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Carlo and Vera Wagner” Jewish Museum of Trieste Print E-mail
Exhibit open through October 15, 2009 at the “Carlo and Vera Wagner” Jewish Museum of Trieste

An exhibition of Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum of Jerusalem

During the dramatic years of the Second World War, a rigid code of honor – Besa – saved the lives of the Jews of Albania. While in the rest of Europe persecution was desecrating the Jewish population, in Albania Jews were considered guests who should be protected, even if it meant loaning them their clothes and Muslim names.

Telling a story all but unknown in the West, The exhibition “Besa: A Code of Honor. Muslim Albanians who Rescued Jews During the Holocaust” comes to Italy – to the Carlo and Vera Wagner Jewish Museum of Trieste - for the first time September 6-October 15, 2009.
Created by Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum of Jerusalem, the collection is comprised of evocative images by American photographer Norman Gershman who journeyed through Albania for five years collecting testimony and capturing portraits of the protagonists/descendents of this extraordinary rescue which saved nearly 2,000 Jews.

The story is even more astonishing when one considers that in the first decade of the 20th century, Albania, a country made up primarily of Muslims, had a population of 803,000 of which only 200 were Jews. However, after the ascent of Hitler in 1933, many Jews found refuge in Albania. No accurate figures exist regarding their number; but, different sources estimate that 600-1,800 Jewish refugees entered the country from Germany, Austria, Serbia, Greece and Yugoslavia, in hopes of continuing on to the Land of Israel or other places of refuge.

Following the German occupation in 1943, the Albanian population, in an extraordinary act, refused to comply with the occupier’s orders to turn over lists of Jews residing within the country’s borders.  Moreover, the various governmental agencies provided many Jewish families with fake documentation that allowed them to intermingle amongst the rest of the population. The Albanians not only protected their Jewish citizens, but also provided sanctuary to Jewish refugees who had arrived in Albania, when it was still under Italian rule, and now found themselves faced with the danger of deportation to concentration camps.

What saved the Jews was Besa, a code of honor. Besa means literally “to keep the promise.” One who acts according to Besa is someone who keeps his word, someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family.
Almost all Jews living within Albanian borders during the German occupation, those of Albanian origin and refugees alike, were saved, except members of a single family. Albania, the only European country with a Muslim majority, thus succeeded in the place where other European nations failed.

This code seemingly sprouted from the Muslim faith as interpreted by the Albanians.
The help afforded to Jews and non-Jews alike should be understood as a matter of national honor. The Albanians went out of their way to provide assistance; moreover, they competed with each other for the privilege of saving Jews. These acts originated from compassion, loving-kindness and a desire to help those in need, even those of another faith or origin.

“Besa – explains the photographer Norman Gershman – is much more than simple hospitality. It is a feeling that links you to whoever enters your sphere and faces adversity.” Not by chance in 1934 Herman Bernstein, the Ambassador of the United States in Albania wrote “There is no trace of any discrimination against Jews in Albania, because Albania happens to be one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist, even though Albanians themselves are divided into three faiths.”



Norman H. Gershman of Aspen, Colorado, embarked on his career as a photographer at a relatively late age. He studied with, and was influenced by, the works of the photographers Ansel Adams, Roman Vishniac, Arnold Newman and Cornell Capa, the founder and director of the International Center of Photography in New York. Ultimately, Gershman developed a personal style focusing on portraiture, in which he lends a personal touch emphasizing the special personality of the subject.

For four years Gershman focused on photographing Muslim families who saved Jews during the Holocaust, converging between two seemingly opposed worlds. From this work the exhibition “Besa: A Code of Honor. Muslim Albanians who Rescued Jews During the Holocaust” was born and is being shown for the first time in Italy in Trieste. “The Muslim families,” recounts Gershman, “continually mentioned to me that to save a human life is to go to heaven. The sons of one of the righteous told me that the principle by which his father raised him, and by which he lives now, is that if someone knocks on your door, you must take responsibility for them.”

Norman Gershman’s works can be found in a variety of public collections, including the International Center of Photography, New York; the Brooklyn Museum; the Aspen Museum of Art and a number of galleries in Russia.

“Besa: A Code of Honor. Muslim Albanians who Rescued Jews During the Holocaust”
Open through October 15
Carlo and Vera Wagner Jewish Museum of Trieste
Via del Monte 7
Tel. 040 633819
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