Exiled by the sultan to a town in what is now Montenegro, the 17th-century false messiah Shabbetai Tsvi, although a nominal convert to Islam, was desperate to acquire some Jewish books. Thus, not long before his death he wrote to the nearby Jewish community of Berat, requesting that they send some. Berat was but one of several flourishing Jewish communities in what is now Albania, the largest of which was located in Vlorë—a city that will now get a Jewish museum. Avi Kumar writes:
The museum intends to provide a comprehensive look at Albanian Jewish life through the ages, as the Jewish presence in the Balkan nation has been documented since the 2nd century CE. From Greek-speaking Romaniotes to Spanish Sephardim fleeing persecution in the 15th century to Hungarian Ashkenazim who came much later, the combination of a mountainous region and proximity to Italy and Greece created a distinct Jewish culture.
By the outbreak of World War II, an estimated 1,800 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution arrived in Albania due to its liberal visa policies. Some were hoping to continue on to North and South America, British Mandatory Palestine, or other places of refuge. A few of them ended up making Albania their permanent home. An estimated 2,000 Jews were saved thanks to the efforts of local Albanian Muslims, and the country was one of the few European nations whose Jewish population had increased by the end of World War II.
The Jewish population of Vlorë totaled approximately 2,600 in the 1500s, when the city was a trade hub due to its coastal location and proximity to Italy. Today, there are just 50 to 100 Albanian-born Jews, most of whom live in the country’s capital and largest city, Tiranë. There are also around 200 foreign Jews in the Balkan nation.