06 March 2019

In Albania, a unique Jewish history museum on the brink

The Times of Israel, in its 4 March 2019 edition presented an important historical fact about Albania as the only Nazi-occupied territory whose Jewish population increased during World War II, thanks to the bravery of ordinary families who harbored hundreds of refugees fleeing persecution during the Holocaust. 
A man walks through Hebrew Street in the Albanian city of Berat on February 6, 2019. (Gent Shkullaku/AFP)

The tiny Solomon Museum, which opened in the city of Berat last year is the symbol of this historical remembrance.

BERAT, Albania (AFP) — On a sloped, cobblestone street in southern Albania sits a small shop, empty except for a dozen framed panels on the walls bearing photos and stories from 500 years of Jewish life.
It may be modest but this is Muslim-majority Albania’s only Jewish history museum.

And the story it tells is exceptional: the Balkan state is the only Nazi-occupied territory whose Jewish population increased during World War II, thanks to the bravery of ordinary families who harbored hundreds of refugees fleeing persecution during the Holocaust.

The tiny Solomon Museum, which opened in the city of Berat last year, was a labor of love for local historian Simon Vrusho.

But his death last month at age 75 has put its future at risk, with rent only paid through April.
Until now he had covered the museum’s costs with his pension and small donations from a box by the door. 
Simon Vrusho, 75, the founder of the Solomon Jewish history museum in the Albanian city of Berat, speaks with an AFP journalist on February 6, 2019. (Gent Shkullaku/AFP)

“Memories need to have their own home,” Vrusho, a wiry man with warm eyes, told AFP, shortly before he died following a heart attack in February.

He spent years harvesting documents, photos and memories bearing witness to a Jewish community that first arrived in Berat in the 16th century from Spain.

At the center of the collection are the stories of Muslim and Christian Albanians who sheltered Jews in their homes and basements during the Holocaust — a chapter of history that has only recently become more widely known.

When Germans took control of Albania in 1943, local authorities also refused to hand over lists of Jews inside the country.

Thanks to these quiet acts of heroism, the country’s Jewish population surged from several hundred before the war to more than 2,000 afterwards.

And, according to Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, “almost all Jews living within Albanian borders during the German occupation… were saved, except members of a single family,” who were deported and all died except for the father.

Another family was also deported and survived.
Code of honor
When asked to explain this history, Albanians will say it lies in “Besa” — a cultural code of honor to “keep the promise” at any cost.

There is also a rich history of religious tolerance in a country with a tapestry of different faiths, visible in Berat where a church and mosque face each other on the same square.

Inside the museum, Nezir Ago, a 40-year-old artist, points to a faded photo of an elderly man.

“This is my grandfather,” he says, explaining that the Muslim baker took in a Jewish family of three in the early 1940s.
“He did not know them before… or have an obligation to shelter them,” he adds.

Nazir Ago, curator of the Solomon Jewish history museum in the Albanian city of Berat, in the museum on February 6, 2019. (Gent Shkullaku/AFP)

The photo sits alongside several dozen others from the more than 60 families in Berat who rescued Jews, making the city a hub for refugees during the war.

A list of some 600 names of those rescued identifies the European countries they hailed from — many from Balkan cities like Belgrade or Pristina, where Jews were brutally exterminated by Nazi-allied powers.

The Albanian families who took them in were “Christian and Muslim, rich and poor,” says a caption taped to the wall.

They were “deeply, unimaginably humane” people, recalled Vrusho, an Orthodox Christian who spent years interviewing Berat elders for their stories.
Bread, pain and joy

Today, Albania’s Jewish population is nearly nonexistent, with fewer than 100 living mostly in Tirana.

After World War II, Albania fell into the clutches of a communist dictatorship that barred religion.

When the regime collapsed in 1991, many of the remaining Jewish community left for Israel.

Marilena Langu Dojaka, 77, is one of those who stayed.

“We are not yet free of our fears,” she says, of the terror that has stuck with her decades later.

She was born in Albania in 1942 after her mother fled there from then-Czechoslovakia.

They found refuge with a family in the northern town of Mat.

“When the Nazis passed through the village… our host family hid us in the mountains, in a cellar until the danger had passed,” she told AFP, welling with emotion.

Marilena Langu Dojaka, 77, whose mother Hermina Stein came from Czechoslovakia to Albania in 1939, speaks with AFP on February 6, 2019. (Gent Shkullaku/AFP)

lutching a framed photo of relatives her mother left behind, she says softly: “They all died in the camps.”

Dojaka has kept close ties with the Albanian family who protected hers.

“They shared everything with us: bread, pain and joy.”

It wasn’t until after the fall of communism that the stories of the role played by Albanians in protecting Jews came to light.

Today some 75 Albanians are recognized as part of the Righteous Among The Nations — those who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.
The history is a growing source of pride in Albania, where the government holds annual events on Holocaust Remembrance Day and devotes an exhibit to the history in Tirana’s national museum.

But Vrusho’s museum is the only standalone center dedicated to the sweep of Jewish history in that corner of Southeastern Europe.

Since it opened in May 2018, there have been several thousand visitors from around the world.

If he had more means, Vrusho said he would have opened a museum “double the size.”

Now, his widow Angjlina says she is “very worried about the museum’s fate.”

“It took him a lifetime,” she said through tears.

05 March 2019

6 reasons to vacation in Albania, and the best travel tips!

The Khan365 Celebrity New & Headlines portal brings 6 compelling reasons of why visiting Albania. There are good hints on the main tourist attractions not to miss while visiting Albania.

Image: Khan365

1. Tirana – the humming capital

Albania’s capital, is colorful (in the last few decades has painted a lot of paint on the old facades), beautiful Tirana. But that is no reason to spend a few days in the 400’000 people city. Anyone interested in the dubious beauty of fascist buildings and housing estates, here you can find a lot of things. Tirana excited but rather, by his energetic Groove, many students provide the greatest night life in the Region.

Who is already there, should also enjoy the CafĂ© culture in the country has a long Tradition. In the city’s many cozy cafes that offer in addition, yet delicious cupcakes.

tip: In Albania were built from the 60s-years, an estimated 200’000 Bunker – dictator Enver Hoxha was afraid of attacks from the West as from the East. In Tirana, the BunkArt Museum that tells the history of the country in the redesigned bunkers was built a few years ago.

2. The Albanian Riviera

Reasons to visit the Eastern European country, there are many – the dream beaches of the Albanian Riviera are one of them. The southern part of the coast is not compromised in vain with more well-known regions in France or Italy. The big difference, though: Albania’s southern coast is still as good as undeveloped. Who grabs a rental car, you can find beaches at the steep coast that bear the name “secret tip” to the right.

Tourist center of the South, the port city of Saranda, which is attended mostly by Albanians for their Beach holidays. Not in the mood for other tourists? Here one shares the beach with the Locals. Saranda is a stone’s throw from the Greek island of Kos – a day trip over to the island, so no Problem.

Very nice also the resort of Ksamil, with its secluded Bay.

3. Butrint: A look into the history of

With its location between Greece and Italy, this small country has seen in the course of its long history, many men – and all have left their traces. A kaleidoscope of the varied history, shows the Peninsula of Butrint in the South of the country, which was declared in 1992 to the Unesco world heritage site. To see there are temples, streets, theatres and churches of the ancient Greeks, the Romans, early Christians and Ottomans. One should not miss the archaeological Museum where you can admire the best archaeological finds of the Peninsula.

4. The Albanian Alps

The mountains in the North of the country is also known as the Albanian Alps. The peaks reach only to just below the 3000 Meter mark, the valleys, the mountains with its green and dense forests is still a piece of jewelry. Fittingly, the Albanian Name translates as “the Enchanted mountains”. Since it is almost a matter of course, that lynx, wolves and bears sneak through the bushes and an eagle to the summit circles. The mountains away from the tourist paths is a Paradise for Hiking and rafting.

5. Gjirokaster – the city of stones

The southern Albanian Gjirokaster is also suitable “town of the stones way”. The houses in the mountain town (20’000 inhabitants) were built from the local grey stone, even the roofs are covered. In the old town, about 600 buildings from the time of the Ottomans (15. to 19. Century) and, therefore, Gjirokaster, 2005, was a Unesco world heritage site. Some of the beautifully decorated houses can be visited, such as the opulent “Zekate House”, which towers over the old town. See also mosques and places of retreat (Tekken) of the Islamic Sufi order.

A special attraction is the Bunker from the time of the Cold war. The 80 rooms were designed for up to 300 people.

6. Berat – 1001 window

A world heritage site! Albania has historically a lot to offer – as the city of Berat, which is also a testimony of the Ottoman rule. The Nickname “city of 1000 Windows” was awarded the 60 000 inhabitants of the municipality by the characteristic houses with their many-to-ceiling Windows. A Must when visiting the castle district and the Muslim Mangal district with its impressive mosques.


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