Albania is a Balkan state on the eastern border of
the Adriatic Sea in southeastern Europe. Since Roman times, as early as 70 C.E., Jews have been living in the northern regions of Albania. Over
the centuries, Jews settled in Albania but never established
a permanent community.
According to Albanian historian Apostol Kotani, Jews may have first arrived in Albania as early as 70 C.E. as captives on Roman ships that washed up on the country's southern shores. Kotani believes that is was the descendants of these captives that would build the first synagogue in the southern port city of Sarande in the fifth centry.
Map of Albania
Litte is know about the Jewish community in the area until the 15th century. From 1478 to 1913, Albania was under the rule of
the Ottoman Empire and following
the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, Jews from the Iberian peninsula began to settle in seaports and establish
a small Jewish community in Albania.
Jews continued to settle in the country throughout
the 16th century, eventually constituting nearly one-third of the total population of Vlore, that main administrative and military city in the country. Jewish communities also formed in Berat, Durazzo, Elbassan,
and Valona; all areas in which large trading industries existed. Castilian,
Catalonian, Sicilian, Portuguese, and Apulian synagogues were erected
In 1673, after being exiled by the Turkish sultan, the
false prophet Shabbetai
Zevi found refuge in Albania. He died on September 30, 1676, in
In 1685, the Jewish community of Valona fled to Berat
during the Turkish-Venetian war; those who remained in Valona were eventually
taken captive. Between 1788 and 1822, Albania came under the governance
of Ali Pasha, the governor of the Ottoman province of Rumelia. It was
under Pasha’s rule that Jews suffered from his criminal offenses
of blackmail and threats.
During the Albanian struggle for independence in 1911 and 1912, Jews were
indicted for collaborating with the Turkish authorities in helping to
defeat the nationalists, though the majority of Albanian Jews actually supported the revolt.
War I, the few remaining Jews in Albania,
lived primarily in Koritsa. By 1930, the national census reported only
204 Jewish inhabitants. Despite this low number, in 1935, British journalist Leo Elton visited Albania and reported to the president of the Hebrew University in Jersualem that Albania an ideal refuge fro the Jews and might eventually become a Jewish national home. On April 2, 1937, the Jewish community
was granted official recognition by the government. The largest Jewish
populations were located in Kavaje and Vlora. Approximately, 600 Jews
were living in Albania prior to World
War II, 400 of whom were refugees.
At the beginning of World War
II, hundreds of Jews arrived in Albania seeking refuge from Nazi persecution in other regions of Europe.
World War II
There was little history of anti-Semitism in Albania between the local Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Most of
the Albanian population was not hostile toward the Jews and helped to
hide them during the war, especially when Italy and Germany occupied the
Mandil and his son Gavra while
in hiding. After the German
occupation in 1943, Mandil's
Albanian apprentice hid the
family, all of whom survived.
Albania, between 1942 and 1945.
On April 7, 1939,
Italy invaded and annexed Albania. Jews were exiled from the coastal
port cities and moved to Albania’s interior. Several Austrian
and German families took refuge in Tirana and Durazzo in 1939 in hope
of making it eventually to the United States or South America. Many
Jewish refugees also passed through Albania on their way to Palestine.
These refugees were well treated by the Italian forces and by the local
population. Jewish refugee families began to scatter throughout Albania
and assimilate into society. Jewish children continued to attend school,
but under false names and religions. Italians rejected the Final
Solution and therefore did not implement anti-Jewish laws.
Nevertheless, many Albanians joined the SS Division “Skanderbeg.” Some Jewish refugees were eventually
placed in a transit camp in Kavaje, and from there sent to Italy. At
one point, nearly 200 Jews were placed in the Kavaje camp. Some Albanian
officials tried to rescue these Jews of Kavaje, by issuing identity
papers to hide them in the capital Tirana.
In the spring of 1941,
with the fall of Yugoslavia,
the Kosovo province was annexed to Albania creating Greater Albania.
Many Jewish families in the newly occupied territories of Greater Albania
were placed in the internment prison in Pristina, Yugoslavia. About
100 Jewish men and their families from Pristina prison were taken to
Berat. Once in Berat, many of these Jewish refugees were protected by
local Albanians. Upon Germany’s demand, Jewish refugees being
held in the Pristina prison in the annexed territory of Yugoslavia were
handed over to German forces. These refugees were then shipped to Belgrade
and put to death.
Germany reconquered the territory from Italy in September 1943. In early 1944, the Gestapo forced all Jews in Tirana to register with the German officials. Consequently,
many Jews fled to supportive Albanian villages outside of the cities.
When the Germans demanded a list of Jewish families living in Albania,
the officials refused to disclose the information; instead the Albanians
forewarned the Jews and promised to protect them.
In April 1944, 300 Jews were placed in the Pristina
prison, mainly refugees in Kosovo, followed by a few hundred more within
the next months. Ultimately, 400 of these Jews were transported to Bergen-Belsen in the summer of 1944, where only 100 people survived.
Between 1941 and 1944, nearly 600 Jews from Greater
Albania were sent to their deaths in various concentration
camps around Europe. It is for this reason that many historians
disagree over the role of Albanians in the Holocaust.
While Albanians may have attempted to rescue the Jews in Albania proper,
the government was aware of the roundup and deportation of Jews from
the Kosovo region.
Albanian communist leader,
Enver Hoxha during a military parade celebrating the liberation
After 1944, the Italians and Germans agreed to place
much of the Yugoslavian territory under the authority of Albania. Many
Jews from Serbia, Greece,
and Croatia fled to this territory.
On December 29, 1944, Tirana was liberated from German occupation.
By January 2011, the Israeli Holocuast Memorial Museum Yad Vashem had recognzied 69 Albanians as Righteous Gentiles - those who helped shetler or save Jews from the Nazi's during the Holocaust.
Jewish Community Today
Throughout Albania’s communist period under the
dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, the Jewish community was isolated from
the Jewish world. During this half century rule, all religion was strictly banned from the country.
After the fall
of Communism in 1991, nearly all the Jews of Albania were airlifted
to Israel and settled predominately
in Tel Aviv.
Today, there are few physical remains of the Jewish community's presence in Albania. Where there was once an active Jewish community, today,
there exists very little organized communal life. A community leader in the capital city of Tirana estimates that there are about 40 to 50 remaining Albanian Jews, including about 20 children, mostly living in the capital.
In 2010, Chabad opened the Hechal Shlomo Synagogue in Tirana and appointed Rabbi Yoel Kaplan, who is actually based in Greece, as the unofficial chief rabbi of Albania. Kaplan estimates the number of Albanian Jews to be closer to 200 with several hundred more having "Jewish connections."
Friendship Society is active in Tirana, but with little assistance.
Zaidner, Michael. Jewish Travel Guide 2000.
Intl Specialized Book Service, 2000
Esther Hecht, "The Jewish Traveler: Albania," Hadassah Magazine, (April/May 2012).
Shoah Resource Center
Pictures of Holocaust courtesy of: USHMM