Academic Shaban Sinani: Jews in Albania during centuries

Wellknown researcher, academician Prof.Dr. Shaban Sinani, author of several books about Jews in Albania, published among them in Albanian (Jews in Albania, Presence and Salvation – Hebrenjtë në Shqipëri, prania dhe shpëtimi) and English (Albanian and Jews) participated and gave a speech at the event organized in Prishtina, Kosovo , on the occasion of Rosh Hashanàh – Jewish New Year Day 5781, organized by the Jewish Community – Bet Israel Kosova and Rabinnati of Albania.


Wellknown researcher, academician Prof.Dr. Shaban Sinani, author of several books about Jews in Albania, published among them in Albanian (Jews in Albania, Presence and Salvation – Hebrenjtë në Shqipëri, prania dhe shpëtimi) and English (Albanian and Jews) participated and gave a speech at the event organized in Prishtina, Kosovo , on the occasion of Rosh Hashanàh – Jewish New Year Day 5781, organized by the Jewish Community – Bet Israel Kosova and Rabinnate of Albania.

The full speech of Prof. Dr. Shaban Sinani

Jews in Albania during the centuries

The influence of the Jewish culture and experience on the Albanian tradition has been one of the factors that facilitated the continuity of the relation with the great European spiritual processes and movements.

If carefully examined, a series of facts found in the book The Albanian coastline in the Middle Ages [La façade maritime de l’Albanie au Moyen Age] by Alain Ducellier, which present the factor of European connections for Albania’s existencethe spirit of Leviathan, will prove that the bridges across the sea were often mediated by the Jewish merchants doing business from one side of the Adriatic to the other. The examination of historical sources reveals that Jews have found in the Albanian space shelter and protection in the most critical periods when their communities were endangered. In order of time, they could be listed as follows:

 During the first centuries of the New Era, when the Roman Empire was massively enslaving Jews and other nations and had Rome built by their forced labor. Harvey Sarner, a Jewish-American scholar of our days, an admirer of the Albanians’ virtues and ethic code, mentions the existence of a historical source [a chronicle by the Roman historian Flavius Joseph], according to which, 2000 years ago, A ship heading for Rome with a cargo of Jewish slaves, captured after the Roman occupation of Palestine some 2000 years ago, was blown off course and landed on the coast of Albania, in the vicinity of Valona.

  1. Sarner thinks the Romans made no effort to chase back the slaves thrown by the sea on the opposite shore, guessing that they would not survive against natural conditions or the wild beasts. Even though this legend is not mentioned by the compilers of the Judaic Encyclopedia, nor even in Volume 14, which describes the order of Roman Hebrewslinguistic, toponymic, historicaland ethnographicevidence further supports the assertions made by H. Sarner and, many centuries earlier, by chroniclers.

 In the 15th and 16th centuries, especially after 1492, when the Western inquisition [in particular, the Spanish one], undertook its massive cleansing and violent expulsion of Jews [the Sephardic Jewish group, i.e. from Spain]There is proof of another Jewish mass migration wave, in 1568, known as maranos, arriving from Italy, Southern France and Portugal. Part of them settled in Dardania, the Ottoman Vilayet [province] of Kosovo, where they engaged in the craft of minting metal coins, a traditionally well-known craft in Novo Brdo. They set up schools and libraries. In the 16th century, Jews were a primary constituent factor in several coastal towns. Vlora was at the time the biggest town of Albania and more than half of its population consisted of Jews [528 families] who had emigrated from Spain. In Vlora, and later in Berat, Jewish communities had their own neighborhood known as mëhalla e çifutëve.

 During the period of the failed rebellion led by Sabbatai Zevi, denominated the mystical Messiah, and of the mass persecution of Jews in the East by the Ottoman Empire.

– During the period when Hitler proclaimed his fatal doctrine Final Solution – intending to totally exterminate the Ashkenazi Jews.

In 1932, as anti-Semitism in Europe had become a doctrine, Albania became the first and the only country in the continent to recognize the Jews’ right to organizing as a community and to legitimize the shabbat. It is the only case of positive discrimination of Jews over the decades while the world was suffering from judeophobia.

The community right encouraged the US Ambassador to Tirana Herman Bernstein, a central figure of the World Zionist Movement (together with A. Einstein and Ben Gurion), to immediately start negotiations with the Albanian Ambassador to the USA, Faik Konica, to reach an Albanian-American interstate agreement for the admission of 500 Jewish families in Albania. H. Bernstein visited all the uninhabited territory of coastal Albania, from the Buna to the Vjosa river, block after block with map in hand, so that the settlement of Jewish families would be implemented without damage to any individual’s interests, private property, and without causing any incidents.

Missionaries of the World Jewish Congress, the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Zionism Movement intensively negotiated with the Albanian King’s government during 1933-1935, following the same project of Ambassador Bernstein. In 1935, the mandated missionary Leo Elton visited Tirana, and had talks with two ministers, the Minister of Economy and that of the Royal Court. He reached an agreement with them that Albania would massively admit endangered Jews, who would settle in free territories, in settlements similar to today’s kibbutz. The missionary Leo Elton’s report was handed over to the First Rector of Hebrew University Prof. Judah Leib ten years later, where it is still kept today. The few facts from this 50-page report reveal the same data as contained in the Albanian archives. In these documents, Albania is termed as the safe second homeland of the Jews. The European press of that time expressed the fear that Albania was becoming Jewish, that it was turning to a second Palestine (like the then Mandatory Palestine state, under the British protectorate).

At this time, neighboring Italy, which had acquired the package of privileges over Albania by the special decision of the Ambassadors’ Conference (1921), was alarmed. A special agent was included in the staff of the Italian Embassy in Tirana only to report on the entry of Jews. In one of the encrypted informative texts (1936), the informant wrote: I would not like to cause any alarm to you (in Farnesina), but I must say that Albanian sympathy for us will soon fade away and our position will be taken over by Jews. The same informant, in a later radiogram, wrote: Today, as usual, I went to the Kursal cafeteria in search of news about Jews. As I was sitting at a table, a beautiful Polish Jew entered. Her beauty paralyzed me with surprise and I have nothing to report.

The arrival of Jews in Albania was also facilitated by the agreement between the Austrian and the Albanian Governments on the Mutual Waiver of Visas (1931).

In 1932, there were 200 resident Jews in Albania. At the wake of the war, the number of Jews who arrived in Albania reached almost 1000. There was pressure from Rome to pass the anti-Semitic laws that had been adopted in Italy and Germany, but not in commanding tones. The two most restrictive acts for the entry of Jews in Albania were in February and March 1939. There were two government decisions to condition the entry of Jews on a self-declaration that they possessed, at the moment of entry, 250 francs, and in the second decision 500 francs.

Italian politics was soon adapted to the Albanian reality even during the war. In 1942, the sapper military unit in Durres, commanded by one of the future presidents of the Republic of Italy, Carlo Aseglio Ciampi, called up for military duty at the time, had employed at least 20 Jewish stuff. The rule of the fascist viceroy’s administration regarding the Jews in Albania was: Sorvegliare, non toccare, non punire.  Watch, do not touch, do not punish.

During the years 1939-1943 nearly 2000 Jews entered Albania. The largest groups were three: 94 families and 87 individuals from Kosovo (1942); 182 Jews from Montenegro (1942) and 350 from Dalmatia (1942). Paradoxically, the Jews of Dalmatia today are still considered missing. However, their entry lists in Durres and their later distribution to safe settlements are still available. The lists drawn up during the fascist period show 3265 Jewish names. None of them was deported, denounced or handed over. There were no more lists after that that. There were no labor camps, concentration camps, or camps of extermination in Albania. There were only transit camps. The arriving Jews were registered, settled in state buildings adjusted as temporary residences (clinics, post offices, vice-prefecture buildings, etc.) and then moved to the hinterland, away from danger. During these years, Jews temporarily staying in the camps, also had the right to per diem (giornaliera).

In September 1943, the former Reich Ambassador to Belgrade Herman Neubacher, covering Albania too, held talks with representatives of the four religious communities to have them accept the formula of relative independence to relative neutrality. He was open to discuss any issues, except for three non-negotiable conditions: i) to hand over the Jew’s lists; ii) to hand over the monetary gold stored in Rome and iii) to hand over the two holy gospels (the two codices of Berat). The four negotiators categorically refused to start talks on the condition of handing over the Jew’s lists (and the lists of all the foreigners who were still residing in Albania). The latter would continue to live in the country, because they were deemed to have been welcomed and to have already settled. On the same day, the four negotiators accepted the handover of gold and passed with silence the issue of the two codices (while secretly sent notice to the Berat Church about the danger to the codices). The lists were also demanded in two later moments: in April 1944 and in June 1944 (Pinkas Hakehillot). After that, Reich’s attitude was: With the Albanians, we can not agree on this point, so this issue will no longer be raised.

In October 1943, the senior Gestapo representative Mueller discussed the issue with the Foreign Ministry representative Thaden in Berlin, and decided to apply the final solution formula for all the countries under fresh Reich’s rule following Italy’s surrender. Albania’s case was dealt with separately. In the minutes it is written: The Albanian authorities are highly sensitive to this issue. They consider that the relative independence recognized by us will be demagogic if we touch the Jews and the foreigners in their country, who, as they understand, are “under their protection“. Because they regard it an internal affair, no action shall be taken. In case of a change of attitude, this will never be done without notification and without the consent of the Albanian authorities.

In the Nazi period in Albania, Jews had names, not numbers: all the Jews had been listed earlier and these lists were in the hands of the government administration. Referring to the Caesarian law, it should be stated that the people were able to offer to the Jews food and work, a cap and a traditional costume, an Albanian name and a fictional family ties, but the lists were not in the hands of the people.

For decades there has been a heated debate among Albanians if the anti-fascist war was really a liberation war or a civil war. This relates to the severity of the conflict between anti-fascists and collaborators. Yet, despite this conflictuality, the parties that remained irreconcilable for any compromises, the partisans and the nationalists, agreed that the Jews would not be involved as an issue in their conflict. Such agreement has also been finalized with written texts.

In the spring of 1942, based on the special status of Mitrovica, which provided for the Nazi army to enter without special authorization in those areas called the free territory of Kosovo, an expedition of Reich’s special troops took on the task of arresting all Jewish living in Pristina. Spiro Lito, the director of the city hospital, made deals with the Albanians hospitalized for severe illnesses that they return to their homes and free the beds for the Jews in Kosovo, to be sheltered as patients. To prevent access to the hospital for any possible checks, the director warned the population of dangerous infectious epidemics. None of the Albanians who returned to their homes to allow the Jews to be hidden in the hospital, leaked out the secret!

Did Albanian Muslims save the Jews? They were mostly saved by Albanian Muslims because the latter were and continue to be the majority population. But there was no difference in attitude towards Jews among Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholics. Monsignor Vincent Prennushi was one of the priests who evangelized groups of Jews without catechism and without any ecclesiastical practices, only to give them a Christian identity. It is said that the code of canon honor, the besa (word of honor) and the traditional hospitality of the Albanian highlanders were the factors that saved the Jews in Albania. Undoubtedly, these were among many other factors, but not the only ones. Later romanticism, which creates exclusive traditional values, be it based on religious or regional affiliation, is questioned by a very simple fact: the regions where the Jews retreated and were sheltered, are almost all located outside the canon republic. The protection and salvation of Jews is an inseparable virtue. There is a proverbial case of four Jews arrested in Shkodra. In the correspondence between the Albanian quisling government and the Nazi command, the former demanded their release, as the government had already paid the fee required, 1500 pieces of gold per head.

It would be inadequate to claim that no Jews lost their lives in Albania during the Holocaust. 15 of them participated in the war as anti-fascists and have been declared martyrs.

The salvation of Jews in Albania is explained by many factors, not simply relating to the Albanian honor, devotion and tradition.

  1. Albania is the only country in the Balkans where the religious affiliation has no role in identity. Where there were four religious communities, a fifth community was no problem.
  2. There is a pattern that is historically and systematically confirmed in the Albanian ethnotype. In the Albanian consciousness, it is a taboo to jeopardize the afflicted, the disarmed, and generally the other person at risk, including the adversary. The Albanian does not cause harm or hand over the endangered, even the one who has surrendered. During the First World War, the Montenegrin army retreated by leaving behind the plague. Nevertheless, Albanians offered protection and salvation as much as they could. After 8 September, over 20,000 Italian soldiers who were exposed to the threat of being killed by their own former allies, on the accusation that they had deserted and capitulated, were taken under protection by the Albanian people. As far as the protection of Jews is concerned, Albanians, who are not so much distinguished for a sense of agreement, have reached the highest historical degree of convergence in their attitude and decisions.
  3. Since 1926 the League of Nations recognized to Albania, a transiting role to the Jews in situations of aggressive anti-Semitism.
  4. Saving the face! For the quisling governments, the protection of Jews was also a matter of honor, because it was the issue of saving the face. Otherwise, they would be exposed to the accusation of being untrue, because the relative independence would be unreal.

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