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Photo exhibit highlights courage of Muslim Albanians during World War II

Many know of Denmark’s heroic rescue of its 7,000 or so Jews from Nazi hands during World War II, along with Bulgaria’s open defiance of orders to deport its 40,000 to 50,000 Jewish citizens to concentration and death camps.

Brothers image
Brothers Hamid (left) and Xhemal Veseli, whose family saved Jews from the Holocaust.

Many know of Denmark's heroic rescue of its 7,000 or so Jews from Nazi hands during World War II, along with Bulgaria's open defiance of orders to deport its 40,000 to 50,000 Jewish citizens to concentration and death camps.

But fewer are aware of Albania's role in saving 2,000 Jewish lives. That's because the proud history of the southeastern, mostly Muslim nation of 3 million on the Adriatic was kept under wraps for more than 40 years-until 1992-by a totalitarian regime with strong allegiances to the former Soviet Union.

Since then, however, the many courageous acts of Albanians have come to light, and Yad Vashem-Israel's Holocaust museum and memorial-has honored scores of them as part of its Righteous Among the Nations, recognition accorded to those who put their own lives at risk to help Jews during the Holocaust.

Some of those so honored also received due recognition when American Jewish photographer Norman Gershman, now 85, published a book of his images and first-person accounts of Albanian rescuers and their descendants, whom he interviewed over five years in Tirana, Albania's capital, and in smaller cities and villages.

The book, Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II (Syracuse University Press), was made into a film some four years later and also spawned a series of photo exhibits based on Gershman's book and travels through Albania. The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, 9603 Woods Drive in Skokie, is now exhibiting approximately a dozen of his images and accompanying text in "Besa: A Code of Honor," which runs now through March 4, 2018, in the museum's South Gallery. The exhibit is a production of Yad Vashem's Museums Division.

"Besa," explained Illinois Holocaust Museum's Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Arielle Weininger, means "code of honor." For the Albanians who actively hid their Jewish neighbors from Nazi apprehension, along with Jewish refugees who had fled to Albania from Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, and Greece, saving Jewish lives was not an act they considered extraordinarily brave. They saw it as a moral obligation or the fulfillment of a promise one makes to a dear friend.

"There are no foreigners in Albania-only guests" was the overriding philosophy that led many to engage in active resistance against the Fascists, Weininger said. And, unlike in Denmark and Bulgaria, where government officials and the royals led the charges against Nazi edicts, in Albania-which became primarily Muslim with the spread of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century-it was the groundswell of support from the people themselves that catalyzed common citizens to protect Jews from oppression and probable death sentences.

"My father said that the Germans would have to kill his family before he would let them kill our Jewish guests," said Merushe Kadiu, whose portrait and narrative are included in the exhibition.

"Our parents were devout Muslims and believed, as we do, that 'every knock on the door is a blessing from God,'" said brothers Hamid and Xhemal Veseli, also featured in the show, in recounting their family's sheltering of Jews during World War II. "We never took any money from our Jewish guests. All persons are from God. Besa exists in every Albanian soul."

Those interviewed by photographer Gershman recalled how their families dressed up Jews as local Muslim villagers and farmers, secreted them in underground bunkers, created escape hatches in their homes, covertly transported Jews to and from forests, and refused to buckle under extreme pressure from the occupying forces.

"Four times they put a gun to his head," said Ali Sheqer Pashkaj, in recalling his father's valor in the face of the Nazis. "They came back and threatened to burn down the village if my father didn't confess. My father held out, and finally they left."

"My father sheltered four Jewish families," said Nuro Hoxha, another Gershman subject. "I remember my father's words to those he took in: 'Now we are one family. You won't suffer any evil. My sons and I will defend you against peril at the cost of our lives.'"

Before the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish population of Albania was minuscule: about 200. After the war, it stood at approximately 2,000-still tiny, to be sure, but with the distinction of being one of the few European nations with more Jews in the aftermath of the Shoah (Holocaust) than before.

Some Muslim rescuers lost contact over the years with the Jews they had saved, many of whom resettled in Israel, only re-establishing ties decades later with the fall of Communism and the end of Albania's political and cultural isolation. Other Albanians, however, remained in touch with Jewish friends throughout their lifetimes.

"I have so many wonderful letters and pictures from Israel," said Kadiu. "In 1992, I was invited there to receive the Righteous Among the Nations award on behalf of my family, and for a time I was the head of the Albanian-Israeli Friendship Association. Those years were fearful, but friendship overcame all fear."

The exhibition "Besa: A Code of Honor" runs through March 4, 2018, in the South Gallery of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. 


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