In 2003, Norman Gershman was looking for some of the righteous.
What he found astonished the investment banker-turned photographer and led him toward a project that is on display in a St. Louis synagogue.
The Righteous Among Nations are gentile rescuers who make up “a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values,” according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum. “The few who helped Jews in the darkest time in their history.”
Gershman’s story begins during the Holocaust and involves Albanian Muslims — villagers, peasants and farmers — who risked their lives and the lives of their families to shelter Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
Italy invaded Albania in 1939 and occupied the country until the overthrow of Benito Mussolini in 1943. Germany then took over the Albanian occupation. Before the war, Gershman estimates from his research, only about 200 Jews lived in Albania, a country that is about 70 percent Muslim. During the years of occupation, 10 times as many Jews streamed into Albania to escape persecution from Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Greece and Italy.
Gershman says it was the only country in Europe where the Jewish population grew by the end of the war. Most of the Jews who were hidden either fled to Israel or back to their native countries after the war. Albania’s postwar communist regime made it impossible for the Jews who had been hidden to stay in touch with their Muslim shelterers back in Albania.
In 2003, New Jersey native Gershman heard hints of the story and began doing research, eventually traveling to Albania to begin interviewing those Muslims who took part and who were still alive. Gershman said it wasn’t just Muslim families who shielded Jews from the Nazis, but also Orthodox and Catholic families.
All of them were motivated by an Albanian code of honor called “besa,” a concept that can be translated into “keeping the promise,” Gershman says. The Albanian villagers were motivated to risk their lives by the simple concept of helping one’s neighbor.
“We chose to focus on the Muslims because, who ever heard of Muslims saving Jews?” Gershman said in a telephone interview from Israel, where he is at work on his next project.
Gershman’s research eventually led to an exhibit of his photographs, “Besa: A Code to Live By,” which opened at Congregation Temple Emanuel in Creve Coeur on Thursday, and a book, “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II.”
The exhibit makes the case that the Muslim Albanian villagers who sheltered Jews from deportation to concentration camps did so from a sense of religious obligation.
“Besa is a cultural idea, but for the Muslims in Albania it was ingrained in their faith as well,” Gershman said.
Ahmet Karamustafa, professor of history and religious studies at Washington University, said saving a life is a universally acknowledged Muslim value.
Protecting a life, Karamustafa said, “has always ranked at the very top of moral and legal categories articulated by legal and theological scholars in Islam.”
The exhibit has been traveling the world since 2006, opening in Yad Vashem in Israel, the United Nations in New York, and synagogues, mosques, college campuses and Holocaust museums from Turkey to El Paso, Texas.
David Sherman, president of Temple Emanuel, said a member of the congregation was at a wedding last year in Philadelphia, where “Besa” was on display.
“The photos and the stories were so fantastic,” Sherman said. “We decided it could be an opportunity to educate the public about this piece of history that was a model of dialogue and tolerance.”
Temple Emanuel’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Justin Kerber, said one of the Reform congregation’s goals with the exhibit is to combat a common depiction of the modern relationship between Jews and Muslims.
“There’s so much coverage about Muslim-Jewish strife and conflict,” Kerber said. “It’s important to tell people that’s not the whole story, and these are examples of Muslim-Jewish respect, tolerance and love. This was a good opportunity for us to be part of that conversation.”
Temple Emanuel partnered with the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis and the Brodsky Jewish Community Library to display 30 of Gershman’s photographs through Dec. 1.
The exhibit includes a photograph of Lime Balla, born in 1910, who told Gershman that a group of 17 Jews came from Albania’s capital, Tirana, to her village of Gjergi in 1943 during Ramadan.
“We divided them amongst the villagers,” Balla said, according to Gershman. “We were poor. We had no dining table, but we didn’t allow them to pay for food or shelter. We grew vegetables for all to eat. For 15 months, we dressed them as farmers like us. Even the local police knew.”
In 2006, former President Jimmy Carter endorsed the exhibit, writing that at a time when conflict between Muslims and Jews attracts so much attention, “it is heartening to be reminded that mutual aid and friendship also have characterized the relationship.”
Gershman’s photos, Carter wrote, “offer hope for a future in which Muslims and Jews can overcome their conflicts and focus on their common humanity.”