Enver Alia Sheqer, son of Albanian rescuer
Enver Alia Sheqer, son of Albanian rescuerNorman Gershman/Yad Vashem (courtesy)

My father was a devout Muslim. He believed that to save one life is to enter paradise.

An exhibition commemorating Muslim Albanians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust will open at the mixed Jewish-Arab town of Ramle, near Lod, on Tuesday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Yad Vashem Exhibition, now in Arabic and Hebrew, will open in the presence of Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, Ramle Mayor Yoel Lavi, Deputy Director of the Museums Division at Yad Vashem Yehudit Shendar, and Arab-Israeli high school students from Ramle.

For three months following the opening, groups of Arab and Jewish students from the city will visit the exhibition in special educational programs run by Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, in cooperation with Ramle Municipality.

“It is our hope that this important exhibition will further understanding of the Holocaust, offering a glimpse into the difficult choices that people faced,” said Shalev. As a means of educating the Arabic-speaking public about the atrocities of the Holocaust, along with countering Holocaust denial, Yad Vashem has recently launched a website and YouTube channel in Arabic.

For four years, American photographer Norman Gershman photographed Muslims who were Righteous Among the Nations and their families in Albania. The Yad Vashem Exhibition, "Besa: A Code of Honor - Muslim Albanians Who Rescued Jews During the Holocaust", features 17 of these portraits, accompanied by explanatory texts.

While much of Europe was willingly giving up its Jews to the Fascists, the Albanians, whose renowned hospitality is deeply steeped in their traditions and culture, went to great lengths and personal risk to shield Jews from Nazi German occupiers of Albania during World War II.

More than 22,000 individuals have thus far been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, 63 of them from Albania.  Prior to World War II, some 200 Jews lived in Albania. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, hundreds of Jews from Yugoslavia, Germany, Greece, Austria, and Serbia crossed the border into Albania.

When the Germans occupied Albania in 1943, the local population refused to comply with the Nazis’ orders to turn over lists of Jews residing in Albania. The remarkable assistance afforded to the Jews was grounded in besa, a code of honor. Besa means literally “to keep the promise.” One who acts according to besa is someone who keeps his word, someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family. Impressively, there were more Jews in Albania at the end of the war than beforehand.

Ali's Story

“Why did my father save a stranger at the risk of his life and the entire village? My father was a devout Muslim. He believed that to save one life is to enter paradise,” stated Enver Alia Sheqer, son of Righteous Among the Nations Ali Sheqer Pashkaj, whose story is featured in the Besa exhibition.

Enver, explains that during World War II, his father owned a general store. One day, a German transport with 19 Albanian prisoners on their way to hard labor, and one Jew to be shot, passed by Ali’s store. “My father spoke excellent German and invited the Nazis into his store and offered them food and wine. He plied them with wine until they became drunk,” Enver recalls.

“Meanwhile he hid a note in a piece of melon and gave it to the young Jew. It instructed him to jump out and flee into the woods to a designated place. The Nazis were furious over the escape, but my father claimed innocence. They brought my father into the village and lined him up against a wall to extract information about where the Jew was hiding.”

“Four times they put a gun to his head. They came back and threatened to burn down the village if my father didn't confess. My father held out, and finally they left. My father retrieved the man from the forest and hid him for two years in his home until the war was over,” The 30 families living in Ali’s village were unaware that he was sheltering a Jew, who today is a dentist living in Mexico.

An English and Hebrew version of the exhibition was displayed at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2007, as well as at UN headquarters in New York last January.