By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS (RNS) In 2003, Norman Gershman was looking for some of the righteous.
What he found astonished the investment banker-turned-photographer, and led him toward a project now on display in a St. Louis synagogue.
The Righteous Among Nations are gentile rescuers who make up "a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values," according to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial museum.
They are, the museum says, "the few who helped Jews in the darkest time in their history."
Gershman's story begins during the Holocaust and involves Albanian Muslims -- villagers, peasants and farmers -- who risked their lives and the lives of their families to shelter Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
Italy invaded Albania in 1939 and occupied the country until the overthrow of Benito Mussolini in 1943. Germany then took over the Albanian occupation. Before the war, Gershman estimates from his research, only about 200 Jews lived in Albania, a country that is about 70 percent Muslim.
During the years of occupation, 10 times as many Jews streamed into Albania to escape persecution from Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Greece and Italy. Gershman says it was the only country in Europe where the Jewish population grew by the end of the war.
Most of the hidden Jews either fled to Israel or back to their native countries after the war. Albania's postwar communist regime made it impossible for the Jews who had been hidden to stay in touch with the Albanian Muslims who had provided shelter.
In 2003, New Jersey native Gershman heard hints of the story and began doing research, eventually traveling to Albania to begin interviewing those Muslims who took part and who were still alive. Gershman said it wasn't just Muslim families who shielded Jews from the Nazis, but also Orthodox and Catholic families.
All of them were motivated by an Albanian code of honor called "besa," a concept that can be translated into "keeping the promise," Gershman says. The Albanian villagers were motivated to risk their lives by the simple concept of helping one's neighbor.
"We chose to focus on the Muslims because, who ever heard of Muslims saving Jews?" Gershman said in a telephone interview from Israel, where he is at work on his next project.
Gershman's research eventually led to an exhibit of his photographs, "Besa: A Code to Live By," which opened recently at Congregation Temple Emanuel, and a book, Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II.
The exhibit makes the case that the Muslim Albanian villagers who sheltered Jews from deportation to concentration camps did so from a sense of religious obligation.
"Besa is a cultural idea, but for the Muslims in Albania it was ingrained in their faith as well," Gershman said.
Ahmet Karamustafa, professor of history and religious studies at Washington University, said saving a life is a universally acknowledged Muslim value.
Protecting a life, Karamustafa said, "has always ranked at the very top of moral and legal categories articulated by legal and theological scholars in Islam."
The exhibit has been traveling the world since 2006, opening in Yad Vashem in Israel, the United Nations in New York, and synagogues, mosques, college campuses and Holocaust museums from Turkey to El Paso, Texas.
The exhibit of 30 photographs includes one of Lime Balla, born in 1910, who told Gershman that a group of 17 Jews came from the capital city of Tirana to her village of Gjergi in 1943 during the holy month of Ramadan.
"We divided them amongst the villagers," Balla said, according to Gershman. "We were poor. We had no dining table, but we didn't allow them to pay for food or shelter. We grew vegetables for all to eat. For 15 months, we dressed them as farmers like us. Even the local police knew."
David Sherman, president of Temple Emanuel, said the synagogue "decided it could be an opportunity to educate the public about this piece of history that was a model of dialogue and tolerance."
The synagogue's rabbi, Justin Kerber, said one of the Reform congregation's goals with the exhibit is to combat a common depiction of the modern relationship between Jews and Muslims.
"There's so much coverage about Muslim-Jewish strife and conflict," Kerber said. "It's important to tell people that's not the whole story, and these are examples of Muslim-Jewish respect, tolerance and love. This was a good opportunity for us to be part of that conversation."
Tim Townsend writes for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis, Mo.