EXCLUSIVE: Balkan countries see revival of Jewish culture; ‘I’m excited,’ says mayor

In Kosovo and Albania, community centers, synagogues and other facilities for the small Jewish populations are being developed. with the enthusiastic support of the local mayors.

By Dave Gordon, Special to World Israel News

One of the smallest countries in Europe, with one of the smallest Jewish populations, just took the first step towards renovating a building that will become the Jewish Cultural Center of Prizren, in the Balkan state of Kosovo.

The official ribbon cutting took place last week.

Votim Demiri, President of the Jewish Community in Prizren, told World Israel News that in this city of about 180,000 people, there are approximately 50 who self-identify as Jews. But that number swells to six or seven times that, he said, with visiting family for high holidays.

“I have great hope for this center, to have a synagogue, a library, and so much more for our community, at long last,” he said.

Tamar Ziv, Ambassador of the State of Israel to the Republic of Kosovo, attended the unveiling of the renovation. Kosovo formalized ties with Israel in February 2021, and months earlier, it was the first Muslim-majority state to open an embassy in Jerusalem.

“We’re almost two years into our (countries’) relationship,” said Ziv, at the dedication. “We’re working to develop our relationship in many different ways.”

In attendance was also Jörn Rohde, Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany in Kosovo; Alyson Grunder, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kosovo; EU officials in Kosovo; and other officials.

Mayor of Prizren, Shaqir Totaj told World Israel News that “it is a great honor… to support the building of the Jewish Cultural Center in Prizren.” He also said that it “will complete the cultural mosaic of the city,” and noted that Jews have lived in the area since the Middle Ages.

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“Visitors, tourists and citizens of Prizren will have the opportunity to know more about the outstanding culture of Jews, their history and their heritage in our city. Prizren is known since antiquity as a unique place in Balkans, the city where cultures and civilization came together for centuries.”

The center will be financed by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport of the Republic of Kosovo, in cooperation with the Regional Cultural Heritage Center in Prizren.

Hysen Hyseni

Canadian Journalist Dave Gordon (l) with Kosovo’s Jewish community leader Dr. Hysen Hyseni. (Courtesy Dave Gordon)

Flori Zevi, a Jewish community member from the country’s capital, Pristina, noted that his city – about an hour and a half away – is also expected to see its own Jewish center that could house a synagogue, library, museum and possibly a kosher shop.

Up until about two generations ago, the city had a cheder (school for Jewish children), which is now a boxing club, and a one-hundred-year-old synagogue that today serves as an art museum. There are two Jewish cemeteries in the city, the oldest headstone dating to 1890.

Today, the Bet Israel – the community’s representative arm – with almost a hundred members, is led by Dr. Hysen Hyseni.

Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2008, is not the only Balkan country about to erect a new Jewish facility.

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Next door, in Muslim-majority Albania, plans are well underway to build the Albanian Jewish Museum, the largest of its kind in the region, in the port city of Vlora. The official groundbreaking is expected next month, and the project is due for completion by 2025.

The museum will be situated in the city center, right next to Rruga Ebraia – The Jewish Street – where so much of the Jewish population once lived, before making Aliyah in the ’90s.

Vlora Mayor Dritan Leli told World Israel News that he was part of the spearheading committee to get the project off the ground.

“Near the historical museum of the city is the Jewish Street, where I have so many memories as a child,” he added.

He also noted that some 500 years ago, half the population of his city was Jewish.

“I’m excited…. The Jewish Museum of Albanians in Vlora will be dedicated to the coexistence of Jews and Albanians,” Leli said.

Model of acceptance for Jews

Albania has been a model of interfaith acceptance for Jews throughout history. Continuous Jewish presence in the area dates back to at least the third century, as evidenced by the 1,700-year-old synagogue ruins in the port city of Saranda. During the Inquisition, Jews sought refuge in Vlora, which today is the third-most populous city in Albania.

During the Holocaust, Albania resisted the Nazis, saving all its 300 Jews, as well as 3,000 other refugees. Today, the country is home to about 50 Jews.

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Jewish Street today is protected by the state and includes a wall plaque dedicated to the Righteous Gentiles of Albania who saved Jews.

Dave Gordon receives commendation from Vlora Mayor Dritan Leli for his work in building bridges between Albania and the Jewish people. (Dave Gordon)

The museum is a cooperation between Albanian American Development Foundation (AADF), Ministry of Culture of Albania, and the Albanian Jewish community, according to Enxhi Lekli, Public Relations Manager of AADF. The largest non-profit in Albania, the AADF is a foreign assistance initiative of the U.S. government to increase private-sector initiatives in post-communist Albania. The organization has committed some $330,000 to the project.

Lekli said that exhibits will be curated by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a distinguished scholar of Jewish culture, who is curating the exhibition at the POLIN museum in Warsaw. Curation will also be contributed by Alketa Kurrizo of the Albanian-American Development Foundation. Exhibits will be solicited from the Albania diaspora around the world.

In August, Israeli firm Kimmel Eshkolot was tapped as lead architects for the museum. Their plan is to combine Albanian stone and Jerusalem stone as the building’s foundations, while preserving most of the existing structure.

Etan Kimmel, lead architect and firm principal, said in a statement: “The museum will tell the story of the Albanians’ saving the Jews during World War Two, whilst creating a physical experience elevated by our meticulous approach to emotion-evoking architecture and design.”

Assaf Kimmel, one of the architects, told World Israel News: “The most exciting part is being part of the foundation of a new cultural institution that aims to be a lively hub of events and exhibitions, and will be an engine in the development of the city of Vlora, which is already under rapid development.”