Albania's endangered Jewish museum rescued for a 'rebirth'

Albania's sole Jewish history museum, the Solomon Museum, reopens after businessman saves it from brink of closure.

Tags: Albania

Berat, Albania
Berat, Albania

Albania's sole Jewish history museum reopened in southern Berat on Sunday, thanks to a businessman who rescued it from the brink of closure.

The small "Solomon Museum", which tells the story of how Albanians sheltered hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, was the passion project of a local professor, Simon Vrusho.

Vrusho opened the museum in 2018 and funded it with small donations left in a box by the door -- and his own pension.

When the 75-year-old died in February of this year, the future of the exhibit was thrown into limbo.

After reading an AFP report about its uncertain fate, French-Albanian businessman Gazmend Toska decided to finance the museum and move it to a larger site in the city, where scores of people gathered Sunday for its opening.

"It was deeply moving to see the response to AFP's coverage of this museum," Gazmend Toska told a crowd at the ceremony.

France's ambassador to Albania, Christina Vasak, praised "a beautiful story of rebirth" for the museum that rewards Vrusho's dedication.

Vrusho, himself an Orthodox Christian, spent years collecting documents, photos and memories bearing witness to a Jewish community that first arrived in Berat in the 16th century from Spain.

At the heart of the exhibit are stories of Muslim and Christian Albanians who hid Jews in their homes during the Holocaust -- a chapter of history that has only recently become more widely known.

Thanks to their quiet acts of bravery, the Balkan state is the only Nazi-occupied territory whose Jewish population increased during World War II, from several hundred before the conflict to more than 2,000 afterwards.

The history is a growing source of pride in Albania, where the government holds annual events on Holocaust Remembrance Day and devotes an exhibit to the history in Tirana's national museum.

But Vrusho's museum was the only standalone center dedicated to the sweep
of Jewish history in that corner of Southeastern Europe.

This museum is "a tree of memory watered with the love of all those who have contributed to its survival," said Vrusho's widow Angjlina, 65, who will be the museum's director.

At the ceremony, historian Yzedim Hima said the modest museum has a special message to convey: "not the atrocities of a war, but people's love for other people".