Monday, October 25, 2010

A Rarely Told Story: Muslims Save Jews

A Jewish community synagogue in Missouri is focusing attention on a rarely told story about Muslims who saved Jews amid controversy in the United States over plans to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in New York and mounting anti-Muslim fervor in Europe.

Temple Emmanuel in Creve Couer, a small town in St. Louis County, is hosting an exhibition that explains why predominantly Muslim Albania emerged from World War Two as the only European country to boast a larger number of Jews than it had housed prior to the Holocaust.

The exhibition tells the virtually unknown story through the pictures of fine art photographer Norman H. Gershman, who on visits to Albania and Kosovo found some 150 Muslim families who had taken part in the rescue of Jews under Nazi occupation. It is a story of Muslims who risked their lives to live by a code of faith and honor they call Besa and that saved the lives of more than 2,000 Albanian Jews and Jewish refugees.

Besa, says Dr. Ghazala Hayat, a St. Louis University neurologist and Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis spokesperson, is Albanian for the Islamic code that requires Muslims to endanger their own lives if necessary to save the life of those seeking asylum; it is code that remains a moral law in Albania that supersedes religious differences and blood feuds.

Emmanuel Temple Rabbi Justin Kerber says his community is hosting the exhibition because “at this time of tension over Islam, there is so much more to understanding Islam."

Gershman’s pictures tell a lifetime of stories. "I did nothing special. All Jews are our brothers," says a man portrayed in the exhibition, who was among those hid Jews from the Nazis. A leader of the Bektashis, a primarily Balkan and Turkish Muslim sect that blends Shiite and Sufi concepts, recalls an Albanian prime minister secretly ordering during the German occupation that “all Jewish children will sleep with your children, all will eat the same food, and all will live as one family."

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