On a windy mountaintop citadel in Berat, Albania, in a church lit solely 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 solely Jewish museum, which opened earlier this yr.
I visited Albania with the 50 different college students from my Jerusalem-based hole yr program, Kivunim, learning the intersection of Jewish historical past and tradition with world societies and religions in a quest for higher mutual understanding. Right here I used to be, 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 maybe the world’s most tolerant nation. Our group in all probability doubled the Albanian Jewish inhabitants for the course of our keep.
Vrusho, the museum proprietor, is small and wizened with giant glowing eyes. In his few phrases of English, he shared his ardour for Albanian Jewish historical past. His face lit up once I informed him that my household had roots in Ioannina, a city in northern Greece not removed from Berat. He advised me that a variety of Jews from Ioannina had settled in Vlore, a port metropolis on the Adriatic within the south, residence to Albania’s solely synagogue, which was destroyed in World Warfare I, however subsequently rebuilt. At the moment, the synagogue nonetheless stands in Vlore, although no Jews stay there.
The museum sits in an not noticeable storefront alongside a quiet cobblestone road main as much as the citadel of Berat. The 4 partitions of its small area are coated from flooring to ceiling with paperwork, artifacts, and pictures detailing the 2 millennia-long Albanian Jewish story.
Albania’s Jewish historical past begins with the arrival of shipwrecked Roman boats carrying Jewish slaves from Israel, shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. (Archaeologists just lately found the ruins of a synagogue in Sarandë, courting to the fifth century.) Following the Inquisition, lots of of Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain discovered refuge there. Throughout Ottoman occasions, extra Jews settled from close by Greece and Italy. Even a few Ashkenazi retailers from Poland and Germany joined the multiethnic combine. Albania’s Jews have been properly built-in and through the nationwide rebellion of 1911, fought for each the Ottoman and Albanian nationwide trigger. Authorities on each side then accused the Jewish group of collaborating with the enemy.
The native Albanian Jewish inhabitants at its peak numbered solely a few hundred. At the moment, there are barely 100 left within the Muslim-majority nation of three million. In a actual life model of the joke concerning the one Jew discovered alone on a desert island with two synagogues, what stays of the tiny Albanian Jewish group is split over the Israeli-appointed Chief Rabbi of Albania, whom many reject.
Outdoors Vlore and Durres, Berat is an important metropolis for Jews in Albania.Vrusho’s new ebook The Jews of Berat is presently obtainable solely in Albanian, however he hopes to translate it to different languages, to share with guests who come from throughout the globe. On this first yr of operation, the museum has hosted over 400 visitors from America, Israel, Europe, even China. As we have been leaving, we handed Jews from Argentina on their means in. “I feel safer wearing a kippah here than back home” one among them informed me.
Berat is much less shocking as the location of a Jewish museum than one may anticipate; very similar to Jerusalem it has ruins from all the good empires (Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Persia, Ottoman,) is surrounded by a beige stone wall, and has websites of significance to all three Abrahamic faiths. Nicknamed “city of stacked windows” for its hillside terraces of white limestone homes, and designated a UNESCO world heritage website for its distinctive structure, Berat is constructed like a fortress metropolis in a valley alongside the Osum river, south of Tirana. Even in tolerant Albania, Berat is understood for centuries-long spiritual coexistence between Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Sunnis, Bektashis, and Jews.
In Berat, the Ottomans (who have been much less tolerant than the native Albanians,) destroyed a lot of the dozens of church buildings that have been initially there. Throughout communism, when Enver Hoxha’s regime destroyed many extra mosques and church buildings, locals saved the Church of Mary’s Dormition, the place we met Vrusho, by turning it into a museum of iconography and non secular artwork. The well-known icon artist Onufri painted church buildings throughout the Ottoman and Byzantine world, in addition to this church’s spectacular iconostasis (the painted display of icons in entrance of the altar) and most of the works inside. Contained in the dimly-lit altar, the partitions are adorned with ornate however long-faded chipping frescoes, and the dank odor of incense nonetheless permeates the area regardless of years of disuse.
Within the flooring is a hidden area of interest the place the Berat Purple Codex was found within the 1970s. Written in Greek by monks within the sixth century, the codex, comprising the gospels of Matthew and Mark, is among the oldest written copies of the Christian bible. It predates the Catholic-Orthodox cut up of 1054, and differs from each canons. Realizing the importance of the e-book, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin all tried desperately to seek out it, torturing and killing Albanians within the course of, however the monks and villagers who had hidden it refused to surrender their centuries-long secret.
The individuals of Berat dying to guard their guide displays the traditional Albanian idea of Besa: a promise of religion, a marker of honor, an unbreakable vow. Just like the biblical crucial, Xenia in Homeric epics, and the code of Pashtunwali upheld by Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Besa is a mandate to guard the stranger and foreigner, even on the danger to at least one’s personal life. As one Albanian saying goes “Besa is worth more than gold; It is better to die than break one’s Besa.”
Because of Besa, in a little-known story unparalleled anyplace else in Europe, throughout World Warfare II, Albania not solely saved all 200 of its Jews, however sheltered lots of of others from nations throughout the continent, even whereas Nazi troopers occupied the nation. Albanian civilians, nearly all 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 nation, when no different nation would. (Albert Einstein escaped Germany in 1935 with Albanian papers). When all different nations turned away Jews fleeing persecution, Albania’s King Zog ordered the Albanian border guards to welcome in Jewish refugees. Whereas in each different European nation Jews have been killed, the Albanian Jewish inhabitants elevated tenfold from 1939 to 1945.
This exceptional story has solely come to mild in recent times. Albania’s Communist dictator Enver Hoxha was so brutal that he declared struggle on the united states and Yugoslavia for being insufficiently Communist, and Stalin criticised him as being too anti-religious. Even the smallest ties to faith, not to mention speaking to individuals or press in western nations like America or Israel, have been strictly outlawed, which discouraged righteous Albanians from sharing their tales. Jews who Albanians saved, most of whom moved to Israel and America, have been likewise reluctant to seem glorifying a nation related to such brutal Communist dictatorship. The deeply shifting 2009 documentary BESA: The Promise follows American photographer Norman Gershman as he traces tales 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 exact same mountaintop farmhouse the place her ancestors saved a Jewish household. “The Jews could walk around in public. They only hid when the Nazis were patrolling,” she stated. “The locals knew the Jews were there and didn’t care. They welcomed them with open arms.” Persevering with the Albanian custom of hospitality, she generously gave us espresso, cookies, fruit, and knitted hats. In a house that would barely match one Albanian household and one Jewish household, we managed to suit 50 Jews. In Tirana, we met the son of Beqir Qoqja, one other righteous Albanian featured within the film. “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 individuals, in 1935 British journalist Leo Elton advised a Jewish state be established there. The identical yr, 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.”
At present, Muslim and Christian Albanians intermarry and take one another’s names and traditions. Though Albania is 70% Muslim, two of the nation’s largest nationwide heroes—medieval warrior Skanderbeg and Saint Mom Teresa—are Christian. (Different Albanian heroes extra well-known within the west embrace pop stars Dua Lipa and Bebe Rexha, in addition to John Belushi.) As a results of a half-century of brutal Communist suppression of each Christianity and Islam, as many as two thirds of Albanians determine as non-practicing, secular, or atheist. Since pre-Islamic occasions, when the nation was comprised of disparate tribes, what unites Albanians is their nationality and their honor—faith is secondary.
As I walked via the primary road of this Muslim metropolis—alongside ladies in headscarves and bearded males in prayer caps—I felt as protected sporting a kippah as I do on the Higher West Aspect. In distinction, in neighboring Greece and Bulgaria, with comparatively bigger Jewish communities (round 5,000 in every) and much richer Jewish historical past, not one of the Jews I met felt utterly protected being visibly Jewish in public.
In one other essential a part of its Jewish heritage, Berat claims to be the burial website of Sabbatai Zvi, the 17th century kabbalist and false messiah. After his conversion to Islam, and subsequent exile to Ulcinj, Montenegro, Zvi stored up a relationship with the Jews of close by Berat till his dying. (One other website in Albania, in addition to one in Montenegro each declare to be his grave as properly.) Zvi biographer Gershom Scholem notes that Berat remained a pilgrimage website for Zvi’s followers by way of the 20th century.
These followers, generally known as Donmeh, practiced Islam outwardly however remained a closed underground group with some Jewish parts to their follow, with their very own distinct mosques and faculties. Their simultaneous reference to, and separation from, each Muslims and Jews made them middlemen within the Ottoman empire. Lots of, if not hundreds, stay to this present day in Turkey, the place they’re synonymous with conspiracy theories and the so-called deep state, just like the Freemasons or Illuminati in America. A contemporary-day secret cult, their layers of thriller evoke an aura of Indiana Jones or Nationwide Treasure.
Once I stumbled upon Berat’s major mosque, Xhamia e Mbretit (Sultan’s Mosque), and located it closed for renovation, the caretaker generously opened its doorways for me. He spoke no English, so we communicated in Greek and Italian, of which most Albanians perceive at the least a bit. Upon realizing I used to be Jewish, he confirmed me the mosque courtyard, now overgrown by grass, the place a fenced-off stone field with two steles on both finish stands carved with Turkish Arabic calligraphy — Zvi’s purported grave. On the different finish 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. Although I might discover no proof, our information floated the concept the area was as soon as a Donmeh mosque. In the present day, the location is a tekke, a holy shrine for Bektashis (Islamic mystics,) who comprise the most important spiritual sector in Albania. Bektashis are recognized for his or her open-mindedness, and emphasis on spirituality over apply. Very similar to early Hasidism, they drink, sing, dance, and meditate to come across God, and consider that each human soul has a divine spark of holiness. In contrast to different branches of Islam, they haven’t any codified Sharia, leaving observance as much as the person. It’s doubtless that medieval kabbalists within the Ottoman Balkans mingled with these concepts, as the 2 ideologies bear a nice resemblance.
As Albania thaws from Communism, its city residents actively orient themselves away from the east by adopting western names, gown, meals, music, and structure. A big statue in Tirana honors George Bush, the primary American president to go to Albania, as a harbinger of western freedom. A number of of the hundreds of Chilly-Conflict period bunkers constructed in anticipation of a overseas assault now comprise the highly effective Bunk’Artwork Museum: an academic memorial to the many years of terror, in addition to a modern artwork area. The bunker is eerily harking back to Yad Vashem: contained in the staircase, beneath pictures of the hundreds of Albanians murdered by Hoxha, neon letters spell out Primo Levi’s phrases “those who forget their past are condemned to relive it.”
With trendy progress, their historic tradition and traditions like Besa start to disintegrate. A college scholar in Tirana informed me that Besa is “archaic, only for our grandparents, or hicks in the country.” This ages-old idea of honor and hospitality grows misplaced in an period of Venmo and AirBnb.
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