The Jewish Community of Vlor-Valona-Avilona....



Sometimes historical research is not well balanced, and if even unfair. Incidents of secondary importance are sometimes blown out of proportion, and important historical facts are on the verge of oblivion. One typical example of forgetfulness is the Jewish history of the city of Valona (Vlor, Valora, and in Hebrew documents Avilona).

Except for the Archives of Dubrovnik, research by the Turkish professor Inalçik, and the Bulgarian Jewish researchers, Salomon Rosanes in the beginning of the twentieth century and Chief Haham (Rabbi) Asher Hananel of Sofia (1960), Valona’s Jews are hardly mentioned in history.

The historian Bogumil Hrabak writes that in the sixteenth century Valona was preponderantly a Jewish town as the Jews constituted more than half of the population. Confirmation comes from the “History of Albania” published in Tirana in 1959.1

Having delved into Jewish documents concerning the city and studying them, I will now try to present the Jewish history of Valona.

The Composition of
the Jewish Community

The Jewish community of Valona is one of the most ancient in Europe. Its beginning is garbed in legend which, when analyzed, contains a grain of truth. The story tells us that a ship heading for Rome with a cargo of Jewish slaves, captured after the Roman occupation of Palestine some 2,000 years ago, was blown off course and landed on the coast of Albania, in the vicinity of Valona. The local population, fighting the Romans, helped the slaves that had escaped the ship and welcomed them. From then on, various travelers’ narratives note the existence of Jews on the Albanian coast. Their presence is also proven by documents mentioning Jews selling salt originating in Albania to Dubrovnik during the fourteenth century as well as by Venetian documents from the same period concerning trading with Jews from Albania. The assumption is that these Jews were the so-called Romaniotes—Byzantine Jews who had come to Valona and Dureº (Durazzo) from Corfu, Saloniki, and the Corinth.2

With the Imperial decrees by Justinian (527–565) came a series of anti-Jewish rules which were reinforced by the emperor Basil. The Romaniot Jews were, therefore, victims of persecution and poverty, a situation that ended only when the Ottomans captured Valona in 1417.3

Notwithstanding, Jews conti-nued to arrive in Valona. For example, we know that in 1290, when the Dominican monk Bartolomeo di Capua, who was in charge of Apulia, denounced the Jews as if guilty of a so-called “blood libel”—torturing and killing a Christian boy—he decided to convert the Jews to Christianity by force. As a result many Jews fled and found refuge in Valona.4
Thus, at the time of the Ottoman occupation, Valona had two Jewish communities: the Romaniotes, called in Sephardi history Griegos; and the Pugliese, called Italianos.

The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the exodus of Jews from Portugal, beginning in 1497 resulted in the arrival in Valona of Jews from Castilla and Catalunia and, later on, from Portugal.

External events caused the number of Jews in Valona to grow. After the burning at the stake in Ancona of 24 conversos from Portugal who had returned to Judaism and the intervention of the Ottoman fleet in 1555 to prevent the execution of other condemned conversos, Duke Guido of Urbino ordered the expulsion of conversos from Ancona. A ship with 70 conversos left Pesaro for Valona—15 of them disembarked at Dubrovnik and the others were captured by marauders and sold as slaves in Apulia. In April 1557, a second ship reached Valona and the majority disembarked there. Few landed in Dubrovnik, among them Amatus Lusitanos.5 Don Yosef Nassi, nephew of Dona Gracia Mendes, Portuguese Jewess very influential in the Sultan’s court, received permission from the Ottoman sultan to prepare Tiberias to receive those expelled from Ancona. The Dona Gracia arranged that the Valona and other Adriatic Jewish communities boycott the port of Ancona.6 The boycott did not succeed since Pesaro made a poor substitute for a good port.

From Turkish documents found by Nicolai Todorov in Sofia,7 and the official history of Albania published in Tirana,8 in 1520 there were 945 families in Valona of which 528 were Jewish, in other words, 3,600 Jews in a population of less than 5,000. Bogumil Hrabak calls sixteenth-century Valona “preponderantly a Jewish town.”9

Commerce of the Port
of Valona

Valona is a natural port. The Romaniot Jews with their connections with Greece and Corfu, the Spanish Jews and their relatives in Macedonia and Bulgaria, the Pugliese Jews and their connections in Italy, and the Portuguese Jews with their acumen in international commerce, banking, and shipping transformed Valona into a large commercial center.

The Jewish merchants imported products from the Balkans such as hides, carpets, and silk and reexported them. From Italy they imported silver and gold ornaments, glassware, and other European products for reexportation. The Balkan Jews produced olive oil, wine, honey, and additional agroindustrial products for export. The salt trade, a very important element for cattle breeding, was conducted along the line Corfu–Valona–Dubrovnik. Portuguese Jews established a line of trade for spices, Istanbul–Saloniki–Valona–Dubrovnik–Venice. Over land they usually traded through Sofia to Austria, Poland, and Russia.10

In his studies Bernard Blumenkranz of the Sorbonne came to the conclusion that there was almost a Jewish exclusivity of the line between Valona and Corfu and the line between Valona and Dubrovnik. Significant, too, was that the Valona Jews had a complete monopoly on the commerce in processed hides and in pitch extracted from pine trees. He also understands that all commerce from the port of Valona was in Jewish hands.11

The commerce suffered considerably at the hands of pirates and bandits. Numbers show that almost half of the dispatches from Valona to Istanbul, and an even larger proportion of those from Valona to Dubrovnik were lost to banditry, pirates, sinking of ships, and fire. So Valona Jews founded insurance companies to facilitate this commerce.12

Valona also had a large shopping center where Jews owned shops selling imported goods, considered quite luxurious by the standards in the Balkans during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The interesting part about shop ownership is that Jewish shipowners in Valona entered into partnerships with Jewish shopowners in the Balkans, exchanging merchandise and sharing the profit. A typical example is a document detailing such a partnership and the results as decided by the Hahams (rabbis) regarding a partnership between a shop in Skopie and one in Valona.13
An interesting fact is that the son of Don Isaac Abarbanel, one on the leaders of Spanish Jewry and financial adviser to the Spanish kings, Don Samuel Abarbanel had such a shop in Valona.

If we follow the family names of the main Jewish merchant families, we find almost all the sources of Jews in Valona: Catinella, Graziano—Italy; Benvenisti, Cabillo—Spain or Portugal; Mazza – Corfu; Arah – Romaniote; Trink – Germanic origin.

The Consuls

The trade through consuls was another system adopted by merchants, a system that helped them direct their trade from one center to another. The consuls sat in ports on the trade routes between the Ottoman Empire and its neighbors. Merchants sent their merchandise to the consuls with explicit instructions concerning the destination of goods. The consul could send goods only after receiving such instructions, and until then he kept the goods in his stores. In payment, the consul received two percent of the merchandise’s value for handling the transfer, another two percent for keeping the merchandise in stores, and three per thousand for handling bills of exchange.

Ivana Burdelez, in her study on Jews serving as consuls of Ragusa found that the Ragusa authorities usually decided to appoint Jews as their consuls in Valona.14

Isak Trink was the first Jewish consul of Ragusa in Valona in 1541, followed by his nephew Angelo Samuel. He was succeeded by Yaako Kodutto, member of a Jewish family from Ancona; he held office for twenty years. After him came Daniel Kodutto, Zakaria Graciano, Josip Maestro, and reverting to the Kodutto family in 1637, Angelo Kodutto.15

The consuls customarily also reported on the political situation and about the redemption of slaves, a very important function in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, which sometimes yielded profits, too. The Jewish consuls of Dubrovnik in Valona were very useful in supplying wheat to Dubrovnik when the Venetians, in their quest to occupy Dubrovnik, laid siege on Dubrovnik and prevented the supply of wheat. Dona Gracia Nasi, the Jewish leader of Istanbul, was particularly helpful in this provision of wheat from Valona to Dubrovnik. She obtained from the sultan an order to supply a fixed amount of grain with no regard for the quantity available in the Sanjak.16 The role of the Jewish merchants was so critical that they prevented grain shipments to Dubrovnik following that city’s order in 1515 expelling the Jews. This forced the government of Ragusa to rescind it in 1516.17

Jewish Communal Life

The Jewish community divided roughly into two: the old settlers—Romaniots and Pugliese, who were the majority, and the newcomers from the Iberian Peninsula—Catalanos, Castilianos, and Portuguese. The rabbinical Court of Justice depended on the Hahams of Saloniki. Disagreements usually flared up on religious matters, the old settlers being very strict and religious, and the Iberians being quite lax in keeping religious law, especially those Portuguese who had lived as converso Catholics before returning to Judaism. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the community was led by the Pugliese Rabbi Perez Bonfilio assisted by Bonoso di Puglia, Yahuda Siciliano, and Salomon Sarfati. The need, however, to unify the different congregations prompted the community to invite the renowned Rabbi David Meser Leon. Son of the philosopher and rabbi Yehuda ben Yehiel Meser Leon (Meser coming from mio serro, my sir—mon sengnor—was a title given to him by the German emperor Frederick III during his visit to Italy), founder of the Jewish academy of Mantua that taught rabbinical as well as secular studies. David was born in Venice in 1470, became a rabbi at age 18, moved to Istanbul, and then to Saloniki. After clashes with local rabbis, he was invited to Valona (1512), where he tried to unify all the congregations. But his strict ways caused the Portuguese to secede. He excommunicated them, which caused the Spanish to leave the united congregation, and after a confrontation with the Portuguese leader Dr. Solomon Krisanty and with the Castilian leader Meir Ibn Verga, he had to abandon Valona, after a stay of several years, leaving a divided community.18

Gradually, the communities amalgamated. Progress was especially made in this under Haham Moshe Albelda (Castillian) in the seventeenth century.19

As for relations with the local population, they were quite good, despite the fact that the Jews from Spain and Portugal were suspected of being too friendly and grateful to the Ottoman authorities who received them after their expulsion from Iberia.

Relations with the Turkish authorities were also very good, but here again, all those who were not Moslem were second-class citizens. The situation is clearly depicted in a document of responsa (queries to rabbinical courts and the answers received):

A Jew who wanted the wife of another Jew told the Turkish police that he would embrace Islam, if he would be given a certain woman (Dina daughter of Yaakov, wife of Dan). Dina was kidnapped, violated, and given to the man, who married her. Three months later she managed to escape, and the local kadi [Islamic judge] gave her a Moslem divorce. Her first husband took his wife and fled Valona, and asked the rabbinical court if his first marriage was valid. The court, under Samuel de Medina, approved that the marriage was valid!20

Exodus from Valona

During the Turkish-Venetian War in 1688, most of the Jews of Valona left the city when it was besieged by the Venetians and finally occupied by them. The Jews feared the Venetians who sometimes demonstrated a cruel attitude toward the Jews. The Valona community had to redeem Jewish slaves captured by the Venetians in Corfu and knew that Venetians considered the Jews as allied to the Turks. Documents show that the Jews left for what was called Arnaut Belgrade—today Berat in Albania. From rabbinical documents we see that Valona Jews considered their stay in Berat as temporary. The small Berat Jewish community and the numerous Jewish refugees from Valona asked the rabbinical court, if the special taxes imposed on the Jews of Berat by their local Ottoman ruler should also be paid by the Valonians or whether the Jews of Berat should bear all the financial burden. The decision by the Haham Aharon David Hacohen was that the taxes should be borne by all the Jews.21
The fear of the Venetians was well founded. The Valona Jews who did not flee to Berat were captured and sent as slaves to Italy. Of their destiny we learn by what happened to Nehemia Hia Hayon of Valona who was redeemed with other Jewish slaves in Leghorn.22

With a series of epidemics in Berat, the Valona Jews started scattering after 1740, mainly to Yanina (the Romaniots), Monastir (Bitulya) (the Portuguese), and Kastoria (the Spanish and the Italians). There was also a Valona Jewish community in Istanbul compri-sing eleven families.

Although the Turks rapidly recaptured Valona and beheaded 3,700 Venetian prisoners, very few Jews returned to Valona.

Starting in 1850, Romaniot Jews from Yanina and Preveza settled in Valona and formed a small community. They identified the old synagogue and the old cemetery was returned to them. In 1915 with the occupation of Valona by the Italians, the old synagogue became a military storage and later burned in the great fire of central Valona. In the cemetery only a few old gravestones can be identified. Supposedly in Yanina there was an old Bible scroll (Torah) from Valona, said to be 1,500 years old, known in Hebrew as “Sefer Avilona” (the Book of Valona). In 1936 Albania asked for the return of the scroll, but Yanina postponed giving it back. It is said it was burned with other scrolls by the occupying Nazis.

In 1938, there were 15 Jewish families in Valona. During the Nazi occupation the Albanians hid and saved not only all the Albanian Jews but also several hundreds of Jewish refugees who found haven in Albania.

In 1991 almost all Albanian Jews settled in Israel.

1 Bogumil Hrabak, “Jevreji u Albaniji od kraja XVII do kraja XVIIvii Veka,” in Iabreski Zbornik, Beograd, No. 1 (1971), 96, and Historia e Shqipertse, Tirana, 1959, 344.
2 Cecil Roth, Gli Ebrei in Venezia (Rome, 1933), 337–49 and 376–79.
3 Gad Nasi, “Una Forteresa Romaniota,” in: Aki Yerushalaim, No. 66 (May 2000), 15.
4 Cecil Roth, Toldot ha-Yehudim be-Italiya (Tel Aviv, 1962), 66.
5 Salomon Rosanes, History of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire—1521–1575 (Sofia, 1938), 2:302–3, 383–84.
6 Aryeh Shmuelevitz, Administrative, Economic, Legal, and Social Relations in the Ottoman Empire in the Late 15th and 16th Centuries (Madison 1981), 234.
7 Nicolai Todorov, Demograficheskopo sustoianie na balkanskia poluostrov XV–XVI vek (Sofia, 1960), 215, 222.
8 Historia e Shqiperisle (Tirana, 1959), 344.
9 Hrabak, 64.
10 Shmuelevitz, 234–36.
11 Bernard Blumenkranz, “Notes et mélanges,” in: Revue des Estudes Juives, XXX, 149–51.
12 Blumenkranz, 150.
13 Asher Hananel and Ely Eshkenazi, “Partnership between Merchants of Skopie and Valona,” in: Fonte Hebraici ad res Oeconomicas Socialesque Terrarum Balcanicarum Pertinentes, v. 2, Question 1 (Sofia, 1960), 302.
14 Ivana Burdelez, “Jewish Consuls in the Service of the Dubrovnik Republic,” in: Diplomacy of the Republic of Dubrovnik (Zagreb, 1998), 340.
15 Hrabak, 96; Burdelez, 340.
16 Elliot Horowitz and Moises Orfali, “Dona Gracia Mendes in the Ragusan Republic in the Mediterranean and the Jews,” Ramat Gan, 196–197 (note 5).
17 Horowitz/Orfali, pp. 195–196.
18 Rosanes, 1:86-87, 110–11, 153–54.
19 Rosanes, 2:128.
20 Hananel-Eshkenazi, 1:68–69.
21 Hananel-Eshkenazi, 2:383–84.
22 Rosanes, 4:271.

Mordechai Arbell

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