Little-known part of Holocaust publicized
November 20, 2007
ASPEN ” Two local men are heading up an effort to recognize Albanian Muslims who rescued, sheltered and otherwise aided Jews during World War II. Their work will be highlighted at the United Nations’ Holocaust Remembrance Day in January.
It is the main project of a nonprofit ” Eye Contact Foundation ” and has been under way for several years. It already has spawned a book and a DVD that tell the stories of Albanian citizens, mostly Muslims but also Christians, who sheltered and aided Jews fleeing from the Nazis in Germany.
According to one book, 63 Albanians have been enrolled in the “Righteous Among The Nations” list of those who “risked their lives to save the Jews.” Established by Israeli law the list contains the names of more than 21,700 people who helped Jews escape persecution during the Holocaust.
The foundation is headed by Aspen videographer and teacher Steve Kaufman with help from photographer and Wall Street veteran Norman Gershman. It is producing a large-format book featuring Gershman’s portraits of Albanian saviors and Jews they rescued.
In addition, there also is a documentary film in the making by JWM Productions, winner of multiple Emmy awards, Kaufman and Gershman said.
“All Albanians saved Jews,” Gershman, 75, said from his home near Basalt.
Albanians were acting under a sort of national code of honor, called “Besa,” which holds that it is a duty to do all one can to help another in need, regardless of religious or cultural differences, Gershman said.
There apparently is some dispute about whether Besa, as a philosophy, comes out of the Quran, Islam’s holy scriptures, or predates Islam’s introduction into the Balkans.
It was Besa that prompted Albanians, under German occupation after 1943, to refuse to comply with orders to turn over lists of Jews living in the country. More than that, Albanians of all types would risk punishment by providing fake documents, hiding places and transit out of the country to their Jewish neighbors.
The life-saving help Albanians gave Jews is an aspect of World War II that he said not many people know about, Gershman said.
For example, it is believed that the Muslim warlord who ruled Albania in the 1930s, King Zog, was one of the “righteous.”
“There’s at least a rumor that he helped Einstein get out,” Kaufman said.
What is known, Kaufman and Gershman say, is that Zog helped the Weitzman family, jewelers living in Vienna who fashioned Zog’s crown jewels, get out of Austria after the Nazis took over there.
Kaufman and Gershman say they hope to get Zog on the list.
“I am a Jew to my core,” Gershman said, “but I’m also a Sufi,” which he described as “Islam’s most mystical sect.”
“It has to do with beauty, and poetry. … It has nothing to do with violence.”
He said he typically offers a Muslim prayer, in Arabic, whenever he goes on an airplane trip, as a safeguard against catastrophe.
The foundation’s work has the support of some from both sides of the religious divide, Muslim and Jew, said Gershman. He noted that respected Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a professor at Boston University, is backing the foundation’s efforts.
“People need to know that prominent Jews support … these stories being made public,” Gershman said.
But, he added, “There are people seeking to co-opt what we do.” He noted that, for example, Serbia and its international backers distrust anything that puts Albania or Albanians in a good light.
That, Gershman said, is because the small Balkan nation of Kosovo, with a majority of ethnic Albanians in its population, is struggling to gain its independence from Serbia. Serbia fears this would either lead to its annexation by Albania or at the least mean a greater role in the region for Albanians, Gershman and Kaufman say.