Jews in Kosovo city share fate and struggle of Albanians

PRIZREN, Yugoslavia — "Ah, the ironies of life," says Votim Demiri. His mother escaped from the train that carried her family to death at Bergen-Belsen. Later, she became renowned for fighting with the Yugoslav partisans against the Nazis.

Fast forward to this spring.

A Serb offensive in Kosovo forced Demiri, the president of Prizren's Jews, and close to 1 million Albanian refugees to flee their homes. Demiri, his wife and three children returned and hid until three months of NATO airstrikes persuaded Serb forces to withdraw.

So, today in the Kosovo city of Prizren, whose troops are keeping the peace? The Germans.

"I wonder what my mother would say if she were here to see it," says Demiri, 52. His mother died in 1994.

The fact is, German troops are among the most highly respected in postwar Kosovo, further enhancing a reputation they earned in Macedonia by building what relief workers called the "Club Med" of Albanian refugee camps.

One of the primary tasks for Germans today, however, is to protect their erstwhile enemies, the Serbs. Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities have been targets of reprisals by the returning Albanian refugees.

The Albanian-speaking Jews of Prizren, though, have nothing to fear from the refugees. They are so assimilated, they are viewed as Albanians.

These Jews share the fate of their oppressed Albanian neighbors — a situation that contrasts starkly with the 40 Serb-speaking Jews in Pristina, Kosovo's capital.

When Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in Yugoslavia in 1989, among his first steps was to revoke the autonomy of Kosovo, Yugoslavia's southern province.

An apartheid-like system was installed, whereby the Serbian minority — some 10 percent of Kosovo's population — assumed the dominant position in public life. The Serbian-speaking Jews here, also deeply assimilated, were among the new elite.

So they, too, have felt the wrath of the returning refugees.

It's not that these Jews were particularly active or visible in the regime; but Albanians view every Serb speaker as having been complicit.

Indeed, most Serbian-speaking Jews seem to have been infected by anti-Albanian prejudice and propaganda. During the forced removal of ethnic Albanians, it was rare to hear a Serb — or a Serbian Jew — express sympathy or outrage on their behalf.

Anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 Albanians were killed; 3,000 to 7,000 are still reported missing.

Like many Serbs, Pristina's Jews either left in advance of the returning Albanians or were expelled from their homes. Their community in Kosovo is no more, with most of them now in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital. They are trying to get to either Israel or to the United States.

Meanwhile, the Prizren Jews are battling for survival. Kosovo, legally still a part of Yugoslavia, is wracked with violent crime, lawlessness and revenge killings, plagued with daily power and water outages, and saddled with 70 percent unemployment. A tour around the province reveals a landscape scarred with mass graves and land mines, and littered with burned-out homes and businesses.

Kosovo is now a U.N. protectorate, with its massive administration and hundreds of relief agencies on the ground responsible for rebuilding the province. But if this exercise in colony-building founders, the Prizren Jews may use their connections abroad to head for greener pastures.

One family of four has already immigrated to Israel, aided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and a second family is seriously considering it, Demiri says.

Prizren, a city of roughly 150,000, is a historic trade center in the Balkans. It is also Kosovo's most charming city, with its centuries-old stone bridges, mosques and wooden homes framed by a range of densely forested mountains.

Jews are said to have lived here for centuries. There is no synagogue in town, though a Star of David adorns the minaret of one of the town's old stone mosques.

"I have no idea where it comes from," Demiri says.

However, deep roots may not be enough to keep the Prizren Jews here. They also need jobs.

Today, the community is basically composed of two large, extended families. Mixed marriages are common: Demiri's father, for example, is Albanian, and his wife is "something between Albanian and Turkish."

Yet Demiri's Jewish identity is sufficiently strong that his 22-year-old son would like to visit Israel to learn Hebrew. And concern for the welfare of others during the crisis has bound the community even more tightly together.

Most Jews and their Albanian neighbors today eke out a living, accepting food staples like flour and cooking oil from humanitarian groups.

As a result of the crisis, however, living is cheap: The collapse of public services means that no one pays taxes, or for gas, electricity and water.

Only one-quarter of the community's 27 adults has found work, ranging from positions as shop clerks to hospital workers. But their average salary is $78 per month.

With much of Kosovo's industry and business destroyed or dormant, the black market is thriving. But Demiri says no one in his community is drawn to the hustle of the streets.

"We don't have a talent for this kind of work," he says with a smile. "It's impossible for me to go to Turkey, fill up bags with cheap clothes, then come back here and sell them."

Actually, Demiri admits, his family is getting along fine: He's been reinstated as the director of a local textile factory, a job he lost when Milosevic and his lieutenants purged all "Albanians" from leadership positions in 1989 and 1990.

A factory that once boasted 2,600 workers now has only 500 — all of them unpaid for now. What his people need, Demiri says, are not handouts, but machines to start up small businesses, like a hair salon.

But he is one of the few optimists.

"We don't want to live from humanitarian aid forever; people in Kosovo know how to work hard to make a living," he says.

"But I want to make it clear: we'll need plenty of time. No system in the world could have anticipated or handled this type of situation."