Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II

Each crinkle in the well-lined faces that stare out from the crisp black-and-white photos in Norman H. Gershman’s Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II seems to tell a story. The Albanian Muslims standing proud before Gershman’s lens have endured much: Nazi occupation, Communist rule. But look into their eyes and you see heart-melting kindness, righteous determination, joy. Gershman, a fine-arts photographer, traveled to Albania and Kosovo to photograph Muslims who rescued Jews during World War II and to hear and share their stories. These Albanian Muslims — some devout, some secular — risked their lives to save not only Jews who lived in their country but also those escaping persecution elsewhere. They took them into their homes, lived with them as family, protected them at their own great peril. Though some now have been honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, none have sought reward or glory for their heroism. Each acted according to Besa, a code of honor integral to Albanian Muslim culture, requiring a person to help anyone in need. “God granted us the privilege of saving Jews,” says Hamdi Mece, whose family sheltered 12 Jews. “To save a life is God’s gift.” Beqir Qoqja, 91, who hid a Jewish friend, insists he did “nothing special”: “All Jews are our brothers.” In these tumultuous times, where rifts and rivalries, intolerance and war, explode around us, these stories of compassion and commonality feel like a vital step toward healing the world.