He is a headhunter in the securities industry by vocation and environmental photographer by avocation. He is a Jew who grew up in New Jersey and studies Islam’s Sufi mystical tradition. Norman Gershman came here from his home in Colorado five years ago in search of some people to photograph — and found a mission.
In Midtown Manhattan he discovered Albania.
At the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that honors and financially supports heroic non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, Gershman said he was interested in documenting some gentile saviors who had received little recognition from the Jewish community. The foundation suggested Albania. The mostly Muslim country on the southeast coast of the Balkan peninsula had a unique place in Holocaust history: it was the only land in Nazi-occupied Europe that had more Jews in its borders at the end of the war than before, and the only one that was Muslim.
Albania’s Muslims — and the country’s Christian minority — would not surrender a single Jew to the Nazis.
“I had not heard” the story of the brave Albanians, Gershman says. “Who ever heard of a Muslim saving a Jew?”
He decided to photograph those Albanians, or, if they were deceased, their survivors. The result is “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II” (Syracuse University Press), a new coffee-table book with 125 pages of black-and-white portrait photographs and brief oral histories he edited.
“Besa” — the word for the Albanian code of honor that, with Koranic teachings, motivated the Albanians to endanger their lives for their neighbors and for strangers six decades ago — is the first major book in English that presents the stories of Albania’s heroic Muslims.
“If anyone saved Jews,” I wanted to photograph them,” Gershman says one recent morning in the dimly lit lobby of a Manhattan hotel, in New York for a publicity trip. By telling their stories, he says, he is thanking them “on behalf of the Jewish community.”
Still vigorous at 76, he opens a copy of “Besa” and starts talking about the work that has taken much of his last five years and “a lot of money.”
After New York City, he went to Israel. At Yad Vashem, the Righteous Among the Nations Department gave him the names of several dozen Albanians. Two organizations, the Israeli Albanian Friendship Association and the Albanian Israeli Friendship Association, gave him more names.
Then, onto Albania and neighboring Kosovo, for the first of “seven, eight times.” He drove around the mountainous country, in a rented van, with an interpreter and guide.
Sometimes, the problem was tracking down the aged men — it was usually men who instigated the rescue activities — or their widows or children or grandchildren.
Sometimes, the problem was overcoming their reluctance to discuss what they or their relatives had done; “Any Albanian would do the same thing,” many protested. “We were saving God’s children.”
Sometimes, the problem was reaching their homes, shlepping heavy equipment up steep trails.
Once in the Albanian homes, Besa prevailed.
The hosts offered meals, and answered their guest’s questions. “I told them I’m not a journalist,” Gershman says. He introduced himself as Jew who wanted to say thank you. “I said ‘I want to hear your story.’ I didn’t go in and start [taking photographs].” He made the Albanians feel comfortable before he took out his camera and notebook.
Gershman’s book holds some 65 photos and condensed stories. Each one, he says, was impressive. He would leave each home in “disbelief.”
The Albanians, either by themselves, or in informal networks, welcomed the endangered Jews with open arms. The nationwide effort included the country’s prewar royal family. “Often families competed to shelter Jews,” Gershman says. “Jews were treated like guests.” They received peasant clothing and Muslim names.
“The significance of their deeds transcends the relatively small number of these rescuers, some sixty-five Righteous from Albania alone,” Mordecai Paldiel, former director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department, writes in the book’s foreword.
“There was no government conspiracy; no underground railroad; no organized resistance of any kind,” Gershman writes on the Web site of the Eye Contact Foundation (eyecontactfoundation.org), which he established to support his work and break down stereotypes. “Only individual Albanians, acting alone to save the lives of people whose lives were in immediate danger.”
An Albanian obligation that predates Islam, it guides Albanians’ behavior in many aspects of social relations, but is probably best known in the West for its blood-feud aspect of revenge. “There is no Besa without the Koran, and no Koran without Besa,” Albanians would tell Gershman.
Before the war, about 200 Jews lived in Albania. The Nazis occupied Albania in September 1943. During the war, more than 1,000 Jews fled to Albania from other countries; the postwar Jewish population was approximately 1,500.
“We know of only two families that were caught and deported,” says Irena Steinfeldt, director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department.
The only other Nazi-occupied or Nazi-allied European country whose Jewish population increased during the war was Bulgaria — Bulgaria proper. King Boris did not protest when the Jews of annexed Thrace and Macedonia were deported to their deaths, Gershman points out.
“The war in Europe and the eventual knowledge of the Holocaust became the defining events of my worldview, the background against which my life as a secular American Jew continually unfolds,” he writes in his book’s preface. “Portrait photography is my way of understanding and offering to others my innate belief in the goodness and the oneness of humanity — qualities that cross the boundaries of all races, religions, and nations.”
“Norman takes us into a humane, accepting Muslim society. Norman has … shed light on the true nature of Islam as both a compassionate and an Abrahamic religion,” Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., writes in the introduction. “For these Albanian Muslims … by saving Jews, they were being good Muslims. Norman’s study of the Albanian example here is testimony to an Islamic type of behavior utterly different from those so unfortunately making the headlines these days.”
In recent years, the exploits of Albania’s Muslims — largely unknown outside of the country during the years of Communism – have slowly come to light. Jack Goldfarb, a Manhattan-based freelance travel writer has lobbied for a memorial stone for the Albanians in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay Holocaust Park, and a plaque of testimony in a museum in Tirana, Albania’s capital.
Exhibits about Albania’s record during World War II opened during the last year at Yad Vashem, the United Nations, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion here and in Ramle. A traveling exhibit is being shown this year in Albania and Kosovo.
Gershman is at work on a documentary based on his book.
“The Albanian Righteous and the historical facts were known for many years, but it is probably due to the unique quality of Gershman’s photography and the ongoing public discussions about Muslims and Jews that the topic is now receiving such wide attention,” Yad Vashem’s Steinfeldt says. “In view of the highly dangerous manifestations of radical Islam of our days, it is very important to show that there is another tradition. Muslim Righteous … show that there is another face to Islam.”
Gershman’s work has brought several reunions of rescued Jews and their Albanian rescuers, he says.
Gershman says his work in Albania isn’t done.
“It will never be over. It’s essential to tell their story. It’s an honor to tell what their fathers did,” he says. “If there is a family who saved Jews, I’ll go back. This is a mitzvah. This is my mitzvah.”