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Sunday, 17 November 2013

ALBANIA - a haven for the Jews


"Where religious prejudice and hatred did not exist"

Thus wrote Herman Bernstein about Albania in 1934, when he was the US ambassador to that country.

A house in Berat (Albania) where Jews were hidden in WW2 
(Source: Click here)

Last year, I published a brief item on my blog (click HERE ) about the idea, which was briefly mooted in the 1930s, that Albania should be considered as a new 'homeland' for the Jews. So, it was with great interest that I began reading Harvey Sarner's book about the Jews in Albania.

It appears that Jews have lived in Albania since Roman times or maybe even before. During the 12th to 14th century, there were communities in what is now Albania and what is still considered to be 'Greater Albania', notably in the now Greek city of Janina. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 15th century further increased the numbers of Jews in Albania. Until the 19th century, this small population of Jews lived peacefully with their Albanian neighbours. During the 19th century when nationalists, mainly Greeks, were trying to become independent of the Turks, there were several incidents during which Jews were massacred. These occurred mainly in Corfu and Janina, and have been largely forgotten.

During the first half of 20th century before WW2, Jews in Albania were tolerated by their gentile neighbours, both Moslem and Christian. The considered themselves, and were considered by others, as being primarily Albanian rather than Jewish, even though they did adhere to Jewish religious customs. They spoke Albanian rather than Yiddish, Hebrew or Ladino (as did Jews in Thessalonika). This may have been one of the reasons that protected them from the anti-Semitism, which was so rife elsewhere in Europe. Harvey Sarner proposes 2 other reasons for tolerance of Jews in Albania: they did not set themselves apart from other Albanians and they were not so numerous that their presence adversely concerned or made the rest of the population feel threatened (as in, for example, Thessaloniki or further away in Warsaw).

I could not help wondering whether the Albanians' tolerance for Jews would not have been stretched beyond its limit had the plan, mooted in the 1930s, to create a new home for the Jews in Albania been fulfilled. The small (a few hundred) population of Jews would have been greatly enlarged by the influx of large numbers of Jews who were not Albanian, and who had little or no interest in promoting Albania's interests ahead of their own. After all the Zionists did not choose to settle in what is now Israel primarily to promote the well-being of their gentile neighbours.

When anti-Semitism became the official order of the day in Europe after Hitler came to power and began invading Europe, Albania became one of the countries that accepted Jewish refugees. Some of these had been issued with visas, but many others had fled from neighbouring Yugoslavia and to a lesser extent from Greece. The Albanian people welcomed these unfortunate refugees, and protected them from being discovered by first the Italian and then the German invaders. When asked to prepare lists of Jews in Albania, the authorities refused to do so. This was in contrast with what happened in neighbouring Greece (and the Netherlands). In Thessalonika, I remember reading in another book, the Jews themselves prepared a list of the members of their community for the Germans, and another was prepared in Janina. Both of the these Jewish communities were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. In Athens, where such a list was not prepared, the Jews could not be rounded up until the Nazis resorted to a dirty trick, namely offering free supplies of Matzo flour during Passover. The Jews who collected this were rounded up, and massacred. In Albania, no lists were prepared, and the Albanians, who held the safety of guests as an ancient and sacred tradition, made sure that the survival rate of Jews in their country was almost, if not, 100%.

Sarner describes some of the individuals who protected the Jews and a few of the stories of Jews who were saved by them. It would have been nice to have heard more of these, but for those who are interested, let me recommend Escape through the Balkans: The Autobiography of Irene Grunbaum written by one who experienced life as a Jewish refugee in Albania, Irene Grunbaum. Sarner, in a later chapter of his book, describes his successful efforts to have some of the Albanian rescuers recognised as Righteous Gentiles in Israel's Yad Vashem memorial.

After WW2, Albania began to be ruled by the regime headed by the most faithful disciple of Joseph Stalin, Enver Hoxha. According to Sarner, there was no anti-Semitism under Albania's Communist regime - unlike many other countries that had entered the Soviet 'bloc'. Although Hoxha's government were never pro-Israel, they were not anti-Semitic. The country isolated itself from the rest of the world. Neither Jews nor anyone else were able to leave it. In 1967, Hoxha decreed that Albania was an atheist state. Mosques and churches were destroyed or closed; there was no synagogue to be closed. Religious practices were banned, and Albanians had to choose names for their children that did not give away their original religions.

6 years after Enver Hoxha died (in 1985), the Communist regime collapsed in Albania. It was at this point that many Albanians fled from their impoverished country, many of them to Italy where they were not welcomed with open arms! In contrast, Israel welcomed those of Albania's Jews who wished to live there, and with a few exceptions most of Albania's Jews, none of whom knew any Hebrew, took up the opportunity.

Sarner's book is crammed full of interesting information, but is, sadly, poorly edited. There are many errors and inconsistencies of spelling . At first, this put me off the book, but I am glad that I persisted, and read all of this fascinating but brief volume. I would have liked to have given this book 4 out of 5 stars for its interest value, but stylistically it only deserves 3.





Available as a paperback or Kindle on Amazon 

Sunday, 10 November 2013


Four days in Paris during the autumn of 2013


To celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, we decided to visit Paris. Before setting off on the Eurostar train at London's St Pancras Station, I had some misgivings about revisiting a city which I had visited many times before. As soon as I stepped out of the metro train that took us from Gare du Nord to Place St Michel, these misgivings evaporated. Far from making me feel blasé, the sights of the city uplifted my soul. I felt as if I was seeing the city anew. I was filled with wonder.  After taking possession of our room at the Hotel Esmeralda on the Rue St Julien le Pauvre - its window provided an excellent view of the north side of Notre Dame - we took the metro to the station named 'Stalingrad'. 

We were hungry. Someone in  a bar close to the station directed us to a nearby restaurant called Canal Huit. This moderately priced, unpretentious local eatery served food prepared to perfection. In addition to the marquise de jambon/chevre, which consisted of chunks of smoked  ham stuffed with goats cheese, I also enjoyed beef sautéed with carrots in a richly flavoured reddish sauce - perfection. My wife ate a perfectly prepared entrecote. Satisfyingly replete, we strolled over to the nearby Bassin de la Villette, which used to serve as a port for boats using the canal system that served Paris before the advent of railways. 

After looking at the Bassin, we began walking alongside the Canal St Martin that connects north-east Paris with the Seine, which it enters near to the Arsénale. At first the canal was lined by 'edgy' looking establishments, but nearer the centre of the city the canal becomes increasingly chic.

We watched a tour boat passing through one of the series of double-locks that allow ships to descend gradually to the level of the Seine.

And then we continued our pleasant stroll along the canal. Every now and then we encountered small parks along the water's edge. Often these were alongside the double-locks. Near the Place de la République, the canal disappears into a tunnel. We took a bus from the Place to Place St Michel. From there we walked to the famous  bookshop called 'Shakespeare & Co.' (see: HERE for more detail), which was just around the corner from our hotel. 

We waited there for the arrival of my cousin J-B, who has attended workshops at this famous establishment. Eventually, he appeared, and we accompanied him to the nearby Café Panis, which is an example of the nicest kind of traditional  Parisian café. We chatted and enjoyed a supper together. After eating, we accompanied J-B to his RER station, and then took a walk around the lively part of the Quartier Latin near to our hotel. 

St Severin

Before entering our hotel, we took a peek inside the nearby church of St Julien le Pauvre. We were able to enter it despite it being after 10 pm because a concert that had been held inside it had just ended. The church is now used by a Melkite Greek Catholic congregation. See below:

WED 30 OCT 2013

We awoke early in order to beat the queues that form soon after Notre Dame opens its doors at 8 am. I am glad that we did not have to queue as the interior of Notre Dame proved to be disappointing. Unlike many other Gothic cathedrals and churches that I have visited, the interior of N-D is sombre. It lacks the lightness and uplifting nature of other churches built at the same time as N-D. In contrast, its exterior is magnificent.

We looked at various places for breakfast. Most of the cafés in the vicinity of N-D and near to Place St Michel offer a pathetic 'breakfast menu' for at least € 7.50, that is more than £7. For this, all you are offered is a croissant, a hot drink, and a glass of orange juice. We left the banks of the Seine and walked into the Quartier Latin, where we found a neighbourhood bar. Here, we enjoyed 2 hot drinks and an excellent fresh croissant for under €5 for the two of us. We were served by a witty barman and his assistant. They made jokes as funny as any that you would associate with New York City banter. After this truly small petit déjeuner, we walked along the Boulevard St Germain and then the Rue Bonaparte, passing the house where the painter Edouard Manet was born.

St Germain des Prés

We arrived at the Musée d'Orsay just before 10 am, hoping to avoid having to join a queue, but found that a long one had already formed. The museum is housed in the shell of what used to be a railway station.

Just  before joining the queue, we spotted a plaque on the exterior wall of the former station. It commemorated the deportation from this station of many innocent victims of the Nazis. While we were waiting in the line for the ticket hall of the museum in which we were hoping to enjoy seeing great works of art, I could not help thinking of those unfortunates who must have had to wait near or in this station in the early 1940s before facing a far worse fate. After 20 minutes, we entered the museum.

The best thing we saw in the museum was a well-displayed temporary exhibition called Allegro Barbaro. This is the name of a piece of music written in 1911 by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. The exhibition displayed paintings executed by Hungarian artists during the first 20  years of the 20th century. All of the paintings on show were of the highest artistic quality. Many were painted by Robert Bereny (1887-1953) and Joszef Rippl-Ronai (1861-1927). I particularly liked the only painting on display by the short-lived Joszef Nemes-Lamperth (1891-1924) and a couple of pictures by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). However, all of the pictures were worth seeing.

The top floor of the museum contains a vast number of paintings by French Impressionist artists. Many of them were very familiar to me, having seen them often in reproductions. Each painting displayed was magnificent, but there were too many of them on display to be able to focus properly on individual works. Likewise, there were far too many visitors trying to view them, many of them clutching miniature electronic devices that looked like mobile 'phones. These gadgets fitted with headphones contain recorded information about selected paintings. There were too Manet  (excuse the pun!) pictures and art pilgrims for my liking. Great as the pictures are, I feel that better places to enjoy the works of the Impressionists include the National Gallery and the Courtauld Institute in London.

Several floors beneath the Impressionist gallery there was a gallery containing works executed by Vincent Van Gogh whilst he lived in France. These hung alongside a number of paintings made by Gauguin in the Far East. Sadly, the crowd in this particular gallery was far too dense to enjoy these superb canvases properly.

The main space of the former railway station has been over-restored and wrecked. What must have once been a wonderful open space where passengers and porters  milled around has been spoilt by the construction of step-like concrete partitions that break up the space unharmoniously. This poor treatment of space contrasts markedly with the successful handling of space in the cavernous former Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. Both my wife and I left the Musée d'Orsay a little disappointed - not with the art, but with the building itself.

RER station beneath Musé d'Orsay

A long ride  on a metroi train took us to the north of Paris, to the municipality of St Denis. We were hungry when we arrived, but could not face any of the 'fast-food' joints that we found near the town's main square. Eventually, we homed in on an isolated restaurant called 'Les Orangines'. 

It was a time-warp. We felt as if we had stepped into a modest restaurant in provincial France in the 1960s or maybe before. It looked as if the place had not been decorated since then. When we entered, there was a bald-headed man sitting at a table directly beneath a large television screen, his eyes glued to the football match that was being broadcast with the volume turned off. Across the room next to the entrance to the kitchen there was another man with a bushy moustache. Both men were taking occasional swigs from their alcoholic drinks. Baldy was drinking Pastis; the moustachioed was drinking Scotch whiskey. 

We ordered our meal from the friendly Algerian waiter, who, we discovered, was not Arab but Kabyle. While my wife awaited her cous-cous with merguez sausages and lamb kebab and I for my home-made meatballs, we asked the two other seated men whether they thought it would be safe for us to visit the Parisian district of Belleville. Baldy replied that he did not know because it was là bas in Paris rather than in his beloved St Denis.  He added that it was full of les chinois unlike St Denis which was full of Pakistanis and other Moslems that he referred to as les barbus - the bearded ones. At this point the other man, the moustachioed, looked up from his drink and said that Baldy was racist. Baldy turned to him and said (in French, of course) "Yes, I am VERY racist ". The 2 men and the waiter all laughed. Shortly after this, Baldy described both Canada and India as being colonies of France.

The food arrived. It had been freshly prepared and was delicious. Usually, I do not enjoy cous-cous, but what was served was tastier than any that I had ever eaten previously.The meatballs were delicately flavoured. When I asked the waiter which meat had been used to prepare them, he replied beef. Baldy, who was nursing yet another glass of Pastis, hastened to add proudly that it was not just beef, but it was French beef.  Every now and then, he made meaningless  exclaimations whenever soething exciting happened on the screen above him. The mustachioed man stood up, went behind the bar, and helped himself to another large whiskey, and then, a few minutes later, a small pitcher of wine. 

Baldy turned to us and asked if we had visited the Basilica at St Denis. When we told him that we were going to do that after eating, he began listing all of the attractions of his town of St Denis.He suggested that we should visit all of them after seeing the Basilica. He was very proud of St Denis, where he had lived for 62 years since leaving Spain, his native land.

Meals arrived for Baldy and the moustachioed fellow just after we had eaten ours.  After serving the 2 other men, the waiter presented us with a large slice of sweet melon as a gift for our desert. After drinking coffee, we left Les Orangines, and headed for the Basilica of St Denis.

The interior of the gothic basilica is a complete contrast to that of Notre Dame. The nave was tall, light, airy, and uplifting. The apse, the north transept, and the crypt of the Basilica form the final resting places of many of France's royalty. At some point during the early 19th century (around about 1817), many royal tombs were relocated from places all over France and placed in the Basilica at St Denis. For an immoderate entry fee, we were allowed to look at this splendidly laid out collection of graves and funerary sculpture. A black marble slab in the crypt marks the resting place of Marie Antoinette, which lies next to that of her husband Louis XVI. A solitary fresh bouquet lay on her stone.

A long, slow bus  ride brought us from the market place in the centre of St Denis to Porte de la Chappelle on the northern edge of Paris. On the way, we crossed the Canal St Denis, where I spotted a shanty town on one of its banks, which looked just a small version of one in Bombay,  India. At Porte de la Chappelle, there were many gypsies waiting by the bus stop. Each of them was accompanied by a heavily laden shopping trolley.

We took a metro train to the Gare de l'Est. Above the entrance to the platforms there is a painting by Albert Hester, done in 1923, showing French soldiers setting off to war:

Elsewhere in the station there are monuments to those who were forced to travel against their will by the Nazis and their French collaborators in the 1940s.

We strolled along the Boulevard Strasbourg that connects the Gare de l'Est with the centre of Paris. Near the station many of the pedestrians were black Africans. There were many crowded, busy hair salons filled with Black women having their hair and nails done. After passing a couple of theatres, we turned off the boulevard and onto the Boulevard St Martin. A short way along it we came across the Porte St Martin:

We took a bus from there to Place St Denis, and ate at Café Panis, where we had eaten with J-B the day before: 

For desert, I at a crèpe made at the Patisserie Sud Tunisien:

After that, we managed to enter the church of St Séverin, where we saw a religious painting with a Polish inscription beneath it.

THURS 31 OCT 2013

We are sitting in a café on the chic Ile St Louis. A little overpopulated with tourists, this small island in the Seine maintains the charm it had when I first visted Paris (with my parents) in about 1968. During that visit we stayed in the only hotel on the Ile. The hotel still exists, but is no longer the sole one and it is quite unaffordable. We have arrived on the island after a long trip form the the south to north-east of Paris.

This morning we began by travelling south towards the Place d'Italie. When our bus reached the Rue Monge, we disembarked to visit the Arenes de Lutèce. Surrounded by apartment blocks, this site contains the ruins of a Roman arena discovered in the 1870s.

After visiting this little-known archaeological site,  which I first learned about from Ian Nairn' quirky guide book to Paris, Nairn's Paris (first publ. 1968), we headed for another of Nairn's recommendations,  the much visited Rue Mouffetard. 

After taking coffee in a small bar, where we were served by another witty barman, we entered the church of St Médard. The church is small and mostly gothic. The neo-classical pillars surrounding the high altar  were built later than the rest of the church:

The Rue Mouffetard winds gently up a hillside. It is lined with foodshops displaying a wide range of mouthwatering foods - both ready-to-eat and also raw ingredients. Each display is a work of art:

The road ends at a small attractive square at the summit of the slope. A road leads from there downhill towards the Seine, which can be seen in the distance. We passed the house where James Joyce wrote his Ulysses, and soon after that we reached the Collège des Ecossais.

A sign next to this old palace informs that the brain of King James II of England, who died in Paris in 1701, is stored in the chapel. He came to France when he refused to give up Roman Catholicism. We tried to enter the building, but were told that tourists need to make a prior appointment to do so. In general, it used to be the tradition in France that the corpses of royalty were dismembered, and the various organs, such as the heart and brain, would be interred in different locations.

We took a bus to the Gare d'Austerlitz, where we made use of its elegant toilets. For a mere € 0.5 each we entered the suite of bathrooms and toilets, which looked more like a high class beauticians' salon  than a railway station WC. 

We caught a metro train from this railway terminal and headed for the north-eastern district of Belleville.

Metro station at Gare d'Austerlitz

Belleville is full of Chinese shops and restaurants. Amongst these we found and entered a modest-looking tiny Vietnamese eatery. We ordered three dishes that were prepared in the tiny kitchen in this establishment. We enjoye some of the best Vietnamese food that we have ever eaten.

The owner told us that he had come to France from Saigon 30years ago. When I asked to use the toilet, he told me that there was not one in his restaurant, but that he would take me to one nearby. I followed him out of the shop and down the street to the door to an apartment building. He opened this and took me through a leafy courtyard to the WC.

View from the 'loo'.

We walked up the steep Rue de Belleville, occasionally passing through vegetable shops that extended across the pavement and onto the roadway.

Eventually, we reached the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a place that I have long wanted to visit having first learnt about it in Nairn's Paris many years ago. The centre-piece of this 19th century park that spreads across the slope of a hill is a cliff-like rock on the top of which there is a temple-like structure. 

Many of the paths in the park were closed for repair, but that did not prevent us from seeing some of its attractions such as a delightful late 19th century café:

After leaving the park, we passed in front of the elegant 19th century Mairie of the XIXth arrondisement, before entering the metro at Laumange station. 

We disembarked at Quai des Rapées, a station next to the Bassin d'Arsenale, where the Canal St Martin enters the Seine. We walked from there along the right bank of the Seine before crossing the Pont Sully in order to reach the Ile St Louis, where I wrote this entry. 

As we walked along this central street on the small island we passed the church of St Louis-en-Ile, which we entered briefly:

After a refreshing beer on the island we crossesd another bridge onto the Ile de la Cité.

Having had a well-deserved rest in our hotel, we returned  to Place Stalingrad to eat at the Canal Huit restaurant, where we ate a couple of days earlier. After eating another excellent meal there, we returned to the Bassin de la Villette, which is quite lively at night.

At one end of the Bassin thare ia a round building, La Rotonde designed in about 1784 by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806). It that now contains a restaurant. In former days it had been a customs house where dues were levied on imported goods brought to the city by the canals.

We returned to Place St Michel, where I ate a crèpe before we returned to the hotel.

FRI 01 NOV 2013

It was All Saints Day, a public holiday in France. The rain began in the morning and fell all day, but that did not deter us. We took an RER train to the Musée d'Orsay, and before crossing over the Seine on a modern foot-bridge, the Passarelle Solférino, a scruffy fellow picked up a shiny gold coloured ring from the pavement just in front of us. He asked my wife if it was hers. When she said it was not, he said that she should keep it anyway. We stepped onto the passarelle, and noticed that we were being followed by the scruffy man. He came up to us and asked us for money, claiming that he was hungry. We said 'non', and then he demanded that we return the ring, which we did. Moments later, we saw that he was trying the same trick on someone else.

The railings of  the foot-bridge are covered with padlocks, love tokens. Apparently, there are so many of these that thier combined weight might threaten the integrity of the bridge. 

We walked through the rain sodden Tuileries gardens, which have been disfigured by mediochre outdoor sculptures, and past the Louvre to the Rue Rivoli, which we crossed before entering the deserted courtyards of the Palais Royale.

At the far end of the Palais, we passed the Le Grand Véfour, an elegant restaurant, with prices that are sky high - a set menu for €298, for example.

We continued walking through the rain towards Les Halles, stopping on the way at a beautifully designed café called Père et Fils for a coffee. We entered the magnificent gothic church of St Eustache in time to catch the tail-end of a service. As Ian Nairn once wrote, the organ's music seems to scrape away at the beautifully vaulted high ceiling of this building.

We ate la well-prepared lunch in a bistrot on Boulevard Sébastopol. After an aperitif of Pastis, I enjoyed Soupe à l'oignon followed by steak tartare. My wife enjoyed her serving of paté de foie gras de canard

We continued to walk after we had eaten, and soon arrived at the Centre Pompidou. This building seems to have survived the passage of time well. An adventurous building, I did not think that it is as elegant as the Nat West Tower in London, which like the Pompidou Centre, also exposes its innards to the outside world. 

St Merri seen from Place Stravinsky

After viewing the sculptures by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle that stand in the pool in the Place Stravinsky, we entered the nearby church of St Merri. Its spelling seems to be uncertain. Even within it we saw the saint's name spelled as both 'Merri' and 'Merry'.

The Rue des Rosiers, a Jewish district, not far from St Merri, was teeming with crowds of tourists. Many of them were queing outside counters selling beigels and falafels. A number of Lubavitch men dressed in black with tzitzes dangling from their belts were dancing in the streets and asking men, including me, whether they were Jewish.

A little further aloing the street, we passed a building (Hamam St Paul) that had once been the Jewish public baths. Next to it, there was a boys' school, which bore a plaque commemorating the deportaition of Jewish schoolboys to Auschwitz in 1943-44.

The 17th century Place des Vosges is truly magnificent. I had been looking forward to seeing it, but was a little disappointed. The square is surrounded by arcades in which there are now many art galleries selling unexciting works of contemporary art. Once, these vaulted arcades contained shops for the French aristocracy. 

We took a bus from near the Place to Place St Michel. The route taken by the bus was fascinating as it involved driving through a narrow arch that entered the Louvre, passing the new glass pyramid before crossing the Seine near the Musée d'Orsay.



We ended the day by eating dinner with another of my cousins at his home in the 7th Arrondisement. Next day, we set off for Strasbourg from the Gare de l'Est. 

After returning to London, someone asked me whether we had seen the Eiffel Tower. I thought for a moment, and then realised that we had not caught even a distant glimpse of it during our few days in Paris 

Metro Monge