Tirana

Jewish Albania

more than a year ago
Not the first subject that springs to mind when thinking about Albania, the country’s 2,000-year-old Jewish contribution to Albanian culture always lived in the margins of history but is worth mentioning all the same.

Albania’s predominantly Sephardic Jews were predated by prisoners of the Romans who according to legend were washed ashore during a storm on the coast near Saranda in 70AD. Little is known about these first Jews, although some evidence remains, most notably in the form of the ruins of a synagogue in central Saranda, believed to have been built in the 6th century, and open to visitors. The country’s Sephardic Jews arrived in the region from the Iberian Peninsula when they were expelled during the Spanish Inquisition, and were settled in small communities in most major towns by the 16th century, including in Vlora which during this period had a Jewish majority.

Jews lived peacefully alongside their neighbours during the Ottoman period, with no reports of pogroms or other disturbances – an unusual situation in Eastern European history that must have had some bearing on the extraordinary story of the Jews in Albania during the German occupation between September 1943 and November 1944. During the Second World War, the Jewish population of Albania actually increased, from around 200 to some 2,000, due to an influx of mostly German and Austrian Jews who fled after the events of Kristallnacht in November 1938 (interestingly, the Albanian Embassy in Berlin was the last foreign representation in the Reich to continue issuing visas).

Albania claims to have saved every single Jew living in the country during the Holocaust, a remarkable record that can be accredited to besa, the Albanian honour code that in this case saw a flurry of activity including the hiding of Jews and the forging of documents that ‘Albanianised’ the Jewish population.

Jews were known to have actively fought with the Albanian partisans during the war, an act that was rewarded in true communist style with the complete ban on all religions, including Judaism, during the Hoxha period. After the changes of the early 1990s, most Jews left the country for Israel and the contemporary Jewish population of the country is minimal, the current figure reported to be around 200.

There’s very little in the way of Jewish-related things to see in Albania apart from the above-mentioned ruins in Saranda. Inside Tirana's National History Museum, a plaque in the corner of the Second World War exhibition room commemorates those who saved the country’s Jews: “In honour of the Albanian men and women who during the Nazi German occupation, 1943-1944, guided by the principle of besa and at great risk to themselves, sheltered and saved the lives of all Jewish people living in Albania.”

A synagogue opened briefly in Tirana in 2010 but soon closed after a number of controversies with the Jewish community. Israel opened an embassy in 2012, although its main purpose is that of commerce. There remains no official Jewish community in the country and kosher food isn’t available.

Literature on the subject in English or any other language for that matter is rare, the most notable author being Apostol Kotani, whose 1995 book "A History of Jews in Albania" can sometimes be found for sale online. This book contains a considerable amount of information on the Holocaust in Albania, and was one of the main inspirations behind the 2012 documentary film "Besa - The Promise", a fascinating tale that interweaves several stories relating to the extraordinary events that led to the saving of Albania’s Jews during the Second World War.
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