The Jewish population of Vlore totaled approximately 2,600 in the 1500s, when the city was a trade hub. Today, the figure has dwindled to 50-100 Albanian-born Jews.
By Avi Kumar, JNS
Vlore, the third-largest city in Albania, was the historic home of Albania’s biggest Jewish community. The city now plans to build a Jewish museum to commemorate this history.
The Albanian Jewish Museum project is a joint venture of the Albanian-American Development Foundation (AADF) and Albania’s Ministry of Culture, which are working together with the small local Jewish community.
After a long search for an architect, they narrowed the list to five companies and ultimately chose Tel Aviv-based Kimmel Eshkolot to design the museum. Kimmel Eshkolot is well-known for building the Mount Herzl Memorial on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives and the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University. Company co-founder Eitan Kimmel told JNS, “We hope to break ground sometime next year and are very excited.”
The museum intends to provide a comprehensive look at Albanian Jewish life through the ages, as the Jewish presence in the Balkan nation has been documented since the 2nd century. From Greek Romaniotes to Spanish Sephardim fleeing persecution in the 15th century to Hungarian Ashkenazim who came much later, the combination of a mountainous region and proximity to Italy and Greece created a distinct Jewish culture.
By the outbreak of World War II, an estimated 1,800 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution arrived in Albania due to its liberal visa policies. Some were hoping to continue on to North and South America, British Mandatory Palestine or other places of refuge. A few of them ended up making Albania their permanent home. An estimated 2,000 Jews were saved thanks to the efforts of local Albanian Muslims, and the country was one of the few European nations whose Jewish population had increased by the end of World War II.
Rabbi Yoel Kaplan, the local emissary for Chabad-Lubavitch, said, “Albanian Jews like to maintain their unique identity and customs after so many centuries. Albania was further isolated for 50 years under communism, and after the 1990s when communism ended, many Jews emigrated.”
He continued, “Albanians have this concept called ‘Besa’—it is an all-encompassing term for hospitality and protecting your neighbor or guest—that we invoke every time we get together here. It was also this Besa that saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. We pushed for this museum to happen and I’m glad it’s happening. The government has also been especially supportive towards the local Jewish community.”
Albanian Jews, he noted, have warm historical ties with the Jewish community in Corfu, a Greek island that was once a major center for Jewish life with many yeshivot.
The Jewish population of Vlore totaled approximately 2,600 in the 1500s, when the city was a trade hub due to its coastline and proximity to Italy. Today, the figure has dwindled to 50-100 Albanian-born Jews, most of whom live in the country’s capital and largest city, Tiranë. There are also around 200 foreign Jews in the Balkan nation.
The museum will be built as an addition on top of an existing building, as the architect is tasked with innovatively designing a modern “extension” of an old structure. “We will mix both the old and new,” Kimmel said. “We have to double the size of the existing building to create this museum complex while respecting the existing monument.”
Many buildings in the Vlore area once belonged to Jewish families, dating back to the 16th century, when many Jews were involved in the city’s vibrant trade culture. Near the museum, there are remains of an old synagogue that burned down in the 1920s.
“There will be two stone-clad pavilions at the entrance that almost merge into each other. Ninety-eight percent will be composed of local Albanian stone and 2% Jerusalem stone,” Kimmel said. There will also be a trilingual plaque in Albanian, English and Hebrew that reads, “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire”—a paraphrase of a passage from the Talmud.
“We will present a unique story of Albanians and Jews,” AADF said in a statement provided to JNS. “While the Holocaust chapter is of the utmost importance and perhaps the most exceptional part of this history, the Albanian Jewish Museum will place this chapter within the entire history of Albanian Jews—understood as that of Jews in the historic territory of Albania as well as the Diaspora.”
AADF also cited the fact that there are three other museums in the vicinity as another reason for having chosen the site.
Sokol Pirra, who was born in Vlore but now lives in Tiranë, said, “My ancestors thrived here for generations. But now, we struggle to keep Jewish life going, as many Jews have migrated to Israel or other places. This museum is a great addition to honor our long presence in Albania. Vlore has beautiful seaside scenery. And the Jewish museum will be a great addition to both the cityscape and the Albanian Jewish community.”