In an era when the news is filled with conflict between Jews and Muslims, Muslims and Christians, “it is always good to have heart-warming stories where people go beyond cultural boundaries and help each other.”
That was a prime motivation that led Ashfaq Taufique, president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, to bring “BESA: Muslims who Saved Jews in World War II” to the city. The exhibit, which is coordinated by the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, will be displayed at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute from March 5 to June 30.
The exhibit debuted at Yad Vashem in 2007, after photographer Norman Gershman decided to focus on Albania while doing a photo essay on Righteous Gentiles that saved Jews during the Holocaust.
He learned that Albania, as a nation, refused to collaborate with the Nazis even when occupied — and that 70 percent of Albania’s population was Muslim.
“French saved Jews, Poles saved Jews, Ukrainians saved Jews, many people saved Jews,” Gershman said. “Muslims? What, are you crazy? That’s the story.”
After the war, Albania became a tight dictatorship cut off from the outside world until the 1990s, so the story was little known. As the exhibit opened in 2007, a film crew went to Albania, Bulgaria and Israel with Gershman to make a documentary, which will be screened at the Birmingham Museum of Art on April 18 at 7 p.m. Taufique was hoping to bring Gershman in for the screening, but Gershman’s health would not allow it.
A 2008 book about the exhibit was published by Syracuse University Press.
Besa is a code of honor in Albanian culture that demands taking responsibility for the lives of others in a time of need.
Before World War II, around 200 Jews lived in Albania. When the Nazis gained power, hundreds of Jews crossed the border from Yugoslavia, Germany, Greece, Austria and Serbia. When the Germans occupied Albania in 1943, the Albanian population refused to comply with Nazi orders to turn over lists of Jews residing in Albania.
Almost all the Jews living within Albanian borders during the German occupation, those of Albanian origin and refugees alike, were saved. And those who took part in protecting the Jews stated it was their Muslim faith that influenced them to act.
They gave their Jewish neighbors and guests Muslim names and passports, hid them when necessary — usually in plain sight.
Yad Vashem had 63 Albanians listed among the Righteous Gentiles, but Gershman uncovered over 150. Because of the tight isolation of Albania almost immediately after the war, the rescuers lost contact with those they had saved.
The film focuses on Gershman and Rexhep Hoxha, a Muslim Albanian toy shop owner who has three Judaic books that belonged to a family his father had sheltered 60 years earlier. Hoxha’s mission is to track down members of that family so he can return the books.
The film debuted at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and has been at many Jewish film festivals since. It was also screened last year at the Islamic Society of North America convention in Washington, in a program co-sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Taufique first learned of the exhibit about three years ago. He was forwarded an email about the exhibit, was intrigued and contacted the Eye Contact Foundation, which Gershman founded.
After finding out what it would take to bring the exhibit to town, Taufique spoke to friends at the YMCA, who immediately jumped on board. He mentioned it to others he knew at the Civil Rights Institute and the Museum of Art, and in September 2011 the groups got together to start the process.
Taufique originally wanted to bring the exhibit for early 2012, but it was suggested that it be delayed to coincide with the 50th anniversary events of Birmingham’s civil rights struggle, taking place this year.
More recently, Ann Mollengarden from the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center became involved, making five primary sponsors for the exhibit.
After the exhibit was set, other groups were invited to be co-sponsors. Birmingham’s three synagogues and the Birmingham Jewish Federation are participating, along with a wide range of churches.
While Taufique acknowledges the “political realities” that divide the groups, “it’s always good to get us in the same room from time to time and forget about our political differences, and celebrate the things that have gone great.”