WASHINGTON - A film documenting the heroism of Muslims who risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Nazi brutality has premiered last weekend at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, telling the story of the era that remained in the dark for decades.
It just seemed like such an important piece of history, Rachel Goslins, who directed the documentary, told CNN on Friday, August 3.
Seeing Muslims as heroes, and seeing them as heroes to Jews, is not a particularly common story in our world, she added.
The film, Besa: The Promise, tells the story of Albanian Muslims who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.
During the war, Albanians opened their borders and their homes to displaced Jews when many others in Europe turned them away.
Succeeding in what most European countries failed, no single Jew was turned over to Nazi authorities in Albania during its occupation.
Seen as a lesson in interfaith cooperation, the movie focuses on the overlapping journeys of two very different men.
The first is Norman Gershman, a Jewish-American photographer who for the last decade has photographed many of the Albanian Muslims who joined the effort to shelter Jews.
Gershman has been engaged in a 5-year project that honors stories of Albanian Muslims' heroism in saving thousands of Jews, who either lived in Albania or sought refugee there, during World War II.
The project began when he was seeking out photographs of righteous, non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust, in New York.
Gershman was amazed to find among them Muslim names that he was told belongs to Albanians.
The film's second protagonist is an Albanian shopkeeper named Rexhep Hoxha, who was born after World War II but has struggled for decades to fulfill an oath that his now-deceased father swore in the 1940s.
Hoxha's parents sheltered a Jewish family during the Holocaust. When members of that family fled to Israel, they left behind a set of religious books, which the Hoxhas promised would be returned to them one day.
The movie premiered last weekend at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It is also to be shown in different parts of the United States in coming weeks.
Manifesting the Islamic teachings of keeping the promise and protecting the weak, Albania Muslims cite Besa, an Albanian code of honor that holds a person's oath as sacred, as the main reason behind protecting Jews.
We did nothing special. It's besa! Hoxha, who took a journey to Israel to fulfill his father's promise to return religious books to the Jewish family they sheltered during WWII.
The same message was conveyed to Gershman, who visited the families of Albanians who had sheltered Jews during the Holocaust.
Tracing Muslims' testimonies on the issue, he found people who were quick to downplay the significance of that act.
Gershman recalls how one man, whose parents had been involved in the effort to save Jews, said to him, So what? Anyone in Albania would have done the same thing. We did nothing special. It's besa!
One Albanian man told Gershman, I'd sooner have my son killed than break my besa.
Gershman said, Anyone in need, if they knock on your door, you have an absolute obligation to save them, to take care of them, irrespective of if they're friends, enemies, whatever."
The documentary is not the first to shed light on the era that remained in the darkness for decades.
Another film, Free Man, released in 2011, traces the heroism of the founder of the Grand Mosque of Paris in saving Jews from the Nazis.
The film comes almost five years after Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, revealed in his 2006 book, Among the Righteous, stories of Arabs who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
Satloff recalled a 1940 Foreign Ministry document shown to him by the current mosque rector Dalil Boubakeur about the Nazi suspicions of the mosque's role in sheltering Jews.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Holocaust refers to "systematic state-sponsored killing of Jewish men, women, and children and others by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II."
The commonly used figure for the number of Jewish victims is six million.
But the figure has been questioned by many European historians and intellectuals, chiefly French author Roger Garaudy.