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They Gave Them Their Word

July 2, 2009 By:
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King Leka I., whose parents were involved in the rescue efforts

Besa, a book of portraits of Muslims who saved Jews during World War II, is dedicated to the memory of Cornell Capa, which is highly appropriate in at least two senses. One is purely photographic. The crispness and depth of the black-and-white images rendered by photographer Norman H. Gershman that fill this book echo the quality and manner that pervaded Capa's work; Gershman is clearly one of the older master's finest pupils.

The second instance is biographical. Cornell Capa was the younger brother of the far more famous Robert Capa. The two boys were born in Hungary, where Cornell's full name was Kornél Friedmann. When his brother changed his name in his pursuit of a photographic glory, Cornell followed suit -- and picked up a camera as well.

The biographical link I spoke of, though, has to do with being raised in Hungary. Although Besa deals with Albanian Muslims who came to the rescue of Jews -- and Albania is far from Hungary -- Hungarians live in the same general "neighborhood" in terms of the Muslim-Christian clash that so defines Eastern Europe. Hungary may like to think of itself as more a part of the European tradition than Albania does; and it also sees itself as the country that stemmed the tide of Muslim influence on the continent. No matter the truth of these statements, the two countries share a good deal, at least on this score.

There is another link: Cornell Capa once spoke of his connection to Life magazine, where his brother had also made his mark in photojournalism. The younger Capa said that he and the magazine's editors "agreed right from the start ... that one war photographer" -- Robert was considered one of the world's greatest -- was enough for my family. I was to be a photographer of peace." Peace and co-existence are the bedrocks upon which Besa is built, both in terms of the images and the text.

The word "Besa" refers to an unshakable Albanian principle -- one's word of honor -- that Mordechai Paldiel of Yad Vashem explains in his foreword to Gershman's powerful portraits. "In Albania, when a person gives you his Besa to act in a certain way, then he is committed to abide by it whatever the circumstances.

This was coupled with another inherently Albanian folk principle -- that of giving refuge to someone in need of help. As a result, nearly all of the 2,000-odd Jews in Albania were spared the furnaces of Auschwitz, for they were hidden or otherwise sheltered by the broad masses of a mostly Muslim population. Survivors relate that Albanians vied with each other for the honor of sheltering the fleeing Jews, a phenomenon unheard of in other European countries under the heel of the Nazis."

Paldiel also relates that Gershman was so moved by the stories he was told by these rescuers -- or their relatives -- that he ended his assignment a changed man. Looking at these carefully rendered portraits, especially the careful gradations in the black-and-white images and the scrupulous attention to detail, the profundity of the photographer's experience is driven home repeatedly. Examining his work and reading the testimony of his subjects, whose stories were suppressed during the long postwar years of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, you can sense the profundity as if it were almost palpable.

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