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This remarkable coexistence was forged in the horror of the Shoah. In April 1941, Kosovo 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 Kosovo, 258 Jews were deported to Bergen-Belsen, 92 of whom perished. But more than 2,000 Jews were saved throughout Albania and Kosovo.
One key to understanding the heroism of Albanians is knowing that they were guided in part by besa, an ancient and folkish honor code stipulating that one must provide protection to any person who sets foot on one’s property, even to the point of laying down one’s life.
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 Kosovo is extraordinarily fragile. In a fledgling nation with an unemployment rate of at least 45%, dependent on foreign aid and remittances from the Diaspora, Kosovo’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 Pristina, 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 Kosovo’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, Kosovo has yet to fully resolve this matter. The situation is complicated by the fact that Kosovo’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 Kosovo Assembly.