BERAT, Albania (JTA) — Stone paths wind through the Ottoman-style houses built into the hillside of Berat, Albania. They lead to an imposing 13th-century castle at the peak — the top priority for most visitors to this 60,000-person town 90 minutes south of the capital, Tirana. I had other plans.
Albanians take pride in their ancient code of “besa,” which translates to “keep the promise” and leads them to prioritize guests and religion in their homes. For Albanian Jews or those who fled there from elsewhere in the Balkan Peninsula as German forces advanced during World War II, it promised safe harbor with Albanian families and even throughout entire towns. Albania is the only country in Europe whose Jewish population grew during the war.
Berat’s Solomoni Museum explains this history and that of earlier Jews in the area. At least, so I hear: Under the stone arches off the plaza, I found only locked doors.
Some people collect souvenir spoons or Starbucks city mugs when they travel, others collect memories. I collect fragments of Jewish identity. Planning this trip to Albania with friends, I insisted on a stop in Berat to see the small museum and wasn’t about to give up.
“I’ll call her,” offered the woman behind the desk at the Ethnographic Museum across the street. “Her” referred to the caretaker, the widow of the Orthodox Christian professor who started the museum — Albania’s only one dedicated to Jewish history — as a passion project funded by his pension. After Simon Vrusho’s death in 2019, the museum closed until a French-Albanian businessman heard the story and donated funds for it to reopen in a larger, permanent location.
But the call ended with bad news: The caretaker was sick, and the museum would remain closed. I grimaced. Seeing my reaction, the Ethnographic Museum docent did what all Albanians do — anything she could to make me feel better, to make sure I enjoyed my stay in her town. In this moment, that meant explaining everything she knew about Jews in Albania.
Jews first arrived in the country as Roman captives, almost 2,000 years ago. But the first major wave, especially to Berat, came from Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled the area at the time, offered nominal religious freedom.
This month, the country’s prime minister announced plans to open a museum in Tirana dedicated to the stories of Albanian citizens who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust, when the country was occupied by both fascist Italy and later Nazi Germany. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority, has recognized at least 75 Albanians as Righteous Among the Nations for saving Jews.
“You can see the street where the Jews lived,” the docent noted. I perked up and jotted down her directions.
Six blocks away, I found a simple black plaque with white lettering, barely the size of my forearm and posted high on a white brick wall. It read, “Rruga Hebrentje.” I stared at it. Two millennia of Jewish history in the country, and one closed museum forced me to take heart in a little sign saying “Jew Street.”
Jews have company in this razing of history: The brutal post-World War II communist regime of dictator Enver Hoxha shuttered all religious institutions in 1967, declaring Albania the world’s first atheist state. His forces destroyed more than 2,000 mosques, churches and other sacred buildings, arresting priests, clerics and imams, many of whom disappeared forever into labor camps and hidden graves. “Religion is the opium of the people,” Hoxha wrote, quoting Karl Marx.
It felt selfish to pout about the lack of Jewish history when so much religion, so many people and huge swaths of Albanian culture had been so recently and violently erased. I joined my friends to explore Berat’s exceptions to the wanton destruction, starting at the Sultan’s Mosque, which dates to the 15th century and boasts an intricately carved wooden ceiling. We expected to admire just the outside, since our guidebook said the doors opened only around Friday prayer.
But as we stared at the somewhat ordinary façade, a friendly gentleman chatted us up. He spoke Albanian, Greek and a bit of Italian, the last of which proved useful at matching up to our Spanish and French. He told us a little about the mosque and the casual styles of observance by most Albanian Muslims, but we only realized he worked there when he invited us inside, retrieving a key when we responded with excitement.
We marveled at the green, red and gold ceiling, illuminated by a round chandelier. He asked if we wanted to climb up the minaret, warning us about the ascent. Narrower than the width of my hips, the tightly coiled spiral of 94 stairs featured a layer of dust and cobwebs that stuck to our bare feet. But at the top, swallowing my fear of heights, confined spaces and bugs, I reaped the reward: a 360-degree view of the “thousand windows” that give the town its nickname, flanking both banks of the Osumi River, and the double eagle of Albania’s red flag flying proudly above it all from the castle.
Back on the ground, we thanked the man profusely and dropped donations in the box outside the mosque door as we prepared to say goodbye. Instead, he led us across the square to another building – the Halveti Tekke, or Teqe. Light flowed through the high stained-glass windows onto the walls of the 700-year-old gathering place belonging to the mystic order of Sufi Muslims called Bektashi. Chains hung from the ornate gold-leaf-decorated ceiling over a space where, according to our new friend, the bektashi, or dervishes, used to perform their whirling rituals.
“You want to go up?” he asked my friend’s eight-year-old daughter. She nodded excitedly, and he tossed her a ring of keys, pointing the way to the balcony. As she climbed the stairs, I noticed a pair of six-pointed stars framing the main doorway, a reminder of my original mission, even if they were likely not Stars of David.
But if I felt sad about missing out on the Jewish museum, I was heartened by what I did receive: a first-hand lesson on Albania’s life-saving culture of hospitality.
Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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