HUC-JIR Museum Transfers the BESA Collection to the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center of Staten Island

Friday, May 27, 2016

The BESA Collection documents the role of the Albanian Muslim Community in saving the Jewish community during the Holocaust

On May 31, 2016, in an historic event, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) Museum formally transferred the BESA Collection to the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center of Staten Island (AICCSI) in partnership with the Jewish Community Relations Council of NY (JCRC-NY) and Wagner College. Iman Tahir of the AICCSI noted, "Albanians and Jews have lots of similar attributes, both nations are very proud of their history and legacy. Its a great honor and privilege for the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center to be a permanent home of these powerful photographs, where they can educate and inspire people about importance of human life and virtues of  Albanians and Jews, the courage, sacrifice, and gratitude.

“BESA: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II” is a set of photographs by Norman Gershman that tells the story of Albanian Muslims who sheltered Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The gathering marking the transfer included faith and community leaders and members representing the full diversity of our city. “This collection of photographs is a powerful reminder today that to save one life is to save an entire world, and teaches us that we must all work together to build a world of understanding, justice, human rights, and peace,” stated Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Director, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum.  

The event, held at the AICCSI, kicked off a month-long exhibition of the collection coinciding with the most holy time in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan. The AICCSI will have parts of the collection on  permanent view. In cooperation with Wagner College’s Center for Holocaust Studies this partnership will be developing a curriculum designed to be to be used with the photo collection for teens and college students. “The courage and humanity of Albanian Muslims during the Holocaust, captured so beautifully in this exhibit, will inspire the next generation to take positive action against prejudice, anti-Semitism and racism. We look forward to working together to educate youth of all faiths," noted Professor Lori Weintrob, Director, Holocaust Education Center, Wagner College.

The Center for Community Leadership at JCRC-NY has been instrumental in convening the partnership that has been shepherding this process. Rabbi Bob Kaplan of the Center noted, “It is this kind of partnership that makes our city so exciting. We learn from one another and share our profound stories and how our city’s communities are creating pathways of peace and cooperation beyond the headlines that seek to divide us." 


BESA: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II began with photographer Norman Gershman’s trip to Albania and Kosovo in 2004 when he became fascinated by fragments of stories about the Jews who survived the war hidden in Albania began to be circulated. He made numerous trips to Albania together with a translator and was embraced by Albanian people eager to share their stories with the rest of the world. Post-World War II Europe, devastated by the loss of its Jewish population, found Albania was the only country to claim a larger number of Jewish people than prior to the Holocaust. Over 2,000 Jews from Albania, Greece, Austria and Italy found refuge in the homes of Albanian Muslim families. The prevailing answer to the question of the difference of attitude in Albania was always the same…BESA.  Besa is the Albanian Muslim code of honor that envelops the concept of respect, altruism and faith, of keeping a promise, of offering succor. BESA was the core of every conversation between Gershman and his Albanian friends. Keeping one’s promise is the core of this magnificent code of human behavior.  In Gershman’s meetings with righteous Albanians, each photo subject referenced his or her BESA---faith and honor---as the source of personal courage in rescuing Jewish people during the persecutions.  The individual portraits debuted at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel, and subsequently at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, working with the photographer, created the public exhibition that has traveled throughout the United States and Canada to more than 62 venues. BESA and Norman Gershman were honored by the House of Lords in London in 2011. The story of the photographic adventure, the individual saviors and the background of the tragic period have been captured in the book, BESA: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II, Syracuse University Press, 2008.



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 men and women for service to 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, 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.