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29 August 2016

The Jews of Albania

Albania is a country that has a Jewish history that may date back as many as 2000 years. There are historians that believe the first Jews in the country arrived as slaves on ships from the Roman empire. The first synagogue was built in the 5th century in the Southern port city of  Sarande.
 The history of this time is not well known, and its almost 1500 years later before we know much about this community.  
By the early 1500's, communities of Sephardic Jews had began to be established. Most of the major cities of Albania had these established communities, including Berat, Elbasan, Vlore and Durres. These Jewish families were the descendants of those Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal. In 1520, the city of Vlore had Albania's only Synagogue and over 600 Jewish living in the city. That synagogue was destroyed during World War I. 
Over time the Jewish population of Albania slowly declined, until 1930, at which time the national census only recorded 204 Jews. In 1937, the Jewish community was officially recognized by the government. With the rise of the Nazi's many German and Austrian Jews took refuge in Albania. Even in 1938, the Albanian embassy was perhaps the last European country to issue Visa's to the Jewish people, which caused it to become a safe haven to the Jewish people. The Jews in Albania were protected by the Muslim's who lived there. This protected even continued after the Nazi's occupied the country. Because of becoming known as a safe haven for Jews, the Jewish population had risen to over 2,000 people by the end of World War II.
When Albania became a communist county, all religion was banned from the country, which meant the Jewish community was now isolated from Jews in other countries. This was true of all religions and not just the Jews. With the fall of communism in 1991 the Jews were dealing with tough times. This was not because of anything against them, but more to do with the general economic state of the entire country. This condition led to the majority of the Jewish population emigrating to Israel, leaving only a few dozen Jews within the borders of Albania.
Today, the Jewish population is probably no more than 50, however a new synagogue was opened in Tirana in 2010.

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