Albania is one of the very few if not the only Muslim countries in which Jews have always been welcomed. During the Holocaust, Albanians did what they could to save Jews who found refuge there from the Nazi genocide. Jews have lived in Albania since it was the Roman province of Illyricum in the first century AD. With the creation of the State of Israel, many such ancient communities are living out their last days and preserving their unique culture and customs is a very worthwhile endeavor. Below is a touching piece by our Albanian partners from Exit.
The “Solomoni” Museum in Berat is dedicated to the city’s extensive Jewish history and the coexistence between Jews, Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholic inhabitants over the last 500 years.
On my last trip to Berat, my friend Jeff arranged for me to visit and to meet the wonderful Simon Vrusho, curator and tour-guide extraordinaire.
Since the museum’s inauguration at the beginning of 2018, the Solomoni Museum has had visitors from all over the world; England, Israel, Swede, Turkey, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Singapore, China, and America. Dedicated to the fascinating story of Jews in Albania, Simon has also written a book “The Jews of Berat” that is due to be translated into English this year.
As I walked into the museum, I was greeted by the beaming face and kind eyes of Simon Vrusho who grasped my hand with both of his and welcomed me warmly to his museum. An instantly likable man, he spoke full of pride at the story of his people and their existence in this part of the world, as well as all the examples of peaceful and tolerant coexistence between Albanians of different religious beliefs.
He regaled me with one particular story that I already knew, how Muslim and Christian Albanian’s risked their lives during WWII, to shelter over 2000 local and foreign Jews and to protect them from the invading Nazi forces.
According to Albanian Historian, Apostol Kotani, Jews could have arrived in Albania as early as 70 C.E according to Roman sources that mentioned ships with Jewish captives, on their way to Rome. Many of these captives were washed up on the southern shores of Albania and their descendants are believed to have built the Saranda synagogue in the fifth century C.E.
Not much is known about the Jewish community in Albania between then and 1281 when a small group of Jewish merchants moved to the port city of Durres, an important centre for global trade at this time. Then during the 15th and 16th Centuries, Jews accounted for 1/3 of the population of Vlore before moving towards Berat in the 17th Century. Between then at the mid-1800’s some converted to Islam or Christianity, but come the 19th Century, an influx of Jews from Ioannina settled in Gjirokaster, Vlore, Berat, Elbasan, and Shkodra, amongst others.
The Jewish community was involved in the 1912 struggle for independence, but by 1930, the Census only showed 204 Jews living in the country.
Then, after Hitler came to power, Jews from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Germany began arriving in Albania. Following the Italian conquering of Yugoslavia and the subsequent annexing of Kosovo, more Jews relocated to Shkoder, Tirana, and Elbasan, as well as Berat. As the Germans occupied the country during 1942, the situation became desperate for Albania’s Jews, but the Albanian’s, ever faithful to their ancient code of hospitality, protected them from the German’s and refused to hand over their names.
Today less than a handful of Jews remain in Albania, but Simon’s museum stands as a testament to their long and rich history in various parts of the country. Here you can explore the Jewish families of the past, along with the way that they lived in harmony with their Christian and Muslim counterparts, with no hatred or discrimination being levied on anyone based on their religious beliefs.
Albania’s history of tolerance and acceptance, and even the modern-day attitude where no-one really cares what religion anyone is is a prime example of how Abrahamic religions can coexist happily and tranquilly, for generation upon generation.
Simon Vursho wrote a book about the history of Jews in Albania, it is currently only available in Albanian and I am fundraising to translate it into English and publish it so that his memory can live on. You can find the fundraising page here.