Theo Canter
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Albania’s Post-Communist Rebirth Gets a Jewish Twist

A visit to the only Jewish museum in Albania—Europe’s most Muslim nation and Islam’s most secular

Theo Canter
January 17, 2019
Theo Canter
Simon VrushoTheo Canter

On a windy mountaintop citadel in Berat, Albania, in a church lit only by incense lamps and their dim reflections off the peeling gold-painted icons, I met Simon Vrusho, the creator and director of the Muzei Solomoni, Albania’s first and only Jewish museum, which opened earlier this year.

I visited Albania with the 50 other students from my Jerusalem-based gap year program, Kivunim, studying the intersection of Jewish history and culture with world societies and religions in a quest for greater mutual understanding. Here I was, a kippah-wearing Greek/Polish Jew from New York, in a centuries-old Byzantine church, in Europe’s most Muslim, Islam’s most secular, and perhaps the world’s most tolerant country. Our group probably doubled the Albanian Jewish population for the course of our stay.

Vrusho, the museum proprietor, is small and wizened with large sparkling eyes. In his few words of English, he shared his passion for Albanian Jewish history. His face lit up when I told him that my family had roots in Ioannina, a town in northern Greece not far from Berat. He told me that a number of Jews from Ioannina had settled in Vlore, a port city on the Adriatic in the south, home to Albania’s only synagogue, which was destroyed in World War I, but subsequently rebuilt. Today, the synagogue still stands in Vlore, though no Jews remain there.

The museum sits in an inconspicuous storefront along a quiet cobblestone street leading up to the citadel of Berat. The four walls of its small space are covered from floor to ceiling with documents, artifacts, and photos detailing the two millennia-long Albanian Jewish story.

Albania’s Jewish history begins with the arrival of shipwrecked Roman boats carrying Jewish slaves from Israel, shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. (Archaeologists recently discovered the ruins of a synagogue in Sarandë, dating to the fifth century.) Following the Inquisition, hundreds of Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain found refuge there. During Ottoman times, more Jews settled from nearby Greece and Italy. Even a few Ashkenazi merchants from Poland and Germany joined the multiethnic mix. Albania’s Jews were well integrated and during the national uprising of 1911, fought for both the Ottoman and Albanian national cause. Authorities on both sides then accused the Jewish community of collaborating with the enemy.

The native Albanian Jewish population at its peak numbered only a few hundred. Today, there are barely one hundred left in the Muslim-majority country of 3 million. In a real life version of the joke about the one Jew found alone on a desert island with two synagogues, what remains of the tiny Albanian Jewish community is divided over the Israeli-appointed Chief Rabbi of Albania, whom many reject.

Outside Vlore and Durres, Berat is the most important city for Jews in Albania. Vrusho’s new book The Jews of Berat is currently available only in Albanian, but he hopes to translate it to other languages, to share with visitors who come from across the globe. In this first year of operation, the museum has hosted over 400 guests from America, Israel, Europe, even China. As we were leaving, we passed Jews from Argentina on their way in. “I feel safer wearing a kippah here than back home” one of them told me.

Berat is less surprising as the site of a Jewish museum than one might expect; much like Jerusalem it has ruins from all the great empires (Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Persia, Ottoman,) is surrounded by a beige stone wall, and has sites of significance to all three Abrahamic faiths. Nicknamed “city of stacked windows” for its hillside terraces of white limestone houses, and designated a UNESCO world heritage site for its unique architecture, Berat is built like a fortress city in a valley along the Osum river, south of Tirana. Even in tolerant Albania, Berat is known for centuries-long religious coexistence between Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Sunnis, Bektashis, and Jews.

In Berat, the Ottomans (who were less tolerant than the native Albanians,) destroyed most of the dozens of churches that were initially there. During communism, when Enver Hoxha’s regime destroyed many more mosques and churches, locals saved the Church of Mary’s Dormition, where we met Vrusho, by turning it into a museum of iconography and religious art. The famous icon artist Onufri painted churches across the Ottoman and Byzantine world, as well as this church’s impressive iconostasis (the painted screen of icons in front of the altar) and many of the works inside. Inside the dimly-lit altar, the walls are decorated with ornate but long-faded chipping frescoes, and the dank smell of incense still permeates the space despite years of disuse.

In the floor is a hidden niche where the Berat Purple Codex was discovered in the 1970s. Written in Greek by monks in the sixth century, the codex, comprising the gospels of Matthew and Mark, is one of the oldest written copies of the Christian bible. It predates the Catholic-Orthodox split of 1054, and differs from both canons. Realizing the significance of the book, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin all tried desperately to find it, torturing and killing Albanians in the process, but the monks and villagers who had hidden it refused to give up their centuries-long secret.

The people of Berat dying to protect their book reflects the ancient Albanian concept of Besa: a promise of faith, a marker of honor, an unbreakable vow. Like the biblical imperative, Xenia in Homeric epics, and the code of Pashtunwali upheld by Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Besa is a mandate to protect the stranger and foreigner, even at the risk to one’s own life. As one Albanian saying goes “Besa is worth more than gold; It is better to die than break one’s Besa.”

Thanks to Besa, in a little-known story unparalleled anywhere else in Europe, during World War II, Albania not only saved all 200 of its Jews, but sheltered hundreds of others from countries across the continent, even while Nazi soldiers occupied the country. Albanian civilians, the majority of them Muslim, absorbed and hid 2,000 Jews from Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, Germany, and Austria. The Albanian embassy in Berlin granted visas to Jews from any country, when no other country would. (Albert Einstein escaped Germany in 1935 with Albanian papers). When all other countries turned away Jews fleeing persecution, Albania’s King Zog ordered the Albanian border guards to welcome in Jewish refugees. While in every other European country Jews were killed, the Albanian Jewish population increased tenfold from 1939 to 1945.

This remarkable story has only come to light in recent years. Albania’s Communist dictator Enver Hoxha was so brutal that he declared war on the USSR and Yugoslavia for being insufficiently Communist, and Stalin criticised him as being too anti-religious. Even the smallest ties to religion, let alone talking to people or press in western countries like America or Israel, were strictly outlawed, which discouraged righteous Albanians from sharing their stories. Jews who Albanians saved, most of whom moved to Israel and America, were likewise reluctant to appear glorifying a country associated with such brutal Communist dictatorship. The deeply moving 2009 documentary BESA: The Promise follows American photographer Norman Gershman as he traces stories of Jews saved in Albania and their Albanian rescuers and descendants. In Berat, we met the niece of Mihallaq Sania, a righteous Albanian, in the very same mountaintop farmhouse where her ancestors saved a Jewish family. “The Jews could walk around in public. They only hid when the Nazis were patrolling,” she said. “The locals knew the Jews were there and didn’t care. They welcomed them with open arms.” Continuing the Albanian tradition of hospitality, she generously gave us coffee, cookies, fruit, and knitted hats. In a home that could barely fit one Albanian family and one Jewish family, we managed to fit 50 Jews. In Tirana, we met the son of Beqir Qoqja, another righteous Albanian featured in the movie. “Even today, any Albanian would do it in a heartbeat, no matter the risk,” he declared. “We won’t let a knock on the door go unanswered.”

Impressed by the tolerance of the Albanian people, in 1935 British journalist Leo Elton suggested a Jewish state be established there. The same year, the Jewish American ambassador to Albania, Herman Bernstein, wrote “There is no trace of any discrimination against Jews in Albania. Albania happens to be one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist, even though Albanians themselves are divided into three faiths.”

Today, Muslim and Christian Albanians intermarry and take each other’s names and traditions. Although Albania is 70 percent Muslim, two of the country’s biggest national heroes—medieval warrior Skanderbeg and Saint Mother Teresa—are Christian. (Other Albanian heroes more well-known in the west include pop stars Dua Lipa and Bebe Rexha, as well as John Belushi.) As a result of a half-century of brutal Communist suppression of both Christianity and Islam, as many as two thirds of Albanians identify as non-practicing, secular, or atheist. Since pre-Islamic times, when the country was comprised of disparate tribes, what unites Albanians is their nationality and their honor—religion is secondary.

As I walked through the main street of this Muslim city—alongside women in headscarves and bearded men in prayer caps—I felt as safe wearing a kippah as I do on the Upper West Side. In contrast, in neighboring Greece and Bulgaria, with comparatively larger Jewish communities (around 5,000 in each) and far richer Jewish history, none of the Jews I met felt completely safe being visibly Jewish in public.

In another important part of its Jewish heritage, Berat claims to be the burial site of Sabbatai Zvi, the 17th-century kabbalist and false messiah. After his conversion to Islam, and subsequent exile to Ulcinj, Montenegro, Zvi kept up a relationship with the Jews of nearby Berat until his death. (Another site in Albania, as well as one in Montenegro both claim to be his grave as well.) Zvi biographer Gershom Scholem notes that Berat remained a pilgrimage site for Zvi’s followers through the 20th century.

These followers, known as Donmeh, practiced Islam outwardly but remained a closed underground community with some Jewish elements to their practice, with their own distinct mosques and schools. Their simultaneous connection with, and separation from, both Muslims and Jews made them middlemen in the Ottoman empire. Hundreds, if not thousands, remain to this day in Turkey, where they are synonymous with conspiracy theories and the so-called deep state, like the Freemasons or Illuminati in America. A modern-day secret cult, their layers of mystery evoke an aura of Indiana Jones or National Treasure.

When I stumbled upon Berat’s main mosque, Xhamia e Mbretit (Sultan’s Mosque), and found it closed for renovation, the caretaker generously opened its doors for me. He spoke no English, so we communicated in Greek and Italian, of which most Albanians understand at least a bit. Upon realizing I was Jewish, he showed me the mosque courtyard, now overgrown by grass, where a fenced-off stone box with two steles on either end stands carved with Turkish Arabic calligraphy — Zvi’s purported grave. At the other end of the courtyard is a smaller mosque, the Teqeja e Helvetive (Halvati’s Shrine), with two floral motifs resembling Jewish stars carved in stone above the door. Though I could find no evidence, our guide floated the idea that the space was once a Donmeh mosque. Today, the site is a tekke, a holy shrine for Bektashis (Islamic mystics,) who comprise the largest religious sector in Albania. Bektashis are known for their open-mindedness, and emphasis on spirituality over practice. Much like early Hasidism, they drink, sing, dance, and meditate to encounter God, and believe that every human soul has a divine spark of holiness. Unlike other branches of Islam, they have no codified Sharia, leaving observance up to the individual. It is likely that medieval kabbalists in the Ottoman Balkans mingled with these ideas, as the two ideologies bear a great resemblance.

As Albania thaws from Communism, its urban citizens actively orient themselves away from the east by adopting western names, dress, food, music, and architecture. A large statue in Tirana honors George Bush, the first American president to visit Albania, as a harbinger of western freedom. Several of the thousands of Cold-War era bunkers constructed in anticipation of a foreign attack now comprise the powerful Bunk’Art Museum: an educational memorial to the decades of terror, as well as a contemporary art space. The bunker is eerily reminiscent of Yad Vashem: inside the staircase, beneath photographs of the thousands of Albanians murdered by Hoxha, neon letters spell out Primo Levi’s words “those who forget their past are condemned to relive it.”

With modern progress, their ancient culture and traditions like Besa begin to disintegrate. A university student in Tirana told me that Besa is “archaic, only for our grandparents, or hicks in the country.” This ages-old concept of honor and hospitality grows out of place in an era of Venmo and AirBnb.

Theo Canter is a graduate of Abraham Joshua Heschel high school in New York, and will be attending Oberlin College after spending a gap year on Kivunim.

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