In Kosova's Tiny 'Jerusalem,' a Struggle To Sustain Jewish Life in Corner of Balkans
Demiri's house — "the Jewish house," as he referred to it — forms one point of a triangle in his neighborhood with two Islamic holy places. Later, he took me into the historic center of Prizren, situated around an old stone bridge spanning the Prizrenska Bistrica. He noted that the Sinan Pasha Mosque sits within walking distance of a Serb Orthodox Church and a Catholic school.
"This is our Jerusalem," he said.
Votim Demiri -- Photograph by Liam Hoare.
"Albanian Sunnis, Sunni Sufis, Catholics and Jews enjoy a warm sense of common municipal identity in Prizren," said Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington.
Still, the city is no stranger to the ethnic hatreds that have ravaged the Balkans for two decades since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Although it was spared the worst of the excesses of the Kosova War, Serb forces did systemically clear some Albanian areas of the city. Albanians drove out most of the small Serb community after winning a tentative victory in 1999, and forced almost all the rest to leave in a round of riots in 2004.
"While the town is lovely, animated and hospitable," Schwartz said, "Albanians and Serbs do not get along there."
It is within this uneasy admixture that virtually all of Kosova's Jews live. The tiny community has "not been a significant presence in public life for a long time," Noel Malcolm, senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, explained to the Forward. The community has shrunk significantly, even from the 360 or so who survived World War II and the Holocaust.
And yet in Prizren and Kosova as a whole, the community's very existence is valuable because it serves as a powerful example to Europe and the world of how a Jewish minority can survive among Muslims.
They enjoy "a real history of positive coexistence and mutual acceptance in what was a predominantly Muslim society," Malcolm said.
This remarkable coexistence was forged in the horror of the Shoah. In April 1941, Kosova was annexed to Italian-controlled Albania. By September 1943, both territories were under German occupation. Throughout this period, including the attempt to turn over Jews to Nazi authorities en masse, Albanians refused to cooperate, hiding Jews in their homes, providing them with food and clothing, and giving them Muslim names and fake documentation. In Kosova, 258 Jews were deported to Bergen-Belsen, 92 of whom perished. But more than 2,000 Jews were saved throughout Albania and Kosova.
The flag of the Albanian nation.
Schwartz adds that it also reflects "an absence of anti-Jewish prejudice in Albanian society," related to the "cultural memory" of the tolerated place of Jews within Ottoman society, and to the fact that Jews played a historic role in the Albanian national movement.
Regardless of this history, the state of Jews today in Kosova is extraordinarily fragile. In a fledgling nation with an unemployment rate of at least 45%, dependent on foreign aid and remittances from the Diaspora, Kosova's Jews are not shielded from the effects of poverty and unemployment. The assistance of the JDC therefore remains critical even on a most basic level. Each winter, for instance, every member of the community receives $150 from the JDC for fuel or firewood.
Under these economic conditions and with such numbers, Jewish life cannot thrive.
Demiri explained that two Jewish families left in 2001 to settle in Israel. Those who remain are mostly too poor to contribute financially, in the form of membership dues, to the Jewish community. Some survive on the help of handouts from nongovernmental organizations, like the JDC or other charities.
Prizren's Jewish community also lacks for a shared space or synagogue. In the capital of Prishtina, the former Jewish community had maintained two synagogues and a yeshiva up until the Holocaust. But the community there withered away to nothing after the war, and the last synagogue was demolished in 1963. Upon the site of the old synagogue, right in the center of town, government buildings now stand, as well as Kosova's newly inaugurated Holocaust memorial.
Restitution for this property could make concrete Demiri's vision for a Jewish community center in Prizren, with a small synagogue incorporated within. But though many ex-Yugoslav republics have passed laws on restitution, Kosova has yet to fully resolve this matter. The situation is complicated by the fact that Kosova's legal code is a jumble of old Yugoslav laws, United Nations resolutions passed during the time the world body served as a de facto government and legislation passed by the Kosova Assembly.
Waves of property theft by the Yugoslav monarchy prior to World War II, the Communist government during the postwar era and the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milošević further muddle the picture.
The struggle to sustain Jewish life has not halted attempts by Kosova's Jews and Jewish charities to carry on the spirit of intercommunity cooperation. Between 1999 and 2006, the JDC was active in Kosova, engaging in nonsectarian projects that benefited the local Albanian population. Perhaps the most significant of these, at least symbolically, was the reconstruction of a mosque in Shqiponja, a hill village in the west of Kosova.
During Milošević's onslaught against Kosova, Shqiponja's mosque was one of 200 or so such places of worship damaged, desecrated or destroyed by Serbian forces. Working alongside Kosova's Islamic and Catholic communities, the JDC helped finance the restoration of a structure that was but a shell, including the rebuilding of the golden-hued domes and a single minaret.
The JDC funds visits for the Prizren Jews with other Jewish communities in the region so that they can "recharge their batteries," as Demiri put it. Periodically, the JDC also makes sure the children are able to partake in Jewish summer camps organized for all the youth in the former Yugoslavia, held in Pirovac, Croatia.
Despite the challenges, the Jewish community goes to great lengths to mark every Sabbath and holy day as it can. Members hold events in each other's houses, often in Demiri's so-called 'Jewish house,' a stone's throw from the mosques in the narrow streets of the Old City.
For now and the foreseeable future, Demiri said, "I am the president, the rabbi and the cantor."
We Are One.
Shënim: Teksti në gjuhën shqipe i këtij neni është i arritshëm në http://www.islamicpluralism.org/2259/leter-nga-prizreni-jerusalemi-i-vogel-i-kosoves.
Note: An Albanian-language text of this article is accessible at http://www.islamicpluralism.org/2259/leter-nga-prizreni-jerusalemi-i-vogel-i-kosoves.