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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II by Norman H. Gershman

Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II by Norman H. Gershman is full of beautiful stories of people helping people in the face of evil.

In Albania, a country directly located across the Adriatic Sea from the "boot" of Italy, nearly two thousand Jews were saved from Nazi persecution in 1943 and 1944. Albania was fairly unique in that it had been majority Muslim for centuries. While Italy occupied Albania, the Jews were relatively safe, but with the withdrawal of Italy in September 1943, the Nazis assumed control of the country until late 1944. Photographer Norman H. Gershman travelled throughout Albania and neighboring Kosovo gathering family stories of the people who risked their lives and property hiding Jews in the surrounding countryside, in barns, in guest homes and, in many cases, taking them in their own households and claiming they were extended family.

The book's title comes from the Albanian for giving one's word of honor: Besa. This was intricately tied in with the Albanian (and Muslim) principles of giving aid to someone in need of help and defending one's guests. Surviving Jews told tales of Muslim Albanians arguing for the honor of helping their Jewish friends, neighbors and, oftentimes, complete strangers from foreign countries.

Gershman's photographs are all black and white and often include momentos that have been passed down in the family such as a table built by a Jewish refugee for his hosts and the wall where one man's father was nearly shot for refusing to tell where anti-German partisans were hiding in the nearby hills. I was most moved by the family that has been holding three elaborate books written in Hebrew since 1944. The Jewish family was afraid they would be damaged during their flight to Palestine so he asked his Albanian hosts to hold them until he got word. The family received word that they had safely reached Palestine, but were prohibited from sending anything by the Communist government of Albania. So, the Albanian father has passed the books on to his son while they await another letter and he is hoping not have to pass them on to his own son.

Besa, indeed.

Moving quotes:

"All Jewish children will sleep with your children, all will eat the same food, all will live as one family." - Prime Minister Frasheri of Albania. (p. 4)

"There is a saying: We would sooner have our son killed than break our Besa." (p. 20)

"Our father wrote that when he had the opportunity and the privilege to shelter so many Jewish families it gave him joy to put into practice his Islamic faith. To be generous is a virtue." (p. 30)

"Why hide a Jew? We just did it. It was the thing to do." (p. 34)

"As Muslims we welcomed them all. We welcomed them with bread, salt, and our hearts." (p. 42)

"My father said that the Germans would have to kill his family before he would let them kill our Jewish guests." (p. 58)

"I did nothing special. All Jews are our brothers." (p. 96)

I rate this book 5 stars out of 5 stars. It can be found on Amazon.com here: Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II by Norman H. Gershman.

Reviewed on June 15, 2010.

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