Steven Aiello

Zagreb, Belgrade, Prizren, Prishtina (Croatia-Serbia-Kosova)

Tuesday, 7am. We arrived in Zagreb about 90 minutes late, an almost 10 hour ride (the bus usually takes 5), to the snowy results of a two day blizzard. After locking up our luggage and eating breakfast, we headed out to see Zagreb, visiting the Museum of Broken Relationships, Historical Museum, stopping for lunch at another vegan restaurant (getting used to those!), then seeing the Arts and Crafts Museum and Ethnographical Museum before meeting up with our friends Ana, Ivana and Darjan. After a second vegan snack, we stopped for coffee/tea/hot chocolate and chatted for a while, getting more of an insider’s perspective of Croatia’s different cities.

We stayed in Ana’s apartment, across the bridge from the main part of the city. Wednesday morning we headed out to the city via tram, stopping at the technical museum first with its display of firefighting, energy producing and general machinery, including numerous aircraft, old cars, some tanks and a submarine. Next we visited the Jewish community, where we learned about their history, very different from that of Dubrovnik, Split and the Jews of the Dalmatian Coast (younger, more Ashkenazi, most recently undergoing a revival and some political infighting).

After our visit to the synagogue, we went for lunch, a ride on the funicular and to the bus station to get tickets. We then headed to the bus station, bought tickets to Belgrade and went to the Typhlology Museum, where we learned about the history of communication for the blind, the evolution of education for the blind in Croatia and even got the chance to experience a few minutes without vision in the “dark room.”

After meeting up with Ivana and Ana again, we made one more stop at Green Point, our favorite vegan store, then headed on our way, back to Ana’s house to get our stuff and again back to the bus station on the tram. Boarding the bus, we headed to Belgrade.

After another all-night trip, we arrived at the hostel, where we checked in, freshened up and headed out. Our first stop was the Jewish museum, housed in the seemingly fairly active Jewish community center. After a history lesson on all of Yugoslavian Jewry (the museum was started after WWII), which included Romaniote, Reform and Orthodox Ashkenazim and Sepharadim, the Holocaust, participation in various national wars, partisan, anti-fascist and socialist movements, we visited the very large synagogue, which hosts the current community. We saw a group of elderly Serbian Jews playing card games and bingo or just sitting around talking. We had lunch there, headed back to the hostel to get warmer clothing and then headed to the zoo, where the highlights include a large family of white lions, two white tigers, an elephant and a hippopotamus family. From there we tried to find the Roma Museum and after failing (it had moved not that recently and of course has an outdated website), returned home, heated up a kosher TV dinner and went to sleep.


Friday am- I walked to Jevevski (Jew) street to find some more Jewish heritage sites. We then went to the Ethnographic Museum for a large presentation on clothing from various regions of the former Yugoslavia (Adriatic, Central Balkans, etc.), forms of housing and work. Then we went in search of the Serbian/Yugoslav history museum (closed without any explanation), to the bus station to buy tickets. From there I took a bus to another neighborhood, Zemun in search of the old synagogue, which I found after a bit of searching, a large old building, intact, but with no ostensibly Jewish connections from the outside and allegedly a club on the interior. I then took a bus back to the Zemun side of the Sava river and found the (concentration camp site and memorial. Then I walked back to the hostel, we had lunch and got ready for Shabbat.

Shabbat- about 40 people came to services in the medium-sized sanctuary in the gigantic synagogue building. Services were an interesting mix between Sepharadi and Ashkenazi liturgy and tunes, mostly Sepharadi, with some Ladino songs, but Ashkenazi tunes also used on occasion (e.g. Lekha Dodi). The hazzan studied in Israel (including Oud-playing), as did the rabbi (at Yeshivat Har Etsion). After tefila, many community members stayed for dinner, as did the rabbi’s family, a couple from Roma whose wife’s family is of Yugoslavian background and their cousin who was also from Belgrade but has spent the last 25 years in Montreal. Other guests of note included a young British-Dutch woman who moved to Istanbul, divorced from her Serb-Croatian husband, but stayed in Belgrade with her two children, a man originally from Manchester who has lived in Serbia for 18 months on business and an American man who is also living there for business purposes. The rest were “regular” community members, almost all of Sepharadi descent (pre-war the community was almost all Sepharadi, although the only synagogue building to survive was the Ashkenazi one). They talked about experiences during the various wars, how younger Jewish community members (including some of their children) had left the country to avoid drafts, to fight wars which many less-nationalist or less-militant citizens did not support. There is a chabbad in Belgrade which apparently does not operate in concert with the Jewish community, and not long ago there was some political intrigue involving the presidency of the Jewish community, but thankfully this latter conflict was resolved electorally without resort to the outcome that resulted in Zagreb, with a small community divided.

After dinner we walked back, then came a little after the 9am starting point in the morning for shaharit and musaf, with a noticeably smaller crowd. After tefila there was a communal lunch; following that we prayed minha (without a minyan) in the sanctuary and made plans to meet at the rabbi’s house later for havdala. We then walked back to the hostel a little later, to the Princess Ljubanica residence, home to members of the Obrenovic royal Serbian dynasty for an ethnographic glimpse of Serbian upper class domestic life from the 1800s-mid 1900s. From there we walked to the Fortress, in and around it, taking in the views of the city, a hidden bunker and a large line of tanks and artillery pieces displayed outside the military museum.


After stopping at the hostel again, we went to the rabbi’s house, where we had a snack, prayed arbit, heard havdala, had dinner and listened to a medley of Ladino, North African, Middle Eastern, Judeo-Greek, Turkish, Ottoman and Balkan songs played by the hazzan’s group, including a concert made at the 80th anniversary of the Ashkenazi synagogue in 2006.

After several hours enjoying the hospitality of the Asiel family and learning about the community (and the very small Macedonian Jewish community, as Rabbi Isak traveled there for 20 years to serve them as well, until 2008), we said goodbye, laden with more food, returned to the hostel to retrieve our bags and took a taxi to the bus station to catch our bus to Prishtina. From Prishtina we stayed on the bus to Prizren, arriving at 5:15. Almost 8 hours after leaving Belgrade.  After waiting a bit at a café to reach a more reasonable hour (6:20), we borrowed a phone and called Teuta, a dear friend of our good friends from New Hampshire, the Linseys.

Teuta soon came by to pick us up, in a car driven by the husband of one of her patients. Despite traveling from Belgrade, Serbia to Prizren, Kosova, we felt very unaccomplished when we discovered that Teuta had already managed to deliver a baby boy that morning! We dropped our things off, had some tea and snacks and took a nap.

At 9:45 Irfan, Teuta’s husband and also a doctor, got home from a shift at his hospital in Prishtina. After a leisurely start to our morning, we began to walk around the older part of Prizren around noon. We saw the river, various Ottoman-era mosques, Suffi tekkes, Serbian Orthodox and Albanian Catholic churches and cathedrals, all the while running into Dr. Irfan’s patients. We crossed the river again and entered the League of Prizren museum, with information on the 1868 Albanian independence movement and related historical occurrences and correspondences, including a collection of elucidating, very colonialist communiqués involving British and Ottoman diplomats. There we also met a Russian-American Ashkenazi MA student born in Uzbekistan, studying in Venice, visiting Kosova with his class, who was writing a story on Kosova‘s Jews for the Tablet magazine. We also met Votem, the head of the Kosova Jewish community, walking down the street with a prominent Kosovan football coach; we talked to him briefly. His mother was Jewish, his father Muslim, both Albanian.

After a day spent walking around Prizren with Irfan, we met up with Teuta, her sister and brother-in-law at a café for some drinks, then drove up to the top of the mountain for views of the snowy mountaintops from a hotel, then back down to the bottom for a vegetarian dinner. Irfan seemed to know everyone, from the head of the Jewish community, to the director of the Prizren League Museum, to the owner of the hotel, to political and business leaders eating in the restaurant with us. We went home and settled in for the night, exchanging romantic stories and facebook photos with our friends, before finally calling it a late night.

Monday morning- After a warm farewell to our newfound Albanian family, we took an 8 am bus to Prishtina, arriving at 10 am to be met by Arber, another friend of the Linseys. Arber took us on a fantastic tour of Prishtina, through the town highlights, the Ethnographic Museum (accompanied by a  guide), National Museum (two floors of which were open to the public), stopping a Kosovan Parliamentarian in the street to say hello. In addition to the highlights and museums, our day was punctuated by meetings- for lunch we met with Junghi and Leke, two members of the Kosova-Israel friendship association, the latter a grandson of the first Kosova family to be recognized by Yad Vashem for saving Jews during the Holocaust. They explained about their organization’s role in promoting awareness of the role that Albanians outside of Albania- in Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro and other locations, played in transporting Jews into Albania and safety during WWII, their attempts to track down those with knowledge of the numerous instances, the challenges in contrast to Albania (where official records were at least kept), some stories of families saving Jews (e.g. the family that was forced to choose a child to give up and gave up their own son over the Jewish family). They talked about the role of besa (the Albanian code of honor and morality), of moderate religion within Albanians and multiculturalism under the Ottoman Empire and especially embraced by Albanians. We also talked about the politics and challenges of getting international recognition, of Albanian identity and of moderation versus extremism in Albanian Islam. Albanians in general play very little emphasis on religious distinctions–Albanians of all faiths we were told, celebrate each of the religious holidays; Muslims will attend church on Christian holidays. Apparently Bektashis and other sects allow drinking; we were told that it is even a common tradition to follow the circumcision of a Muslim child with a party involving drinking alcohol.

After our Kosova-Israel friendship meeting, we got some souvenirs, then after a bit more walking around we met up with Mr. Engel, a Jewish American who has lived and worked in Kosova since 1998. He said that he had heard about the events early in the war and was moved to come help. Starting with general help to the refugees, who then constituted most of the population of the country, he joined a newly formed organization, Balkan Sunflowers, which after the war transitioned to an organization focused on educational assistance and improvement among Kosovan minority groups- especially Roma, Egyptian and (third group). He talked about his work, Kosova during and post-war, reconciliation efforts, racism toward minority groups like the Roma and other challenges of improving their situation, from governmental misunderstandings to cultural issues.

After our meeting with Rand, we headed out in search of the Jewish cemetery, ironically one which the Dartmouth Hillel had visited only a few years prior. Despite rain and darkness, we found the site and attempted to read some of the newer-looking tombstones, themselves 100+ years old. There were much older-looking tombstones which we could not make out. The area had however been cleaned by the Dartmouth crew.

From there we took a taxi to Ilir’s house, where we met his son Jon. Ilir and his wife (also a doctor), live in a two family complex, with his brother’s family living next door. We were surprised to see kipot and an Israeli flag and were told that they had been brought by Ilir’s wife on her trip to Israel (Dr. Zorba in Albania, Junghi, Leke, Irfan and Teuta have all also been to Israel).

After a very enjoyable evening discussing politics, religion and Albanian and Kosovan idiosyncrasies, we watched a movie together, then went home to Arber’s for the night.

Tuesday morning- we headed to the bus station to find the bus to Skopje, Macedonia. For the second day in a row we were accompanied to the bus station (after being met there) by our hosts; despite our best intentions to support the economy we also barely spent any money in Kosova thanks to the unbelievable hospitality of our hosts.

About the Author
Steven Aiello is the Director of Debate for Peace (, and a board member of the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development NY. He has a BA in Economics, MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies, and MA in Islamic Studies. He teaches Model UN for schools throughout Israel. Among his other hats he serves as Regional Coordinator for Creating Friendships for Peace, and Dialogue Officer at Asfar. Steven has also served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress. His writing has been published in the NY Daily News, Jerusalem Post, Iran Human Rights Review; Berkley Center at Georgetown;, and the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He can be reached via email at