The idea was broached by a British Zionist journalist, Leo Elton, who traveled to Albania in 1935.
In 1935, British Zionist journalist Leo Elton traveled to Albania, apparently at his own initiative, to see if it would be possible to establish a Jewish national entity there. It seems the only surviving trace of his voyage is his report 10 years later to Hebrew University’s first president, Judah Leib Magnes. The document rests in the Central Archive for the History of the Jewish People at the university’s Givat Ram campus in Jerusalem.
Elton’s journey was spurred on by the increasing persecution of German Jews two years into the Nazi regime and Britain’s refusal to increase the quotas on Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine. Elton writes that he first read of the idea in British newspapers reporting that the Albanian government welcomed Jewish immigration. So he traveled to the tiny country of a million inhabitants, which was completely cut off from industrialised Europe. A government minister told him that “in Albania religious intolerance is quite unknown …. The Albanian Muslims of today are no fanatics.”
The minister also emphasized that, in contrast to the rest of Europe, Albania had no history of anti-Semitism. “There is no reason whatsoever to expect that Jewish settlers would not live in complete harmony with the population’s diverse elements,” Elton wrote.
The Albanian option also had economic advantages. The land was extremely fertile, and if modern agricultural methods were used, it could easily supply the needs of five million people. The oranges and lemons, Elton enthused, were the best in the world, and Jews’ success in raising oranges in pre-state Israel could be replicated in Albania. Other suggestions included growing tobacco and raising silkworms, and building up the textile and olive-oil industries. The less positive side, according to Elton, was that the capital Tirana had no theaters or concert halls.
“I believe that if such men and women were pioneers of the right type, they would achieve not only material prosperity quickly, but also the respect and goodwill of the Albanians,” Elton wrote to Magnes. He said that “in the course of a very few years, not hundreds but thousands of Jews in all walks of life might follow.”
As a first stage Elton recommended establishing a Jewish national entity in Albania like the one in Mandatory Palestine, with the cooperation of two Zionist movements. Later Albania might even be turned into a Jewish national home. It is not known what became of the idea, whether any official body discussed it, and whether Magnes even bothered to answer Elton. The Jews, in any case, did not immigrate in large numbers to Albania. Hadassah Assouline, director of the archive, says the report was probably submitted to the university in 1945 amid the refugee problem at the end of World War II.
Interestingly enough, Elton’s high estimation of the Albanians was borne out during the Holocaust: They saved the country’s small Jewish community, down to its very last members.