The Talmud and the Qur'an talk state the following: "And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a), Qur'an 5:32
As Holocaust Memorial Day draws in on January the 27th, it is worth remembering the stories of the 'Righteous' - those who saved Jews in the Holocaust and little is even known about Muslims who saved Jews in the Holocaust.
One of the most interesting facts that is not known widely is the tradition and code of BESA that has been practised in Albania and which involves hospitality and protection as part of the culture within the region and which has been enhanced by traditional Islamic values of hospitality and care for visitors and travellers.
During the Holocaust, there were 2 countries where the numbers of Jews went up as Jewish men and women and families sought refuge from the rapacious strategy of the Nazis as they transported Jews from afar as Greece to the death camps of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. The two countries where Jewish populations went up included Bulgaria and the second was Albania. In Albania, the Jewish population rose from about 200 people to over 2,000 by the end of the war.
Quite a few of the documented stories of Muslims who saved Jews come from Albania, followed by North Africa and Turkey. Yet, many of these stories have never been properly investigated and it seems that the politics of the Middle East has slowly but surely suppressed any desire to investigate these stories that make up the history and the heritage of Muslim communities. These stories will provide Muslim communities with a sense of pride at a time when media stories are overwhelmingly negative.
So, as many of the stories are lost as people pass away, I wanted to highlight just some of the stories of the Righteous, those 71 individuals deemed Righteous by Yad Vashem who put their lives at risk for no gain, except to do the right thing and to save the weak from those who sought to eradicate them. Many of these stories can be found in a small booklet that Faith Matters put together and which are a source for inspiration and which show the courage of the Righteous, thousands of whom saved the lives of Jews in Europe and the Mediterranean.
Take for example, Zejneba Hardaga and Ahmed Sadik who sheltered and brought food to persecuted Jews in the Balkans. Zejneba provided her home as a safe space for a fleeing Jewish family whilst German forces looked to round up Jews and transport them to death camps. Ahmed Sadik on the other hand, warned his Jewish friends on a train that they were being deported to a death camp and took them off the train to a safe place of shelter where he provided them with fake documents to escape, allowing them to escape. Ahmed for his troubles was arrested by the Germans and sent to his death for his actions. He spent his last few days travelling on the same train-line on which he had taken off his Jewish friends.
Or take Albanians Destan Balla and Lima Balla. Despite the fact that many families in Albania were short of food and basic elements for survival, they rescued fleeing Jews. When the Germans invaded Pristina in 1941 the Lazar family were provided with papers to flee by a Turkish Muslim and which led them to Albania. They eventually ended up high in the mountains in a village called Shengjergj in Albania where villagers were observing the holy month of Ramadan and were fasting. Knowing that accepting Jews could lead to death, the village welcomed the family and the arrangements were largely handled by Destan and Lima Balla, a young Muslim couple who looked after the Lazars and shared with them food, water, firewood, clothing and shelter. What little they had, they shared without thought. In fact, when one the Lazars, (Sara Navon), went into Labour, Lima helped to deliver the boy.
What was particularly heroic about this couple was the fact that in a small village, the arrival of 18 strangers would have raised eyebrows and would have probably led to the Germans finding out. In fact, the local Albanian police force knew that the villagers were sheltering Jews and turned a blind eye and even when German patrols swept through the village, lookouts informed the villagers to hide the Jewish family so that they were safe.
So, what do these tales tell us about the Righteous? They tell us that for many, faith played a role in wanting to save lives. Though, there were those who had not faith and who believed in the protection of Jews, gypsies, gay people and those with disabilities. Whilst the title of the Righteous go to those who protected Jews, there were people of faith and no faith who simply did the right thing and who saved the lives of people that the Nazis targeted because of their warped and extreme views on racial theories.
So for those who now push a narrative that the history of Jews and Muslims is one of conflict, you are wrong. For those who try and spin the anti-Muslim bigoted narrative that Muslims are somehow 'evil' and supported only the Nazis, they fail to see in these stories the reality of Muslims who saved Jews in the Holocaust. For those who believe that human relationships and the desire to protect life overcome and triumph over murder and inhumanity, these stories are living testament to this fact. If anything, these stories last the ages of time since they give us hope. Hope for one another and hope that in our darkest moments, the will to live and protect triumphs.