In a trip described as “beyond amazing,” almost two dozen American Muslim and Jewish women visited Albania and Bosnia to learn about inter-ethnic hatred and the healing power of religious coexistence.
The 22 women, members of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom interfaith group, came from all over the United States to meet with mothers and wives of Bosnian genocide victims and the Albanian Muslim rescuers of Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Three husbands took part in the trip.
During the Jan. 11-19 trip the group met with Albania’s president and first lady, women parliament members, and Albania’s multi-faith religious leaders as well as the Jewish communities of both Albania and Bosnia.
“Albania was the only country in Europe where the number of Jews increased during the Holocaust,” said Sheryl Olitzky of North Brunswick, national executive director and cofounder of Salaam Shalom. “There were only 200 Jews there before the war, but 4,000 after it ended.”
In mostly Muslim Albania, Jewish refugees enjoyed the hospitality of a country that has the distinction of never turning over to the Nazis a single Jew lucky enough to cross its borders during the Shoa.
Although most of those Jews immigrated to Israel after the war as communism began to take hold, about 70 Jews remain, said Olitzky. Her husband, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, national director of Big Tent Judaism, conducted what community members said was the first Shabbat service there in decades.
And, like the Albanians who welcomed and sheltered Jews during the Holocaust, clerical leaders representing all sects of Christianity and Islam turned out at the presidential palace to welcome and offer hospitality to the Salaam Shalom group.
“The most important part about Albania is that everyone opened their doors to us and welcomed us and couldn’t stop thanking us because we were there to hear their story,“ said Olitzky. “We were there to thank the righteous people of Albania for what they did to protect Jews, and they were thanking us.”
The Albanian leg of the journey was preceded by a stop in Bosnia, where group members met the Mothers of Srebrenica, a group of women whose families were among the 7,000 to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians, known as Bosniaks, murdered in 1993 by Serbian forces.
“We learned that if a mother loses a son, her tears are the same no matter what,” said Simin Syed of Princeton Junction, one of 14 Muslim trip participants. “Everyone’s issues are really the same.”
Syed, an attorney who sits on the Salaam/Shalom national executive board, emigrated from India with her family at age five and grew up in Kentucky. She considers herself one of the “99.9 percent” of Muslims who do not hold radical views. She said she came on the trip to “nurture my relationship and friendship with the people I was traveling with.”
Highlights for her included taking “my Jewish sisters” to a mosque to demonstrate that “we all believe in the same goodness of God” and meeting Albanians to understand their culture of besa, or hospitality, through which they considered Jews fleeing from the Nazis to be guests rather than refugees.
“We may say it, but they actually live it,” said Syed.
For Susan Slusky of Highland Park, the contrast between Albania and Bosnia couldn’t have been more striking.
“They both have about the same ethnic groups, yet Bosnia has a terrible history of interethnic conflict, which is very sad, that Albania has been able to avoid,” said Slusky, a member of Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth. “While they have the same mix of ethnic groups, the Albanians don’t see themselves as ethnic in the same way they do in Bosnia.”
Slusky said her group came away “with a sense of history that has engulfed those places” and questioning “why some are able to transcend religious differences while some are not.”
During the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict, Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, targeted both Bosniaks and Croatian civilians, resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people, 80 percent of them Bosniak.
Olitzky said her group “walked in the footsteps” of the slaughtered with the mothers’ group. They viewed a graveyard with more than 7,000 markers, and couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity of the tragedy to the Holocaust.
While visiting the Sephardi Ladino-speaking Jewish community of Sarajevo, the group also learned about Jakob Finci, the leader of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Jewish community. Finci reestablished an organization, Benevolencija, which during the Bosnian-Serb siege of Sarajevo helped smuggle out those in danger, bring in desperately needed medicine, and ran day care and communications centers and a soup kitchen. La Benevolencija continues to sponsor nonsectarian humanitarian programs.
“Albania was a place where Muslims sheltered Jews and Bosnia was a place where Jews had sheltered Muslims, so in that way they mirrored each other,” said Slusky.
Olitzky said the trip participants “learned so much about hate toward the other and what can be done to stand up against that hate. It was beyond amazing.”