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Photos tell of Besa, a code of honor that saved Jews in WW II

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 13, 2010 - Ali Sheqer Pashkaj was born in Puka, a tiny Albanian village of 30 families. His father, a devout Muslim, owned a small general store that sold food and provisions.

One afternoon during World War II a group of German soldiers passed by the store. They were escorting a young Jewish male who was to be shot, and Ali's father invited the soldiers into the store for a drink. In between his generous pours of red wine, he slipped a note to the young man inside a piece of melon. The note said to run and hide in the woods.

When the Germans discovered the boy missing they put Pashkaj against a wall. "Four times they put a gun against his head," Ali remembers. The soldiers threatened to burn down the village but Pashkaj denied everything. Eventually the Germans left and Pashkaj recovered the boy and sheltered him in his home for two years.

Ali Sheqer Pashkaj's story is part of a photography exhibit on display at Temple Emanuel, a reform Jewish synagogue in Creve Coeur. Accompanying this oral history is a portrait of Ali, a middle-aged man with graying hair and a dark mustache seated at table. Spread out in front of him are old photographs of his father and the Jewish boy their family saved.

When photographer Norman Gershman heard the story of Muslims saving Jews he saw an opportunity to change people's perception of Islam. Gershman, a retired investment banker, describes himself as a secular Jew and a student of Sufism, a mystical movement within Islam.

He believes that Islam is about "beauty, poetry and calligraphy" and he is especially excited to tell this story at a time when the portrayal of Musilms in the media is often negative.

The Pashkajs were one of thousands of Muslim families in Albania who hid Jews during the Holocaust. The willingness of the Albanians to take in Jews is attributed to Besa, a code of honor that requires you to shelter anyone in need of refuge and put their needs before your own family's. Under Nazi occupation, Albania Prime Minister Medi Frasheri, a member of a Shia sect of Islam, issued an order to Albanians: "All Jewish children will sleep with your children, all will eat the same food, all will live as one family."

The exhibit of Gershman's portraits opened at Temple Emanuel with an interfaith panel discussion featuring guests from the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis. The temple's rabbi, Justin Kerber, hopes the exhibit will emphasize the similarities between Judaism and Islam and encourage a continued dialogue between the two congregations. "There is so much tension in the world," he says, "and so much attention being paid to Jewish-Muslim conflict. It's really important for everyone to understand that that is not the whole story and it's not the only story."

Mufti Minhajuddin Ahmed, the imam and director of religious services at the Islamic Foundation, sees this as an opportunity for others to learn that the teachings of Islam are not born in violence. Rather, he says they are "teachings of compassion and kindness."

Rabbi Kerber and Imam Ahmed are just two of a growing number of religious leaders and heads of state praising the Albanians for their courage. In 2007, Israel recognized the Albanian Muslims with one of its highest honors, the title Righteous Among Nations -- a title granted only to non-Jews who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.

Gershman's portraits have been in more than 70 exhibits around the world including at the United Nations building in New York and at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel. 

David Weinberg is a freelance writer. 

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