From time to time world events force people of faith to choose between bending to the will of a despotic ruler or living out the core values of their faith. Some choose the risky path of faith.
In the early 1940s when European nations crumbled under the weight of economic depression and the invading armies of the Third Reich, small pockets of resisters quietly went about the business of saving not only their own families but also their neighbors’ families and, from time to time, refugee families.
Such is the case of the 30 families represented in the photo exhibit “BESA: Albanian Muslim Rescuers During the Holocaust,” currently showing at Temple B’rith Sholom in Springfield. The exhibit, comprised of nearly half of the full exhibit of photographs and stories collected by photojournalist Norman Gershman, honors Albanian Muslims who concealed the identities of more than 2,000 Jews from Albania, Greece, Austria and Italy from the occupying armies of Germany and Italy during World War II.
At beginning of World War II, Muslims far outnumbered Jews living in Albania. Nonetheless, the Jewish community had been officially recognized by the Albanian government and the two groups peacefully coexisted. Many Muslim families who sheltered Jews say they acted out of friendship. Merushe Kadiu says simply, “Those years were fearful, but friendship overcame all fear.” However, most have also said that they were led by a code that has roots in Shia law. In describing the actions of the Albanian Muslims, the head of the liberal Muslim Bektashi sect, Baba Haxhi Dede Reshatbardhi, says, “God is in every pore and in every cell. Therefore all are God’s children. There cannot be infidels. There cannot be discrimination. If one sees a good face one is seeing the face of God.”
The word besa means “to keep the promise” and is described as one’s word of honor. A person who has given his besa makes a commitment to act in a certain way, regardless of arising circumstances. Besa, combined with the Albanian folk principle of giving refuge to those in need of help, led Albanians to integrate Jews into their homes and villages, giving refugees clothing, jobs and even names that helped conceal their true identities. In some cases the Albanians arranged for false documents that helped families flee Europe. By the end of the war, the population of Jews in Albania had grown from approximately 600 to nearly 2,000, making it the only European country whose Jewish population actually increased during the war years.
The story of the heroism of the Albanian Muslims remained hidden behind the Iron Curtain of communism for more than 40 years. After the fall of communism, Muslim and Jewish families were finally able to begin to search for one another. Eventually, their story caught the public eye, leading Norman Gershman to travel to Albania and Kosovo to photograph “Righteous Albanians.”
The portraits themselves, all in black and white, feature Righteous Albanians – those who helped the Jews – or their surviving family members with mementos that remind them of the time their families provided safe haven to refugees. From sewing machines and jewelry to certificates recognizing them as Righteous Albanians, it is clear that these families continue to cherish the memory of their effort to help. If you are observant, you may also notice that there is a physical posture that signals besa, a sign of strength of conviction. It is a comforting sign that you may carry away with you as your own souvenir from a time when a group of people chose to provide faithful refuge to strangers over the will of a despot.
The BESA exhibit is open to the public Wednesdays from noon until 1:30 p.m. and Sundays 1:30-3 p.m. through August. Temple B’rith Sholom is at 1004 S. 4th Street in Springfield. Groups may arrange to view the exhibit by appointment by calling 525-1360.
Contact Grace at firstname.lastname@example.org