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Caught Up in Political Furor, Albanian Jews Ponder Future

Unlike most Albanians today, Rashel Kohen Cikuli and Luiza Konomi are able to share an inside joke about the pyramid- scheme scandal that has rocked this tiny Balkan nation.

The vast majority of Albanians were swept up last year in the frenzy to make “easy money,” sinking an estimated $2 billion into the high-risk investment schemes.

Since last month, when several of the pyramids collapsed, demonstrators have demanded repayment and called on the government to resign for not protecting the public.

But Cikuli, 71, found a way to resist temptation.

“I was more Jewish than the others,” the retired pediatrician said with a grin. “I didn’t trust those companies, and I wasn’t going to just throw my money away.”

His friend, Konomi, however, had other thoughts in mind.

The president of Albania’s tiny Jewish community had wanted to recoup the costs of sending her son to Israel for three years. She would not divulge how much she invested and lost, but says jokingly, “I’m only half-Jewish.”

With her husband making a good living as a parliamentarian, Konomi’s family will most likely recover easily enough.

But not all Albanian Jews — who number only about 60 in the entire country – – got off so lightly.

One older Jewish man, a prominent translator of German literature into Albanian, refused to be interviewed on the subject. Still, he railed against the government, complaining that he had been left “hungry and sitting in darkness.”

Society at large shares his bitterness.

The government originally endorsed the high-risk schemes, declaring them a key to Albania’s economic turnaround.

Reassured, many Albanians sold their farms and homes and poured in their life’s savings. In protests earlier this month, at least four people were killed in clashes with police.

Some observers fear that the situation may escalate into civil war, pitting pro- and anti-government forces against each other. Others worry about the added financial hardship that Europe’s poorest country will shoulder when trying to compensate investors.

Meanwhile, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is waiting in the wings, ready to respond to the needs of the Jewish community.

“Of course we don’t believe we should give financial support if someone made a bad financial investment, but we’re carefully watching what will happen with the general economic situation,” said Manlio Dell’Ariccia, the JDC’s Rome-based Albania country director.

The relief agency first began assisting Albanian Jewry in 1991, when one of communism’s most rigid regimes yielded to free elections.

At the same time, about 300 Albanian Jews immigrated to Israel, leaving behind just 17 families.

Until then, Albania had been the most isolated — and economically backward – – country in Europe. But Albanians themselves had also developed a reputation for their hospitality and tolerance, perhaps a result of their own religious diversity.

It is a secular society, with 70 percent of the population Muslim, 20 percent Orthodox and 10 percent Roman Catholic. Intermarriage is common.

During World War II, Albanians protected their small, mostly Sephardi Jewish community and sheltered hundreds more who fled from Yugoslavia, Italy and Greece.

A disproportionate number of Albanians have been proclaimed “Righteous Gentiles” in Israel for their role in saving Jews, Dell’Ariccia said.

But earlier heroics mattered little during the brutal Stalinist rule of Enver Hoxha. Among other restrictions, he outlawed religion. Those daring to practice their faith risked imprisonment.

In those days, the Jewish High Holidays, if observed at all, were celebrated clandestinely at home with only immediate family.

The Communist propaganda against Israel compounded the problem for Jews.

Israel was painted as a pawn of the capitalist archenemy, the United States.

For some Albanians, that made all Jews — referred to as “Israelites” – – suspect. Discrimination was never overt, Cikuli said, but Jews were often treated as outsiders. In the workplace, they routinely bumped up against a glass ceiling while colleagues were promoted.

But any latent tension apparently dissipated in 1991, when Albania shed its communism and allied itself with the United States and Israel.

As evidence, Konomi and Cikuli point to their own families. Konomi’s husband, Maksim, was recently Albanian’s minister of science and technology. He is not Jewish, but during the old days not even the spouse of a Jew could hold such a prestigious post, she said.

Cikuli’s son, who is Jewish, is the current minister of health. Their positions, and the desire to stay close to their non-Jewish relatives, were main reasons both families stayed in Albania when many others left for Israel.

Now they and other Jewish families, who are sprinkled across the country, are also learning what it means to be Jewish.

JDC is pitching in with deliveries of prayer books, calendars and how-to guides to the holidays. Last year, most of the families gathered in the capital, Tirana, to celebrate together each of the major holidays.

“Today we’re allowed to be proud to be Jewish,” said Konomi, who is also vice chairwoman of the Albania-Israel Friendship Association.

“And we’re also proud to know that we have the State of Israel as a state of our own.”

Yet despite this renewal of faith, the current political and economic crisis has many Albanian Jews considering a dash to Israel.

For Cikuli, that would be a tough call. She was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and moved to Albania in 1950 after marrying an Albanian.

“I left my homeland once,” she said, “so I know how painful it can be.”

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