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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Muslims Who Saved The Jews

The Muslims Who Saved The Jews
Host Liane Hansen speaks with photographer Norman Gershman about his book Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II, which is also the subject of a documentary called God's House. Greshman spent five years collecting stories of Albanian Muslims who harbored Jewish refugees during World War II.


During the Nazi occupation of Albania and Kosovo during the second World War, Jews facing persecution and death had a small group of seemingly unlikely allies - Muslims. Sixty-five people managed to save some 2,000 Jews, and have been honored by the Jewish Holocaust Memorial as righteous among nations.

Photographer Norman Gershman spent five years taking photos of them and collecting their stories. They've been published in a new book, "Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II." Mr. Gershman joins us from Aspen Public Radio in Colorado. Welcome.

Mr. NORMAN GERSHMAN (Photographer, "Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II"): Thank you and thank you having me.

HANSEN: First the title, "Besa," what does it mean?

Mr. GERSHMAN: Well, Besa is a tradition of the Albanian people and it goes back thousands of years. It's more than just a welcoming, it's their code of honor. And if one comes into one's besa, they would literally lay their lives down for you - friends or enemies.
HANSEN: You have a wonderful photograph on page four of baba.

Mr. GERSHMAN: The baba, yes.
HANSEN: The baba. Tell us about him.

Mr. GERSHMAN: The baba is the head of the Bektashi. The Bektashi is the most liberal form of Shiites. And I'm quoting from the book, "We Bektashis see God everywhere in everyone. God is in every pore and every cell, therefore, all are God's children. There cannot be infidels. There cannot be discrimination. If one sees the good face, one is seeing the face of God. God is beauty. Beauty is God. There is no God but God."
And under the Nazi occupation, the foreign minister of Albania was a Bektashi. And he sent out a secret message to all Bektashi that the Jewish children will sleep in the same bed as your children. The Jewish children will eat the same food as your children. The Jewish children will be your family.

HANSEN: There are so many acts of courage and creativity in this book. A doctor, for example, bandaged the face of one Jewish man and kept him safe in his infirmary. And sometimes an entire village became a shelter for Jews who were fleeing the persecution. On page 70, tell us about Yakov Kasari(ph).

Mr. GERSHMAN: Well, he is the person that rescued this family. There were Jews living in their village. He took them into hiding in the mountains of Albania because the Germans moving in were threatening to burn the Jews alive.

I mean, he says: I am proud to be recognized by the state of Israel as a righteous person. We have been family of Muslims for 500 years. Besa came from the Quran. The Jews and Muslims of Albania are cousins. We both bury our dead in coffins. I salute all the Jews. May they be honored with their homeland, because the Jews are still at war and need to be remembered. I drain my glass of Raki to honor all my Jewish friends.

And this is very typical. One family said there is no Besa without the Quran. There is no Quran without Besa.

HANSEN: The son of one of the Muslims is photographed with three books in Hebrew. And I think that tells both stories, both about the communist Albania, as well as, you know, the fact that a lot of these families were unable to reunite after the war.


HANSEN: His name is Rifat, I believe. And…

Mr. GERSHMAN: Rifat Hoxha.

HANSEN: Yeah. Tell us his story.

Mr. GERSHMAN: It's a wonderful story. His father was given these three books to keep until after the war when they would return to get their books back. And these books are prayer books - he didn't know what they were. And he felt this - his father gave him this obligation to return these books to the rightful owners. He had no way of doing it. He had never been out of Albania. What can he do? Can I help him?

And we ultimately found Aaron(ph), the 10-year-old son now in his '70s. We found him in Israel. And we brought Rifat Hoxga with the three Hebrew books to Israel to return these books to him. And while Rifat was in Israel, he was given a Quran. So, here, Rifat is going back to Albania with the Quran and Aaron has these three Hebrew books.
HANSEN: What effect did this project have on you?

Mr. GERSHMAN: Listen, I photograph with my heart. In this particular case, clearly I'm a Jew. I'm a lay Jew. But I also have studied over the years with the Sufis. And the Sufis, those are the mystical side of Islam. The Islam I know is the Islam of beauty, of music, of dance, of poetry. I don't recognize this Islam that I read about in the papers. So it was a journey that I did with my heart. And it just reinforces that there are more good people in the world, far more good people in the world than terrorist or terrorist sympathizers.

There are well over a billion Muslims. They're good people. Unfortunately, in the media you rarely read or hear about the good people. I found the good people in Albania.
HANSEN: Photographer Norman Gershman. His book "Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II" is published by Syracuse University Press. Mr. Gershman joined us from the studios of Aspen Public Radio. Thank you very much.

Mr. GERSHMAN: Thank you, Liane.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Reflections on Holocaust and Genocides 2012

5th Annual Reflections on
Holocaust and Genocides
5;00 PM, Sunday, January 22, 2012

A 5th Annual reflections on Holocaust and Genocides is planned for Sunday, January 22, 2012 to learn about human tragedy. It is comprehensive event where all human failings, massacres, genocides and Holocaust will be addressed in one fashion or the other.

Education is the purpose; we have to learn, acknowledge and reflect upon the terrible things that we humans have inflicted upon each other, and to we have to understand that our safety hinges on the safety of all others around us.

There is a shameless cruelty in us, either we shy away or refuse to acknowledge the sufferings of others, worrying that it will devalue our own or some how it amounts to infidelity to our own cause. Shame on us that we justifying massacres by believing and propagating that the victims deserved it or asked for it.

We sincerely hope the attendees will walk out with the following understanding:

1. Other people’s suffering is as legitimate as mine;
2. It is easy to see ourselves as Victims, but we must also see the perpetrator in us;
3. When we strip the politics out of a conflict, we see hope;
4. We can value others suffering without lessening our own;
5. The overriding desire to highlight our own blinds us from other’s suffering.
6. A sense of responsibility for creating a better world is awakened
7. Ultimately co-existence and every one's safety and peace should be the driving thought.

We invite sponsors, facilitaors, speakers, writers from individuasl and organizations to make this happen. It is an initiative of American Muslims striving to build responsible civic societies, where justice and co-existence are our values.

To all those, who have endured holocaust, genocides, massacres, bombs, annihilation, land mines, hunger, rape, torture, occupation and inhuman brutality, we say you are not alone. The least we can do in the process of healing is to acknowledge every one's pain in one voice. We have begun the process of coming together as one people, to stand with you, we are indeed one world and a single humanity, and caring for each other brings safety and peace to all of us. I cannot be safe if the people around me are not, and I will not have peace if people around me don't. It is in my interest to seek a peaceful world for one and all.

We are working on initiating a course on tolerance education, so one day; we all can learn to have a heart that opens to the pain of every human, yes, we can do that.

Every organization that is willing to subscribe to the idea of co-existence is invited to participate, sponsor, and volunteer. We invite you to submit a 500 word abstract on the issue that agonize you, please offer your solutions with co-existence in mind in another 100 words. No one will be excluded.

Please send an email to: HolocaustandGenocides@gmail.com

Mike Ghouse, Chairperson
Conference on Holocaust and Genocides and
V Annual Reflections on Holocaust and Genocides.

Chief Rabbi Lau & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Meet!

Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau is a tall man who brightens any room with his Torah depth and stature. He is viewed as a someone who has achieved wondrous feats! From surviving the Holocaust and continuing on the Rabbinic dynasty that he hails from, to serving as the Chief Rabbi of Israel and now Tel Avivhe remains a legendary figure to all of Jewry.
On the complete opposite spectrum stands the legendary Lakers Center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Born Ferdinand Lewis Lew Alcindor, Jr., he had a prolific college and NBA career becoming one of the best basketball players of all time. In 1971 Lew Alcindor converted to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. To the naked eye it would seem that the only thing he shares in common with Rabbi Lau is that they are both luminous figures.

And yet, these two menone a Jew and another a Muslimare eagerly looking forward to meeting one another this July in Israel!


The former NBA star is making a film about none other than World War II, and will honor the final wish of his father. You see, Ferdinand L. Alcindor Sr., had one dying wish. He requested that his son visit Israel and meet the little boy that he personally rescued from Buchenwald and turned into a prominent Rabbi. This Rabbi is none other than Rabbi Lau!

Indeed, Rabbi Lau, who also serves as chairman of the Council of Yad Vashem remarked that, the fact that such a famous basketball player, and a Muslim, is about to attach himself to the Holocaust issue is very exciting. I will certainly give my blessing to this initiative.

Rabbi Lau said he clearly remembers how an African American solider came up to him during the liberation, picked him up, and told the residents of the German city of Weimer: Look at this sweet kid, he isnt even eight yet. This was your enemy, he threatened the Third Reich. He is the one against whom you waged war, and murdered millions like him.

As someone who grew up in Los Angeles and followed the Lakers, I never thought Id see these two figures mentioned in the same sentencelet alone meeting in The Holy Land! However, after reading about what Mr. Abdul-Jabbar intends to do with his film and his visit, I look forward to seeing these two legends of their respective fields work towards educating the world about the horrors of the Holocaust.