The First Wave
Legend has it that 2,000 years ago, a ship heading for Rome with a cargo of Jewish slaves from Palestine was blown off course and landed on the coast of Albania. The Roman’s made no attempt to capture the escaped slaves and assumed they would be killed by wild animals. Apparently, the Roman’s decided that the economics of the situation favored ordering a new supply of Jewish slaves rather than attempting to capture the ones who escaped.
According to legend, the beasts didn’t get the Jewish slaves. The native people of the area (¹) were fighting the Roman’s and helped the Jews. This supposedly occurred in Illyria, a country you won’t find on any modern map. Illyria was an old name for Albania. If the name sounds familiar this could be attributed to Shakespeare who uses Illyria as the shipwreck site in two of his plays.
The Encyclopedia Judaica(2) doesn’t mention the shipwreck legend, yet it defines the Romaniots as being the descendants of the “First Wave.” Except for the legend there is no connection between “Rome” and “Romaniots.” It begs the question whether the name is the result of the legend or the legend is the result of the name.
There is no knowledge of the number of Jews in the area during this early period, but there is conclusive evidence of a Jewish presence, according to the Jewish-Roman historian, Flavous Josephus. There were some villages in north Albania which had all Jewish populations in ancient times, and some that have Jewish names, e.g. PalasaPalestine and Orikum-jericho.
Archaeologists found remnants of a synagogue in Dardania, an ancient port in Illyria. They date the ruins between the first and second centuries, C. E.
In the 4th century Albania became a part of the Byzantine Empire. There was a feudal system that lasted until the Ottoman invasion in the 15th century.
The Second Wave – From Salonika and Spain
The Romaniot Jews came to Albania from Salonika (Greece) at the end of the 14th century augmented by a small group from Hungary.
The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia states that in the early middle ages Jews came to Albania from Salonika. The “early middle ages” was before the expulsion from Spain which means the Jews coming to Albania from Salonika were unrelated to the Spanish Inquisition. These are the Romaniots that Josef jakoel said arrived in Albania from northern Greece. (See, Romaniots)
There is evidence of a Jewish presence in the port city of Durrës in the early middle ages. There are records for August, 1319, that tell of trading for salt with “a Jewish merchant from Durrës.” There is also documentation that on March 24, 1281, the Venetian Nikolai Martini was trading with two Jews of Durrës Leone and Caro Calis. Another document states that in August, 1366, a Jew from Durrës sold salt to a Raguzian.(3)
The most significant emigration from Spain occurred at the end of the 15th century during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. This is considered the Second Wave. A large number of Jews fleeing the Inquisition went east to the areas controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
At the time of the Spanish Inquisition the Turkish Sultan invited the Jews to live under Moslem rule. Perhaps the Sultan had some compassion for Jews expelled from Spain, as Moslems also suffered under the Inquisition.
Jews living in Albania had many good years, but they weren’t all good. For example, during the Turkish-Venetian war of 1685 the Jews had to flee Vlora and went to Berat.
From 1788, and up to 1822, there was a hard period in Albanian history when Jews suffered under the Ottoman Sultan, and tyrant, Ai Pasha. Most of the bad years were associated with independence movements when the revolutionaries, mostly Greek-Albanians, equated Jews with Moslems and accused them of being loyal to the Ottoman rulers.
The Third Wave – From Janina to Vlora
Comparatively little is known about the Jews during the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, a period during which there were few Jews living in Albania. The Third Wave reestablished the Jewish presence in Albania.
The Third Wave were “Romaniots” who first arrived in Vlora in the 1850s. They came from Janina and Preveza, both now in Greece. In the 1850s Janina and Vlora were in the same district in the Greater Albania portion of the Ottoman Empire (until 1878) so there was free movement between the two cities. The colony was started with men who came without their families, but there were exceptions. The first doctor to serve the Jewish community in the Vlora area was Dr. Solomon Menahem Jomtov who brought his wife with him in 1850.
When the settlement grew and prospered the married men sent for their families and the unmarried men returned to Janina to seek brides. At that time Janina had the largest Romaniot community.
The majority of the Romaniots who emigrated to Albania during the second half of the 19th century settled in Vlora (Valona), a sea port in the south which gave them access to the Adriatic Sea. When the first Jews came to Vlora it was a small closed community and everyone knew everybody else.
One of the first to make the move from Janina to Vlora was Josef Jakoel’s grandfather. In time the Jews spread out from Vlora with settlements in Delvina and Gjirokastra. For a time there were 150 Jews in a town south of Vlora.
The Jewish community on the island of Corfu was started by Jews from Venice in the 14th century, although there is evidence of Jews living on Corfu as early as the 9th century. They spoke the Venetian dialect of Italian and this limited their relation with other Jewish communities. In Vlora most Jews spoke Albanian and Greek.
By the end of the 19th century the ties between Janina and the Romaniot community in Albania were strong, but had weaken from what they had been. At the same time the ties between the Albanian Romaniots and the island of Corfu became stronger. One has only to look at a map to see the reason. Corfu is so near and Janina is so far away.
The Jews of Albania maintained contact with the Jews of Janina and Corfu until the Second World War. Most of them had relatives in these two places and relied on the Jews of Janina and Corfu to periodically supply them with visits by a rabbi, a cantor, and a moel (the later is the person who does ritual circumcisions). Sadly, the Jewish community of Corfu disappeared during the Holocaust and only a few Jewish families survived in Janina.
The Third Wave was the last, although in 1894 a delegation of Russian Jews visited Albania to talk about .settling there. (4) The Albanian Government indicated no objection if they weren’t destitute and recommended that they settle on the coast “since the interior still contains some warlike races who are not friendly to foreigners.” Thirty to forty Jewish families were expected. Nothing was found to indicate they arrived in Albania. They would have constituted the Fourth Wave.
There was another suggestion of a new wave of Jews coming to Albania, although as a practical matter this was never a real possibility. King Zog, in exile in Great Britain during the Second World War, proposed to the BritishJewish leadership a plan for settling 50,000 Jewish families in his country. He described Albania as a rich country with poor people and said that the population of one million was in a country that could easily absorb a population of five million. He proposed that each of the 50,000 families be given a small farm from lands owned by the state.
The British Board of Deputies, the organization representing British Jews, took this proposal seriously enough to contact the British Foreign Office to see what they thought. The Foreign Office didn’t take this proposal seriously, and doubted that King Zog would be able to reestablish the monarchy in Albania after the Second World War. Nothing ever came of this offer and King Zog died in exile.(5)
According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, the term “Romaniot” refers to the original Jews of the Byzantine Empire. The Encyclopedia refers to Romaniots in only Janina, Kastor, and Chalcis, all in Greece, and ignores the Albanian Romaniots, who were the largest group in Europe until they emigrated to Israel in 1991.
The Romaniots are neither Askenaze (Yiddish speaking) nor Sephardic (Ladino speaking). The Jews of Albania are “Romaniot Greek Speaking Jews,” although in recent years they would be better described as Albanian speaking. Jakoel commented that many of the Jews who came to Israel don’t know they are Romaniots because of the lack of Jewish education in the past decades. Many have little knowledge of Jewish history or of their own backgrounds.
The Romaniots insist that they are not descendants of the Sephardic Jews who came from Spain. They claim to be descendants of Jews who lived in northern Greece since the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century. The Encyclopedia Judaica(6) describe the Romaniots as being the descendants of the “First Wave.” The Romaniots are proud of their ancient history.
For a short period there was a joining together of the Sephardic and Romaniot Jews, but they separated probably due to the fact that the Romaniots were more strict in following their religious rules. The Jews from Spain called the Romaniots “Grego,” which in Spanish could mean a Greek, but it was also used as a pejorative against a Romaniot Jew. Each group was sincerely confident of its superiority over the other.
The arrival of the Romaniots was not the first time there was an identifiable Jewish community in Vlora. In 1507 there were 97 Jewish households in Vlora, which increased to 609 households in 1520; most were refugees from Spain during the “Second Wave.” Jews of Vlora were killed during the revolts against the Ottoman in the 16th century. The remaining Jews fled from the coast to the mountainous town of Berat during the Turkish-Venician war in the 17th century.
The city of Vlora has always been an important port and at times it had a large Jewish population. Old people tell of a synagogue in operation until 1915 which the Italians used as an armory, but we could find no trace of the synagogue. The legend is that the Italians, who occupied parts of Albania during the First World War, burned the -synagogue and other buildings to widen the street so their artillery could pass.
We were too late to find the Jewish cemetery of Vlora. It had been destroyed and a private residence is to be built on the site. We did a little digging on the vacant construction site and found evidence that this had been a Jewish cemetery. We found a tombstone, chiseled on it was a Star of David, a name, Saba Marine, and date of death.
There is currently no organized Jewish life in Vlora and Mr. J. Matattia’s home is used as the gathering place for the holidays. There were only 60 Jews in Vlora, in 1990. According to Mr. Matattia, there was a large Jewish population about a hundred years ago that is said to have left Vlora overnight. Mr. J. Matattia’s father, Mateo Matattia, was probably the most prominent Jew in Vlora, a member of the city council and a merchant.
The first modern Jewish settlement was in Vlora but the center of Jewish life later moved to Tirana, the capitol and largest city. Jakoel made the move in 1950, as did many others looking for opportunities, including the chance to attend Albania’s university. It’s symbolic that when the first flag of Albanian independence was raised on November 28, 1912, it was in Vlora.
1. Albanians consider themselves descendants of the llyrian people who settled here in 1200 B.C.E. The roots of the language are IndoEuropean.
2. Vol. 4, p.231.
3. A native of Sicily.
4. Jewish Chronicle, March 9,1894, p.9.
5. UK PRO FO 371/37138.