THE STORY OF how Muslim Albanians saved hundreds of beleaguered Jews during World War II will be explored at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell on Sunday afternoon, May 3.
In addition to an exhibit of striking photographs of rescuers, there will be a screening of the documentary BESA: The Promise and talks by Majlinda Myrto, a Muslim Albanian-American who has worked to promote awareness of this story, and Ferit Hoxha, the permanent representative of Albania to the United Nations. CAI’s Rabbi Alan Silverstein will lead a discussion.
The photographs that will be on display, the work of Jewish-American photographer Norman H. Gershman, are part of a traveling exhibit developed by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum.
Gershman, who embarked on his project in 2002, told an audience a few years back that he felt compelled to tell the Albanian story in order to counteract pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment. “We have to get the word out to the next generation,” he said. “It’s a paranoia we are witnessing, and we have got to fight it.”
Myrto has worked with him for a number of years, serving as executive director of the Eye Contact Foundation, the organization he set up to distribute the photographs and BESA: The Promise. Myrto’s father was one of the rescuers. Thanks to besa — the Albanians’ code of honor that requires them to provide hospitality and protection to any guest in need — virtually all the country’s 200 Jews and thousands who sought refuge there survived the war.
The documentary, directed by Rachel Goslins, provides another dimension to Gershman’s project, focusing primarily on Rexhep Hoxha, a toy shop owner who sets out to return three precious books to the last surviving member of the Jewish family his father had sheltered 60 years before. When he finally meets the family involved, a personal drama is set in motion that bridges generations and religions, uniting fathers and sons on both sides.
Gershman’s photos have been compiled in the book BESA: Muslims who Saved Jews in World War II. The exhibit of photos and text from the book has been exhibited internationally, including at Yad Vashem and the United Nations.