For many Americans, knowledge of Albania may derive from a famous scene in the sitcom “Cheers,” where “Coach” helps “Sam” study geography via the use of songs. They did this by singing, “Albania, Albania, you border on the Adriatic,” to the tune of “When the Saints Come Marching in.”

Albania, which marks its Independence Day on November 28th, is a small Balkan country with a tiny Jewish population. While it was never a country with a large Jewish population, there have been Jews residing there for centuries. Some historians even believe that a small group of Jews came to the area in 70 C.E., and archeologists have found what they believe to have been a 5th century synagogue in Saranda. A more consistent record of Jewish settlement in Albania took place after the Spanish expulsion in 1492, when the area was under Ottoman control. Spanish and Portuguese Jews settled in many Albanian towns. In 1673, the infamous false Messiah Shabbetai Zvi, was exiled to the port city of Ulqin, Albania (now Montenegro) by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV, and died there three years later.

Perhaps the most interesting fact of Albanian Jewish history is the statistic that there were approximately 200 Jews in the country at the start of World War II and close to 2,000 at the war’s conclusion. In 1937, even as European anti-Semitism was increasing, the government of Albania officially recognized the Jewish community. Two years later, however, Albania became a puppet state under Italian control. Fascist laws limiting the freedom of Jews (and other minorities) were enacted, but the majority of Albanians did not enforce them. In fact, the Albanian embassy continued to issue visas to Jews long after other European countries had ceased to do so.

Hundreds of Jews managed to seek refuge in Albania, and the Albanian people did not distinguish between them and Jews native to the country. When the Germans took control of the country in 1943, they demanded that a list of Jews be provided to begin deportation. The local governments did not comply, and even provided Jews with forged documents.

The Albanian people, influenced by their custom of hospitality and “Besa” (words of honor) hid most of the Jews in their mountain villages. Some of these Jews went on to work for the resistance, while others were escorted to the Albanian ports and escaped. Yad Vashem has recognized 69 Albanians as Righteous Among the Nations.

Albania joined the Communist Bloc during the Cold War, which meant that teaching and practicing religion was illegal. After the 1991 fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, almost all of Albania’s Jews left. Today only about 50 Jews remain, mostly living in Tirana, Albania’s capital.

A version of this Treat was last published on November 28, 2017.

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