Bujar Nishani, President of the Republic of Albania, Honors Photographer Norman Gershman - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Bujar Nishani, President of the Republic of Albania, Honors Photographer Norman Gershman

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Thursday, May 7, 2015


President Nishani honors Norman Gershman with the National Flag Medal, Albania's highest honor.

Mr. Bujar Nishani, President of the Republic of Albania, bestowed his nation's highest honor upon Mr. Norman Gershman, Founding Executive Director of the Eye Contact Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote peace and unity. The ceremony took place on Wednesday, May 6, 2015, at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), where Gershman had previously held a photography exhibition: "Besa: Albanian Muslim Rescuers during the Holocaust."

Read President Nishani's address >  

In 2002, while completing research for a photo essay on righteous gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, Gershman discovered the unique story of Albanian bravery, when a country that was 70 percent Muslim saved Jews. It was a story that few knew because Albania was sealed off from the outside world by its isolationist Communist regime for almost fifty years following the end of World War II.

Norman Gershman and Laura Kruger, Curator of the HUC-JIR/New York Museum

Over a five-year period, Gershman sought out, photographed, and collected these powerful and moving stories of heroism in the book Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II (Syracuse University Press,2008) and the film “Besa: The Promise.” Besa is a code of honor deeply rooted in Albanian culture and incorporated in the faith of Albanian Muslims. It dictates amoral behavior so absolute that non-adherence brings shame and dishonor on oneself and one's family. Simply stated, it demands that one take responsibility for the lives of others in their time of need. In Albania and Kosovo, Muslims sheltered, at grave risk to themselves and their families, not only the Jews of their cities and villages, but thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis from other European countries.

The traveling exhibition of Norman Gershman's photographs and stories reveals the compassionate altruism of ordinary people in saving Jews. This exhibition has been exhibited at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the United Nations in New York City, the Houses of Lords in London, the European Union in Strasbourg, France, in Albania, and over sixty museums and universities throughout North America.

"Besa" will be on view at HUC-JIR in New York through June 2015

For information about the exhibition, and to bring it to your community, click here > 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu