When Muslims saved Jews

Posted by: Phineas on December 22, 2010 at 4:16 pm

I regularly (and justifiably) criticize Islam and its apologists for the antisemitism and Jew-hatred that’s hardwired into the faith. But there are exceptions, and these need to be borne in mind so that we don’t cross the line from reasoned, valid criticism to a mindless bigotry that just mirrors our Salafist enemy. Such an exception is the following story, which tells the tale of Albanian Muslims who risked their lives to save thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazis:

“I’ll never forget this – when we were at this guy’s home and he was looking at us sort of like angrily and he said ‘What are you doing here?'” says Gershman. “We said, ‘Well, your family saved this Jewish family,’ and he looked at us and said, ‘So what? Any Albanian would have done the same thing. We did nothing special,’ and he meant it.”The Albanians have a word for this: Besa. It translates as ‘word of honor,’ and is a cultural precept unique to Albania.

“The word Besa in Albanian is kind of protection of when they host a guest, the Albanians, it’s a rule, they protect them with their own lives,” says Alberto Colonomos, a Jewish man born in 1933 in what was then Yugoslavia. He was 10 years old when his family fled to Albania.

“There were about 7,200 Jews living in that area. They deported them to the concentration camps and they deported them all the way to Treblinka. They killed them all, nobody came back. But about 50 families escaped a week or two weeks before the deportation.”

The Jewish family that lived with the Kazazi family (pictured) escaped the Nazis during searches by scrambling through connecting doorways to other homes. “Our parents were not very religious, but they believed in the Koran and Besa,” the grown Kazazi children say. “Without the Koran there is no Besa. Without Besa there is no Koran.”

A wealthy man who worked in a tobacco factory took in the Colonomos family. Unlike many Jews in other parts of Europe who survived the war in cellars and attics, Jews in Albania were given Muslim names and treated as honored guests. Colonomos explains that under Besa, Albanians put their guests before their own family.

“They really hid us with their lives. They knew that the Germans – the consequences if they catch them were very, very stiff. So they would be shot. But when they have that Besa, they will not denounce their guests. They were amazing people.”

Be sure to read the whole thing. I’ll not stop criticizing Islam, but this is a reminder of the good that can be found among all people, and it’s fitting for the season. I hope the exhibit comes my way; I’d like to see it.

via Joshua Treviño

UPDATE: Mr. Gershman has a web site devoted to his exhibit, with photos and stories from the time.

(Crossposted at Public Secrets)

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3 Responses to “When Muslims saved Jews”


  1. Hats off to the Albanian Muslims!

    Unfortunately, the exception proves the rule.

  2. Carlos says:

    Fortunately in this case, the geographical cultural norm prevailed over the intense irrationality of the religion.

    Unfortunately, so far as I can determine, no other geographical cultural norm trumps the utterly despicable hate of both Christians and Jews for that “religion of peace.”

    And before anyone chastises me for ignoring all the Muslim/Jewish friendships that exist, anecdotal incidents don’t count, it’s the body of work that counts. That’s why this story is important.

  3. Phineas says:

    Carlos, you’re right about cultural norms. Stephen Schwartz in his “The Two Faces of Islam” makes a similar point, arguing that Balkan Islam has evolved into a much milder, peaceful form, as compared to the puritanical, intolerant practices of much of the Middle East and SW Asia. Of course, the book is both a work of current history and an apologia for Islam, so there are strong criticisms to be made, but I think he has it right, in large. The efforts being made by Saudi-funded Wahhabi preachers to instill a more radical form in Bosnia, for example, testify to the gentler version they want to eliminate.

    In this case, it looks like the traditions of honor and hospitality toward guests of the Albanian clans melded well with the gentler, generally pre-Medina verses of the Qur’an. It’s just a WAG on my part, but it does stand in polar opposite to what we see coming out of Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.