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In Muslim Kosovo, Lingering Jews Stake Claim To Country’s Past — And Future

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(JTA) — Boxing Club Prishtina is a squat building on a narrow street around the corner from the parliament in the heart of Kosovo’s capital city.

Around the corner, a popular Italian restaurant draws the young Western Europeans and Americans in button-down shirts and open-toed heels who help keep the country running. Walk the other way and you’ll find a dim hole-in-the-wall bar/gallery crammed with their Kosovar peers.

But Boxing Club Prishtina stands unattended, plaster cracked or stripped away by wind, rain and time. Its rusted metal awning droops into Mark Isaki Street.

Before World War II, the Jews of Kosovo will tell you, the building housed a yeshiva or Jewish community center or maybe both — or maybe neither. Maybe it will be restored or torn down, become a monument or a memory.

The handful of Jews remaining in Kosovo and their brethren who fled to Belgrade in the late 1990s say it is a Jewish property, and that might be enough to make it so.

Kosovo, longing for a solid footing in the West, wants the world to know that it has been good to its Jews. And its tiny Jewish community — having barely survived the 20th-century maelstrom of the Holocaust, communist rule and Balkan wars — wants government support to create tangible markers of Jewish life in the country, where more than 90 percent of the 1.8 million people are Muslims.

A centuries-old and aging Jewish community that has dwindled to a few dozen souls is bound to Europe’s newest country, with its youngest and fastest-growing population — and each is seeking validation through the other.

Israel does not recognize Kosovo.

“All civilized nations have recognized Kosovo,” says Votim Demiri, the president of Kosovo’s community of 56 Jews, “but Israel has not.”

Six years after the United States recognized Kosovo, the “Kosovo Thanks You” website records every new country to follow suit, most recently the Solomon Islands on Aug. 13.

There are 110 entries, including 23 of the 28 members of the European Union.

“All of Israel’s closest allies are on that list,” says Petrit Selimi, Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister, who has made gaining Israel’s recognition a personal mission.

“Has Israel recognized us yet?” he half-jokingly greets a JTA reporter.

What resounds in Israel’s snub are the echoes that members of Kosovo’s Albanian majority hear from the last century.

“Israel is not just a number, it is symbolic,” says Ines Demiri, the Jewish community leader’s daughter and a foreign ministry official assigned to the Israel case.

Albanians, Kosovars will tell you, rescued Jews from genocide in the last century’s middle, while they credit Jews with rescuing Kosovar Albanians from genocide at its end.

This pairing is reflected in the plaque marking last year’s installation of a plinth near the parliament building memorializing the Holocaust: “The ceremony was supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kosovo as a token of gratitude for the support to the people of Kosovo shown by the Jewish community during the war in Kosovo 98-99.”

It is true that American Jews played a prominent role in rallying support for NATO intervention during Serbia’s brutal military campaign against Kosovar Albanians who were seeking independence for what was then a Serbian province.

Selimi rattles off the names of congressmen who championed Kosovo before, during and after the war: the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), whose survival of the Holocaust informed his concern for a nation subject to the predations of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic; and Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.), like Lantos leading foreign affairs activists in Congress. There was also Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust memoirist who urged international action during the Kosovo conflict.

Then it gets weird. Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state during the Kosovo action, was Kosovo’s Jewish “great aunt,” Selimi says. Then he adds the name of Wesley Clark, the commander of NATO when the alliance beat back Serbian forces. Both Albright and Clark discovered Jewish roots well into adulthood, but neither is in any conventional sense a member of a Jewish community.

With other interlocutors, the listing of Kosovo’s supposedly Jewish saviors can veer into the downright bizarre: Vice President Joe Biden, a number of Kosovars say authoritatively, is Jewish, and this is why he visited Kosovo soon after independence. Ditto for Tony Blair and his joining with President Bill Clinton in mounting the NATO action.

Biden and Blair would no doubt be surprised to learn not only that they are Jewish, but that it is why they aided Kosovo.

It is as if Kosovars see their salvation as the result of a massive Jewish conspiracy, only one that is heroic rather than nefarious.

“If you look at what the U.S. government did, look at their profile, look at how many of them have Jewish roots,” says Isak Bilalli, deputy director of the Kosovo Israeli Friendship Association. “The footprints are everywhere.”

Albanian Kosovars assign epic proportions to the relationship — great and powerful Jews sweeping in to rescue the little nation that once rescued them.

Albania during the Nazi occupation not only protected its own 200 or so Jews, it welcomed Jews fleeing from other lands — between 600 and 1,800, according to Yad Vashem.

Ask Kosovars about their sister nation, Albania, and if you’re Jewish, the first thing you are likely to hear is that it is the only Nazi-occupied land that had a larger Jewish population at the end of the war than at the beginning. Albanian Kosovars also rescued Jews, although it is not clear how many.

Bilalli, 40, a translator and consultant, likens Israeli recognition to a totem of protection against Serbian ambitions to reclaim Kosovo.

“We want a brick to put in our wall,” he says. “Israel is in a position to recognize what a great country did for them.”

Israel is reluctant to recognize Kosovo for the same reason Spain, Romania, Indonesia and China, among others, are not on the list of 110: Each has reason to be wary of the precedent Kosovo set in 2008 by unilaterally separating from Serbia.

In Israel’s case, the fear is that recognition could undercut its diplomatic efforts to prevent the Palestinians from obtaining recognition in international forums, according to the writer and consultant Dahlia Scheindlin, who wrote her Tel Aviv University doctoral thesis on “unilaterally declared unrecognized states.”

“Of course Israel is not going to legitimize a unilaterally declared entity,” Scheindlin says.

Nor, she adds, is Israel interested in making an enemy out of Serbia.

Indeed, Jews have their own historical affinity for Serbs, whose partisans welcomed Jews into their ranks during World War II.

Some Kosovars believe that Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s foreign minister, spearheads opposition to recognition because he fears the possibility of Islamic extremists using the majority Muslim country as a foothold in Europe.

In 2010, a story circulated in Turkish and Israeli media that Liberman told his Macedonian counterpart he feared a jihadist outbreak among Muslim Albanians in the Balkans.

Sources were not cited in the story, and Liberman has said that Israel’s recognition of Kosovo will come when Serbia-Kosovo relations are normalized. He also has acknowledged that the precedent of unilaterally declared independence is a factor.

Israeli officials contacted by JTA would not comment for this story.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Capitol Hill source who is in touch with Israeli officials says Israel may recognize Kosovo as part of a group of nations that will jointly bestow recognition once a Serbia-Kosovo normalization road map signed last year nears completion, although it’s not clear how long that will take.

Among Kosovar Albanians, the notion that they are a potential source of would-be European jihadists rankles most of all.

Selimi is at the forefront of efforts by the government of Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi to present Kosovo as Western-leaning and multicultural. If you call Kosovo Muslim, Kosovar officials will correct you: “Muslim majority,” they say.

In late May, the country hosted for the second time an Interfaith Kosovo conference, a Selimi initiative that brings together religious leaders from around the world to discuss combating extremism. (This reporter was a guest of the conference and delivered a lecture on how U.S. Jewish groups combat online extremism.)

Selimi, speaking to the conference, recalled that former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), in a 2006 letter to a Serbian Orthodox Christian bishop from Kosovo, referred to “concerns for the survival of Christianity” in Kosovo and “the reality of Islamic fascist violence” there.

“You have been in Kosovo, and you know that this is nonsense,” Selimi said, expressing alarm that for a short while in 2012, Santorum was considered a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. In her remarks opening the conference, Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga called her country a “secular state.”

“Our Constitution, which tasks us to build a sovereign country of equal citizens, is very clear on the separation of religion and state,” said Jahjaga, a former deputy police chief who drew attention last year when she wore a knee-length skirt touring religiously conservative Persian Gulf states.

In cities like Pristina and Prizren, the mountain town where the conference took place, lovers stroll arm in arm, young people crowd around sidewalk cafe tables and knock back shots of raki, the revivifying anise liqueur, and women wear slacks, skirts and short-sleeved tops. The Muslim call to prayer mingles with techno and rap music pounding from cars and restaurants.

Daniel Pipes, a conservative American Jewish scholar known for his sharp criticisms of political Islam, was a guest at the conference.

“The government and institutions are making strenuous efforts to promote an Islam that is good-neighborly,” he said.

If there is a Kosovar religion, it is pro-Americanism: Statues of and streets named for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and other U.S. officials dot the country. There are parades on the Fourth of July and Presidents’ Day.

National identity trumps religious identity, Kosovar officials say; Kosovars waged war to preserve the Albanian heritage they share with their neighbors to the south. Catholic ethnic Albanians in Kosovo identified with the national cause. Mother Teresa, the Albanian-born Catholic icon who received her religious vows in Kosovo, is a national hero.

Yet the scars of the conflict between Serbs and Albanians are most visible in places of faith. The government distributed to conference-goers a fat coffee table book depicting the restoration of mosques destroyed by Serb forces during the war. From the hotel in Prizren where the conference took place, the rebuilt Serbian Orthodox seminary is visible; ethnic Albanians burned it and a nearby church during riots in 2004.

Demiri, the Kosovo Jewish community president, steps outside the interfaith conference and the Theranda Hotel, named for the Roman settlement that lies beneath Prizren, for a smoke. He strolls toward the sidewalk with an easy gait that along with a thick head of hair and ready grin belies his 67 years.

He never gets far: Everyone knows his name, and his progression is staggered by a series of Balkan male shoulder-to-shoulder hugs. Greetings are exchanged in the three local languages — Albanian, Serbian and Turkish.

Demiri is a known quantity in Prizren, the country’s second-largest city, where all but a handful of Kosovo’s 56 Jews live. He directed its textile factory, the biggest in Yugoslavia, during the good times and kept 3,000 people working. He was a minister in Kosovo’s provincial government in the 1980s and Yugoslavia’s trade representative in Paris in the 1980s and 1990s.

Times are no longer so good, and he is retired, living in a house with his three adult children, a daughter-in-law and a grandchild. The adults are professionals, but it’s hard to make ends meet with wages averaging $400 a month for the professional class.

Since 2002, when Demiri became president of the Jewish community, which today consists of two extended families, his mission has been to sustain the community into the new age of Kosovar independence.

“It’s respect for Jews who have lived here since the Inquisition,” he says, explaining what he expects from Kosovo’s government. “One must do this. It was a grand community. It’s our right, for our parents.”

Last year he demanded official recognition of the community from the government officials who had asked him to speak at the first Interfaith Kosovo conference to prove Kosovo’s affection for its Jewish heritage. He got it immediately.

Is there a future for Jews in independent Kosovo?

“Of course,” he says. “If I didn’t think there was a future, I would go to Israel.”

But one of his daughters, Teuta, a bank worker, is not as optimistic. She immigrated to Israel in 2003 when she was 18, but stayed just a year; she missed her family.

Now Teuta is 29 and wants to go back to Israel and to start a Jewish family. This time she wants her siblings and father to come with her.

“There is no future here,” Teuta Demiri says. “There is lots of unemployment; it’s hard to live here.” In a less guarded moment, her father acknowledges as much.

“One must have stoicism to be a Jew here,” Demiri says. “In Israel it is easy to be a Jew. Israel charges your Jewish batteries.”

He isn’t so specific on what he wants to see in the new Kosovo: New synagogues? A school? A community center? The country has none of these. For the High Holidays, some Kosovar Jews travel to the Macedonian capital of Skopje or the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

Demiri is seeking the restitution for the properties lost during the Holocaust and then through the years of communist rule.

But what are these properties? Documentation is more or less nonexistent. Details are consigned to the community’s memory or, more precisely, Votim Demiri’s head.

The story of the disappearance of traces of a once vibrant community is not an uncommon one in 20th-century Europe, peeled away first by the Holocaust and then by communism.

Jews in Kosovo were imprisoned during the Italian occupation, but for the most part not deported. After the Italians surrendered to the Allies in 1943, the Nazis deported 400 Jews from Kosovo. Fewer than a hundred, including Votim Demiri’s mother and aunts, who had been deported to Bergen-Belsen, returned. They joined several hundred Jews who had hidden among ethnic Albanians. In 1948, his aunts left for Israel; his mother married an ethnic Albanian partisan.

Then came the communist years, when religion was repressed. Among many other houses of worship, Pristina’s two synagogues were destroyed in the early 1960s.

Until the 1998-99 war, Kosovo’s Jewish community had numbered about 300 or so, but many were Serbian-speaking Jews more closely allied with Serbia. In 1999, men claiming to represent the Albanian separatist Kosovo Liberation Army told the then-president of the Jewish community that he must leave.

Speaking to the Demiris, one gets the impression that relations between what’s left of the Kosovo community and its expats in Belgrade fall somewhere between fraught and affectionate. Each side also questions why the other made its choice, to leave or to stay.

When the Serbian-allied Jews fled, one of them took to Belgrade the records of the Kosovo community. He has since died, Ines Demiri says, and the Jews in Belgrade insist they don’t know where the records are.

“We lack information,” Ines Demiri says. “We lack historical facts.”

Elana Katz, an American avant-garde performance artist now based in Berlin, seeks out the Demiris, father and daughter. She is looking for her next project site.

Katz has crowdsourced funding for her latest work, “Spaced Memory,” staged over European Jewish sites that have been erased.

A May performance in Belgrade involved a disused basketball court built in place of a synagogue destroyed in the 1950s. She wrapped the basket’s backboards in white cloth and scattered white dust over the court. “Please join me in an action that will newly cover what has been covered for decades, in order to reveal its overwritten past,” she wrote in her Facebook invitation.

During the conference, Katz and Ines Demiri hung out together. Close in age, slim and dark, they might be cousins, yet they also present a studied modern Jewish contrast: The black-clad, Berlin-based New Yorker motored by a voracious curiosity and the Sephardic Balkan in muted business outfits answering some questions in modulated, low tones, dismissing others with mysterious aphorisms.

Before arriving in Kosovo, Katz interviewed former Kosovar Jews in Belgrade about the whereabouts of one-time Jewish sites in Prizren and Pristina. Now she is frustrated: Votim Demiri’s accounts mostly differ from what she heard in Belgrade.

He takes her to a soccer field that he says is a cemetery, but there are no signs of its former use. Katz persists with her quest for proof; she needs to be certain. How can one commemorate Jewish absence if there’s a chance Jews never actually were present at the site?

She asks Demiri if there’s someone else she should speak to.


“Someone older?”

“There is no one older than me,” Demiri says, and he and his daughter look at each other and laugh. Katz smiles. Afterward, Ines Demiri bristles, although it seems clear she is also a little taken with Katz and her brash American assuredness.

“She tells us this synagogue may not be here, this cemetery may not be there,” Ines Demiri says. “How would she know? It is in our memories.”

The single site on which Demiri and Katz’s Belgrade contacts agree once was Jewish is the boxing club in Pristina, even if there’s some disagreement as to whether it was a yeshiva or community center. Katz is considering a performance there.

It’s no longer in use as a boxing club, although the owner hopes to revive it and name it for a Jew, or so he tells Katz. She has a picture of the club’s interior on her smartphone, its floor carpeted with shattered roof tiles and plaster.

At a celebratory dinner ending the conference, Katz tells Selimi, the deputy foreign minister, about the boxing club, and he gets excited. He knows the building, but was unaware of its Jewish origins. Part of the building apparently is privately owned, part belongs to the city. Katz wants Selimi’s help in securing it for a performance, but he has grander ideas.

Selimi, who owns a popular comics-themed downtown Pristina bar called the Strip Depot, starts thinking aloud. The government could use eminent domain to secure the whole building, and it could become a Jewish community center again, or a museum.

On the Sunday evening of the May weekend when a gunman killed four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels and thugs beat two Jews in Paris, thick clouds dappled Pristina’s early summer sky.

Boxing Club Prishtina is closed. Cracks running through walls, it doesn’t look like it’s been open for years. It resembles the shtiebels one encounters in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim quarter: low-slung, pale, hard, built to last. But nothing on it denotes Jewish use; no telltale mezuzot traces, no faded Hebrew inscription.

The Jewish cemetery overlooking Pristina is the city’s one certain Jewish site. In June 2011, students from Dartmouth and the American University in Kosovo restored it. In November of the same year, vandals defaced the tombstones with swastikas and a misspelled German command: “Jud Raus!”— or “Jews out.” Government officials expressed outrage, and within weeks the Ministry of Culture had removed the graffiti.

Distant traffic creates a soothing white noise. Families gather at sunset to enjoy the cemetery’s quiet unfettered view of the city. Its scattered tombstones — elaborately engraved, commemorating the passing of rabbis, community leaders and their wives and children — suggest a rich Jewish life around the beginning of the 20th century.

Up an alley in another corner of downtown Pristina, near Kosovo’s communist-era National Library notoriously resembling a caged brain, is Renaissance, a restaurant only locals know.

Its owner, Ilir Zhubi, in his 60s, long gray hair drawn back, is an institution. You pay 15 euros and eat as much as you want of whatever’s cooking: No menu.

Displayed against a wall separating two of the restaurant’s rooms is a cluster of artifacts: a Shabbat candle holder, a hanukiyah, a Magen David, a pair of kippot.

Asked if he is Jewish, Zhubi tells the story of his grandfather, a policeman in Haifa who around the turn of the previous century made his way from Palestine first to Thessaloniki in Greece and then to Gjakova, a town in western Kosovo, where he married a local woman and settled down.

During World War II, the family changed names to avoid detection by the Nazi occupiers, and what Jewish heritage there was began to dissipate. His first name, Ilir, is a common one of his generation, reflecting a theory popular in the last century that Albanians are descended from the ancient Illyrians.

Zhubi passes around his grandfather’s artifacts. “Hold them,” he says, as if aware of how rare a tangible Jewish artifact is in his country. The candle holder is missing a corner. He listens intently as its Hebrew is translated: “A candle is a commandment, and the Torah is light.”

Sometimes, he says, he wears one of the kippot. If the curious ask, he answers “Shabbat.” Albanians and Jews, he says, are brothers.

He sits his guests down and asks his son to bring over the homemade raki. Zhubi searches for his iPad and calls up a YouTube video recounting the rescue of Jews by Albanians, passing this too among the visitors.

He has one more artifact he wants to show his guests and returns from a back room with a full-size Israeli flag. He carefully unfolds the blue-and-white banner and wraps himself in it.

Where did he get the flag?

“Friends brought it,” he says, “from Jerusalem.”

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