Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) is hosting a photography exhibit rich with history.
Norman Gershman went to Albania to photograph the portraits of people whose Muslim ancestors had been involved in saving Jews in the small European country when it was occupied by Nazis during the Holocaust.
“It’s an important and wonderful story to be told of what can be done when people aren’t bystanders. When people are willing to stand up and help their fellow citizens,” chair of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre, Belle Jarniewski says.
In Albania, almost all the Jews were saved during the Second World War, says Jarniewski.
This includes the estimated 600 to 1,800 Jewish refugees who fled their homes for the country.
Many Muslims put their own lives at risk to save their Jewish neighbours, and now they are remembered in Gershman’s exhibit, Besa: A code of honor.
The exhibit consists of a series of photographs of photographs of the Muslims involved in rescuing Jews alongside their decedents. These images are accompanied by panels that tell the rescuer’s story through the eyes of their own family.
Gershman grew up in New Jersey where he experienced a great deal of racism. Jarniewski says he confronted it with anger in his youth. As an adult, he heard about these Muslims in Albania and decided to take a different approach to dealing with racism.
His new approach involved the creation of this exhibit.
The full exhibit is a permanent fixture at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, but CMU is hosting the travelling version, which consists of around a dozen images.
She says the images are particularly important now because of the rhetoric surrounding federal election campaigns and because of efforts to bridge the Muslim and Jewish communities.
A documentary was produced to accompany the photography exhibit and was screened for the public on Nov. 3.
Besa: The Promise is not yet widely distributed, but the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre will be screening it one more time for Jewish and Muslim university students only on Nov. 5 in CMU’s Laudamus Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. It will be followed by a moderated discussion.
The documentary gives more insight into Gershman’s experience with the project and takes a closer look at some of the stories told, Jarniewski says.
One such story, which inspired the title of the documentary, is a promise a Muslim family made to a fleeing Jewish family to protect some of their books.
After the war, Jarniewski says the Muslim family had trouble finding the owners of the books, as they had changed their surname. Eventually, the families’ descendants were united and the books were given back.
The Muslim family kept their promise to protect the books, just as many Muslim families in Albania kept their promise to protect Jews.