Wartime Switzerland closed its borders to Jews. Albanian Muslims chose to save them. These heroes, captured on camera and now on show, should serve as a lesson to all, participants heard at a Holocaust remembrance event in Lucerne on Tuesday.
United States Ambassador to Switzerland Suzi LeVine told the gathering of around 200 representatives from politics, society and the diplomatic community that cooperation and tolerance – especially against the backdrop of a rise in violent extremism - were needed to ensure that the Holocaust was never repeated.
The ceremony was held against the backdrop of the “Besa – A Code of Honour”exhibition of photographs by Norman H. Gershman, which has been touring Switzerland, showing portraits of Muslim Albanians who saved Jews during the Second World War.
Speakers, including Gabrielle Rosenstein, president of the Swiss Jewish Relief Association, and former cabinet minister Elisabeth Kopp, pointed to this little-known episode as an example for all.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birchenau. Around 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were killed at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945.
“For me growing up the phrase ‘never again’ was an essential part of my language and how do we make sure that the tragedy that happened in World War Two with the murder of innocent Jews and others doesn't happen again,” said LeVine, who hosted the ceremony jointly with the ambassadors of the European Union, Israel, Britain, Albania, Kosovo and the organisers of the Besa exhibition.
The recent events in France, which included a shooting at a Jewish supermarket, were referred to by several speakers.
“The violent extremism that we are seeing on the rise stems from the same level of intolerance and the same level of lack of understanding of one another that happened prior to World War Two and I think we have an opportunity to again work together to combat that and to fight those forces together now,” LeVine commented afterwards.
For her part, the Swiss Jewish Relief Association’s Rosenstein said she saw a renewed rise of religious hatred. Here she made particular reference to the shooting in Paris. The Besa exhibition served to “strengthen our faith in humanity in these troubled times”.
“The fact that most of these Albanians were Muslims who saved Jews is very important to young people today and something that can be an ideal,” she told swissinfo.ch.
However, Switzerland, which had turned back many Jewish refugees at its borders, could do more mark the Holocaust, she suggested. There is no prominent memorial to these refugees or to those who went against official Switzerland to help them, such as border guard Paul Grüninger and diplomat Carl Lutz.
Around 30,000 Jews were allowed into Switzerland during the war. The 1999 Bergier report into Swiss wartime refugee policy found another 24,500 were turned away. However that figure is contested by renowned French Nazi hunter and historian Serge Klarsfeld, who says it is closer to 3,000. He blames imprecise archive material for the discrepancy.
Elisabeth Kopp, the first woman in government, made a comparison between how Switzerland closed its borders but Albania welcomed refugees with open arms. “But I also pointed out that the situation in Switzerland was completely different, it was surrounded by Nazi states and Albania was in the outskirts. But nevertheless, the Albanians’ behaviour towards these refugees moved me deeply,” she said.
“What we can learn today is that we shouldn’t have any prejudices, we shouldn’t think our religion to be the best one, we should protect minorities and not suppress then and that we should help when there is need,” added Kopp.
The Besa exhibition features 12 portraits of Albanian Muslims or their descendants who saved Jews during World War Two, as collected by photographer Gershman during six years of trips to the country.
When Gershman, an American, first learned during his research into Righteous Gentiles - non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust - that the small Balkan country had a Muslim majority, he was immediately intrigued.
“Whoever heard of a Muslim saving a Jew?” the 82-year-old photographer told swissinfo.ch. “That motivated me as did my background. I’ve studied with the Sufis, which is the mystical side of Islam. Clearly I’m Jewish and I see no problems with being Sufi and Jewish.”
According to Yad Vashem, the World Centre for Holocaust Research in Israel, unlike other European nations, almost all the Jews living within the Albanian borders during the German occupation were saved. There were even more Jews in Albania at the end of the war than beforehand.
Gershman’s images show family groups or individuals looking directly and proudly into the camera. Jewish refugees or neighbours were hidden in bunkers or taken to remote villages to avoid German patrols.
The photographer said that these families were inspired by the Koran, but also by the concept of Besa, “to keep the promise”: one who keeps his word, who can be trusted with one’s life and the lives of one’s family. “It is unique to the Albanian people, it’s nothing that is learned, nothing that is mandated, it’s just something they do,” Gershman explained.
The exhibition has been shown at the United Nations in New York, the Council of Europe and the Canadian parliament, and there is an accompanying film. Gershman received a standing ovation at the Lucerne ceremony for his work.
The Albanian embassy, which along with the Israeli and Kosovar embassies, as well as numerous other organisations, sits on the exhibition’s patrons’ committee, welcomed the “great impact on public opinion” that the Besa show has had.
Its ambassador to Switzerland, Ilir Gjoni, said that the messages conveyed were timely, “especially nowadays when the world seems to be growing crazy with extremism of all kinds, and this is a message of hope and the possibility that humanity can supersede over barbarity and brutality”.
“We are human beings and we should respect each other of our religious or political creed.”