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Amid the current climate of fear and misconceptions about Islam, consider the little-known story of how Muslims in Albania risked their lives to shelter and save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust seven decades ago, says an American artist who photographed them.
"The Albanian people are extraordinarily unique," explains fine arts photographer Norman Gershman, whose portraits of those Albanian Muslims go on display Monday at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery, 600 Shaftesbury Blvd., until Nov. 14.
"They have no prejudices regarding other religions and other cultures."
That lack of prejudice, combined with an elevated sense of honour and duty to their fellow human beings -- called Besa -- led the Albanians to save about 2,000 Jews during the Second World War.
Besa means to "keep the promise" and it is considered the highest ethical code in the country.
Brought to Winnipeg by the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre, the exhibit of Gershman's black-and-white portraits tells the story of Muslims taking Jews into their homes and treating them like family, issuing them false documents, and even disguising Jewish women with Muslim head coverings, says Belle Jarniewski, chair of the Holocaust centre.
"It was the protection of the Muslims that kept these people alive," she says of the stories behind the photographs.
"It was through this experience that Jews and Muslims discovered they had much in common."
In addition to the gallery exhibit, two other related events will connect the city's Muslim and Jewish communities next week.
Screening twice during the exhibit's run is a 75-minute documentary titled Besa: The Promise, which follows Gershman's quest to tell this unknown story, and his connection to Rexhep Hoxha, a Muslim-Albanian man whose father sheltered a Jewish family.
The film has a free public viewing, Tuesday at 7 p.m., at Canadian Mennonite University's Laudamus Auditorium, 500 Shaftesbury Blvd., followed by the exhibit's official opening.
Muslim and Jewish university students are invited to a students-only screening, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, where Winnipeg filmmaker Nilufer Rahman moderates a post-film discussion.
"The story reminded me that acts of heroism, small kindnesses and everything in between are around all us," says Rahman, who hadn't heard of the Albanians' actions before previewing the film.
"We can all be a part of finding them and bringing them to light, even if it means just sharing them around the dinner table."
Although Jews considered the deeds of Albanians heroic and righteous, many of the Muslims photographed just shrugged off their involvement, insisting they had done what anyone else would have done under the same circumstances, says Gershman, who first took his camera to the small European country in 2002.
He's since devoted 13 years of his life to the project, which includes a book, several travelling exhibits, and a charitable foundation promoting cultural and religious tolerance (www.eyecontactfoundation.org).
"Many Albanians looked at me like I'm nuts. They'd say 'So what? Any Albanian would have done the same,'" says the 83-year-old Jewish-American photographer, who describes himself as a student of Sufism.
"This concept of Besa in a little country (like Albania) has something to tell the world. That's why it's so important."
And it needs to be important in a country like Canada as well, says Jarniewski, part of a group of Winnipeggers working to bring Yazidi refugees from the Middle East to Canada.
"We often remember courageous acts by individuals, but in this case it is an entire community, an entire group of people who acted according to their beliefs that prevented them from allowing another set of people being annihilated," she says. "And it was so rare at a time when the rest of the world was silent, including Canada."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
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