On a windy mountaintop citadel in Berat, Albania, in a church lit only by incense lamps and their dim reflections off the peeling gold-painted icons, I met Simon Vrusho, the creator and director of the Muzei Solomoni, Albania’s first and only Jewish museum, which opened earlier this year.
I visited Albania with the 50 other students from my Jerusalem-based gap year program, Kivunim, studying the intersection of Jewish history and culture with world societies and religions in a quest for greater mutual understanding. Here I was, a kippah-wearing Greek/Polish Jew from New York, in a centuries-old Byzantine church, in Europe’s most Muslim, Islam’s most secular, and perhaps the world’s most tolerant country. Our group probably doubled the Albanian Jewish population for the course of our stay.
Vrusho, the museum proprietor, is small and wizened with large sparkling eyes. In his few words of English, he shared his passion for Albanian Jewish history. His face lit up when I told him that my family had roots in Ioannina, a town in northern Greece not far from Berat. He told me that a number of Jews from Ioannina had settled in Vlore, a port city on the Adriatic in the south, home to Albania’s only synagogue, which was destroyed in World War I, but subsequently rebuilt. Today, the synagogue still stands in Vlore, though no Jews remain there.
The museum sits in an inconspicuous storefront along a quiet cobblestone street leading up to the citadel of Berat. The four walls of its small space are covered from floor to ceiling with documents, artifacts, and photos detailing the two millennia-long Albanian Jewish story.