Albania's endangered Jewish museum reopens

Briseida MEMA
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Visitors attend the opening ceremony of the renovated Solomon Jewish hisory museum in the Albanian city of Berat, on September 29, 2019.Albania's sole Jewish history museum reopened in southern Berat on September 29, thanks to a businessman who rescued it from the brink of closure. The small "Solomon Museum", which tells the story of how Muslim and Christian Albanians sheltered hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, was the passion project of a local professor, Simon Vrusho

Visitors attend the opening ceremony of the renovated Solomon Jewish hisory museum in the Albanian city of Berat, on September 29, 2019.Albania's sole Jewish history museum reopened in southern Berat on September 29, thanks to a businessman who rescued it from the brink of closure. The small "Solomon Museum", which tells the story of how Muslim and Christian Albanians sheltered hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust, was the passion project of a local professor, Simon Vrusho (AFP Photo/STRINGER)

Berat (Albania) (AFP) - 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 remarkable story of how Albania's Jewish population was saved and even grew during the Holocaust, was the project of a local professor, Simon Vrusho.

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

When the 75-year-old died in February, the future of the exhibit looked uncertain.

But after reading an AFP report about it, 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 the opening.

"It was deeply moving to see the response to AFP's coverage of this museum," Toska, 58, told an audience at the museum's new home in Berat's oldest quarter.

France's ambassador to Albania, Christina Vasak, praised "a beautiful story of rebirth".

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.

"Memories need to have their own home," the retired professor, a wiry man with warm eyes, told AFP shortly before he passed away.

- 'Unimaginably humane' -

At the heart of the exhibit are stories and photos of more than 60 Muslim and Christian families in Berat who hid Jews in their homes and basements during World War II.

They were "deeply, unimaginably humane" people, said Vrusho, whose own image, carved into a relief, now hangs in the new museum.

Thanks to these quiet acts of bravery around the country, 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.

Buried during Albania's communist era, it is a chapter of history that has only recently become more widely known.

Today, the country's Jewish population is miniscule at fewer than 100.

But the history is increasingly a 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.

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

His widow Angjlina, 65, who will be the museum's new director, hailed the collection as "a tree of memory watered with the love of all those who have contributed to its survival".

At the ceremony, historian Yzedim Hima praised the museum for bearing a special message: "not about the atrocities of a war, but people's love for other people."