Locals acknowledging Albanian Muslims who aided Jews in WWII
November 19, 2007
ASPEN – Two local men are heading up an effort to recognize Albanian Muslims who rescued, sheltered and otherwise aided Jews during World War II, and the United Nations’ Holocaust Remembrance Day in January will highlight their work.
It is the main project of a nonprofit, Eye Contact Foundation, and has been under way for several years. It already has spawned a book and a DVD highlighting the stories of Albanian citizens, mostly Muslims but also Christians, who sheltered and aided Jews fleeing from the Nazis in Germany.
According to one book that contains photos and stories about some of those saviors and survivors, 63 Albanians have been enrolled in the “Righteous Among The Nations” list of those who “risked their lives to save the Jews.” Established by Israeli law, along with the creation of the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, the list contains the names of more than 21,700 people who helped Jews escape persecution during the Holocaust.
The foundation ” headed by local videographer and teacher Steve Kaufman, who works with photographer and Wall Street veteran Norman Gershman ” is producing a large-format book featuring Gershman’s portraits of Albanian saviors and Jews they rescued.
In addition, according to Kaufman and Gershman, the foundation’s executive director, there also is a documentary film in the making by JWM Productions, winner of multiple Emmy awards, the work of which has been featured on a variety of U.S. television stations, as well as in England and France.
“All Albanians saved Jews,” Gershman, 75, said from his home near Basalt.
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He explained that the Albanians were acting under a sort of national code of honor, called “Besa,” which holds that it is a duty to do all one can to help another in need, regardless of religious or cultural differences. There apparently is some dispute about whether Besa, as a philosophy, comes out of the Quran, Islam’s holy scriptures, or predates Islam’s introduction into the Balkans.
It was Besa that prompted Albanians, under German occupation after 1943, to refuse to comply with orders to turn over lists of Jews living in the country. More than that, Albanians of all types would risk retribution by providing faked documents, hiding places and transit out of the country to their Jewish neighbors.
Gershman and Kaufman have been friends for nearly a decade, they said. But they began working together on the project only about four years ago, after Gershman learned of the efforts by Albanian Muslims to help Jews subject to German persecution ” an aspect of World War II that he said not many people know about.
For example, said Kaufman, it is believed that the Muslim warlord who ruled Albania in the 1930s, King Zog, was one of the “righteous.”
“There’s at least a rumor that he helped Einstein get out,” Kaufman said, referring to the renowned physicist and outspoken Jew who fled to the United States to avoid persecution. However, efforts by Kaufman, Gershman and others to corroborate that story have not been successful to date.
What is known, Kaufman and Gershman say, is that Zog helped the Weitzman family, jewelers living in Vienna who fashioned Zog’s crown jewels, get out of Austria after the Nazis took over there.
Despite all that, Gershman said, Zog is not on the list of the righteous. Kaufman said that is largely because one of the requirements for righteous designation is proof that helping Jews put the savior’s life in danger, and the keepers of the lists doubt the king’s life was threatened as a result of his actions.
Still, Kaufman and Gershman say they hope to get Zog on the list.
“I am a Jew to my core,” Gershman said, “but I’m also a Sufi,” which he described as “Islam’s most mystical sect. It has to do with beauty, and poetry. … It has nothing to do with violence.”
He said he typically offers a Muslim prayer, in Arabic, whenever he goes on an airplane trip, as a safeguard against catastrophe.
On a wall at Gershman’s home is a large photo of Baba Haxhi Dede Reshatbardhi, a Sufi mystic of the Bektashi sect whom the Eye Contact Foundation website quoted as an example of religious tolerance: “We Bektashi see God everywhere, in everyone. God is in every pore and every cell, therefore all are God’s children. There cannot be infidels. There cannot be discrimination. If one sees a good face one is seeing the face of God. God is Beauty. Beauty is God. There is no God but God.”
The foundation’s work has the support of some from both sides of the religious divide, Muslim and Jew, said Gershman. He noted that respected Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a professor at Boston University, is backing the foundation’s efforts.
“People need to know that prominent Jews support … these stories being made public,” Gershman said.
But, he added, “There are people seeking to co-opt what we do.” He noted that, for example, Serbia and its international backers distrust anything that puts Albania or Albanians in a good light. That, Gershman said, is because the small Balkan nation of Kosovo, with a majority of ethnic Albanians in its population, is struggling to gain its independence from Serbia. Serbia fears this would either lead to its annexation by Albania or at the least mean a great role in the region for Albanians, Gershman and Kaufman say.
Still, recognition of the foundation and its work is growing.
Kaufman and Gershman recently returned from a Nov. 1 celebration at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial of the Eye Contact Foundation’s work.
Along with Kaufman and Gershman were two of Kaufman’s proteges in the operations of Access Roaring Fork television in Basalt ” Matt Hobbs, 19, and Sammy Houston, 13, both of whom spoke at the celebration and indicated interest in working with the foundation.
The managers at Yad Vashem are making plans to go on tour with a display of stories and photos about the Righteous of the Nations, starting with the U.N. memorial celebration in January.
And both Kaufman and Gershman said they plan to go on the road with their own show of pictures and stories after the UN event, traveling to small markets around the U.S. and beyond to spread the news of Besa and the Albanians who risked all to help the Jews. But their road show, they said, will include names of people who are known to have helped Jews but have not made it on the list of the righteous, for one reason or another.
The U.N. website, un.org, lists Jan. 27 as a day of remembrance for Holocaust victims in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany. That date marks the day when, in 1945, an advancing Soviet army liberated the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland.
John Colson’s e-mail address is email@example.com.