As we’ve noted on this site, this is not the only story of Muslims saving Jews during World War II, despite the fact that there are no Arab names among the 20,000 non-Jews recognized at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, in Jerusalem. PBS ran a documentary earlier this year called Among the Righteous, that told the previously unknown story of how many Arabs did help Jews in parts of Nazi-occupied Tunisia.
This story from Albania also reminds me of the nonviolent resistance in Denmark and really every other country that I know of where people risked their lives to save Jews during World War II, in that where anti-Semitism was not rampant and people saw Jews as their brothers and sisters, they were often able to avert the Holocaust. The problem is that because anti-Semitism was so widespread throughout Europe, in many places the local populations were either passive or actively cooperated with the Nazis in their effort to exterminate the Jews.
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.
In 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.”
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.”
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.
Marc Haddock had a brief news report in Deseret News on the protesters who came out against shipping depleted uranium into Utah. The trains are scheduled to start rolling across the country from Savannah to Utah sometime this week.
My favorite quote in the article is from Ed B. Firmage, emeritus law professor at the University of Utah, who says: “If you or I brought nuclear material into the state, we would be arrested as terrorists. So why can the state do it?”
It sounds like it’s time to relaunch the White Train resistance network. These were trains that transported the parts for nuclear weapons from the PanTex plant in Texas to various sites around the U.S. (read more here).
Catholic pacifists Jim and Shelley Douglass were lead organizers for those who protested the trains by holding vigils on the train tracks. Often they sat on the tracks to block the trains and risked arrest. (The February 1984 issue of Sojourners magazine details this whole resistance movement.)
Here’s Haddock’s article:
SALT LAKE CITY — Two dozen protesters braved the cold Saturday morning, December 19, to protest plans to ship more than 3,000 tons of depleted uranium through the state to Utah’s western desert.
The protest was organized by the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah as a train carrying the first of three planned shipments of depleted uranium nears the state.
“We cannot allow this waste to be buried here, and we are asking Gov. Herbert to help us turn these trains around,” said Christopher Thomas, policy director for HEAL Utah.
Thomas said a compromise worked out between Gov. Gary Herbert and the U.S. Department of Energy Thursday is inadequate. Under the agreement, the state will allow the first of three trains loaded with the radioactive waste to enter the state, but not to bury the material at EnergySolutions disposal site near Clive until additional safety measures can be taken.
“This is no time to declare victory just because we’ve delayed the time of our defeat,” he said. “Gov. Herbert’s agreement has not stopped these shipments from coming, it’s only slowed them down.” Thomas was cheered on by a small but vocal group sporting signs that read “No DU” and “Nuclear waste is immoral.”
Political activist Claire Geddes also spoke to the small group. “This material needs to be placed in deep storage, not in a lake bed,” she said.
On the fringe of the gathering, Ed B. Firmage, emeritus law professor at the University of Utah, passed out a letter likening the decision to allow the nuclear material into the state as an act of terrorism.
Joan Baez was in D.C. last week promoting “Day After Tomorrow,” her new CD. (Check it out! It’s produced by Steve Earle and Stevie-boy wrote one of the tracks, “God is God.”)
But, guess what? She also took time to stop by the Obama campaign office in Alexandria, Virginia, and sing a few lines. My friend Nate Solloway was there volunteering and got a great picture with Sweet Joanie.
With her political spirit fully intact, the 67-year-old pacifist endorsed a candidate for the first time. “I haven’t heard an orator like [Obama] since King,” she said. Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” in 1963 to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.
As a point of interest, Baez committed her first act of civil disobedience when she was 16 years old. She refused to leave her high school classroom in Palo Alto, Calif., during “practice atomic bomb” evacuations. Instead, she sat at her desk and read her book. I wonder what she was reading?.