Upstander Connection

Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance

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Besa: Perhaps the Last Great Untold Story of World War II; Now on Exhibit

"Besa: A Code of Honor" exhibit tells the story of how Muslim Albanians rescued Jews during World War II

“Besa: A Code of Honor” exhibit tells the story of how Muslim Albanians rescued Jews during World War II

 

Seventy-five years ago, when the Nazis began their murderous takeover of Eastern Europe, Jews by the hundreds began relocating into what is now the Republic of Albania, seeking protection.

One of the poorest countries in Southeastern Europe, Albania, where nearly two-thirds of the population adheres to Islam, seemed one of the least likely places for Jews to seek refuge.

Prior to World War II only about 200 Albanians were Jewish. At the end of the war, about 2,000 Jews called Albania home.

Besa is the reason why.

Besa is an Albanian cultural precept, usually translated as “faith,” that means “to keep the promise” and “word of honor” and descends from the Kanun, a collection of laws which regulate Albanian social, economic and religious lives, together with traditional customs and cultural practices of the Albanian society that originated in the year 1400. Besa is an important part of personal and familial standing and is often used as an example of “Albanianism.”

Besa is the subject of a new exhibit at the Museum, “BESA: A Code of Honor,” which tells the story of the Muslim families of Albania who rescued Jews during World War II through the incredible photography of American Norman H. Gershman.

At the opening reception of the new exhibit on March 13 at the Museum, the award-winning film documentary, Besa: The Promise (2012), was screened before a standing-room only crowd at the Museum. The screening was preceded by a marvelous reception catered by the Albanian-American Cultural Center.

The documentary tells the story of the incredible courage of Albanians during World War II through the contemporary journeys of Gershman, who is urgently striving to document the lives of Jewish rescuers before they die, and a shop owner named Rexhep Hoxha, who is desperately trying to return a set of Hebrew prayer books to the survivor his family protected some 60 years earlier during Nazi occupation.

The journeys of the two men intersect at a highly emotional and impactful crossroads as the cameras roll, making the documentary’s ending reveal “a story like no other,” in the words of one reviewer.

On March 23, the Museum will present a matinee screening of the film at 2 p.m. at the Museum Theater. Admission is $5 and RSVPs are required at RSVP@DallasHolocaustMuseum.come. The public is invited.

Rather than hiding the Jews in attics or woods, Albanians brought them into their homes, gave them Albanian names and treated them as part of the family, noted Mary Pat Higgins, Museum President and CEO.

“My father never talked about what he did for the Jews,” one Albanian shop keeper said in the documentary. “He thought it was normal.”

So warm was the welcome for the Jews, said another woman in the film, that her parents used to say, “We don’t know any Jews. We only know Albanians.”

Said Mary Pat: “In a time when religion continues to serve as a divisive force in the world, we are honored to tell the story of these Upstanders, who saw beyond religious difference and chose to act, based on their ethics—Besa—to do what was right and defy Nazi orders. This is history that moves us forward.”

Doc Vranici, Executive Director of the Albanian American Cultural Center, thanked the Museum for hosting the exhibit and for helping share a piece of hidden history of Albania—that Muslims saved Jews during World War II.

Bordered by Montenegro to the northwest, Kosovo to the northeast, Macedonia to the east, and Greece to the south and southeast, Albania became a Communist country, following WW II where religion expression of any kind was punishable by lengthy prison terms. As part of the fall of Eastern bloc Communism in the late 1980s, Albania became a democratic Republic in 1991.

However, the effects of the transition from a centralized economy in a rigid communist state to a free market economy in a democratic republic have weighed heavily on Albania’s people, and particularly on its poor people. Despite the economy’s robust growth in recent years, almost one quarter of the population lives below the poverty level of $2 (U.S.) a day.

Albanians treatment of Jews during World War II proves “that there are far more good people in the world than bad,” Gershman said. “This little country—they have something to teach the world.”

The Presenting Sponsor of the new Museum exhibit, “BESA: A Code of Honor,” is the Carl B. & Florence E. King Foundation. Community Partners include the Albanian-American Cultural Center, Texas-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Congregation Beth Torah. Running through June 18, the exhibit is free with admission. More information at DallasHolocaustMuseum.org

-Chris Kelley, for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance

For Kindertransport Families, an Inconceivable Choice

It’s an inhumane choice that no parent should ever have to face: leave a child with a complete stranger, so the child might have a chance to survive persecution and, ultimately, avoid being murdered—or keep the child and most assuredly risk his or her life.

But for tens of thousands of mostly Jewish families during World War II, this incomprehensible decision became one they were forced to make.

The Kindertransport was a British rescue operation that enabled 10,000 primarily Jewish children to escape the Nazis in the months leading up to the declaration of WW II. The initiative required a convergence of simultaneous efforts over a compressed time frame—speedy immigration policy creation, collaboration among diverse religious groups and, perhaps, most importantly, the bravery of individuals.

“A History of the Kindertransport” is the subject of the newest special exhibit at the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance.  Running through Feb. 28, the exhibit is free with paid admission. On Sunday, Feb. 2, at 2 p.m. at the Museum, Dallas resident Magie Furst, a Kindertransport refugee, will tell her first-hand story at a special program.

“What do you say to a child that you, a mother, are about to confide to a stranger—a child you most likely will never see again?” asked Dr. Charlotte Decoster, Education and Public Engagement Coordinator for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance, at a special lecture on Jan. 16 entitled “The Last Kiss: Parents Saying ‘Goodbye’ During the Holocaust.”

For parents who applied to participate in the Kindertransport, the special immigration initiative was the only option for their children to escape persecution and almost certain death as Jewish families were rounded up and deported, ultimately, to death camps, said Dr. Decoster, an expert in the study of children hidden and rescued during the Holocaust.  In most cases, parents and their rescued children never saw one another again after the moment of separation, she said.

Through her research, Dr. Decoster, who is also an adjunct professor of history at the University of North Texas, where she received her Ph.D., discovered a painful process parents endured in separating from their children—from awareness of the option to save their children through coping with the aftermath of permanent separation from them.

At one deportation camp in southern France, where parents voluntarily turned 108 children over to Nazi resistance fighters who would see to the safety and security of the children, later research would reveal that 28 of the parents committed suicide.

“For the majority of parents who participated in the Kindertransport and similar child rescue efforts, they did what they thought was necessary—the hope of survival for their children and, by circumstance, their Jewish culture, heritage and religious practices,” Dr. Decoster said.

In most cases, rescued Jewish children were taken in by Christian families, including Catholics, and in some select cases Muslim families. While many of the children were allowed to practice Judaism, evidence reveals some efforts at converting the children to Christianity, Dr. Decoster said.

The Museum’s Kindertransport exhibit allows students to contemplate the event from the perspective of a child, offering them the opportunity to ask themselves the question—and leave behind their answers on a colored index card—“What treasured item would you bring?”

In the final analysis, the story of the Kindertransport, like many from the Holocaust, reflects themes rooted in the depravity of humanity and in its nobility, Dr. Decoster said. In the face of evil behavior that surely would have seen children murdered otherwise, “We saw Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities make a decision to act and do something to ensure the survival of children.”

Presenting sponsors for the Kindertransport exhibit are Ann Donald Zetley and Florence and Howard Shapiro in loving memory of Martin Donald. Community Partners include Catholic Charities of Dallas and the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.

Tickets to the Feb. 2 program featuring Margie Furst are $5 each. Register online at DallasHolocaustMuseum.org or RSVP to rsvp@dallasholocaustmuseum.org and pay at the door.

 –Chris Kelley, for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance.

 

 

 

 

A Play for the Ages: The Timekeepers Demonstrates What it Means to be Human

Actors Karl Lewis (Benjamin) and Jeremy W. Smith (Hans) bring an often forgotten story of the Holocaust to the stage.

Actors Karl Lewis (Benjamin) and Jeremy W. Smith (Hans) bring an often forgotten story of the Holocaust to the stage.

What divides us as human beings should not be stronger than what unites us. Yet, history is filled with examples where differences, especially in matters of truth and justice, have produced tragic results.

Conflict over what we share in common—and who we are as individuals—well, this is the stuff of compelling stage drama. Make the setting a World War II concentration camp during the Holocaust, at a Holocaust Museum, and the drama is groundbreaking.

Such is the case with The Timekeepers, a limited-run play now at the Dallas Holocaust Museum Theater on select nights through June 22. The subject matter is strictly for adults. Tickets are available online.

Directed by veteran Texas artistic director Joe Watts, The Timekeepers tells the story of a young-ish German homosexual and a conservative elderly Jewish man who are forced to work together in a camp, repairing watches for the Nazis.

At first, inmate #70649, a character named Benjamin played by veteran Dallas actor Karl Lewis, who wears a yellow star on his camp uniform, won’t even speak to his new colleague. Hans, inmate #2202, whose pink upside down triangle brands his character, played by actor Jeremy W. Smith, a SAG member with television credits, takes the rejection in stride, as though accustomed to it.

Fomenting—and sometimes mediating—the relationship is Capo, a petty thief and camp inmate who oversees the watch repair shop, played by actor Eric Hanson, who makes his debut theatrical performance in the production.

Benjamin was a highly regarded watchmaker in Berlin prior to his deportation. He is expert at repairing watches that Nazi guards confiscated from new camp arrivals. Hans lied about his mechanical abilities—he knows nothing about repairing watches—to avoid certain death as a failed laborer in a camp cement plant.

As is often the case in life where obvious differences overshadow commonalities upon initial meetings, time and humor eventually washes away prejudice and indifference and the two men discover each has a passion for a shared interest: opera.

The two men become friends and even rehearse scenes from an opera that they will perform at a show for the Finnish branch of the Red Cross who will be visiting the camp in a few days.

However, when the show is suddenly cancelled, their common passion for opera instantly disappears and pride and prejudice overtakes each again and erupts in a raw, disturbing, enlightening and all too familiar scene from daily life even today.

To say more about the play by Dan Clancey would spoil an incredibly impactful production by Theatre New West.

In introducing the play, truly a first-of-its-kind production for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance, President and CEO Mary Pat Higgins noted how the Museum is committed to telling the stories of all Holocaust victims.

“Homosexuals are among the Holocaust’s forgotten victims,” she noted. “The Timekeepers, while fiction, is based on a larger story and it allows us to bring the ‘forgotten’ into the light.”

The play continues Fridays and Saturdays, June 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 8 p.m. Talk back sessions with the director and cast will occur after Friday night performances.

By Chris Kelley, for the Dallas Holocaust Museum

Book Review: The Nazi Officer’s Wife

The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer presents an intriguing look at the mindset of  Austrian and German citizens before, during, and after World War II. Although the title implies that Edith’s story began with her marriage, the book actually begins before WWII, when Edith is a student in Austria. The author shares her story of survival in great detail, providing the reader with a feeling of what it must have been like to experience life hiding in plain sight.  Her story will pull you along until the very end, taking twists and turns you never would have predicted. In this book, you’ll meet Upstanders, bystanders, perpetrators, and victims, as well as discover the truth that sometimes people can be cruel and kind all at once.

Book Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

There are undeniably many stories told about the Holocaust, each from a unique perspective. Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife reveals the story of a Polish family who happen to run the Warsaw zoo when the Nazis invade Poland. As their animals are taken to Germany, killed, or left to fend for themselves, Jan and Antonia Zabinski use their unique position to take in Jewish citizens who have gone into hiding. While Antonia cares for the zoo’s many visitors, as well as her family and the remaining animals, Jan quietly works in the Polish resistance.

This tale is one that will engage your mind and senses, making you feel as though you are watching the events taking place, rather than just reading words on a page. Ackerman writes as though the story she is telling is fiction, although this work is nonfiction. The truth of the story will give you even more reason to care about the characters and their fates, and the masterful storytelling will give you the desire to read until you know how things end.

If you would like to learn more about this book, or would like to purchase a copy to read yourself, check it out here.

 

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