Through ﬁlm, Albania’s code of honor makes it onto silver screen
ASPEN – Basalt photographers Norman Gershman and Stu Huck are involved in what they consider a major project – photographing Albanians whose families sheltered Jews from the Nazis. Gershman and Huck have devoted much of their time to the effort since 2003, and they have much to show for their work. Since the photographs were first shown, as a work in progress at the Aspen Art Museum, the images have been exhibited some 130 times, including at the United Nations, the European Council in Strasbourg, France, the House of Commons and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. In 2008, Syracuse University Press published Gershman’s “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II,” a large-format book of photos and text. “Besa: The Promise,” a documentary about the project directed by Rachel Goslins and with an original score by Philip Glass, premiered in June at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and shows Sunday at Aspen Filmfest.Ismet Shpuza, whose parents were among the Albanians who saved Jews, didn’t see what was so interesting about the project. When Gershman and Huck approached Shpuza to include him in the “Besa” book, Shpuza’s response essentially was a shrug. As Huck recalled, Shpuza said, “My parents didn’t do anything special. What they did, any Albanian would have done.”That idea – that sheltering Jews from the Nazis, an action that could have meant death for the entire family, was no big deal – makes the project even more compelling. As Gershman and Huck have found, Albania, whose population is approximately 70 percent Muslim, is infused with “besa” – a code of honor that it is better to die than to turn your back on a person in need.”It’s their culture. Someone who shows up at their door, you shelter them from danger. Even if it’s their mortal enemy,” Huck said. “And the reason nobody knows about this is, to Albanians this is perfectly normal. In other countries, this is celebrated as extraordinary; in Albania, they couldn’t understand people not doing it. Everybody in Albania did it, even the king, King Zog. He personally intervened.””In Albania, Jews were treated not as refugees but as guests. Everybody in a town would know about it, and from the king down to humble shepherds, everybody is so proud of ‘besa,'” Gershman said. His research revealed that more than 2,000 Jews, a mix of Albanians and those who escaped to the country, were protected in Albania. As far as he can tell, not a single Jew in Albania was turned over to the Nazis. “Besa” was described in a written code around the 15th century, but the practice, according to Gershman and Huck, goes back centuries earlier. Its origins were in the north of Albania, when the area was tribal and Albania was not yet a country. Now, “besa” is followed throughout Albania. But Gershman and Huck can’t pin down why the practice took hold. There are connections to Islam and the Quran, but “besa” is unique to Albania, which is not officially Muslim.”There’s no easy answer,” Huck said. “Albanians are a unique culture. Their language is unique; it’s not like Greek or Turkish.”For whatever reason “besa” was established, it has taken full hold. In 1943, when Italy capitulated to the Allies, the Nazis began killing Italian soldiers across the region. In Albania, 30,000 Italian soldiers were sheltered.”That’s ‘besa,'” Gershman said. “When someone gives their ‘besa,’ that means you’re under their protection, no matter what. And it’s not a choice; it’s a collective culture. It’s a given. And totally unique.”The film “Besa: The Promise” isn’t an academic exploration of the “besa” tradition, but tells on a personal level how besa played out during World War II. With Gershman at the center of the film, “Besa” finds a handful of Albanians – those who were alive during the war, or their descendants, who know their parents’ deeds – who tell stories of heroism and humanity. One thread through the stories is the absence of any sense of sacrifice: The Jews were treated as family members, even given Muslim names, and the Albanians were honored by the opportunity to practice besa.The narrative heart of the story revolves around an Albanian man, Rexhep Rifat Hoxha, whose father took in a family of Bulgarian Jews. The father of the Jewish family gave his hosts three Hebrew prayer books for safekeeping, with the promise that he would be back for them. The father never returned, and the books were saved, even given a protective storage case. “Besa: The Promise” follows Gershman and Huck as they try to connect Hoxha with the descendants of the Jewish family to return the books and share their stories.Gershman, 80, is Jewish. But he has had a deep interest in Sufism, which represents a different side of Islam than is typically portrayed.”My experience of the Sufis is music and dance and poetry and beauty,” he said. “I never understand what I read in the papers about Muslims.”Around a decade ago, Gershman was speaking with the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that supports the “righteous among the nations” – those who came to the aid of persecuted Jews. He began hearing about the Albanians and went to Israel to further investigate this strange story of Muslim Albanians who took on the rescuing of Jews not just as individuals but as part of their culture. In 2003, Gershman and Huck made the first of seven trips they have made together to Albania; to date, they have photographed 80 people or families in a project that is ongoing.”We’d always ask, ‘Why did you do this? Why did you and your family risk your lives for strangers?'” Gershman said. “Many said, Because to save a life is to go to paradise. So this was inspired by the Quran. But this is a very different kind of Muslim.”Gershman and Huck screened “Besa” at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and they have a date later this month at the Heartland Film Festival in Indiana. They are also bringing the project into classrooms, with screenings of the film and a teacher’s guide they have produced. Their project isn’t just a look back in time but a reminder of the good and righteous in people.”There are good people in the world. This is a manifestation of good people,” Gershman said. “And they happen to be Muslim. It’s just a story that has to be told. The idea that all Muslims are terrorists – this paranoia is sweeping the West. And it’s crazy.”Gershman also sees the project as a gift to the Albanians. The Communist takeover of the country erased much of the history of how “besa” was practiced during World War II.”Without our work, they’re forgotten,” Gershman said. “They should be given their history.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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