The Muslims Who Saved The Jews

Host Liane Hansen speaks with photographer Norman Gershman about his book Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II, which is also the subject of a documentary called God's House. Greshman spent five years collecting stories of Albanian Muslims who harbored Jewish refugees during World War II.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

During the Nazi occupation of Albania and Kosovo during the second World War, Jews facing persecution and death had a small group of seemingly unlikely allies - Muslims. Sixty-five people managed to save some 2,000 Jews, and have been honored by the Jewish Holocaust Memorial as righteous among nations.

Photographer Norman Gershman spent five years taking photos of them and collecting their stories. They've been published in a new book, "Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II." Mr. Gershman joins us from Aspen Public Radio in Colorado. Welcome.

Mr. NORMAN GERSHMAN (Photographer, "Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II"): Thank you and thank you having me.

HANSEN: First the title, "Besa," what does it mean?

Mr. GERSHMAN: Well, Besa is a tradition of the Albanian people and it goes back thousands of years. It's more than just a welcoming, it's their code of honor. And if one comes into one's besa, they would literally lay their lives down for you - friends or enemies.

HANSEN: You have a wonderful photograph on page four of baba.

Mr. GERSHMAN: The baba, yes.

HANSEN: The baba. Tell us about him.

Mr. GERSHMAN: The baba is the head of the Bektashi. The Bektashi is the most liberal form of Shiites. And I'm quoting from the book, "We Bektashis see God everywhere in everyone. God is in every pore and every cell, therefore, all are God's children. There cannot be infidels. There cannot be discrimination. If one sees the good face, one is seeing the face of God. God is beauty. Beauty is God. There is no God but God."

And under the Nazi occupation, the foreign minister of Albania was a Bektashi. And he sent out a secret message to all Bektashi that the Jewish children will sleep in the same bed as your children. The Jewish children will eat the same food as your children. The Jewish children will be your family.

HANSEN: There are so many acts of courage and creativity in this book. A doctor, for example, bandaged the face of one Jewish man and kept him safe in his infirmary. And sometimes an entire village became a shelter for Jews who were fleeing the persecution. On page 70, tell us about Yakov Kasari(ph).

Mr. GERSHMAN: Well, he is the person that rescued this family. There were Jews living in their village. He took them into hiding in the mountains of Albania because the Germans moving in were threatening to burn the Jews alive.

I mean, he says: I am proud to be recognized by the state of Israel as a righteous person. We have been family of Muslims for 500 years. Besa came from the Quran. The Jews and Muslims of Albania are cousins. We both bury our dead in coffins. I salute all the Jews. May they be honored with their homeland, because the Jews are still at war and need to be remembered. I drain my glass of Raki to honor all my Jewish friends.

And this is very typical. One family said there is no Besa without the Quran. There is no Quran without Besa.

HANSEN: The son of one of the Muslims is photographed with three books in Hebrew. And I think that tells both stories, both about the communist Albania, as well as, you know, the fact that a lot of these families were unable to reunite after the war.

Mr. GERSHMAN: Yes.

HANSEN: His name is Rifat, I believe. And…

Mr. GERSHMAN: Rifat Hoxha.

HANSEN: Yeah. Tell us his story.

Mr. GERSHMAN: It's a wonderful story. His father was given these three books to keep until after the war when they would return to get their books back. And these books are prayer books - he didn't know what they were. And he felt this - his father gave him this obligation to return these books to the rightful owners. He had no way of doing it. He had never been out of Albania. What can he do? Can I help him?

And we ultimately found Aaron(ph), the 10-year-old son now in his '70s. We found him in Israel. And we brought Rifat Hoxga with the three Hebrew books to Israel to return these books to him. And while Rifat was in Israel, he was given a Quran. So, here, Rifat is going back to Albania with the Quran and Aaron has these three Hebrew books.

HANSEN: What effect did this project have on you?

Mr. GERSHMAN: Listen, I photograph with my heart. In this particular case, clearly I'm a Jew. I'm a lay Jew. But I also have studied over the years with the Sufis. And the Sufis, those are the mystical side of Islam. The Islam I know is the Islam of beauty, of music, of dance, of poetry. I don't recognize this Islam that I read about in the papers. So it was a journey that I did with my heart. And it just reinforces that there are more good people in the world, far more good people in the world than terrorist or terrorist sympathizers.

There are well over a billion Muslims. They're good people. Unfortunately, in the media you rarely read or hear about the good people. I found the good people in Albania.

HANSEN: Photographer Norman Gershman. His book "Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II" is published by Syracuse University Press. Mr. Gershman joined us from the studios of Aspen Public Radio. Thank you very much.

Mr. GERSHMAN: Thank you, Liane.

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