BEFORE going to Albania as American Minister, I assured my Jewish friends that I would not try to discover hitherto unknown Jewish settlements, or the Lost Tribes of Israel, for we have a difficult enough task in coping with the problems of the Jewish communities that are known to us.
For about three and a half years I did not have to deal with any Jewish problems, officially or unofficially. There is no Jewish question in Albania, that beautiful little country on the Adriatic. There are only one hundred Jews in the entire country, according to the latest census. There is no trace of any discrimination against them in Albania, not merely because the Jewish community is small in number, but because Albania happens to be one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist, even though the Albanian people are themselves divided into three faiths, Moslem, Albanian Orthodox and Catholic.
The only Jewish figure that some people remember in connection with Albania in the past is that of Sabbatai Zevi, the “false” or rejected Messiah, who ended his days in Dulcino, whither he had been exiled by the Sultan of Turkey. Dulcino, an Albanian town on the Adriatic coast, was then under Turkish rule, and is now part of Yugoslavia. It is quite near the ancient Albanian city of Scutari.
Last summer I went for a week-end by motor to Dulcino. Situated on a high picturesque mountain, the ancient town of Dulcino is now in ruins, and a comparatively new town has been built on the shore of the Adriatic. The few cultured inhabitants of Dulcino, especially the professor of history at the Gymnasium, who acted as my guide through the old ruins, told me that while they knew that Sabbatai Zevi had lived and died in Dulcino, they were unable to find any trace of his tomb, or any signs of Jewish life there in the past. The Turks had destroyed that city years ago. Then there was further destruction during the Balkan and World Wars, when various armies invaded that region. The Sultan had chosen for Sabbatai Zevi’s exile a most isolated spot, but the view from the picturesque ancient city overlooking the sea is fascinating.
But it seems there is really no place on earth that the Wandering Jew has overlooked. If there are only a hundred is Jews Albania today. I discovered ## that a rather large Jewish community existed there during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
In a volume published in Germany in 1611, I came upon the following reference to the Jews of Albania at that time:
“Albania’s most important cities are Alexio, Durazzo, Velona, Scutari, Croya, Sfatigrade, Dibra, Bagno. There is good wine in Velona, and much salt in the mountains near Velona and many of those places are inhabited by Jews who had gone to Albania from Ancona during the period of Pope Paul IV.”
Pope Paul IV, born in 1476, was Pope from 1555 to 1559. It was Pope Paul IV who intensified the Inquisition and issued the first Roman Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
Longfellow, in his Tales of a Wayside Inn, has a poem on Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg, who lived in the sixteenth century. The poem is in the form of a tale told by a Spanish Jew. It is also recorded in ancient books of Skanderbeg’s period that the grave of Albania’s national hero, who had achieved universal fame as a ruler and as the liberator of his country from Turkish despotism, was visited by Moslems, Christians and Jews.
In the course of my travels through Albania I visited Valona and endeavored to ascertain the facts regarding the history of the old Jewish settlement there.
The most prominent Jew in Valona is Joseph Matattia. He is a merchant and also a member of the Valona Municipal Council.
His knowledge of the history of the Jewish community in Valona was quito meager.
“We know nothing concrete about the history of our people in Valona,” he said. “Our old men died, without leaving any written records concerning the Jewish setlement. We know that quite a large Jewish community emigrated here from venice during the first Venetian occupation, about five hundred years ago. Then the Turks captured this country from the Venetians, and the Jews fled from Valona, as they could not remain under Turkish oppression. When the Venetians drove the Turks out and recaptured this region, the Jews returned. But after some time, the Turks occupied Valona once more, and the Jews fled again, in haste, scattering in all directions.”