NEW YORK — Negative stereotypes and prejudices have been a constant source of friction and misunderstanding between Muslims and Jews. Can a level of understanding be reached between them that would make peaceful relations possible? I believe so. An almost forgotten episode during World War II could bring light to this issue.
During World War II, as Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis, they found refuge in northern Albania. More than 2,000 Jews were protected by the locals, who risked their lives. Although the Germans demanded that the Albanians provide them with lists of names of Jews in the country, the Albanians did not comply and instead sheltered them from the Nazis. According to the International School for Holocaust Studies, the Albanians didn’t turn over a single Jew to the Germans.
This episode was again brought to light by Norman H. Gershman, an American photographer, who has included photos of those Albanians’ descendants living in the country, in a book called “BESA: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II.” According to Gershman, only two countries in Europe refused to cooperate with the Nazis: Denmark and Albania.
Besa is an Albanian cultural concept that means “to keep the promise” and “word of honor.” The word has its origin in the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, an assembly of customary codes and traditions compiled by the legendary 15th-century Albanian chieftain and transmitted verbally over succeeding generations.
Besa means also taking care of those in need, protecting them and being hospitable. Both Catholics and Muslims participated in this effort. Since 70 percent of Albanians are Muslims, it is safe to assume that it was they who were primary in aiding the Jews. Rather than hiding them in attics or in the woods, Albanians gave the Jews Muslim names, provided them with clothes and treated them as members of their families.
Gershman tells the story of an Albanian man called Ali Pashkaj, who was visited at his store by a group of German soldiers and 19 Albanian prisoners. Among the Albanians was a young Jew whom the Germans planned to assassinate.
Since Pashkaj spoke excellent German, he invited the soldiers into the store and gave them food and wine. While he was distracting the German soldiers, he gave the young Jew a melon containing a message instructing him to jump out of the truck at a certain location and run and hide in the woods. The young man followed the instruction and was able to escape.
The German soldiers were furious. They returned to the town and threatened to shoot the man and set the town on fire if the Albanians didn’t return the young Jew. The Albanians refused and the Germans finally left town. Pashkaj went to the woods where he found the young man and brought him back to his house and protected him. The young man, whose name is Yasha Bayuhovio, later went to Mexico and became a dentist. In protecting him, Ali Pashkaj was practicing Besa.
As Gershman told the Jewish Chronicle: “Look, you are not talking to someone who is pro-Arab. It is really quite simply that there are good people in this world. I found Muslims who saved Jews. The perception of the religion of Islam as crazy is nonsense. I am a Jew to my core. I would lay down my life for Israel. However, we have objectified Muslims. They are just people.
“In this little people (Albanians) they have a message for the world. I defy anyone to look at them and say they are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.”
Cesar Chelala, M.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.