April 2, 1937, is the date that the government of Albania granted official recognition to the country’s Jewish community. The act of recognition was not in and of itself greatly significant, considering that the country’s constitution had already, in 1928, been amended to guarantee all citizens religious freedom, and that the state had no official religion. But it was indicative of a tolerance that had a more concrete expression a few years later, when Albania became a refuge for hundreds of Jews from other parts of Europe, most of whom were able to survive the Holocaust, even after the country came under German occupation. Albania may be the only country occupied by the Nazis that ended World War II with significantly more Jews living there than prior to the hostilities.
The presence of Jews in what is today Albania goes back at least to the 2nd or 3rd century C.E., when a synagogue was built on the Ionian coast, on the site where the modern city of Saranda now stands. (The synagogue, which one local historian believes was constructed by the descendants of refugees from Judea whose shipwrecked Roman slave ship washed up on the shores of Albania, has been excavated and can be visited today.) In the 12th century, the traveler Benjamin of Tudela documented the existence of a small community of people who “say that they are Jews.”
Sephardi Jews emigrated to Albania from Iberia in the 15th and 16th centuries, as they did to other parts of the Ottoman Empire following their exile, and it was to the port city of Ulqin (today in Montenegro) that the false messiah Shabtai Zevi was banished by the sultan in 1673 after his apostasy. Still, a census in 1930 turned up only 204 Jews in Albania, which had become an independent country following World War I. That number was estimated at 300 by 1937, when official recognition was granted.
Herman Bernstein, the American ambassador to Albania during the pre-war period, who was himself a Jew, wrote in 1934 that Jews in the country did not suffer from discrimination, because, “Albania happens to be one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist.”
The Albanian Embassy in Berlin issued visas to Jews up until 1938, so that the country became a destination for a number of Jewish families from Germany and Austria during the years leading up to the war. In 1939, Italy occupied and annexed Albania. The country’s Jews, both native and refugees, were exiled from the coastal areas to inland towns -- but they were not deported and were able to continue to work and go to school. Both the Italian occupiers and the local population treated them well.
Germany occupied Albania in September 1943, and demanded that local authorities provide them with lists of Jewish residents for deportation. For the most part, the authorities refused to comply with the order. Many Jews were hidden in rural parts of the country, and the local population protected them: Albanians like to say that not a single Jew who was in hiding in their country during the Holocaust was betrayed to the Germans. As of 2011, 69 Albanians were recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles.
On the other hand, some 400 Jews living in Kosovo province (who included refugees from Serbia and Croatia), which had been part of Yugoslavia, but was during the war period annexed to Albania, were rounded up and eventually sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Only 100 of them survived. Overall, some 600 Jews living in Greater Albania during the war years were sent to their deaths in the camps.
With the fall of communism in 1991, the borders of Albania opened, and most of its small community of Jews left the country for Israel. In the period since then, there has been a mini-revival of Jewish life, with most of the Jews – who number in the low hundreds – now living in Tirana, the capital.
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