Visu­al Arts

Besa: Mus­lims Who Saved Jews in World War II

Nor­man Gershman
  • Review
By – January 13, 2012
This book is not authored” in the usu­al sense — it is a book of pho­tographs tak­en by Nor­man Ger­sh­man of indi­vid­u­als from Mus­lim fam­i­lies in Alba­nia who saved Jews dur­ing World War II. It is a visu­al tes­ta­ment— the text that accom­pa­nies each black and white pho­to­graph are their words — tak­en in inter­views over the course of Gershman’s trav­els to remote vil­lages in Alba­nia on a mis­sion to doc­u­ment the lit­tle known role of these peo­ple in sav­ing Jews by hid­ing them, often in moun­tain­ous areas that the Ger­mans could not reach with­out great dif­fi­cul­ty. 

Repeat­ed­ly, the inter­vie­wees use the word Besa” — the code of hon­or based on the Koran. For the most part, they were shel­ter­ing peo­ple whom they did not know — refugees from oth­er parts of Europe who had made their way to Alba­nia hop­ing to escape the Nazis. We Mus­lims — it is our Besa, our duty.” Ger­sh­man cap­tures the essence of these peo­ple, their dif­fi­cult lives, their qui­et dig­ni­ty and unques­tion­ing faith. 

Their faces are lined, their cloth­ing sim­ple, their sur­round­ings non­de­script. Their deeds were hero­ic, but none claim hero­ism. When one reads all their tes­ta­ments, one is dis­tressed that so few have been rec­og­nized as right­eous gen­tiles,” though they meet the cri­te­ria, and more dis­tress­ing is how few were con­tact­ed by those they and their fam­i­lies saved— even though some had been shel­tered for more than a year. Per­haps that can be attrib­uted to the long years that these peo­ple had suf­fered under the repres­sive com­mu­nist régime when Alba­nia was vir­tu­al­ly closed to the out­side world. Most of the res­cuers had lost their land and their liveli­hoods and only recent­ly have begun to rebuild their lives. With the pub­li­ca­tion of this book let’s hope they will get the recog­ni­tion they deserve.
Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

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