When Norman Gershman told his friend, fellow photographer Stuart Huck, that he was traveling to Albania to shoot pictures of righteous people, Huck was happy to offer advice about what photographic gear to take on the trip.
But when Gershman mentioned that the righteous people he wanted to photograph were Muslims, “my ears perked up,” Huck said.
Huck will be delivering the keynote address at the opening of the photographic exhibit “Besa: Albanian Muslims Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust,” Monday, Oct. 3, at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. The exhibit will display 41 of the original photographs of those Albanian families who provided a safe haven for Jews during World War II, sometimes putting their own lives in danger by doing so. Accompanying those photographs are short narratives about the rescuers and the rescued.
“I thought it was timely,” said Huck about his decision to join the Albanian project, which began in 2002, and continued over the course of the next six years. “At the time, Muslims were being vilified in the press, and I thought it was important that the other side of the story be told.”
The culmination of Gershman’s and Huck’s seven trips to Albania is chronicled in the book “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II.” The photographs contained in the book are mostly of descendants of those Albanians who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust, accompanied by their recollections of what their families did in the tradition of besa, the ancient Albanian code of honor originating in the Kanun of Lek.
Besa is an integral part of Albanian tradition, and is adhered to not only by Albanian Muslims, but also those of the Orthodox and Catholic faiths. It mandates taking care of those in need and being hospitable.
Gershman and Huck photographed Albanians of all faiths, but Gershman chose to include only Muslim Albanians in his book because “whoever heard of a Muslim saving a Jew?” he told The Chronicle during an interview in 2009.
While only 200 Jews lived in Albania before the war, there were 3,000 living there by its conclusion, Huck said. Albania’s King Zog instructed all his country’s foreign embassies to provide a visa to any Jew wishing to immigrate, and Albania was the only country in Europe that had more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning.
“It was a really, really amazing thing that happened in Albania in World War II,” Huck said. “In every case, the door was opened. It’s just a phenomenal story. And this is just what Albanians do. It’s just who they are.”
Huck will provide back-stories to some of photographs at his presentation Monday night.
“The stories are fascinating,” he said. “Each one is a wonder, but to the Albanians, it’s completely normal. In my mind, this is what I hope we would all do, but I’m not sure we would. Here, everybody did the right thing. It gives you hope for mankind.”
The exhibit and its accompanying events are sponsored by the American Jewish Museum, along with the Holocaust Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.
“I thought this was a story that needed to be told,” said Deborah Fidel, director of the PAJC. “It’s a counterpoint to the current narrative that religion needs to be something that divides us and is a dangerous and destructive force in society. People are so willing to blame Islam as a religion. I thought it was important to show that Islam itself is not a destructive force and, in fact, we have benefited from this precept of besa.”
Monday night’s event will include 22 “besa ambassadors,” Jewish and Muslim youths who will be manning “cultural stations,” highlighting commonalities between the two faiths, and explaining the differences, said Melissa Hiller, director of the American Jewish Museum.
The besa ambassadors program was organized by J SITE, which helped train the students and develop content, Hiller said. Many of he Jewish participants are J-SITE students, while the Muslim teenagers come from some of the other community partners involved with the exhibit, including the SFH Islamic Interfaith Network.
Involving teenagers as besa ambassadors is a key component to the event, said Fidel.
“I knew we needed to involve the teens and engage them,” she said. “Our kids spend a lot of time learning about the Holocaust. This chapter needed to be part of that education.”
Karen Hussaini, president of the SFH Islamic Interfaith Network, also sees the imperative of involving youths with projects such as this.
“Affecting the youth — that’s what we really want because that’s where the future is,” Hussaini said. “We need to involve them now so that history does not keep repeating itself.”
The exhibit itself provides an example of people of different faiths looking out for one another, Hussaini said.
“I think that very few people pay attention to the good parts of history,” she said. “This exhibit gives us an example of people of the Abrahamic traditions taking care of one another in contemporary times. And this example is current; it happened during World War II at a time when there were such horrific atrocities against one part of humanity. Some people who were part of the Abrahamic traditions were protecting those who were most vulnerable. They put aside their differences to respect and honor humanity.”
Hussaini also sees the exhibit as a good example of how interfaith dialogue can lead to joint projects and activities.
“I think it is so exciting and wonderful that we brought this exhibit to Pittsburgh,” she said. “It will be an example for the rest of the country for interfaith dialogue and interfaith engagement.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)