"All Hebrews Are Our Brothers"

Published: July 18th 2010
in Culture » Art

Shalom Adixhes and daughter Nina, a Jewish family rescued in Shkoder, Albania.

The Teck Gallery at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver is a little-known gallery that mostly draws the attention of curious students on breaks between classes. Exhibits are often upstaged by the large window that looks onto the beauteous North Shore mountains, so it takes a particularly great one to pull focus.


Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II is a collection of unassuming black-and-white photographs taken by Norman H. Gershman and assembled by curator Bill Jefferies. Gershman went on a five year artistic pilgrimage to research the Albanian people who provided safe haven for Jews during the Holocaust. What resulted were stark photographs of men and women standing in front of the very homes where Jews were hidden, holding relics belonging to those they saved either presented as gifts or entrusted in their care for safekeeping – conch shells from a Greek captain, a collection of Hebrew books. One person holds a framed certificate of honour presented by the State of Israel's Righteous Among the Nations award granted by Yad Veshem.


Beside each picture are first-person accounts of individual memories of the Jews they housed, the strong relationships that followed and why Muslims risked their lives to save Jewish people.


The subjects stare directly into the camera with candid expressions that show the  barefaced humanity of a nation that prides itself on putting the will of God as He intended it to be – taking care of each other without concern for their particular religious creed.


The statements recall a powerful era when people took great care of each other at great personal risk and serve as an inspiration in the midst of current world strife.


“I did nothing special. All Hebrews are our brothers,” reads one account.


“Why hide a Jew? We just did it. It was the thing to do,” reads another.


As Gershman's subjects tell it, saving Jews was seen as a privilege or a gift to do God's work.


The stories have an almost romantic quality that juxtaposes normal comings-and-goings of daily life set against the backdrop of Nazi occupation and harrowing near-death experiences – drinking homemade raki with Nazis while Jews hid under the bed and in the closet, disguising Jews as family members, hiding Jewish jewels in a bicycle tire. Many tell of how they lost touch with those they hid when Tito's Communism overtook Albania and it was forbidden to receive letters from outside the country, giving the exhibit the feel of scattered human puzzle pieces looking to be reassembled.


Most notable is the picture of the son of King Zog, whose father issued 400 passports for Jews to leave Vienna, if for no other reason than the humble lack of ornamentation that usually accompanies royalty.


While heartfelt and interesting, what the exhibit lacks is engagement. While the stories are deeply moving, the activity of looking at the picture and reading segregates the viewer from the more  experiential aspect. It would be much more viscerally profound if the stories were narrated through recorded audio to allow the viewer to connect to the image while listening, instead of having to refer back to the image while reading.  But perhaps Gershman intended for us to share the challenge he must have encountered when putting the visual and narrative pieces together, or perhaps he wanted to provide a taste of the documentary film God's House, which explores the same topic. However, it is a shame that many might read only a few of the stories and then move on without giving each photo and story its just due.


Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II continues through to October 29. Teck Gallery is at the Harbour Centre building at 515 West Hastings St., Vancouver, B.C. For more information, visit www.sfu.ca/artgallery/teckexhibitions.html.

Related articles: (Albania, Holocaust, Simon Fraser, Teck Gallery)

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