Temple Emanuel, a reform Jewish Synagogue in Creve Coeur, is currently hosting an exhibition of black and white portraits of Albanian Muslims. The men and women in the photographs helped save the lives of nearly 2,000 Jews who fled to Albania during WWII. David Weinberg tells the story of a place where something called "besa" or “word of honor” is a way of life.
Weinberg: The tiny country of Albania is located on the northern border of Greece. Seventy percent of the population is Muslim and it is the only country in Europe to have had a Muslim king. When the Germans began deporting Jews from neighboring countries King Zog gave orders to all his border guards to allow any Jew entry into Albania.
Norman Gershman (phone interview):Who ever heard of Muslims saving Jews?
Weinberg:When photographer Norman Gershman heard their story, he decided to visit Albania and meet the surviving families who had sheltered Jews.
Gershman: I wanted to go to Albania first to discover for myself who are these people.
Weinberg:For the past six years, Gershman, a fine art photographer whose work is typically displayed in museums, traveled throughout Albania and Kosovo. He photographed most of his subjects in their homes, often with objects that were significant to the people they sheltered. In one photograph, a man stands with three Jewish prayer books that a family left behind after the war.
Gershman: I’ll never forget this. When we were at this guy’s home and he was looking at us sort of like angrily at us and he said what are you doing here? We said well your family saved this Jewish family and he looked at us and said, so what. Any Albanian would have done the same thing we did nothing special, and he meant it.
Weinberg:The Albanians have a word for this. It’s called Besa. It translates to “word of honor,” and is a cultural precept unique to Albania.
Alberto Colonomos: When they host a guest the Albanians it’s a rule they protect them with their own lives.
Weinberg:Alberto Colonomos was born in 1933 in a town just north of Albania, in what was then Yugoslavia. He was ten years old when his family fled to Albania.
Colonomos: There were about 7200 Jews living in that area. They killed them all nobody came back but about 50 families escaped.
Weinberg:A wealthy man who worked in a Tobacco factory took in the Colonomos family. Unlike many Jews in other parts of Europe who survived the war in cellars and attics, Jews in Albania were often given Muslim names and treated as honored guests. Colonomos explains that under Besa, Albanians must put their guests before their own family.
Colonomos: They knew the consequences if they catch them were very, very stiff. If the Germans catch them they would be shot. But when they have that BESA they will not release their guests. They were amazing people.
(Sounds of Singing at the Friday night service at Temple Emanuel)
Weinberg:Gershman’s portraits have been in over 70 exhibitions around the world. The exhibition here at Temple Emanuel has brought a lot of attention to Rabbi Justin Kerber’s congregation.
Rabbi Justin Kerr: And were really excited to see the interest.
Weinberg:Rabbi Kerber hopes that the exhibit will help start an interfaith dialogue in his own community that will spread to other parts of the country.
Kerr: At this time when there is so much tension in the world and so much attention being paid to Jewish Muslim conflict it’s really important for everyone to understand that is not the only story, it’s not the whole story.
Weinberg: That hope is shared by Mufti Minhajuddin Ahmed, the Imam and director of religious services of the Greater Islamic foundation of St Louis, which partnered with Temple Emanuel for a panel discussion on the opening night of the exhibit.
Mufti Minhajuddin Ahmed: At a time when the Jewish Muslim relations are very sour this was a very timely and much needed exhibition and also this is an opportunity for others to learn that it’s a religion that is not born in violence. Rather they are teachings of compassion and kindness.
Weinberg: Alberto Colonomos, did not share the optimism of Rabbi Kerr and Imam Ahmed as far as the exhibit accomplishing much in the way of reconciliation.
Colonomos: I don’t think it will help.
Weinberg: Colonomos thinks that the Albanians who saved him are different than Muslims today and he is doubtful that Muslims and Jews will ever make piece.
In 2007 the State of Israel recognized the Albanian Muslims, when it awarded them one of its highest honors: the honorary title Righteous Among Nations. A title granted only to non-Jews who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. Norman Gershman’s photographs of those families have also been published in a book called Besa: Muslims who saved Jews during World War Two and a documentary film based on Gershman’s trip to Albania will be released next year.
For St. Louis Public Radio, this is David Weinberg.