Last Seder in Kosovo?

The seder that was organized for the Jewish community of Kosovo this year was most likely the last, as many of its members will be making their way to Israel.

Ted Siefer
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Ted Siefer

Prizren, KOSOVO - Every once in a while, some of the kitchen help peek from behind the window over the counter and stare curiously. There are two long rows of tables, at one of which most of the men are wearing skullcaps. Plates of matza are being passed around. At one end of the room a large blue American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) banner hangs, next to the many paintings of mosques - scenes from the picturesque streets of Prizren, where the JDC's fourth annual seder in Kosovo was being held last week.

JDC administrator Jackie Godlove rises to welcome the gathering. This is a time of transition, she says. This will unfortunately be the last seder held by her organization, which is scaling back operations in the coming months after four years in Kosovo. And very soon a large portion of the local Jewish community, on whose behalf the seders were originally held, will be moving to Israel.

Looking at the two extended families that comprise the whole of Kosovo's known Jewish community, it's hard to escape the feeling of being in the presence of the last Jews of Kosovo. The two families are the Zheltas and the Demiris. For both, their Jewish lineage stems from a grandmother, now deceased. Whatever Jewish identity they possess is well submerged beneath their main ethnicity and culture. In the case of the Zheltas, this is Turkish, the Turks being one of the larger minority groups in Kosovo, with an especially large concentration in Prizren. The older members of the family speak only Turkish. They refer to the family's Jewish matriarch as Lala Bala, who was born in Mitrovica in the north of Kosovo. Fifty years ago many members of her family immigrated to Israel. They never celebrated any holidays, nor observed any customs; regarding how they maintained their Jewish identity, they say they "just knew."

One of Lala Bala's daughters recalls her mother speaking Hebrew, and it is quickly ascertained that by this, she means Ladino. They have wanted to go to Israel for over five years and now they are waiting for their documents to be processed. Will they miss Kosovo? "Of course, it is our birth country," Mikush Zhelta says. But, all the same, the enthusiasm on his face indicates, they will leave Kosovo at the first opportunity.

The Demiris are Albanian-speaking. Votim Demiri, who at the time of the seder was in Belgrade, is university-educated and manages a textile factory. Due to his relatively high position, he was made leader of the Prizren Jewish community by Eli Eliezri, of the JDC. His brother Bujar recalls that when their mother was alive, they would celebrate Pesach. He remembers her speaking Ladino.

Bujar visited Israel in the 1980s; he has two uncles in Ashdod. Bujar is unsure if his family will go to Israel - his sons are still at university and his brother has the textile business. His daughter, however, is less ambivalent: She wants to study pharmacology there.

Still legacy

Jewish history in the Kosovo region is said to date back thousands of years. The remains of one of Europe's oldest synagogues, from Roman times, is believed to be among the ruins at Ulpiana, just outside of the present-day capital of Prishtina. The ranks of the Jewish communities were swelled by the influx of Sephardi Jews expelled from Spain and welcomed in the lands of the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the Balkans.

There may have been as many as 3,000 Jews in Kosovo in 1912. Their fortunes began to change around this time, after Serbia conquered Kosovo; the Serbians resented the close ties Jews had with the Turks, the Serbs' enemies.

Kosovo's Jewish community was, relative to neighboring territories, less severely hurt during the Holocaust, even though Kosovo and Albania were occupied in 1941 by fascist Italy. While it is estimated around 200 Jews from the large city of Prishtina were killed in concentration camps, Albania has the remarkable distinction of being the only country in Europe to have a higher population of Jews after the war than before. The country hosted refugees from all over Europe, and many from Kosovo. Still, the Jewish community of Kosovo never really recovered after World War II, and the synagogue in Prishtina was never rebuilt.

The last known remaining Jews of Prishtina - 13 of them, including the Belgrade-appointed leader of the Kosovo Jewish community - were spirited away by the JDC's Eliezri to Macedonia on June 26, 1999. The circumstances surrounding their departure are not entirely clear, but the leader of the community claims that he was essentially forced out at gunpoint by Albanian soldiers. In any case, the Prishtina community's situation was especially precarious on account of the fact most of them were Serbian-speaking, and were prone to the wrath of vengeful Albanians.

The legacy of the Prishtina Jewish community has not been entirely effaced, however. High atop a hill overlooking the city lies one of Prishtina's two Jewish cemeteries. This is the oldest one, with Hebrew-inscribed marble slabs dating back centuries. A new, well-constructed metal fence surrounds the plot; someone is interested in protecting and preserving the local Jewish heritage.

It turns out that this person is Myrteza Studenica, whose business card identifies him as the president of the Kosovar Jewish Committee. He says his grandmother was Jewish and he even speaks some Hebrew. He produces a sheaf of documents indicating the numbers of Jews rescued in Albania during World War II, and another showing a list of apartments owned by Jews in Prishtina. "These were taken by the government of Yugoslavia without compensation," he says passionately.

He appears to have the idea that the descendants of the property owners, most of whom, he says, live in Kidron in Israel, should return to Kosovo. His main objective, however, seems to be drawing Jewish and Israeli investors into various schemes.

One of the documents he produces appears very authentic: a plan for land mine removal, fencing and restoration of Prishtina's old Jewish cemetery, at a cost of 340,000 euros. Evidently, the first two phases have been completed, with the cooperation of the NATO force in Kosovo, which undertook the mine removal.

The seder is divided into three main groups, each at their respective table. There are the Zhelta and Demiri families; there are the Kosovar JDC staff members and their family and friends; and there are the "internationals" - Jews from all over the world who are working for various NGOs and government organizations, including the second in command at the U.S. Office (America's de facto embassy), as well as non-Jews, notably the adviser to Kosovo's president.

One of the foreigners offers a rendition of the story of Passover, largely for the benefit of the Kosovars. His main message: the importance of remembering one's origins and staying to true to one's ideals, despite whatever trials and tribulations one may face.

Work of the righteous

The topic of today's lesson in literature and psychology is Gogol's "Diary of a Madman." "How can the madman in the story actually think he is reading letters written by dogs?" a student asks.

Prof. Les Rabkin explains in a New York-inflected rasp that this is all part of the character's psychosis: He is so consumed by his fantasies that the slightest scrap of reality becomes the basis of his delusions. It's only as the chill air sneaks into class and the generators rumble to life, signaling another power cut, that the fantasy of being in an American college class is dissipated. And then you notice that one student is hurryingly translating for another, and others stare intently trying to understand what the professor is saying.

We are at the University of Prishtina in Kosovo. The professor is here as part of a project sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which is only one among many that the JDC has undertaken to restore the physical and human resources of Kosovo's educational system.

The organization first began work in Kosovo in June of 1999, shortly after NATO's bombs had cowed Slobodan Milocevic into ending the ethnic cleansing campaign against the majority population of Albanians and withdrawing his army from Kosovo. In its wake, the regime had left behind a thoroughly devastated society. In addition to the human toll (estimates range from 7,000 to 18,000 killed; 750,000 uprooted from their homes), many public buildings were destroyed or severely damaged.

The JDC's first mission in Kosovo was to assess the state of - and, if necessary, to rescue - the territory's tiny Jewish community. Such an effort was indeed required for the handful of Jews in Prishtina [see article this page], but a far greater humanitarian imperative presented itself in Kosovo. News of Milocevic's misdeeds had provoked among American Jewish communities the instinctive response of "never again," and Jewish Federation funding made it possible for the JDC staff - two sabras and a British-born Israeli - to undertake an array of humanitarian projects in Kosovo. These include reconstructing and equipping schools, providing computer and vocational education, and supporting projects aimed at fostering religious and ethnic coexistence.

Starting with schools

Eli Eliezri, the JDC's main representative in Kosovo, arrived in June 1999 by way of Bosnia, where he had helped negotiate the evacuation of Jews from Sarajevo.

"We did an assessment and decided that the greatest priority for that time was getting the children back to school," says Eliezri, who worked with local builders and rebuilt walls, repaired broken windows and replaced doors in the schools. UNICEF subsequently asked the JDC to undertake reconstruction of all of Prishtina's educational institutions; eventually the organization repaired and renovated 40 public schools in Kosovo.

Kosovo's problems didn't begin and end with the war. Most of the students here grew up in an educational system that shunted them into overcrowded schools with few facilities, when it allowed them into classrooms at all. In order to bridge the gaps that have developed between Kosovo and the rest of the modern world, the JDC has also supplied computer labs and set up English and computer classes. The classes are free, taught by local teachers and organized in cooperation with the international ORT vocational and educational organization.

Efforts were also made to mend some of the ethnic and religious rifts. With the Catholic Church and Kosovo's Islamic community, for example, the JDC helped in the restoration of the Shiponje mosque, which had been bombed during the war. The Shiponje was one of over 200 mosques (nearly half of the total in Kosovo) that had been deliberately targeted by Serb forces - a testament to the scale of Milocevic's ambitions in changing the region's cultural identity. A Jew, a Catholic and a Muslim all stood on the podium together at the mosque's dedication on September 7, 2001, an event attended by many Kosovo luminaries, including ambassador John Menzies, the former head of the U.S. Office in Kosovo.

The last major project being undertaken by the JDC, which is fazing out its involvement in Kosovo, is directed at the country's most severe ethnic/religious divide: between the Serbians who remained in or returned to Kosovo (some 200,000 became refugees after the NATO campaign), and the Albanians. The organization is supporting the Multiethnic Children and Youth Peace Center (MCYPC) in Mitrovica, a northern town that is divided by a river into Serbian and Albanian sections. In an effort to foster coexistence by "starting young," the center runs a day-care program for children of all ethnicities (including other Kosovar minorities such as Bosnians and Roma), publishes a youth magazine and produces a radio program, written by Serbians and Albanians under the tutelage of trained journalists.

MYCYPC's operations will expand dramatically when it moves into its massive new home in an abandoned community center, located fittingly right by one of the main bridges dividing the town - a move facilitated by the JDC, which organized permission from municipal authorities to use the space, and is funding the renovation and providing computers.

Foreign concepts

As for the university psychology project mentioned above, it is the brainchild of American-born Israeli Moshe Lantsman, a psychology professor from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He had volunteered in Kosovo after the war and soon came to the realization that there was an acute lack of trained counselors and psychologists in the area. This scarcity could largely be attributed to the fact that the University of Prishtina, Kosovo's only university, had no psychology department. Successfully negotiating funding problems and the university's ossified bureaucracy, the skullcap-clad Lantsman launched the psychology program in the fall of 2001, with major assistance from the JDC. He makes frequent trips to Kosovo from Israel to oversee the program and to teach courses.

Only this year has a full-time psychology professor been recruited. Les Rabkin grew up in the Bronx, but also lived in Israel for 11 years. How does this psychologist, no stranger to the traumas of war, perceive their effect on the students and other people he encounters here?

There is a barely noticeable effect, he says. The real problem, from his perspective, is not the war, but the social ills stemming from dire economic conditions (unemployment is estimated at 50 percent). "So they have Post-traumatic Stress Disorder? Because they're unemployed - not just because they suffered bad things."

Among the challenges he faces here are decrepit facilities, the apparent lack of any organization at the university's administrative level, and the fact that a sizable portion of his students scarcely understand a word he says. To these must be added the essential foreignness of the concepts he is teaching.

Rabkin: "There is a problem teaching things that have never been taught in a culture: introspection, self-analysis; most people in the world don't think psychologically. We're really starting from scratch with that ... Teaching words like `independence,' `self-actualization' don't mean much because here your first allegiance is to your extended family. Your responsibility to the civic world is secondary' you're not about to dishonor your family by talking about difficulties at home."

In the classroom, students are reticent about themselves and their families, and inhibited by the language barrier, but they are fascinated and inspired by the visiting professors, as evidenced the flocks of young women who crowd around Rabkin with questions, or the student who insists that he and Lantsman are the best teachers he's ever had.

Rabkin doesn't expect all of his students to go on to become professional psychologists, but hopes many will play counseling roles in places like schools or hospitals. And even if they don't, he tells them, no matter what, "thinking psychologically can enrich your life. The more you can understand about yourself and the more you can understand about the people around you, the better you can maneuver through life." (T.S.)



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