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 regime 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.