Yad Vashem to showcase Muslims who saved Jews from Nazis

Exhibition will focus on Muslim Albanians who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.

yad vashem 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yad vashem 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For the first time, Yad Vashem will inaugurate an exhibition this week on Muslims who saved Jews during the Holocaust. The exhibition, which opens on Thursday, focuses on more than a dozen of the scores of Muslim Albanians previously recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations" - the Holocaust center's highest honor - for risking their lives to save Jews during World War II. The exhibit, titled "BESA: A Code of Honor - Muslim Albanians Who Rescued Jews During the Holocaust," is a collection of photographs by the American photographer Norman Gershman of the Albanian Righteous and their families, accompanied by short texts. Before World War II, only about 200 Jews lived in Albania. After Hitler's rise to power in 1933, hundreds of Jews fleeing the Nazis crossed the border from Yugoslavia, Germany, Greece, Austria and Serbia. When the Germans occupied Albania in 1943, the Albanian population refused to comply with the Nazis' orders to turn over lists of Jews residing in the country. The lifesaving assistance the Jews received in the predominantly Muslim country was based on Besa, a code of honor which literally means "to keep the promise." Nearly all the Jews living within Albanian borders during the German occupation were saved; in fact, there were more Jews in Albania at the end of the war than before it started, Yad Vashem said. "The extraordinary story of Albania, where an entire nation, both the government and the population, acted to rescue Jews is truly remarkable," said exhibition curator Yehudit Shendar. "Many, if not all, were heavily influenced in their choice by Islam... This very human story, told through these sensitive portraits, combine to highlight a little-known but remarkable aspect of the Holocaust." "This is a story that has rarely been publicized," said Holocaust survivor Ya'acov Altarat, 74, from Tel Aviv, who escaped to Albania with his parents as a boy of eight in 1941 and found refuge there for the duration of the war. "It is a story of a nation saving all of its Jews because of a code of behavior," he said. "Why did my father save a stranger at the risk of his life and the entire village?" asked Enver Alia Sheqer, son of Righteous Among the Nations Ali Sheqer Pashkaj, who is featured in the exhibition. "My father was a devout Muslim. He believed that to save one life is to enter paradise." The exhibit will be on display at Yad Vashem for two months and will then travel to New York, where it will be displayed at the United Nations headquarters on January 27 for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Thursday morning opening ceremony will take place in the presence of Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle - Israel's first Muslim cabinet minister - as well as Gershman, Chairman of the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous at Yad Vashem Ya'acov Turkel, Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev and Honorary Consul of Albania in Israel Raphael Faust. "What I found were good people who did good deeds," said Gershman, who hails from Basalt, Colorado, and began the project four years ago after coming across pictures of Albanian Muslims who had been honored by Yad Vashem for saving Jews during the Holocaust. He noted that the some of the Muslims he'd met in Albania had referred to the Koran when asked why they took in the Jews, while others talked about a culture of hospitality. "This is a story that [shows] there are good Muslims in the world," he said. About 22,000 non-Jews have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations since 1963, including 63 - predominantly Muslim honorees - from Albania. To date, more than 70 Muslims have received the award, Yad Vashem spokeswoman Estee Yaari said. No Arabs have received the honor, although one candidate, Khaled Abdelwahhab of Tunisia, in January became the first Arab to be nominated for the award.