In Kosovo's Tiny 'Jerusalem,' a Struggle To Sustain Jewish Life in Corner of Balkans

Letter From Prizren

liam hoare

By Liam Hoare

Published July 02, 2013, issue of July 05, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Votim Demiri led me through a warren of narrow streets and buildings with sloping red-tiled roofs to his home in this city of 178,000, set on a bend in the Prizrenska Bistrica river. In his office, Demiri, president of the Jewish community in Kosovo, proudly showed off photographs of his family meeting leaders, including Israeli President Shimon Peres. He pointed to a calendar given to him by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The JDC has done extensive work in this breakaway former province of Serbia, from which it declared independence in 2008.

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.

liam hoare

Prizren is more like Jerusalem than one might think, for better and worse. As Demiri boasts, the city 40 miles south of the capital Pristina has a polyglot of ethnicities, including Albanians of various Muslim denominations, Catholics — and a grand total of 56 Jews.

“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 Kosovo 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 Kosovo’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 Kosovo 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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.