The Power of Human Solidarity

Image by Jonathan Meyer.

The tide of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment throughout the world, which seems to be on the rise, demands a historical revision of relations between Muslims and Jews. An almost forgotten episode during World War II can shed light on this issue.

During World War II, as Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis, they found refuge in Northern Albania. More than 2000 Jews were protected by the locals, who risked their own lives by doing so. Although the Germans demanded that the Albanians provide them with lists of names of Jews in the country, the Albanians refused to comply and instead sheltered them from the Nazis. According to the International School for Holocaust Studies, the Albanians did not turn over a single Jew to the Germans.

This episode was illustrated by Norman H. Gershman, an American photographer, who has included photos of the Albanians’ descendants still living in the country in a book called BESA: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II. According to Gershman, only two countries in Europe, Denmark and Albania, refused to cooperate with the Nazis.

Besa is an Albanian cultural concept that means “to keep the promise” and “word of honor.” The word has its origin in the Kanun, an assembly of customary codes and traditions transmitted verbally over succeeding generations and compiled by Lekë Dukagjini, the legendary 15th century Albanian chieftain.

Besa also means taking care of those in need, protecting them and being hospitable. Both Catholic and Muslim Albanians aided the Jews during WWII. Sevenety percent of Albanians are Muslims; they were mainly responsible for sheltering the Jews. Rather than hiding them in attics or in the woods, Albanians gave the Jews Muslim names, provided them with clothes and treated them as members of their own families.

Gershman told the story of an Albanian shopkeeper named Ali Pashkaj. German soldiers appeared at this store surrounding 19 Albanian prisoners. Among them was a young Jew whom the Germans planned to assassinate.

Since Pashkaj spoke excellent German, he invited the soldiers into the store and gave them food and wine. While he was distracting the German soldiers, he gave the young Jew a melon containing a message instructing him to jump out of the truck at a certain location and run and hide in the woods. The young man followed the instruction and was able to escape.

The German soldiers were furious. They returned to the town and threatened to shoot the man and set the town on fire if the Albanians did not return the young Jew. The Albanians refused and the Germans eventually left. Pashkaj went to the woods where he found the young man and brought him back to his house where he was safe. The young man, Yasha Bayuhovio, later went to Mexico and became a dentist. In protecting him, Ali Pashkaj was practicing Besa.

As Gershman told the Jewish Chronicle, “Look, you are not talking to someone who is pro-Arab. It is really quite simply that there are good people in this world. I found Muslims who saved Jews. The perception of the religion of Islam as crazy is nonsense. I am a Jew to my core. I would lay down my life for Israel…However, we have objectified Muslims. They are just people. And in this little people [Albanians] they have a message for the world. I defy anyone to look at these people and say these are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.”

This is not the only case in which non-Jews aided Jewish people. Although Iran was suffering from the 1942-1943 famine, the country became a place of refuge for 116,000 Polish refugees, among whom were 5,000 Jews. Young survivors who arrived in Iran became known as the ‘Tehran Children.’

Mohammed V, who was the king of Morocco during WWII, refused to sign Vichy officials’ laws to impose anti-Jewish legislation, such as the obligation for Jews to wear a yellow badge or to deport the country 250,000 Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps in Europe. Mohammed V has been honored by Jewish organizations for his role in protecting his Jewish subjects during the Holocaust.

Moncef Bey was the governor of Tunis, a de-facto French colony during WWII. He claimed that both Tunisian Muslims and Tunisian Jews were his children. He helped Jews avoid arrest, prevented their deportations, and even hid several Jews. Mathilda Guez, a Tunisian Jew who later became an Israeli politician, wrote that Moncef Bey gathered all the senior officials of the realm at the palace and gave them this warning:

The Jews are having a hard time but they are under our patronage and we are responsible for their lives. If I find out that an Arab informer caused even one hair of a Jew to fall, this Arab will pay with his life.

Abdol Hossein Sardari was an Iranian diplomat who ran the Iranian consular office in Paris during the war. He issued passports for entire families and saved between 2,000 to 3,000 Jewish lives. He was later dubbed the “Iranian Schindler”.

Those Arabs who risked their lives to save Jewish lives were following the Koran’s dictum: “Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world,” which echoes the Talmud’s assertion: “If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.”

These examples of solidarity seem to have been forgotten; bloody conflicts with the loss of thousands of innocent lives continue unabated. As professor Alfred de Zayas, an international law expert has written, “What humanity most urgently needs is a change of mindset, a recommitment to the spirituality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a readiness to break the vicious circle of reprisals and counter-reprisals.”

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”