Exhibition celebrates Muslims who rescued Jews in WW2

There’s a little-known story about Muslims and Jews in World War II that helped to create a code of honour that still exists today.

A new exhibition launching at Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre will paint a picture of how Muslims saved the lives of many Jewish people in Albania during World War II.

The exhibition showcases photographs from American photographer Norman Gershman, who spent four years photographing the heroes and survivors of the Holocaust in Albania.

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The exhibition is in part an attempt to combat the rising Islamophobia in the Western world, as well are recent incidences of anti-Semitism – such as the recent attack on a Jewish kosher supermarket in Paris just days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

“The exhibition aims to show the common humanity we all share and to counter the paranoia of Islam,” Mr Gershman says.

While other occupied European countries folded under the Nazi Party’s power and had their Jewish population systematically sent to concentration camps, Albania resisted Adolf Hitler’s orders and refused to hand over their Jewish citizens.

This move came from the ethical code in Albania, called ‘Besa’, that still survives today.

Besa, meaning ‘to keep the promise’ comes from the notion that you can trust someone to protect your life and keep a secret. It spurred the mainly Muslim population of Albania to protect their persecuted countrymen and women as well as Jewish refugees that arrived in Albania.

The Albanian government provided many Jewish families with false papers so they would not have to live in hiding and opened their borders to Jewish refugees.

Not a single Jew was taken from Albania to a concentration camp.

Ali Sheqer, whose father rescued Jews, says that the Albanians risked their own lives to save and shelter Jews from Hitler’s regime.

“Why did my father save a stranger at the risk of his life and the entire village? My father was a devout Muslim. He believed to save one life is to enter paradise,” Mr Sheqer says.

Albania, the small country nestled between Greece and Macedonia, was the only European country that experienced a growth in its Jewish population during World War II, with up to 1800 Jews moving to Albania during the period.

‘Besa: The Promise’, originally from the world organisation for Holocaust research ‘Yad Vashem’, opens on March 12 and will run until April 26 at the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne.

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