In Kosovo, daily survival is a joint struggle for Jews and Muslims

By Liam Hoare, August 9, 2013
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Prizren’s Sinan Pasha Mosque (Photo: Getty images)

Prizren’s Sinan Pasha Mosque (Photo: Getty images)

Votim Demiri, president of the Jewish community of Kosovo, took me to his house in the Marash area of Prizren.

The district forms one point of a triangle with two Islamic holy sites.

Later, he showed me around the historic centre of the city, where the Sinan Pasha Mosque sits within walking distance of a Serb Orthodox church and a Catholic school. “This is our Jerusalem,” he said.

Kosovo’s Jews today number only 56, down from the 360 who survived the Second World War. They “have not been a significant presence in public life for a long time,” said Noel Malcolm, author of Kosovo: a Short History. And yet, Jews have enjoyed “a real history of positive co-existence and mutual acceptance in what was a predominantly Muslim society,” he said.

Jews and Muslims today endure the same everyday problems in post-independence Kosovo.

With an unemployment rate of at least 45 per cent, for Jews the assistance of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) remains critical. Each winter, for instance, each member of the community receives $150 from the relief organisation for fuel or firewood.

Under these economic conditions and with dwindling numbers, Jewish life cannot thrive. “In the winter of 2000-2001,” Mr Demiri explained, “two families left for Israel” to settle in Beersheva. Those who remain are too poor to contribute financially to the Jewish community’s collective funds.

Aside from the JDC, Mr Demiri’s family is the other key source of financial assistance for the community. He is helped by the Academy for Training and Technical Assistance, in whose offices we meet.

Prizren’s Jews also lack a community space. In Prishtina, the former Jewish community maintained two synagogues and a yeshiva until the Holocaust. All this has now gone: Prishtina’s last synagogue was demolished in 1963.

Government buildings have been built on the site, as well as Kosovo’s newly-inaugurated Holocaust memorial.

Restitution for the loss of this property could allow Mr Demiri’s vision for Prizren to be realised. One day he would like to see a Jewish community centre built in the city, incorporating a small synagogue. For now, his community goes on marking every Shabbat and holy day as they can — in each other’s homes.

“I am the president, the rabbi, and the cantor,” Mr Demiri said.

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer

Last updated: 6:45pm, August 9 2013