Needs of a Stranger: Muslims Saving Jews During World War II
For Norman H. Gershman, it seemed like an unimaginable story. Which was why he had to see it for himself.
“Muslims that saved Jews during World War II?” Gershman said in a recent interview from his home in Basalt, Colo., just south of Aspen. “Whoever heard of that?”
Decades as a portrait photographer has taken him around the world to places as varied as Cuba, Morocco and the former Soviet Union.
But the 78-year-old Gershman said the most important work of his life would come from the photos and stories he collected for five years among the Muslims of Albania and Kosovo whose families harbored thousands of Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation.
Beginning Jan. 4, Tribeca’s Soho Photo Gallery will exhibit many of these pictures. Titled “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During World War II,” the show reveals what had been a virtually unknown story of courage, compassion and faith, which Gershman believes needs to be told now, more than ever.
“The paranoia that’s sweeping the country regarding Muslims is absolutely nuts,” he said. “These photographs show quite a different story.”
That story begins with a single word: Besa. It is a code of honor that’s been practiced among Albanian Muslims for centuries. Rooted in teachings from the Koran, Besa compels Muslim families to place a stranger’s needs above all else.
Jews fleeing to Albania were welcomed into Muslim homes, not as refugees but as guests. Entire villages would protect them. Jews were given Muslim names, clothing, even passports.
“It’s absolutely inconceivable under Besa to turn away someone in need,” Gershman said.
It was a member of Israel’s Yad Vashem, a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, who told Gershman the stories of Albanian Muslims during World War II. Fascinated and surprised by what he heard, he traveled to the Balkans for the first time in 2002.
There, a group called the Albania-Israel Friendship Society in the country’s capital, Tirana, hosted Gershman and assisted him with his project. He said a man who worked for the society carried a small notebook in his pocket with the names and addresses of families who had helped protect Jews.
With an interpreter, a driver and assistant, Gershman crisscrossed the country looking for them. He found the families in cities, villages and at the end of gravel roads. In their hallways, gardens and living rooms, he began with a simple question: What is your story?
Sometimes it was the men and women who actually clothed and housed the Jewish refugees who spoke. Other times it was their sons and daughters.
Intimate tales filled the rooms that Gershman said often had little more than a few pieces of furniture. Afterwards, using a medium format camera and natural light, he would photograph the family.
“They’re not perfect pictures,” said Gershman, who returned to Albania several times between 2002 and 2006. “But what’s important is for these people to reflect themselves.”
And they do. Gershman’s photos are a study of history through the portraits of deeply personal subjects. The feelings of pride, hope, loss and love are all etched into the faces of these men and women. It is clear Gershman managed to form an intimate connection with each of them.
Since he began sharing his work publicly, Gershman’s Besa project has taken on a life of its own. There have been more than 75 exhibitions around the world, including at the United Nations. Following its showing at the Soho Photo Gallery the exhibition will travel to England’s House of Commons.
Gershman believes the show’s success rests in a depiction of Muslims that is at odds with popular perceptions.
“I came back with pictures and stories,” he said, “that are different from the ones you read in the papers every day.”
Soho Photo Gallery, 15 White St. Wed–Sun 1–6 pm. 212-226-8571, sohophoto.com. Norman Gershman will talk about his work on Jan. 21, 6-9 p.m.
Original post: Needs of a Stranger: Muslims Saving Jews During World War II