Holocaust Exhibit Sheds Light on
Story of Unlikely Rescuers, Muslims
El Paso Times By Doug Pullen
August 16, 2009
Originally in Vos Iz Neias
El Paso, TX ~ Photographer Norman H. Gershman's "Besa: A Code of Honor" exhibit chronicles one of the more unusual ~ and less-known ~ stories from the Holocaust.
Its 30 black-and-white photos tell the stories of some of the more than 20,000 Albanian Muslims who rescued Jews from the Nazis during World War II.
"There is no evidence of any Jew being turned over to any Nazi," said Gershman, who is Jewish, from his home in Basalt, Colo. "Seventy percent of the people in Albania are Muslims."
Muslims rescuing Jews seems improbable in today's world. Gershman hopes the exhibit, which will open a five-week run Aug. 23 at the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center, will help chip away at ethnic and religious stereotypes.
"Our purpose is really to inform the West of what Muslims did," he said. "These are Muslims. They did it in relation to their religion. They primarily did it without compensation or want of any."
The six-year project took Gershman, who turned 77 on Friday, to the southern European country and to neighboring Kosovo, where he met with some of the people (or their families) who helped spirit Jews out of the country.
"In many cases, Jews were arrested or were refugees, and those (Albanians) living there would give them false passports and dress them in Islamic garb," Gershman said. "In many cases, the Albanian rescuers never even knew their real names."
The Albanian people were practicing a centuries-old code of conduct called besa.
"There's a culture of besa. It's thousands of years old. It's a code of honor," he explained. "It's inconceivable for an Albanian to turn their back on someone that needs help, to the point where they will lay their lives down for them."
The people he photographed and interviewed ~ Gershman also produced a book of photographs and stories ~ had integrated besa into their religion.
"One said, as an example, that there is no Quran without besa, no besa without Quran," Gershman recalled. "They said, 'We were saving God's children,' 'If you save a life, you to go paradise,' 'Jews and Muslims are cousins,' and on and on."
When Gershman asked one man why his family risked their lives for the Jews, he replied, " 'Any Albanian would have done it. It's nothing special.' "
But it's a pretty special story to Gershman, one that's received very little publicity, largely due to more than four decades of oppressive communist rule at the hand of Enver Hoxha. The stories began circulating after Hoxha's death in 1985 and the election of a non-communist regime in 1992, Gershman said.
"I'd never heard of it, either. I'm learning about this along with everybody else," said Maribel Villalva, executive director of the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center. "I'm surprised. People who are scholars on the Holocaust are hearing about this for the first time, too. It took Mr. Gershman to discover this story and put it out there."
The show consists of about 30 16-by-20-inch black-and-white portraits, some straightforward, others emotional. Each is accompanied by explanatory text. Gershman chose to shoot in black and white because, he said, it gives the portraits a more "timeless" look.
"There are wonderful stories of courage," Villalva said. "Some are really sad, but the common theme in all of them is this is what they had to do ~ it didn't matter if these people were Jewish or Christian. It was simply because they were human."
It's also an inspiring story, she added. "It's very easy to get caught up in the horrors and the sadness of the Holocaust," Villalva said. "What this exhibit does is showcase the courage of the people who did everything in their power."
The exhibit was organized by the Hebrew Union College ~ Jewish Institute of Religion Museum. It has been displayed at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, as well as the United Nations and the Council of European Nations.
It has been endorsed by Presidents Clinton and Carter, Holocaust survivor and activist Elie Wiesel, and Jehan Sadat, the widow of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Villalva said the exhibit has been making the rounds of Holocaust museums and is showing concurrently at the Holocaust Museum Houston. It will head to Nashville after its El Paso run ends Sept. 27.
Gershman's project is also the subject of a documentary, "God's House," which will be released in 2010. He's been interviewed about it on radio's Voice of America and Al Jazeera, the Arabic news network. He will be featured on future editions of "CBS Sunday Morning" and NPR's "Weekend Edition."
Villalva said the exhibit serves as a powerful reminder of what people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds can do together. The message is particularly timely in the post-9/11 world, where racial and ethnic stereotypes have worsened.
"You hear a lot about the strife between Muslims and Jews. This highlights a time when people of both faiths coexisted during one of the most horrible times in our history," she said.
Gershman said he really wasn't sure what the project was going to become when he started digging around six years ago. But he believes he chanced upon an inspiring, if little known, part of our history.
"I had no idea why I was doing it," he said, "but I knew I had to do it."
I FOUND THIS RESPONSE TO THIS PHOTOGRAPHIC DISPLAY ON AN ALBANIAN JEWISH SITE: