This past Tuesday, the New York State Legislature gave special recognition to the role that the people of Albania played in saving the entire Albanian Jewish population and the protection given to Jews from outside of Albania during the Holocaust.
At the invitation of Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj the President of Albania, Bujar Nishani, addressed the members of the NY State legislature as well as religious and community leaders from New York. Both the State Assembly and the State Senate adopted a resolution praising Albania and recognizing President Nishani as a man dedicated to preserving life. Among other politicians in attendance were Speaker Carl Heastie and Senator Jeffrey Klein. Also in attendance was Imam Edin Djonovic, who is with the Albanian American Islamic Center of Queens in Ridgewood.
Professor Mordechai Paldiel, Former Director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashel, gave a very moving speech recognizing the Albanians of that horrific era for their dedication to saving the lives of the Jews of their nation and beyond.
“I’m honored to host President Nishani and commend the Albanian people for their compassion and bravery. I’m also proud to recognize photographer Norman Gershman whose work lets future generations learn about this extraordinary relationship between the Albanian and Jewish people.” said Senator Klein in a press release from his office. He continued, “As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I am especially moved by and grateful to those who risked their lives to shelter and protect millions of Jewish refugees during one of the darkest chapters in human history.”
President Nishani’s emotional presentation in the Assembly parlor drew comparisons between his fellow citizens’ acts of defiance towards the Nazis and his nation’s recent assistance to the U.S. in the fight against other forms of violent extremism. “The most recent anti-Semitic terrorist attack in France, but also in other countries, make us think the goal achieved 70 years ago is being placed in question once again,” he said in his remarks. He represents the basic Albanian credo of Besa.
The remarkable assistance afforded to the Jews during the Holocaust was grounded in Besa, a code of honor, which still serves as the highest ethical code in the country. Besa literally means, “to keep the promise.” One who acts according to Besa is someone who keeps their word, someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family.
President Nishani’s speech can be watched in the video’s below provided by our friend Rexhep Myftari, Founder and CEO of DARDA Media.
Through Mr. Gershman’s lens we see the Albanians’ commitment to care for those in need, to foster hospitality in the face of radical hatred, and to Besa, the country’s code of honor,” said Assemblyman Gjonaj. “It is crucial for us to continue to acknowledge and show appreciation for this unique and honorable display of humanity and compassion, especially in today’s world where we must work together to fight the growing trend of radicalism and stand up for justice, interreligious cooperation and peace.
It was very heartwarming to meet with the other honoree of the day, Norman Gershman. Gershman is a noted photographer whose photographs capture the essence of this time in history in his book, Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II. In a five-year period he collected and photographed stories that represented the heroism of besa. “I discovered this unbelievable code of honor, something called besa, and this code is more than just an Albanian code. It’s a code that we all must embrace to honor the cultural differences between various peoples in various countries.” said Gershman.
Gershman received proclamations from Assemblyman Gjonaj and Senator Klein at the reception and a glass apple from Assembly Speaker Heastie.
In the introduction to the book, Akbar Ahmed states, “Norman has shed light on the true nature of Islam as both a compassionate and an Abrahamic religion. For the Albanian Muslims saving Jews was a religious calling because of the close bond between Jews and Muslims in Islam.”