Noble deeds in black and white
When Norman Gershman went to Albania in May, to photograph Muslims who had sheltered and saved Jews during World War II, one of his subjects asked, politely, why Gershman was there. The 72-year-old photographer told him he was there because the man’s father had rescued Jews from the Nazis.Gershman recalls the man’s nonchalant response: “So what? Any Albanian would have done that.”Thus was Gershman introduced to the idea of besa, an Albanian code that places the well-being of another – even a complete stranger – above one’s own self-interest. The code, particular to Albania, is thousands of years old, and is considered more sacred than religion. Even more sacred than family. “The best way to describe it is ‘the Law of the Guest,'” said Gershman, a sharp, gray-haired New Jersey native who has continued to practice both of his longtime professions – photography and executive headhunting – since moving to Basalt five years ago. “If someone comes into your besa, you’re honor-bound to protect them. Anyone.”There is a saying in Albania: ‘I would sooner have my son killed than break my besa.’ Another person told me, ‘Our home is first God’s home; second, our guest’s home; and third, our own home.'”Besa gave Gershman an answer to the question he had stumbled across two years ago and that he found most intriguing: Why had Albania, a country that is 75 percent Muslim, gone to such lengths to protect not only its own Jews, but foreign Jews who had sought refuge there? After extensive research, Gershman had found no evidence of even one case of an Albanian turning over a Jew to the Nazis.
Gershman – who calls himself “a Jew to his heart,” but who has also studied Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam, for years – has long been interested in the stories of Gentiles who protected Jews during World War II. A photographer whose work has been shown internationally, including at the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, Gershman contemplated a photo series of surviving members of the Righteous Among Nations, the designation given to those heroic non-Jews. In his early research at two organizations – New York’s Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, and Yad Vashem, the Israeli institution dedicated to memorializing the Holocaust – he found that virtually all of the attention had been focused on Christian rescuers.”Then they mentioned Bosnia and Albania, which were Muslim countries,” said Gershman. “I said, ‘Bosnia and Albania? There were Muslims that saved Jews?’ With that, the bells went off for me. The idea that there are Muslims in the world that rescued Jews – that’s not known. Most people don’t even believe it. Especially with what’s going on in the world today.”At Yad Vashem, Gershman found files documenting only 30-or-so families from Albania who had come to the aid of Jews. But Gershman tracked down the president of the Israeli-Albanian Friendship Association, Gavril Mandil, who put Gershman in touch with a similar group in Tiranë, Albania. The Albanian group located more than 100 families who had saved Jews.In May, Gershman made his first visit to Albania, where he interviewed and photographed 30 families, 27 of them Muslim. Some photographs featured elderly Albanians who had been the actual saviors of the persecuted Jews; others were of the descendants of the rescuers, who displayed pictures of their parents, or their parents’ Righteous Among Nations certificates.Gershman compiled 18 portraits – mesmerizing black-and-white images that capture the strength and dignity of the Albanians and their deeds – and called the series “Besa and the Muslims of Albania Who Saved Jews During World War II.” The photos are accompanied by a book that provides the stories behind each of the subjects.
The series is included, as a work-in-progress, at the Aspen Art Museum’s Aspen Valley Biennial. The show, which features works by five additional local artists and groups, opens with a reception on Thursday, Oct. 14, and runs through Nov. 28.Over the course of his research, Gershman had brushed up against the notion of besa. But in Albania, where he returned earlier this month, he saw just how strong the tradition was. The sons and daughters of those who provided sanctuary were happy to sit for their portraits. “These people are very proud of what their parents did. They did wonderful, heroic work,” said Gershman. “I asked people, what in the Quran made you do this? One person said, ‘Without the Quran, there is no besa; without besa, there is no Quran.'”It’s all tied up, their religious and cultural beliefs.”Gershman is likewise proud of his role in telling the story. The actions of Albanians have been largely overlooked, because the Communist regime that followed World War II, led by dictator Enver Hoxha, was notoriously closed and paranoid. Only with Hoxha’s death 12 years ago did Albanian history begin to come to light. Gershman says his photo series is “my mitzvah, my deed.”Gershman expects that the heroic chapter of Albania’s World War II exploits will belatedly enter the history of one of mankind’s darkest periods. The Besa exhibit is scheduled to be shown at Yad Vashem in May 2005, and Gershman expects there will be additional major exhibitions of the work, as well as a book. And he hopes people will come to understand the rare and beautiful code of besa.”These people say, ‘to save a life is to enter paradise,'” he said.
This is the first in a series of articles spotlighting the artists participating in the Aspen Valley Biennial.Norman Gershman will be featured, along with photographer Mona Esposito, in an Artists’ Chat at the Aspen Art Museum on Nov. 11.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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