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'Besa' exhibit saves stories of Holocaust heroism

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Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011

In Albania, a country on the Balkan Peninsula, opening one's door to those in need is entrenched in an ancient code of honor called "Besa." The word translates as "to keep the promise."

Its a little known fact of history that, in this mostly Muslim country, not a single one of the more than 2,000 Jews from Albania, Greece, Austria, Italy and elsewhere who fled to Albania was handed over to the Nazis during World War II because of this creed.

Photographer Norman Gershman, a retired Wall Street investment banker now based in Colorado, and his friend and photographer Stuart Huck spent more than six years in Albania meeting, photographing and recording the stories of 60 families of those who helped save the lives of legions.

The result is a remarkable book, documentary film and traveling exhibit all of the same title, "Besa: Albanian Muslims Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust." The exhibit is on display at the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. It includes 41 black-and-white portraits of Albanian Muslim individuals and families, arranged with their stories, which were at risk of being lost forever if not for the effort of the photographers.

"The story behind this exhibit is that, from the highest political offices and religious offices to the farmers and craftspeople -- the working-class families -- every single class level participated in Besa," says museum director Melissa Hiller. "There was not a single rebellion against this idea. There was not a single person who said, 'I am not going to be a part of this.' "

In one photograph, two men stand next to a wall at which their fathers, one a successful photographer and the other a humble shoemaker, were almost shot to death during the war for having harbored three Jewish refugees in their homes for more than a year. They were saved by a partisan patrol that shot and killed the German officer who was about to execute them.

In another, the son of a man entrusted with three prayer books given to him by a family he helped proudly displays the books before returning them to the family decades later.

And in another, a proud group of men surrounds a sign that reads: "The Jewish Refugees of Solomon Adixhes and family drank from this nearby well while being sheltered by Ali and Ragip Kraja when being chased by the Nazis."

The story behind the sign is quite compelling. During the war, Solomon Adixhes, his wife and son Isak escaped certain death in Skopie, Macedonia, by bribing a guard and crossing at night over to Albania after the entire Jewish community in Skopie had been rounded up for transport to a death camp.

A courier brought them to the fathers of these men who were twin shoemakers. The times were difficult and dangerous for any family to harbor Jews, but they sheltered the Jewish family in their village near Shkoder from 1943 until the end of the war.

"We sheltered the Adixhes family out of the goodness of our hearts," reads the placard next to the picture. "We are all brothers and proud of our heritage. If need be, we would do it again."

Stories like that are what pull the viewer through this exhibit.

Hiller says that Gershman describes himself as a secular Jew and a student of Sufism, a mystical movement within Islam.

"He believes that Islam is about 'beauty, poetry and calligraphy' and believes it's important to tell this story at a time when the portrayal of Muslims in the media is often negative," Hiller says.

That's why, among the photographs on display, there is a picture of Haxhi Dede Reshat Bardhi, a Bektashi leader who, since the photograph was taken in 2006, has died.

For 15 years, he was the head of the worldwide movement of Bektashi. There are more than 7 million Bektashi in the world, including in the United States. The most liberal of Muslims, the sect derives from the Shia, and traces its heritage back to Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed.

At the time of the Nazi occupation, the prime minister of Albania was Medi Frasheri. He was a member of the Bektashi. He refused to release the names of Jews to the Nazi occupiers. He organized an underground of all Bektashi to shelter all the Jews, both citizens and refugees. At that time, nearly half of all Muslims in Albania were Bektashi. Frasheri gave a secret order: "All Jewish children will sleep with your children, all will eat the same food, all will live as one family."

A photograph of a relaxed gentleman smoking a cigarette seems oddly out of place, yet the story behind it isn't. The man is the son of King Zog and Queen Geraldine of Albania. "My father was the first and only Muslim king of a European nation," the placard reads. "I was born in 1939, the year that Mussolini's fascists invaded our country. I lived sixty-three years in exile in Egypt, England and France. In 2002, I returned to Albania with my immediate family, including my son, Prince Inheritor Leka."

A year before this man was born, his father issued 400 passports to Jews, mainly from Vienna. These included the Oestereicher family, jewelers who designed the crown jewels for the royal family, and 13 members of the Weitzman family. All were welcomed to Albania.

When the Italians invaded Albania in 1939, they gave the Jews one year to leave, and they scattered to many countries. The placard goes on: "My father told me that he chanced to meet the Oestereicher family again in London after their flight from Albania. They were destitute and asked my father for help. My father gave them back the very same crown jewels they had made for our family in Vienna."

Since returning to his country, this man, who goes by the name "King Leka I," has yet to be accepted as king. The years of foreign occupation, communism and now a secular democracy have stripped Albania of its royal culture.

The exhibit is co-sponsored locally by the American Jewish Museum, the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee and the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh, and will remain on display till the end of the year.

Additional Information:

'Besa: Albanian Muslims Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust'

When: Through Dec. 30. 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays; 1-7 p.m. Saturdays; 7:45 a.m.- 6 p.m. Sundays

Admission: Free

Where: American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center, 5738 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill

Details: 412-521-8011, ext. 105 or




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