THE leading Jew of Valona, Albania, continued his story of the Jewish community in that town:
“I understand that a hundred years ago the Jewish colony of Valona was quite large once more, but their persecution by the Turks grew so unbearable that one night most of the prominent Jews and their families boarded a large vessel and escaped, taking their valuable belongings with them. Next morning the inhabitants of Valona wondered why most of the larger Jewish shops were closed. They could not think of any Jewish holiday that fell on that particular day. Later they discovered that the majority of the Jewish community had sailed from Valona during the night. The Turkish authorities broke open the Jewish shops and seized whatever property they found.
“At present the Jewish community of Valona consists of about sixty souls. We have no organized communal Jewish life. For our religious services, I have placed two rooms of my house at the disposal of the congregation and we meet and pray there on Jewish festivals.
“The Jewish community of Yanina, a city now belonging to Greece, formerly part of Albania, has a very old Sefer Torah which belonged to the Valona synagogue about five hundred years ago. It is believed that it was removed to Yanina during the second Jewish exodus from Valona. We regard this as a most precious relic. We have taken the matter up with the trustees of the Jewish community of Yanina and have asked them to return this ancient Scroll belonging to the Jews of Valona, and we offered to build new synagogue in the event they returned to us this sacred Scroll which belonged to our forefathers here. But the Jewish community of Yanina has declined to part with this precious relic. They say it is very sacred and dear to them, too.
“There used to be a big structure in Valona which was occupied by the Turks as a gunpowder storehouse. That structure was destroyed by fire during the World War. It is believed that originally it was a synagogue. A considerable part of the town near the place where the old building was situated is known to this day as the Tchifuthane, or the Jewish Quarter. There is an old cemetery near by, but the Turks destroyed the tombstones.”
Professor Luigi Ugolini, chief of the Italian archaeological expedition in Southern Albania, told me that about ten kilometers from Saranda, there is an ancient tomb, known among the natives as “Varri i Tehifitit”, the Jew’s Tomb.
The Patriarch of the Albanian Orthodox Church, Visarion, told me that he believed there had been a large Jewish settlement in the city of Elbasan, in central Albania, many years ago. He said that one of the largest buildings in Elbasan, which was used by the Turks as an inn, had been a synagogue, and that the Jewish Shield of David could still be seen in the upper part of the building. He pointed out that that section of Elbasan was known as the Jewish Quarter and that the Albanian Orthodox living in that neighborhood bore such Biblical names as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. Then he remarked half in jest, half in earnest:
“You never can tell. I, the Patriarch of the Albanian Orthodox Church, may be a descendant of the Jews who lived in Albania years ago.” He then spoke with enthusiansm of the Jewish contributions to civilization, denouncing anti-Jewish persecutions in other lands as remnants of savage bigotry. And as he spoke, he declaimed passages from the Old Testament in Hebrew.
In the course of a search I made in the archives of Elbasan, all I found about the Jews there was a handwritten record kept by a Turkish judge about two hundred years ago, referring to several Jewish merchants who had been tried and punished for having violated certain Turkish laws.
This, in brief, is all that is known about the Jews who lived in Albania in the past, who had first fled there from the Inquisition in quest of refuge, and afterward fled from Turkish oppression. It is but another sad episode in the journey of the Wandering Jew.
It is quite possible, however, that Albania may soon offer asylum to the new Jewish wanderers and victims of religious persecution, who find the doors of equal opportunity closed elsewhere.
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