In these tumultuous times of rife, uncertainty and conflict between religions, a new photographic exhibition opening this July at Holocaust Museum Houston takes an in-depth look at the compassion and commonality between Muslims and Jews during one of the world’s most traumatic periods, the Holocaust.

“Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews during the Holocaust” depicts the heroic stories of Albanian Muslims who showed a heart-melting kindness and righteous determination to save Jews – those of Albanian origin and refugees alike – from extermination despite great danger to themselves.

Albania, a European country with a Muslim majority, succeeded where other European nations failed in dealing with Nazi Germany. Prior to World War II, some 200 Jews lived in Albania. After Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, hundreds of Jews from Yugoslavia, Germany, Greece, Austria and Serbia crossed the border into Albania. By the war’s end, almost all Jews living within Albanian borders during the German occupation had been saved.

The exhibit opens Friday, July 17, 2009, and runs through Feb. 7, 2010 in the Museum’s Central Gallery at the Morgan Family Center, 5401 Caroline St., in Houston’s Museum District. Admission is free. The public is invited to a free preview reception from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 16. Visit www.hmh.org/register.asp to RSVP online.

The exhibition stems from a five-year project by Colorado-based photographer Norman Gershman, who set out to collect the names of righteous, non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. He discovered that some of the names were of Albanian Muslims. He then began a quest to meet and photograph the Albanian rescuers or their descendents. During his interviews, when he asked why they had rescued Jews, the resounding response was “Besa,” a code of honor deeply rooted in Albanian culture and incorporated in the faith of Albanian Muslims.

Besa means literally “to keep the promise.” One who acts according to Besa is someone who keeps his word, someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family. So when the Germans occupied Albania in 1943, the local population refused to comply with the Nazis’ orders to turn over lists of Jews residing in Albania. Albanians took fleeing Jews into their homes, lived with them as family and protected them at great peril.

Under their culture, the honor of helping someone in need is so prized, according to Gershman, that Albanians fought over who would take the Jews into shelter. There is no evidence, he says, of any Jew ever being turned over to the Nazis by an Albanian.

“There was no government conspiracy, no underground railroad, no organized resistance of any kind – only individual Albanians, acting alone, to save the lives of people whose lives were in immediate danger. My portraits of these people, and their stories, are meant to reflect their humanity, their dignity, their religious and moral convictions, and their quiet courage,” he said.

Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel has since recognized 63 Albanians as “Righteous Among the Nations.”

An exhibit of Gershman’s photographs also has been displayed previously at Yad Vashem as well as at the headquarters of the United Nations in January 2008 as part of International Holocaust Remembrance Day activities. The exhibit is based on Gershman’s book “Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During World War II,” which documents the stories of 65 Albanian families.

Gershman’s mission is to use art as the primary form of expression to break down stereotypes and build upon the deep roots of humanism that cross racial, ethnic, religious and national boundaries. His photographs are purposeful. What comes though is his overriding belief in the goodness of the people reflected in his portraits.

His inspiring message of hope and compassion in these days of conflict and confrontation aims to help heal a fractured world. As professor Akbar Ahmed of American University in Washington, D.C., wrote in the forward to Gershman’s book, “Building these bridges across cultures and religions is no longer an intellectual pastime, it is an imperative if we are to survive the 21st century.”

Gershman embarked on his career as a photographer at a relatively late age. He studied with and was influenced by the works of the photographers Ansel Adams, Roman Vishniac and Arnold Newman, as well as under the tutelage of Cornell Capa, the founder and director of the International Center of Photography in New York. Ultimately, Gershman developed a personal style focusing on portraiture, in which he lends a personal touch emphasizing the special personality of the subject.

His works can be found in a variety of public collections, including the International Center of Photography, New York; the Brooklyn Museum; the Aspen Museum of Art and a number of galleries in Russia. He lives and works in Aspen, Colorado.

A film documentary of “Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II” is currently in production for international release in 2009.

The exhibit is traveled by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum and is underwritten by the Marek Family Foundation; the Hildebrand Fund; Margaret E. and Kenneth T. Snyder, Sr.; The Linbeck Family Charitable Foundation; The Strake Foundation; Bank of Texas; Grocers Supply Co., Inc.; and the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Charitable Foundation; with special thanks to Continental Airlines, official airline of Holocaust Museum Houston.

Holocaust Museum Houston is dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust, remembering the 6 million Jews and other innocent victims and honoring the survivors’ legacy. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, the Museum teaches the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy. Holocaust Museum Houston is free and open to the public and is located in Houston’s Museum District at 5401 Caroline St., Houston, TX 77004.

For more information about the Museum, call 713-942-8000 or visit www.hmh.org.