Holocaust's untold heroes: Albanian Muslims saved Jews during WWII

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Their story is rarely told, but Albanian Muslims took in fleeing Jews during World War II, saving thousands of lives.

When no other European country dared to withstand the wrath of Nazi Germany, it was the Muslims of Albania who saved a large number of Jewish people from extermination.

Albania, a Muslim majority country in Europe, opened its borders during World War II and took in thousands of Jews fleeing from different countries. They were treated like honored guests, and many were given fake names and even passports.

This little-known chapter of history is the focus of the photographic exhibition Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust, which kicked off in July at the Holocaust Museum Houston and continues through February.

The exhibition displays photographs taken by Norman Gershman, a Jewish photographer based in Colorado, who traveled to Albania in 2003 to research the topic.

Gershman said it took him six years to complete the project. He interviewed Albanians who had harbored Jewish people at that time and were still alive and the relatives of those who were not. He took their photographs to accompany their individual stories in his book Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During World War II.

The photographs and stories displayed at the exhibition are taken from this book.

Everyone had a different story to tell, but one thing was common.

“They were compelled to act the way they had by Besa, a code of honor deeply rooted in Albanian culture and incorporated in the faith of Albanian Muslims,” Gershman said...

... These stories have remained unknown for decades, even to students of the Holocaust. Rob Satloff, director of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy in Washington, D.C., offers an explanation.

“First, we — Jews, Israelis, Western historians — didn't look very hard,” Satloff said. “And second, they — Arabs and Muslims, even those who rescued Jews — often did not want to be found. The result is a tacit conspiracy of silence about this lost chapter from the Holocaust.”...

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