BESA…When Muslims Saved Jews
By Dina Rabie
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CAIRO — Norman Gershman has become accustomed to the reactions from people who see his photos and read his stories about Muslims sheltering Jews and saving their lives during the Holocaust.
"I had people say 'Muslims save Jews! How is that?'" the American Jewish fine art photographer told IslamOnline. net in a telephone interview.
Gershman has been engaged in a 5-year project that honors stories of Albanian Muslims' heroism in saving thousands of Jews, who either lived in Albania or sought refugee there, during World War II.
The "BESA… a code of honor" project began when he was seeking out photographs of righteous, non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust, in New York.
Gershman was amazed to find among them Muslim names that he was told belongs to Albanians.
His quest then took him to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, where he found more Albanian names.
"I traveled all through Albania and Kosovo where I met the rescuers' children, who are in their sixties or even older, the rescuers' widows, and in some cases the rescuer himself."
After more than four years of collecting stories and shooting black and white photos, Gershman's first exhibition was held last November at Yad Vashem.
The exhibition then went the UN headquarter in New York before starting a world tour.
A full length documentary is in progress along with a fine art book of the heroic profiles of Muslims saving Jews in Albania and Kosovo.
The premier of the film worldwide is expected in 2009.
"I am proud and happy to show this story to the world," Gershman says
Albanian Muslims saved Jews from the Nazis "to go to paradise."
People usually ask Gershman about the title he chose for the fruit of his painstaking five-year efforts.
"BESA is a tribal Albanian culture that goes back to thousands of years," he explains.
"What BESA says is that if some one knocks on your door you have an absolute obligation – no matter who that person is – to save their lives."
There is no any evidence that any Jew was turned over to Nazis in Muslim-majority Albania.
There were ten times more Jews in Albania after WWII than before.
"In fact, Albania is the only Nazi occupied country that sheltered Jews," says Gershman.
"They came in as guests. They were given Muslim names, they were living with Muslim families."
From the saviors' tales, Gershman found that Albanian Muslims considered BESA a manifestation of the Islamic teachings of keeping the promise and protecting the weak.
"I remember that some of them said 'there is no BESA without the Qur'an.'"
Gershman believes that to Muslim Albanians, the idea of not saving Jews from the Nazis was inconceivable.
"They did this in the name of their religion. They absolutely had no prejudice what so ever.
"I asked them 'why did you do this? What was in the Qur'an that you did this?' They would only smile.
"Some of them said 'we have saved lives to go to paradise.'"
Message to West
Gershman believes the Albanian Muslim heroism is of extraordinary significance.
"In one way it's a small story because we are not talking about hundreds of thousands of people being saved. But it's an important story," he insists.
"It says that there are good people in the world, and they come from every religion."
Gershman says believes that the stories of Albanian religious tolerance left a legacy that runs in the face of stereotyped portrayal of Muslims.
"My message to the Western world is that there are so many good people in the world and so many of them are Muslims," he maintains.
"If you see my pictures and the stories, there is no question that these are good people.
"I defy if anybody sees my pictures, especially in the West, and say that these people are militants or supporters of violence."
The Jewish American, who has studied Sufism, says Islam is not what many Westerners think.
"To me Islam is poetry, is science, is to be with the divine. Islam is beauty."