying that while it did not condemn the Holocaust, Pius XII strongly encouraged a wide network of Roman Catholics – in parishes, families and monasteries – throughout Europe to help thousands of Jews escape death.

Documents show that Pope Paul VI entrusted a group of four Jesuit historians, headed by the Rev. Pierre Blet, to edit the Acts and documents of Holy See regarding the Second World War.

From 1965 to 1981 the group published 12 volumes. They contain not only official documents, but also letters of the secretary of state, of papal nuncios, and private letters of bishops to the pope. On the whole, according to the Vatican, these documents show that the Holy See did a lot to help Jews during the period.

Read the whole article here.

Nonviolence: What About Hitler?

12whiteroseIn any in-depth conversation about the effectiveness of nonviolence as a strategy, this question always comes up: Would these nonviolent strategies have worked against the Nazis? What about Hitler?

Even the great Mohandas Gandhi – progenitor of modern nonviolence – knew that nonviolence against Hitler would cost many lives.

“The doctrine of Satyagraha works on the principle that you make the so called enemy see and realize the injustice he is engaged in. It can work only when you believe in God and the goodness of the people to see that they are wrong. As a satyagrahi, I  do believe that non-violence is a potent weapon against all evils. I warn you however, that the victory will not come easy- just like it will not come easy with violent methods such as fighting with weaponry.”

(Also read Gandhi’s 1939 letter Is Non-Violence Ineffective? on the actions of Martin Niemoeller and the Confessing Church.)

Jørgen Johansen, a lecturer in conflict studies, has led nonviolence trainings in Israel, Mozambique, India, and Chechnya. He recently posted an essay called Hitler and the Challenge of Non-Violence that briefly takes on this issue.

“What effect could nonviolence have had against Hitler?” says Johansen. “This is one of the most frequent questions I get when I lecture on nonviolence. And it is a good one. To answer we need to look at different phases of the conflict and recognise the complexity of a world war.”

Below is an excerpt:

The German army was well prepared to meet armed resistance, but less able to cope with strikes, civil disobedience, boycotts and other forms of nonviolent action. A famous example is when the Norwegian teachers were told to join the Nazi party and teach Nazism in schools or face the consequences. When 12,000 teachers signed a declaration against the new law, 1000 were arrested and sent to prison camps. But the strike continued and after some months the order was cancelled and they were allowed to continue their work. In a speech, Quisling summarised: “You teachers have destroyed everything for me!”  We can just imagine what would have been the consequences if many professions had followed in the footsteps of these teachers. Or if they had prepared such actions well in advance and even had exercises prior to the invasion.

Independent news is crucial for any opposition movement. That is why censorship is enforced when a regime wants to control the masses. Despite threats of brutal punishment, illegal newspapers were published by many clandestine groups in occupied territories during WWII. In France the first leaflet was published as early as September 1940. In Munich, the “White Rose” students initiated a leaflet campaign from June 1942 to February the following year calling for active opposition to Hitler’s regime. The original group was arrested and executed but later their manifesto was distributed in Scandinavia and the UK and even dropped over Germany from Allied planes. What would have been the result of such actions if they had been well planned and executed in most cities suffering under German atrocities?

Despite massive propaganda and brutal punishment for those who refused to take part, many opposed this genocide. In Denmark almost all Jews survived because they were helped by the resistance movement to escape to Sweden and avoid the gas chambers.

In Bulgaria most of the country’s 48,000 Jews were saved when leaders of the Orthodox Church and farmers in the northern stretches of the country threatened to lie across railroad tracks to prevent Jews from being deported. This pressure encouraged the Bulgarian parliament to resist the Nazis, who eventually rescinded the deportation order, saving almost all of the country’s 48,000 Jews.

Even in Germany itself people opposed the arrests. In one famous example 6000 “Aryan” German women took part in a nonviolent protest in February and March 1943, outside the prison in Rosenstrasse in Berlin, to get their Jewish husbands and friends released. Thanks to these brave women 1700 prisoners were indeed released. These examples illustrate that some groups have more impact than others. It was difficult for the Nazis to attack German women.

Read Johansen’s whole article here.

Where is Israel’s Pressure Point?: The Ethics and Morality of Boycotting Israel

On March 5, 2010, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia appeared on Democracy Now! with Palestinian human rights activist Omar Barghouti at U.C. Berkeley to discuss the whether the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” campaign against Israel is the most effective way to bring justice and peace to Israel, Palestine, and the neighboring Arab countries.

It’s a fantastic discussion between two passionate, nonviolent grassroots activists, who are both pro-Palestinian, and who state clearly their different points of view.

Rabbi Waskow also discussed these issues in Sojourners back in 2005 in an article titled A Question of Tactics where he said, “My own assessment is that the way in which much of the divestment campaign has been conducted bespeaks an exercise in quasi-private purity rather than a serious effort to change public policy.”

Here’s an excerpt from the transcript:

OMAR BARGHOUTI: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, campaign is a call by Palestinian civil society. It’s supported by almost the entire Palestinian civil society, political forces, NGOs, women’s organizations, unions, and so on.

It’s calling upon people of conscience around the world to boycott Israel and institutions that are complicit with Israel, including companies and so on, because of its three-tiered system of oppression against the Palestinian people: its occupation, 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and that includes East Jerusalem; as well as its system of racial discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens, the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the third and foremost is its denial of the right of return for the refugees, Palestinian refugees, in accordance with UN Resolution 194. So these three forms of injustices are exactly what we’re targeting. We’re targeting Israel because we want to end its impunity, and we want to end complicity of the world in this system of injustice.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Rabbi Arthur Waskow, could you explain to us why you think this is a wrong approach to the problem?

RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: So, first let me say shalom and salaam and peace to you, Amy and Juan, and to Mr. Barghouti, and to say, to begin with, that in a sense I think the question, yes or no on BDS, is the wrong question. The right question is, how do we bring about an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the blockade of Gaza, and of East Jerusalem? And it seems to me that when you put the question that way, BDS really becomes an ineffective and, in some ways, unethical way of going about it, that the major change that needs to happen is a profound change in the actions of the United States government, and that there were hints of that, more than hints, in the rhetoric of President Obama, but a total failure to carry through in policy on the rhetoric of the Cairo speech and some work since then.

The real question is, can the United States—will the United States—it can, for sure—will the United States use its enormous influence and power to end the occupation, to end the state of war between Israel and the entire Arab world except for Egypt and Jordan? Can the United States bring about a full-fledged peace treaty between a new state of Palestine, the state of Israel, and the Arab states. The Arab states have, in fact, proposed this. The Israeli government and the last US government, the Bush administration, totally ignored the proposal. There are hints that that’s what the Obama administration wants to bring about.

But it won’t happen unless there is a public movement in American society to demand that. It won’t happen otherwise. And when I ask the question, so what’s the most effective way of bringing that about, it seems to me an alliance of the three groups of people in America who care passionately about the peoples of the Middle East—Muslims, serious Christians and serious Jews—an alliance of those in those three camps who are committed to peace is now possible. In the Jewish community, there are now organizations and commitments and human beings ready to act on this, even though the classic, formal, institutional structure of the established Jewish institutional system doesn’t. But the Jews do, and among Muslims and among most Protestant and Catholic Christians—not some of the right-wing fundamentalist Christians, but the rest of the Christian community. But they have not come together in any way to make this happen. And that’s what needs to happen.

Haiti: What Happens When A Fault Line Runs Between the Rich and the Poor?

LES MARCHANDES by Mari Hall
LES MARCHANDES by Mari Hall

Earlier I excerpted a section of Simon Barrow’s nice commentary over at Ekklesia in the U.K., titled Why Poverty and Wealth Remain the Issue.

I also wanted to run this section on “class quakes” as it relates to the horror we are seeing unfold in Haiti. “The most vulnerable,” writes Barrow, “are always in danger of being asked to bear the heaviest burden proportionately – in the same way that those at the bottom of a ladder engulfed in water will always have the most to lose from ‘everyone needing to step down a rung’.”

Very nice analogy. Here’s another excerpt from Simon’ piece:

…The values of the dominant political party system remain deeply warped by non-recognition of the real distortions that massive gaps between the rich and the poor, those with much power and those with little power, make in the real, workaday world. There is an air of profound unreality about our prevailing ‘realisms’, as there was about the ones that got us into a massive economic and environmental hole in the first place.

The one thing that can be guaranteed is that the most vulnerable are always in danger of being asked to bear the heaviest burden proportionately – in the same way that those at the bottom of a ladder engulfed in water will always have the most to lose from ‘everyone needing to step down a rung’. The impact of an appeal for ‘the same sacrifice from everyone’ is not equivalent, fair or just when the starting points and levels of exposure are so at variance.

This is most starkly evident in the horrific scenes we are witnessing from the Haitian earthquake zone right now. For the unspeakable catastrophe unfolding in one of the poorest places on the planet is not, pace the headlines, “a natural disaster” alone, and certainly not “an act of God.” On the contrary, while many would die in a 7.3 scale ’quake anywhere in the world, it is in a city built for and by the poor that the most people are destined to suffer beyond all measure. So, long after the initial horror, people are languishing and dying needlessly in Port au Prince simply because there is no infrastructure (social or otherwise) to speak of, there are virtually no foundations (literally), there is no insurance, there are no ambulances, no emergency supplies and no reserve resources to fall back on. Just misery and dependence on outside charitable assistance, in the short term at least. It is scandalous as well as humanly (and spiritually) harrowing to behold.

Back in the 1970s, I recall, the radical charity War on Want got into hot water for describing the seismic impacts in the Ancash region (Peru), in North Pakistan and in other poor regions as “class quakes” compared to those in developed countries, because economic vulnerability made such a huge difference to the size and extent of the resultant human suffering and death. They were quite right, however.

This is why, in so many areas of life, the rich-poor divide matters deeply, unfashionable though it is to say this in a world where many politicians consider themselves ‘post ideological’ — and by that mean that they see such ‘divisive’ talk as ‘rabble rousing’. Which brings us, by a circumlocutory route, to the Bible.

The biblical texts of Christians and Jews have more to say about the iniquity of wealth and the oppression of poverty than they do on any other ethical issue. When liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez first spoke of God’s corrective ‘bias to the poor’ and the corresponding ‘option for the poor’ required of the church, it was not Marx they were referencing but the deep wells of scripture.

Yet today, when it comes to the Bible, many Christians choose to argue about a handful of texts allegedly concerning sexuality (a concept that was actually unknown in the ancient world from which they derive), rather than focusing on a multitude of verses describing and condemning the lesions of those who suffer injustice and deprivation – sometimes on a scale, as in Haiti, which modern secular vernacular still ironically refers to as being “of biblical proportions.”

The American evangelical social activist, Jim Wallis, sometimes still tells the tale of how, upon realising the scale of biblical concern for the gap between rich and poor, he decided, as a student, to try removing with scissors every single scriptural phrase about wealth and poverty. What he ended up with was a ‘hole-y Bible’, one shredded of both content and meaning.

Faced with deprivation, marginalisation, inequality, injustice and the shrinking of life circumstances wherever they may occur (‘poverty’ is a word that points to a host of these symptoms of exclusion, all with a root in economic life), Christians today should recognise a clarion call to action, to the building of alternatives, to the holding of power to account, and to the development of different viewpoints and practices from ‘the norm’.

For as Leo Tolstoy once put it (and here again, I paraphrase): “food purely for my own contentment is a material concern; but food for my hungry neighbour – that’s a spiritual issue.” The same aphorism may be applied in many different situations, wherever deprivation and disadvantage reigns: in absolute poverty, and in the relative kind too. In Africa and Asia, and in an American ghetto or a European sink estate as well. Dividing the poor from one another is wrong. What we need to do instead is to share the wealth around.

Read the whole commentary here.

Goldman Sachs CEO “Richer than God” and Moving In on Deity’s Job

Lloyd Blankfein
Lloyd Blankfein

My ears perked up this morning when I heard talk on the radio about investment gurus doing “God’s work” and a journalist calling for Christians to rise up against usury and abuse of the poor. Wow!

In a London Times interview with John Arlidge, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, defended the bank’s massive profits, saying Goldman is, quote, “doing God’s work.”  The four largest firms—Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase—took in $22.5 billion in profits through September, according to MarketWatch. The top six banks set aside $112 billion for salaries and bonuses over the same period.

Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman interviewed former-LA Times journalist Robert Scheer this morning on this topic. Here’s quote from Scheer below:

It’s interesting that he should say he’s “doing God’s work,” Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs. And my goodness, if Scripture is clear on anything, it’s condemnation of those who take advantage of the poor. You know, after all, Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple. Scripture is devastating in its condemnation of usury, the immorality of usury.

Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer

And yet, you mentioned Chris Dodd is trying to get a bill passed that would cap interest rates. You know, where is the Christian Right? Where are the Christians? Where are the Jews, for that matter? Or the Muslims? At least the Muslims, in their religious practice, don’t believe in interest as a principle, but the idea that we’re jacking up credit cards to 30, 35—this is loan sharking. And we can’t even get a bill passed through Congress that would cap interest payments.

The other thing is, their rationalization is they’re somehow saving the economy. It’s the old blackmail thing. They ruined the economy; they got the legislation, the radical deregulation they wanted, that permitted them to become too big to fail—Citigroup and these companies; and then they turn around and say, “If you don’t throw all this money at us, the economy is going to go into the Great Depression.”

But they haven’t solved the main problems. Mortgage foreclosures this month are higher than they’ve been in ten months. We have the commercial housing market exploding, you know, apartment building rentals exploding, going into mortgages. And so, you know, they are not dealing with the fundamentals. What has happened is an incredibly expensive band-aid was put on this. And these people don’t even have—they’re not even embarrassed.–TruthDig’s Robert Sheer

Robert Scheer is editor at Truthdig.com. His books include The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America and Playing President: My Close Encounters with Nixon, Carter, Bush I, Reagan, and Clinton–and How They Did Not Prepare Me for George W. Bush. Scheer’s latest column is called Where Is the Community Organizer We Elected?

I was also interested to note that in John Arlidge’s London Times profile on Goldman Sachs that CEO Lloyd Blankfein said, “I know I could slit my wrists and people would cheer.” Another GS staffer said, “We don’t club baby seals. We club babies.”

Dorothy Day: Previously Unpublished 1933 Essay ‘Our Brothers, The Jews’ Published for First Time

Dorothy Day, 1925
Dorothy Day, 1925

Fr. Charles Gallagher has discovered a previously unpublished essay by Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day, which lay in a correspondence file in the Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection at Marquette University. I’m stunned!

Dorothy Day was a lay Catholic woman with radical politics, a deeply rooted faith, and a phenomenal amount of courage. She co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin in the 1930s.

The manuscript titled Our Brothers, The Jews was written in autumn 1933. It is published for the first time in the November 2009 issue of America magazine.

Five years before Adolph Hitler became “The Fuhrer,” when he was still chancellor of a coalition government and head of the Nazi party with the Nazis holding a third of the seats in the Reichstag, Dorothy Day called to account Catholics who supported and fostered Hitler’s hate-based political agenda in the U.S.

Her point of view was very unpopular at the time. So unpopular in fact that she had a hard time getting her essay published anywhere. (America magazine rejected it when she submitted it to them in 1933.) But race-baiting and Jew-hating was on the rise in the U.S. and Catholic speakers in Brooklyn, near where the Catholic Worker was based, were drawing cheering crowds when they excoriated Jews.

“She keenly foresaw the dynamic that five years later would lead to the rise of Brooklyn’s powerful Christian Front movement and its quasi-terrorist anti-Semitic plot, which was scuppered only by a spectacular set of arrests in early 1940 by J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Day’s warning about how Catholics ought to deal with Hitler rested on two of the main pillars of her faith—scriptural reflection and concern for social justice. Her deep beliefs rested on an apostolic zeal that held out the possibility for all men and women to be fully integrated into the mystical body of Christ,” the editor’s note concludes.

Here’s an excerpt from Day’s essay:

For Catholics—or for anyone—to stand up in the public squares and center their hatred against Jews is to sidestep the issue before the public today. It is easier to fight the Jew than it is to fight for social justice—that is what it comes down to. One can be sure of applause. One can find a bright glow of superiority very warming on a cold night. If those same men were to fight for Catholic principles of social justice they would be shied away from by Catholics as radicals; they would be heckled by Communists as authors of confusion; they would be hurt by the uncomprehending indifference of the mass of people.

God made us all. We are all members or potential members of the mystical body of Christ. We don’t want to extirpate people; we want to go after ideas. As St. Paul said, “we are not fighting flesh and blood but principalities and powers.”

Read the whole essay here.

The discovery of this Day manuscript is astonishing–for its historical resonance and insight into social activism. Day’s examination of hate politics from the perspective of her deeply rooted Catholicism provides us with clues for today. It forces the question: How do we bring scriptural reflection and the concerns of social justice to bear on the Tea-Partyers, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and others who use hate as a political strategy to gain power?

I was particularly touched by the comments of one contemporary reader of Day’s article who wrote, “I am an 80 -year- old Jew who lived thru the 30s in New York, and my hard heart is melted at seeing for the first time that we had such a beloved advocate. Is that what makes a saint?”

Indeed, Dorothy Day is on the path to official canonization in the Catholic Church (read my article on that here), but papal process is not what makes her a saint. Her prophetic stance rooted in faith and the response of an 80-year-old Jewish woman are.