Eboo Patel: When Muslims Saved Jews

Roundup: Talking About History

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

We hear many accounts of what happened during the Holocaust. The atrocities committed; the times and places in which unspeakable acts against humankind occurred; the millions of lives stolen too soon.

But the story told above by Nazlie Alla, whose Albanian Muslim family sheltered Jews from Greece, Slovakia, and Germany, is less well known.

It's hard to imagine that in any European country there were more Jews at the end of World War II than before it began. But almost every single Jew in Albania, whether they were Albanians or refugees from other nations, survived during the German occupation.

And Albania was the only European country to have a Muslim majority.
The Jews were protected, through the raids and searches and the times in between, by Albanians who followed the national code of Besa: a code of honor, the deepest promise a person can give, and the word that is never broken. Under Besa, Albanians took Jews into their homes, treated them as family, fed and clothed them, and sacrificed their own safety and the safety of their families for the sake of their guests.

Norman Gershman, a photographer and historian who traveled throughout Albania documenting the accounts of Muslim families who protected Jews, put out a book entitled Besa: Muslims who Saved Jews in World War II. He recalled that "What Besa says is that if some one knocks on your door you have an absolute obligation - no matter who that person is - to save their lives."

Albania at the time had around 800,000 citizens, only about 200 of whom were Jewish - though over 2,000 refugee Jews from Greece, Austria and Italy were taken in to the homes of Albanians as well. And it wasn't just Muslims making sacrifices - the entire population, approximately 70% Bektashi Muslim, 20% Orthodox Christians and 10% Catholic - risked their lives to save Jewish strangers....

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