Besa is an Albanian Muslim principle requiring followers to care for anyone seeking their protection, even if means endangering their own lives. It was besa that drove hundreds of Muslims in Albania and Kosovo to take such risks to shelter Jews during the Holocaust. As a result, the 200 Jews living in Albania when the war broke out all survived, and between 2,000 and 3,000 Jews from other countries found safe haven there.
That little-known story is finally given its due in a book by Norman Gershman, a New Jersey native now living in New York. An exhibition of the photos from the book and the stories that accompany them is on display at Kean University’s Human Rights Institute gallery until Dec. 23. The exhibit has been shown at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel, and at the United Nations in New York; this is its third venue.
The besa tradition will be the focus of “Who are the Albanians?” on Thursday, Nov. 14, in the University Center Little Theatre on the Kean campus in Union. Presenters will include the Albanian ambassador to the UN, H.E. Ferit Hoxha; the president of the Albanian American Women’s Organization, Dr. Anna Kohen, whose parents were saved by Albanians; and Endri Merxhushi, a graduate of Kean who grew up in Albania and is chair of the Albanian-American organization Chameria.
The panel will be moderated by Dr. Gilbert Kahn of Kean’s political science department.
Prof. Henry Kaplowitz, the director of the Human Rights Institute, said he hoped the show will make more people aware of the plight of refugees throughout the world.
“At this moment in history, when the media is filled with examples of human rights abuses around the globe,” he said, “it is inspiring to see how an entire nation placed their own families’ lives in danger to fulfill a religious and cultural commitment to protect strangers in need.”
In addition to the institute, the program is sponsored by Kean’s Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies program, Holocaust Resource Center, Human Rights Club, Muslim Student Association, Jewish Studies program, and Jewish Faculty and Staff Association.
After the discussion, participants will have a chance to view the photo exhibit, which will be on display until Dec. 23.
Starting in 2004, Gershman sought out the surviving members of the families involved, or their offspring, photographing them and recording their stories. He said, “It seemed the more difficult it was to reach a rescuer’s home, the better the stories and portraits.” He then did his best to find the Jews they saved — or their descendants — and sometimes managed to reunite them. The outcome is recorded in a documentary, Besa: The Promise (recently shown at the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival.)
Earlier this year, Gershman, who is Jewish, told an audience in South Brunswick, which included numerous Jews and Muslims, that he felt compelled to tell the rescuers’ 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.”