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October 31, 2013 9:43 am

The Long Link Between Jews and Kosovo

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avatar by Enver Hoxhaj

The Sinan Pasha Mosque in Prizren, constructed in 1615, in Kosovo. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Looking back over my life, I can tie my interest in the Jewish community in Kosovo to two key moments. The first was in the nineties during my studies at the University of Vienna, where I had the opportunity to meet with many Jewish students who were interested in the political situation in Kosovo and the Balkans. In our conversations, these young Jews compared the emergence of aggressive Serbian nationalism and its chauvinist ideology with similar political phenomena in Europe between the two world wars.

The second key moment was when the war started in Kosovo in the late 1990s, and influential political and diplomatic personalities of the Jewish Diaspora in the United States and Europe become a determining force in shaping the NATO international humanitarian intervention to stop the Serbian ethnic cleansing and attempts at genocide in Kosovo.

Until I went to Vienna as a student of history, I had limited knowledge of the Kosovo Jews and the historical ties that we had with them. Since that time, I have familiarized myself with the existence of a Jewish community in Kosovo who are not immigrants of the modern times, but who historically have lived here together with Albanians.

Even to this day, there is little knowledge about this historic community and its contribution to our society.

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Jewish Community and the History of Kosovo

Jews and Albanians in Kosovo have enjoyed coexisting since ancient times. Traces of this coexistence, which continued for centuries, can be seen in the relations between the two people through the centuries. While little is known about their presence in Kosovo from ancient time, when they came here as part of a political, economic, and social Roman system, Kosovo saw an increasing population of Jews during the medieval period; the presence of the Jewish community in Kosovo is linked to the establishment of a significant mine in Novoberda, which became known in the region for the extraction of precious metals.

The Jewish community that resided in Kosovo worked as merchants, physicians, and craftsmen, and practiced various professions as active members of the society at the time. They had their own synagogues, which survived the Ottoman period, but were demolished by the communist regime. However, traces of this heritage can still be seen in the old ruins that still survive. One such synagogue was built in Prishtina in the late nineteenth century. Prishtina also once held the most famous Jewish bazaar in this region of the Balkans. Both of these buildings were destroyed as part of a communist policy of deletion of historical memory for this community in Kosovo and beyond.

Similar to other Jews in South-Eastern Europe, particularly in Greece, Albania and former Yugoslavia, Kosovo Jews belonged to the Sephardic community. They had left Spain in the fifteenth century and relocated from the European peninsula. The history of this community in Kosovo, similar to other peoples, was made and remade. However, through all these years, they have stayed in Kosovo. Besides the languages of the countries they came from, Jews in Kosovo learned Albanian, Turkish, and Serbian.

Rescue and Protection

In my opinion, there are two historical circumstances that give special meaning and dimension to the relations between Kosovo Albanians and Jews. One is the assistance the Kosovo Albanians gave to rescue Jews during World War II. The second is the role of the Jewish Diaspora in Europe and the United States to save Kosovar Albanians from the genocide and mass expulsion in the late 1990s.

Sadly, the rescue of Jews by the Kosovo Albanian population is not sufficiently promoted. I think historians should shed more light on this topic. Nevertheless, it is an undeniable historical fact that Kosovo, despite being a small country, did not submit Jews to the national-socialists. On the contrary, in times of war, the Kosovo Albanians successfully hid members of this community, in keeping with the Albanian ancient code of honor, known as “Besa” or covenant.

According to Besa, when an individual offers help and takes a guest into his or her home, he or she also has a duty to protect the safety of the guest. Albanian customary law states that “the house of an Albanian is God’s and friend’s.”

As evidenced by the survivors as well as historians, many Albanian families put their lives at risk for this noble mission. In this respect, renowned historian Bernd Fischer said that “there is no known case where trust was broken, there is no known case of a Jew having been submitted, and there are no cases known in which the host asked for compensation for the service.”

Similarly, according to other studies, it is a historical truth that Albanians in Kosovo refused to cooperate in the deportation of the Jews during both the Italian occupation in 1939 and the German occupation in 1943. Kosovo was among the few places in Europe that had a larger Jewish populations during the War, as opposed to before it started.

Persecuted throughout continental Europe, Jews found secure refuge in Kosovo. Many of them then went to Albania, where they were given shelter and food. Most Jews in Kosovo were saved by Kosovo Albanian solidarity and the then-mayor of Prishtina, who did not surrender the Jews to the fascist regime. Those that could not be transferred to Albania were placed at the hospital in Prishtina with the pretext that they were in quarantine and thereby avoided the risk of deportation.

This made it possible for hundreds of Jews to travel from other parts of the region, including Dalmatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece, as well as other European countries. From Kosovo they went to Albania and were equipped with Albanian names and passports to conceal the identity from the fascist regime. According to the city of Prishtina’s Rabbi, Joseph Levi, Prishtina authorities had instructed him to extract documents on behalf of 52 members of the Jewish community, saying they were supposedly born in Prishtina. Ordinary identification documents from the prefecture allowed these Jews to travel to Albania.

This solidarity among Kosovo Albanians to rescue and protect the Jews was certainly influenced by the amicable atmosphere toward the Jews that reigned within the Albanian state. According to studies, King Zog had invited Jews to come to Albania since 1930, in order for them to help with the development of the Albanian state. Most of these Jews had gotten Albanian visas and some were even equipped with Albanian passports. It seems that in 1935, Albert Einstein benefited from the Albanian hospitality as well while traveling from Europe to the United States. Some say that he stayed three days in the Royal Vila in Durres and then, with Albanian passport, went away toward the free world.

There are many reasons that can explain the rescue and protection of Jews in Kosovo. These include empathy of the Albanians of Kosovo towards Jewish refugees, the institution of Albanian Besa, with its societal obligations toward protecting friends and vulnerable people, the friendly attitude of the Albanian authorities during the period of King Zog, and the similar bitter experience of Albanians during Serbian regimes.

All these reasons can serve to shed light on the reality of the rescue and protection of Jews in Kosovo. But one point that should always be taken into consideration is the fact that Kosovo has never seen anti-Semitism embedded in its politics, society, and culture. This has not been the case with many other countries in the region. Therefore, Kosovars have reason to be proud when it comes to their relations Jews, their noble deeds, and for their heroism and humanity.

Jewish Diaspora and Israel During the War in Kosovo

The second circumstance that gives special weight to the relations between Kosovo and the Jewish Diaspora in Europe and the U.S., as well as the state of Israel, occurred during the 1998-99 Kosovo war. Fifty years had passed since the end of Holocaust, and trains expelling people from Pristina in 1999 reminded many in the Western world of the terrible persecution of Jews. Politicians, diplomats, and intellectuals of Jewish descent were among the first to advocate against the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

A major contributor to the survival of Kosovo was the Jewish Diaspora in the United States and Europe, and their commitment to humanitarian intervention to stop the attempted genocide of the Milosevic regime. The Jewish community profoundly felt and understood the threat of physical extermination and mass deportation faced by the people of Kosovo. The well-known Israeli writer Amos Oz showed solidarity with Western military intervention by saying, “The only positive aspect of the Kosovo tragedy is that genocide is no longer considered an internal problem of the country in which it takes place. This presents progress compared to 50 years ago, when most nations considered genocide an internal problem; protested but no intervention.”

Not only the Jewish Diaspora, but the state of Israel also helped and supported the people of Kosovo. During the time of Ariel Sharon, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel announced that Israel would support refugees from Kosovo with humanitarian assistance, and fully support NATO and U.S. efforts to end the tragedy. Moreover, the Government of Israel emphasized that it would not accept acts of ethnic cleansing.

Jews in Kosovo in 2013

These two historical circumstances presented roughly here bring us to a new present day circumstance, and it raises a new question: what can Kosovo do for a historical community with such a special weight and role in Kosovo’s past and future?

Obviously, in one editorial, one cannot provide answers to a topic with such historical character. But one thing remains clear: the Jewish community in Kosovo, small in number but important historically, is part of our society and has made a valuable contribution in building the state of Kosovo. Similar to their place in our history, they are entitled to a place in our state and society.

Establishment of the memorial in Kosovo to honor the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in May 2013 presents a step towards a closer amity between Kosovars and the Jewish community.

The memorial will serve as a reminder that members of the Jewish community were welcome and found rescue in Kosovo. Also, in memory of the Jews of Kosovo, the plaque is proof that our nation will never forget them. The site for the memorial plaque was carefully selected and marks the site where the last synagogue stood. It was destroyed by the communist regime in 1963 to be replaced by Socialist Realism architecture similar to other significant buildings of Albanian cultural heritage, including the old city bazaar.

Among the steps we can take in the future is to build a synagogue or a house-museum to honor the Jewish role in our history and promote their cultural identity.

Secondly, Kosovo is set on its way to secularism, but it is important that the official calendar of holidays in Kosovo include two Jewish holy days, Yom Kippur and Passover.

Third, the Jewish community has been part of the debate on the nature and purpose of the new law on religious communities in Kosovo. But we need to ensure that they are recognized as a religious community, as well as others in Kosovo.

Lastly, the participation of a representative of the Jewish community in the Council for Communities, which functions under the Office of the President of Kosovo, needs to be considered.

These steps will create the preconditions for Kosovo Jews to be equal in our society, like all other communities, and to be part of building a European Kosovo. In this way, we continue the tradition of our ancestors who in historical times rescued and protected Jews. Many esteemed Western politicians and diplomats, linked to our rescue and protection in 1999, are of Jewish descent, who now live in the U.S. or in Europe. In light of our shared history and hopes for a shared future, should we not do more for their Diaspora in Kosovo?

The answer is undoubtedly be yes.

Enver Hoxhaj is the Foreign Minister of Kosovo.

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