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Jews in Kosovo: To leave or stay?

PRIZREN, Kosovo, April 22 (JTA) — Every once in a while, some of the workers in the kitchen peek up from behind the window over the counter and stare curiously. There are two long rows of tables, at one of which most of the men are wearing yarmulkes. Plates of matzoh are being passed around. At one end of the restaurant hangs a large blue banner from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, next to the many paintings of mosques — scenes from the picturesque streets of Prizren, where the JDC’s fourth annual seder in Kosovo is being held. The JDC’s administrator, Jackie Godlove, rises to welcome the gathering. This is a time of transition, she says: Unfortunately this will be the last seder put on by the JDC in Kosovo. The organization is significantly scaling back its operations in the coming months after four years in the territory. Very soon a large portion of the local Jewish community, on whose behalf the seders originally were held, will be moving to Israel. Looking at the two extended families, which make up the extent of Kosovo’s known Jewish community, it’s hard to escape the feeling of being in the presence of the last Jews of Kosovo. The two families are the Zheltas and the Dimiris. For both, their Jewish lineage stems from a now-deceased grandmother. Needless to say, whatever Jewish identity they possess is well submerged within their main ethnicity and culture. In the case of the Zheltas, this is Turkish, one of the larger minority groups in Kosovo, with an especially large concentration in Prizren. The older members of the family speak only Turkish. They refer to the family’s Jewish matriarch, who was born in Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, as Lala Bala. Many members of her family immigrated to Israel 50 years ago. They never celebrated any holidays or observed Jewish customs, yet they “just knew” they were Jewish, family members say. One of Lala Bala’s daughters recalls her mother speaking Hebrew, and it is quickly ascertained that by this she means Ladino. The family has wanted to go to Israel for more than five years, and now they’re just waiting for their documents to be processed. Will the family miss Kosovo? “Of course. It’s our birth country,” Mikush Zhelta says. All the same, the assurance and enthusiasm on his face indicates that he will leave Kosovo at the first opportunity. The Demiris speak Albanian. Votim Demiri, who at the time of the seder was in Belgrade, studied at university and manages a textile factory. On account of his relatively high position, he was made leader of the Prizren Jewish community by Eli Eliezri, the JDC’s main representative in Kosovo. Demiri’s brother Bujar recalls that when their mother was alive, they would celebrate Passover, albeit without the traditional protocol. He recalls that she spoke Ladino. Bujar Demiri visited Israel in the 1980s. He has two uncles living in Ashdod, but he’s unsure whether his family will go to Israel, since some are still active in Kosovo. The seder is divided into three separate groups. There are the Zhelta and Demiri families; there are the Kosovar staff members of the JDC and their family and friends; and there are the internationals: Jews from all over the world who are working for various governmental and nongovernmental organizations, including the second in command at the U.S. Office, the de facto embassy. There also are non-Jews, notably an adviser to Kosovo’s president. One of the internationals offers a rendition of the story of Passover, largely for the benefit of the Kosovars: He stresses the importance of remembering one’s origins and staying true to the ideals through whatever trials one may face. Based on the current state of Kosovo’s Jewish community, it may seem that the presence of any Jews in Kosovo results from some sort of historical anomaly. In fact, Jewish history in the region is said to go back thousands of years. The remains of one of Europe’s oldest synagogues, dating from Roman times, is believed to be among the ruins at Ulpiana, just outside of the present-day capital, Prishtina. The community’s ranks were swelled with the influx of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and welcomed in the lands of the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the Balkans. As many as 3,000 Jews were present in Kosovo in 1912. Their fortunes began to change around this time, after Serbia conquered Kosovo: The Serbians resented the close ties Jews had with the Turks, mortal enemies of the Serbs. Relative to Jews in neighboring lands, Kosovo’s Jewish community was less severely affected by the Holocaust, even though fascist Italy occupied Kosovo and Albania in 1941. An estimated 200 Jews from Prishtina were killed in concentration camps, yet Albania has the remarkable distinction of being the only country in Europe to have had a higher population of Jews after the war than before. The country hosted refugees from all over Europe, including many from Kosovo. Still, the Jewish community of Kosovo never really recovered after World War II, and the synagogue in Prishtina was never rebuilt. The remaining 13 Jews of Prishtina were spirited away by the JDC’s Eliezri to Macedonia on June 26, 1999. The circumstances surrounding their departure are not entirely clear, but the leader of the community claims that he essentially was forced out at gunpoint by Albanian paramilitaries. The legacy of the Prishtina Jewish community has not been entirely effaced, however. High atop a grassy hill overlooking the city lies one of Prishtina’s two Jewish cemeteries. This is the older one, with Hebrew-inscribed marble slabs dating back centuries. A new, well-constructed metal fence surrounds the plot; it appears that someone is even interested in protecting and preserving local Jewish heritage. It turns out that this person is Myrteza Studenica, whose business card identifies him as the president of the Kosovar Jewish Committee. He says his grandmother was Jewish and he even speaks some Hebrew. He produces a sheaf of documents indicating the numbers of Jews rescued in Albania during WWII, and another showing a list of apartments owned by Jews in Prishtina. “These were taken by the government of Yugoslavia without compensation,” he says passionately. Studenica appears to think that the descendants of the property owners — most of whom, he says, live in Israel — should return to Kosovo. His main objective, however, seems to be drawing Jewish and Israeli investors into his schemes. The JDC’s Eliezri regards Studenica warily. Still, at least one of the documents he produces appears authentic: a plan for the de-mining, fencing and restoration of Prishtina’s old Jewish cemetery, which will cost some $340,000. Evidently, the first two phases have been completed, with the cooperation of KFOR — the NATO force in Kosovo — which undertook the de-mining of the site.

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