'Jews Are God's People Like Us'

The world renowned fine arts photographer collected stories and portraits of Albanian Muslims who sheltered Jews fleeing the Nazis over a five-year period. He shares six of those stories in this excerpt of Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II.

Norman H. Gershman

Family of Xhevat and Aferdita Gjergjani

We met this Jewish family wandering in the streets of Berat—Isak Solomon Adixhes, his wife, Sara, and their baby daughter, Sonya. They had escaped the Nazis and arrived from Pristina, Kosovo. We had a large home, and we took them in and sheltered them for six months, maybe longer. Now I am old and unwell, but I remember them clearly, especially Sara. Sara and I were like sisters.

My baby son, Perparim, was just the age of little Sonya. It was God’s blessing that they arrived in our home because I did not have enough milk to feed my son and Sara was able to nurse him along with her daughter. We gave Sara the best of attention so she could continue to feed both babies. It is an Albanian tradition that when the same woman feeds two babies, they become brother and sister. So my son Perparim has a sister Sonya, perhaps in Israel.

When the Nazis arrived, the Adixhes family, along with other Jewish refugees, were escorted to several more remote villages of Albania. We lost all contact.

Our family are religious Muslims and we honor our code of Besa. I was once asked if I mind that a Jewish mother had fed my baby. I answered, “Jews are God’s people like us.”

- Aferdita Gjergjani

Family of Ali Sheqer Pashkaj

Our traditional home is in Puke. My father owned a general store with food provisions. It was the only store of its kind for many miles around. One day a German transport rolled by with nineteen Albanian prisoners on their way to hard labor, and one Jew who has to be shot. 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. Meanwhile he hid a note in a piece of melon and gave it to a 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 threatened to come back and burn the village down 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 two years in his home until the war was over. His name was Yasha Bayuhovio. There were thirty families in this village, but no one knew that my father was sheltering a Jew. Yasha is still alive. He is a dentist and lives in Mexico.

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.

- Enver Alia Sheqer

Family of Islam Proseku

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We lived in an old house near the railroad station in Tirana. A friend of my husband asked him to help three Jews. They were all strangers to us. We took them in. We hid them in our home for one year. I remember that one owned a factory in Macedonia. I do not remember the names of those we saved. I remember how frightened they were of being denounced. I was never afraid.

My husband worked at Radio Tirana. When the Germans were preparing to evacuate Tirana they wanted to destroy the radio station. Before they could do it, my husband saved the archives and recordings.

Why did we do it? We saw the Jews as brothers. As religious but liberal Muslims, we were only doing our duty. Now my grandson is an evangelical Christian. This is fine with my son and me. There is only one God.

-Nadire Proseku

Family of Toli Dodi

I remember Josef Abraham Adyzyss very well. How could I forget him? He came to work for my father, a carpenter and contractor in Berat, in 1942. We called him Yusa. Our home is still filled with the furniture he made while in hiding during the Nazi period. He made this table.

In late 1943, when the Italians capitulated to the Allies and the Nazis moved in, there was chaos and fear. That is when Yusa was sheltered in our home. Many Italian soldiers were also hidden from the Nazis in our community. The Nazis knew that Jews were in hiding along with Italian soldiers, and as retribution they began burning down our district. Italian soldiers came out of hiding to help put out the fires. We were forced to leave our home, and we lost a lot of our possessions. But Berat was a fiercely patriotic city, and many partisans from our community, including my two older brothers, went into the mountains to fight the Nazis. It was at this time that Yusa joined the partisans in the mountains. In 1945, there was a joyous celebration in the city of Shkoder when my partisan brothers were reunited with Yusa.

Forty-four years later, in 1989, we again made contact with Yusa. He was living in Jerusalem and had a fine family. We have his address. It brings tears to my eyes to say I hope to be reunited with Yusa before I die.

The deed of our family is done. We seek no publicity for what we did. God made Jerusalem the capital of the world. We pray for the continued enlightenment of Jerusalem.

- Josef Dodi

Family of Destan Kormaku

We lived in the town of Elbasan. I was twelve years old, and my two brothers were younger. It was just a few steps from here that our father sheltered six Jews in a stone house much like the one we lived in. They were Raphael Cambi, Chaim Isaac, and Leon Issac with his wife and two children. The Isaac family spoke Serbo-Croatian, as did our father. In 1945, they left for Yugoslavia.

Leon Isaac came back for a visit in 1948. He and his family were living in Macedonia. To show his gratitude for saving the lives of his family, he wanted to give my parents a restaurant in Macedonia, and offered to pay all their expenses for ten years. Our mother did not want to live in Macedonia, so we stayed in Elbasan. After 1949, we lost contact with the Isaacs. The communists then imprisoned our father.

We have never sought recognition, but we are glad for this opportunity to have our father remembered. It is in the Koran that in the name of God we help all humans.

This portrait of my father was painted by my daughter, who now lives in Italy.

- Isak Kormaku

Family of Besim and Aishe Kadiu and Their Daughter Merushe

We lived in the village of Kavaja. In 1940, our family sheltered two Greek Jews from the Italian fascists. Their names were Jakov and Sandra Battino, and they were brother and sister. They came to us from Tirana. Their father had been interned by the Italians in a camp. Later, in 1943, both Jakov and Sandra again sought shelter with us, fearful of the Nazis. Another family took their parents into hiding.

Sandra, Jakov, and I were close friends. We all lived in the same bedroom. I remember we cut a hole in the bars of our rear bedroom so they could escape if the Germans discovered they were hiding with us. We were constantly watching for German patrols. When the Germans began house-to-house searches, looking for Jews, my father took Jakov and and Sandra to a remote village. We then supplied all their needs until the liberation in 1945.

When liberation came, there was a great celebration in Kavaja. I remember the telegram we received from Jakov and Sandra and the joy we felt. Soon they left for Tirana and then for Israel.

I have so many wonderful letters and pictures from Israel. In 1992, I was invited there to receive the Righteous Among the Nations award on behalf of my family, and for a time I was the head of the Albanian Israeli Friendship Association.

Those years were fearful, but friendship overcame all fear. My father said the Germans would have to kill his family before he would let them kill our Jewish guests.

- Merushe Kadiu

Excerpted from Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews In World War II by Norman H. Gershman. © 2008 by Norman H. Gershman. Extracted with permission from the publisher, Syracuse University Press.