By Julie Shapiro
TRIBECA — In the wake of the controversy over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque," a TriBeCa gallery is showcasing photos of Albanian Muslims who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II.
The 30 portraits at Soho Photo Gallery on White Street, accompanied by their subjects’ stories, speak powerfully to the quiet heroism of Muslims who hid more than 2,000 Jews from the Nazis 70 years ago.
Larry Davis, a member of Soho Photo, has been planning the show of renowned photographer Norman Gershman’s work for more than a year, long before the national firestorm over the Park51 mosque and community center, which is located a short walk away.
"The timing was just incredible," Davis said Tuesday. "It’s the extremists who make the noise and get the attention, but these ordinary people don’t get heard. Hopefully this [show] will give them a voice."
The show is called Besa, for the code among Albanian Muslims that obligated them to help those in need. The Albanian Muslims believed that their home belonged to God first, and then to guests, and last to the people who lived there, which meant they did not hesitate to take in Jews who were in danger, Davis said.
Gershman, an international photographer and former TriBeCa resident who now lives in Colorado, first heard about the role of Albanian Muslims in 2002, and he was immediately captivated.
"Whoever heard of Muslims saving Jews?" said Gershman, 78, in a phone interview this week. "That's why I did it. The essential message is: There are good people in the world."
Through trips to Albania over the past several years, Gershman met many of the families that rescued Jews during World War II, and he took intimate portraits of them with any memorabilia that remained. He has since compiled a book and a film that will be shown in festivals starting this fall.
"Why should we be honored?" one Albanian man asked Gershman. "We did nothing special. We did what any Albanian would do. We are all human."
Since the collection debuted in New York in 2008, it has traveled to more than 75 venues around the world, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Also this month, some of the photos will be on display at the House of Lords in England, said Laura Kruger, who originally curated the show for the Hebrew Union College Museum.
"It’s become a bridge," Kruger said "It’s one of the few positive bridges between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world."
Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews During World War II is on display at the Soho Photo Gallery, 15 White St., Wednesday to Sunday 1 to 6 p.m. through Jan. 29. An opening reception will be held Jan. 4 from 6 to 8 p.m., and photographer Norman Gershman will discuss his work there Jan. 21 from 6 to 9 p.m.