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PORTLAND — When Albania was invaded by Germany in 1943, the Nazi occupiers demanded that the Albanians turn over the names of any Jews living in the country.
But the residents refused. Instead, they took it upon themselves to hide, protect and provide for their Jewish neighbors, sometimes even doing so in plain sight.
Remarkably, almost all Jews living in Albania during WWII survived. In fact, there were more Jews in Albania at the end of the war than before, because so many sought safe harbor there.
What makes the story even more notable is that Albania was, and still is, a country where Muslims make up the majority of the population.
Their heroism is portrayed in an exhibit of black-and-white photographs on display in the Moser Family Library at the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine on outer Congress Street.
A project of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, “Besa: A Code of Honor – Muslim Albanians Who Rescued Jews During the Holocaust,” includes 16 large panels.
Each panel contains a photograph by Norman H. Gershman, accompanied by a brief text that tells the story of the people and their descendants who defied the law and protected the Jews of Albania. The photos are the culmination of a multi-year project.
“By recounting the brave acts undertaken by ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances, this remarkable body of work reveals the capacity we each have to act with compassion, even when doing so may put one at great peril,” David Scholder, the marketing and social media director at the Jewish Community Alliance, said.
Scholder said the community center is a nonprofit with a mission of enhancing and promoting Jewish life and continuity, which is one reason “it’s (such a) privilege to share this exhibit with the local community.”
“Albania succeeded where other European nations failed,” according to a Jewish Community Alliance press release. “Following the German occupation, the Albanian(s) refused to comply with orders to turn over lists of Jews. Moreover, various governmental agencies provided many Jewish families with fake documentation that allowed them to intermingle (with) the rest of the population.
“The Albanians not only protected their (own) Jewish citizens, but also provided sanctuary to Jewish refugees,” the release continued. “The remarkable assistance afforded to the Jews was grounded in Besa, a code of honor, which still … serves as the highest ethical code in the country.”
Scholder said telling the story of how Albanian Muslims saved Jews during WWII is especially important “at a time when negative images of Muslims, immigrants and asylum seekers persist in the media landscape and the national conversation.”
“The Besa story presents a very different perspective,” he said, “one characterized by empathy and courageousness. (The exhibit is also) … an inspiring story of interfaith cooperation and Holocaust history. As fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain, exhibits like this become increasingly important to ensure that the Holocaust is not forgotten.”
“We hope that visitors will be moved and inspired by the humanity, kindness and warmth embodied in these photographs and stories,” Scholder added.
One of the panels tells the story of Higmet Zyma and her husband, Bessim, who was a doctor. Bessim had a clinic in his basement and hid a Jewish man from Poland by wrapping his face in bandages.
“The Nazis did not bother us,” Higmet recalled.
Another panel recounts how Aishe Kadiu and her family sheltered two Jewish boys from Greece.
“When the Germans began house-to-house searches, my father took (the boys) to a remote village. We then supplied them will all their needs until the liberation,” Kadiu told Gershman. “Those years were fearful, but friendship overcame all fear.”
The exhibit is free and open to the public Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m, through the month of April at the JCA, 1342 Congress St.
David Scholder, the marketing and social media director at the Jewish Community Alliance in Portland, with photos in a new exhibit telling the story of how Albanian Muslims saved Jews from the Holocaust. The exhibit is on display through the end of April.
Higmet Zyma and her husband, Bessim, saved a Jewish man from Poland by hiding him in their basement during the German occupation of Albania.
The Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine is at 1342 Congress St. in Portland.