Gjirokastra College Bas Relief

Gjirokastra High School Relief 01

Gjirokastra High School Relief 01

This small relief, at the bottom of the stairs into a high school in the old part of Gjirokastra, commemorates an event in 1942 when the local students from the gymnasium (college), together with their teachers, demonstrated against, and clashed with, the occupying Italian fascist forces.

This is quite likely to be missed by those who are passing on their way to the Ethnographic Museum (which also happens to be the birth place of the leader of the Partisan Army during the war against fascism and for National Liberation and leader of the Party and the country, Enver Hoxha).

There are a number of documented cases where the local, unarmed, population took to the streets and showed their opposition to the fascist invaders. This is even more remarkable when you consider that there was already a guerrilla war being waged throughout the country and this would pass into another, and higher stage, in September of the same year after the Peze Conference, in a small village just to the south-west of Tirana when the National Liberation War was initiated, under the leadership of the Albanian Communist Party, later the Party of Labour of Albania (PLA).

The organisation of the Communist youth was well established in Gjirokastra by this time, a prominent role being played by Bule Naipi (who was later to be murdered by the Nazis, along with her comrade Persefoni Kokëdhima, in July 1944) and the occupying forces found it difficult to deal with this type of open opposition.

This demonstrated a lot of courage on the part of the Albanian people as the action in Gjirokastra was repeated in many other places, such as Durres. A painting by Sali Xhixha (in the Durres Art Gallery) depicts a demonstration against the Italians in Albania’s most important port and the main bridgehead for their invasion in 1939.

Durres Demonstration - Sali Xhixha

Durres Demonstration – Sali Xhixha

The bas-relief depicts five young people, in the main young and all but one looking in the same direction, that is, towards the left of the viewer. We see little more of the individuals than a head and shoulders.

Gjirokastra High School Relief 02

Gjirokastra High School Relief 02

The young man in the front has a stern expression on his face and has his right arm high in the air and his fist clenched, seeming to indicate he is about to throw a rock at the invaders.

Behind him is a young woman. Her long hair is braided and hangs down over her left shoulder. Her mouth is shown open shouting her defiance.

Gjirokastra High School Relief 03

Gjirokastra High School Relief 03

Next is an older looking male, probably representing the teacher, not least as he is wearing a neck tie. (This is not recommended in demonstration situations as this can easily be grabbed and the wearer is then incredibly vulnerable and can be quickly made ineffective due to the threat of strangulation. It’s also not recommended to have long hair plaited as this offers the military or police forces another way to incapacitate a demonstrator.) He has a stern look on his face but apart from that it’s difficult to read his expression. He is looking in the general direction of the action but we are able to get a view of his face full on.

The next of the quintet is another young man, a student. He is looking away from the main action and we can also see his complete face, rather than the profile of some of the others. He is also shouting, his mouth wide open and has his left arm high above his head – the vegetation on my visit obscuring what, if anything, he has in his hand.

This idea of one of the characters looking in the opposite direction to the main action is a common device in Albanian Socialist Realist sculpture (see the Monument to Heroic Peze and the Peze War Memorial for other examples) as it indicates that there are many other people involved than those we see. These individuals play the role of encouraging those unseen to keep up with the action, whether it be the battle of arms in the mountains or a confrontation with the fascists in the streets of their home towns.

Gjirokastra High School Relief 04

Gjirokastra High School Relief 04

The juxtaposition of this student and the teacher, and way they are looking, also act as a challenge to the viewer. They are asking, sometime mutely, ‘What are you going to do?’

Finally we have another young woman (always a more or less 50/50 representation of male/female protagonists in Albanian Socialist Realist art). She also has longish hair, but this time not tied back in any way. There’s a determined look on her profile as she heads towards the point of conflict.

As a backdrop to these five demonstrators we have the Albanian flag. We get an impression of the folds of the banner in the way the bronze has been moulded. It’s the Albanian flag as we can see the heads of the double-headed eagle on either side of the arm of the first angry student. Unlike on other monuments there’s no obvious sign of a star (the Communist symbol) but this is normally directly over the place where the two eagle heads meet and any such star would be obscured by the upraised arm.

This could have been a deliberate move by the sculptor (so far unknown to me). We know from other circumstances (the Mosaic of the National Museum and the Durres War Memorial, for example) that not all the artists involved in such work prior to 1990 were steadfast in their politics and later could be easily bought.

Gjirokaster Students and Teachers Revolt

Gjirokaster Students and Teachers Revolt

At the far right hand side of the monument are the words which explain what it commemorates:

Me 6 Mars, 1942, nxenesit dhe mesuesit e gjimnasit perleshen me forcat e fashizmit

This translates as:

On March 6, 1942, the gymnasium (high school) students and teachers clashed with the forces of fascism (Italian).

The relief had suffered from a certain amount of mindless, yet not too destructive vandalism on my first visit. However, by May 2015 it had been cleaned up and the vegetation cut back so it was much easier to appreciate the story being told. (This element of ‘renovation’ is taking place throughout much of the country, sometimes sympathetic to the original, other times not so much. Nonetheless destructive vandalism seems to have retreated in the last couple of years.)

Being at the bottom of the stairs to the present college building I wonder if any of the students think on this monument and what it represents as they go to school each day – unfortunately, I doubt it.

If you visit this bas-relief it is also worthwhile going up the steps to take a look at another lapidar just to the right of the main entrance to the building.

GPS:

N 40.07467

E 20.13575

DMS:

40° 4′ 28.8120” N

20° 8′ 8.7000” E

Alt: 310m

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The ‘Hanged Women’ of Gjirokastra

The Hanged Women - Gjirokastra

The Hanged Women – Gjirokastra

Tucked away at the top end of Sheshi Çerçiz Topulli (Square) in the old part of Gjirokastra is a small statue which you could easily miss. Next to the potted plants in front of the Tourist Information Office is a white stone statue, of the upper body, of two women. This is a representation of Bule Naipi and Persefoni Kokëdhima who were executed by the German Nazis in 1944. From that time they became known as the Hanged Women of Gjirokastra.

Both of the women were in their early twenties when their country was invaded by the Fascists and, like 6,000 other women (out of a Partisan force of 70,000) they decided to take up arms to drive the invaders from their land.

bule

bule

Bule was born in Gjirokastra town and apart from the statue in the main square she is referenced, as a ‘People’s Heroine’, on a monument in the Dunavat area of the town. She was a member of the youth group of which Qemal Stafa was the leader so it would seem that she had adopted the Communist ideology at an early age.

persefoni

persefoni

I’m not sure where Persefoni came from but apart from the monument to her death in Gjirokastra she is mentioned on the monuments in Qeparo Fushë (which is on the Adriatic coast), Kardhiq (in the mountains to the north-west of Gjirokastra) and Përmet (in a couple of valleys over to the east of Gjirokastra). This would seem to indicate she had been a Partisan for some time and had been involved in quite extensive sorties against the Fascists.

The exact circumstances of their capture I’m not aware but it seems they were captured at more or less the same time, imprisoned and then the German Nazis decided to make an example of these young and courageous women in an effort to deter others from opposing their occupation. These terror tactics are common in the history of imperialism.

A favoured tactic by the Nazis throughout Eastern Europe was the public hanging of those who had been fighting against them on being captured and, according to the statistics, this was even more common when women were concerned. The intense military opposition to the Fascist invasion in countries such as Albania and the Soviet Union meant that there are no pictures of women walking arm in arm with the German invaders in Tirana and Moscow (as you do in Paris). What we do get, however, are hundreds of pictures of young women hanging from the gallows in public squares.

These were not the executions that might take place in those countries where capital punishment was, or still is, the case. Everything was done by the Fascists to turn the occasion of the killing of an individual into a lesson in politics. There would be no, or very limited, process of law. Many of the executions were carried out summarily and even if there was the pretence of a trial the outcome was known before it had begun. Almost always they would be public executions, carried out in a main square, with the rest of the population forced to watch. Here the aim was to both strip the victims of their dignity and give that added spice to the terror instilled into the onlookers.

Neither was the execution the clinical affair that was eventually meted out to those German Fascists found guilty at the Nuremberg Tribunals of 1945-9. Those who were dealt with by Albert Pierrepoint would die in seconds. This would have been in ‘ideal’ circumstances. However, on the streets of Gjirokastra on July 17th 1944 Bule and Persefoni would have been stood on a stool under a low and flimsy gallows, with a thin piece of rope around their necks tied in a crude slip knot and then strangled to death when the stool was kicked away. As in the case of most of these lynchings the two women faced their fate with dignity and a continued hatred of the enemy. It was the practice of the Nazis to leave the bodies hanging for as long as possible to hammer home the message but as they were murdered in the summer they would have been cut down quite quickly. (This is just one of the reasons I am opposed to the German War Cemetery in the park behind the University in Tirana.)

The two young women were murdered in the square where the statue now stands.

Now the statue in Gjirokastra’s main square is not one of my favourite examples of Socialist sculpture. In fact I can think of no other I find less pleasing. I don’t yet know who was the sculptor but I don’t think it’s one of the best, or most appropriate of monuments, to two brave, young women.

They appear thin and haggard. Their faces are gaunt and their eyes seem to be bulging out of the sockets. The facial expression says nothing, unsmiling but not telling us anything else about how they might have been thinking. Compare this lack of expression with, for example, the statue to the Partisan in the centre of Tirana. He’s angry (sometimes I think a little bitter – and that’s something coming from someone who harbours a lot of anger) and you know that immediately you look at his face. You don’t get any emotion from this statue, not even a sensation of dignity. Also, there’s a problem with the location. It’s pushed to the edge of a car park, close to a building, as if it’s only there on sufferance (which it probably is) and doesn’t permit the viewer to consider the monument for what it represents.

But in a study of Socialist Realism these two Communist martyrs allow an analysis which has not been possible to date. Not only is there a statue in the location of their deaths but their fate has been represented in a number of media which suggest a number of interesting ideas.

As far as I’m concerned a better sculpture is one created by Odhise Paskali in 1974. This is called ‘The Two Heroines’, which I think is a better title than ‘The Hanged Women’. (Since I first came across this story and related art works I’ve always considered that there’s something cold and almost impersonal in referring to such courageous women in such a way. It seems to say that their short lives are determined solely by the manner in which they died.)

The Two Heroines - Odhise Paskali

The Two Heroines – Odhise Paskali

(The original of this statue is in the corridor of the old Gjirokaster Castle Prison. It was from this prison that the two women were led downhill to the main square of the old town for their public execution. It can be seen by going upstairs to the Armaments Museum – which has some interesting examples of Socialist realist Art (both paintings and sculptures). The entrance to the prison is off this part of the museum.)

This is more sympathetic to the situation. They look like young women and have determination etched on their faces. It’s a head a shoulders view of the two women and they are joined by their hair. By doing so it tends to go against reality as Persefoni was much taller than Bule but here they are on the same level. However much I consider this to be a better statue there is an important aspect which I think is bizarre. That is the addition of the noose around their necks.

Why? It again defines the women by their deaths. This is just crass Catholic Christian imagery and should have nothing to do with Socialist Realism. If you were to visit Catholic churches in Spain and Italy you would encounter countless paintings and images where the Christian martyr would be depicted alongside the cause of his/her death, normally with an enigmatic look on their face. I don’t understand why this should appear in the country to have declared itself an atheist state, as Albania did in Article 37 of the 1976 Constitution. This is why there’s always a need for a Cultural Revolution to monitor how the society and its history are being represented. ‘People’s Heroes/Heroines’ might be martyrs for the cause of independence and communism but there’s a fine line between that and the idea of Christian martyrs.

There’s another image that seems to follow the approach adopted by Paskali and that’s an engraving by Safo Marko.

Bule and Persefoni

Bule and Persefoni

This is a triptych. On the left is an image of Bule involved in a demonstration in her home town. As a member of the youth groups this is what she would have been doing before heading for the hills and joining the Partisans. On the right is an image of a female Partisan, armed and marching through the hills. This could represent either of the women. The problem comes with the central, bigger panel.

Here the two women are depicted, in chains, standing before a very large tree, two nooses hanging from one of the lower branches. This repeats the Christian idea of martyrs together with the instruments of their death but with the added problem of creating a ludicrous scenario. They were killed in the main square of an old fortress town built there because what was in abundance was a lot of stone. No way could such a tree exist in that environment. The scene suggests that the murder took place in the countryside.

Another engraving, this one more in the spirit of Socialist Realism, is by Lumturi Dhrami.

Heroinat Bule Naipi e Persefoni Kokëdhima

Heroinat Bule Naipi e Persefoni Kokëdhima

Here we know we are in Gjirokastra with the image of the castellated tower on the horizon and the cobbled streets along which the execution party is walking, downhill towards Sheshi Çerçiz Topulli. The two women are in the centre foreground, one in profile the other looking out of the picture. There’s determination on their faces. They know what is about to happen but there’s an impression of ‘so what?’.

They are surrounded by German soldiers but also in the picture are Albanian collaborators, these would have been members of the fascist-nationalist of Balli Kombëtar who allied with the ‘nation of Aryans’ as they shared similar racist and anti-progressive beliefs.

There are also two paintings I’ve seen depicting Persefoni and Bule. The first one I’ve yet to identify the painter and I’m sorry it’s such a fuzzy image.

The 'Hanged Women' of Gjirokastra

The ‘Hanged Women’ of Gjirokastra

What’s interesting about this painting is that I’ve seen photographs where the image was being used in classrooms to tell children about the event in 1944. This is not an exceptional painting (although I’ve only seen a poor reproduction) but is simple in that we have four individuals, the two restrained women and two Nazi guards taking them to their execution. The castle walls form part of the background and in the foreground we can see the bayonet of one of the invaders, the greyness of the soldiers uniforms in contrast to the colours (muted but colours nonetheless) of the women’s clothing.

The final image I’ve come across is a painting by Pavllo Moçi simply called ‘Persefoni and Bule’ which is in the collection of the Duress Art Gallery.

Persefoni and Bule - Pavllo Moçi

Persefoni and Bule – Pavllo Moçi

This depicts the two women in a prison cell, holding hands as the door of the cell is opened by the Nazi guards to take them to their death. Persefoni is on the left and has her right arm in a sling. Bule is standing defiantly with her legs slightly apart as if ready to fight against all odds. Light coming through the door shines on them, highlighting them against the gloom of the cell itself, with the guard in shadow, all demonstrating where the future lies.

On the walls they have scratched the letters VFLP representing “Vdekje Fashizmit – Liri Popullit!” (“Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People!”) which can be seen on the Heroic Peze monument, at the junction of the Tirana-Duress road, and the Peze War Memorial in the Peze Conference Memorial Park, among others.

The two women defiant to the end!

Lavdi Shqiperise - Gjirokastra

Lavdi Shqiperise – Gjirokastra

One positive aspect of the location is that the two women are looking over towards the wall which forms part of the local government building. On this, picked out in large letters in relief, are the words ‘Lavdi Shqiperise’ – ‘Glory to Albania’ or ‘Long Live Albania’. Even though I had looked at this carefully it didn’t register that there’s something wrong. There’s a lack of symmetry. Why are the words so far apart and what is the ‘scar’ between them? It has been brought to my attention that the space (where someone has worked hard to obliterate what was there before) almost certainly contained the words ‘Partise se Punes e (Shqiperise)’, PPSH or the Party of Labour of Albania (PLA).

This is just another example of the vandalism that swept the country after the counter-revolution of 1990. The reactionaries still try to present themselves as patriots but if it were not for the Communists in the National Liberation Front in the war against fascism then the country would have only the sort of independence it has at present, that is, one where millions have to work abroad; foreign NATO troops crawl over the country like flies; local industry and agriculture is at a pre-capitalist stage; young Albanian women populate the brothels of Europe; and the country begs to be let into the ‘big boys’ club of the EU.

I’ve not come across this type of inscription (whether in its original or vandalised form) in any other town in Albania. It is partly obscured by trees and any vehicle that might be parked on that side of the square can block the view so it can be easily missed.

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All Together Now – and the Christmas Truce 1914

All Together Now

All Together Now

The statue ‘All Together Now’ is quite unique in that it is a ‘peripatetic sculpture’ that has been travelling around different parts of Europe since it was first unveiled in St Luke’s Church, in the centre of Liverpool, on 15th December 2014. St Luke’s is known locally as ‘The Bombed Out Church’ as it was hit be incendiary bombs during the Blitz of the Second World War and the shell that remained has, since that time, been left as a monument to those who died in aerial bombing. However, the statue doesn’t have any direct connection to anything that happened in WWII but to a significant event at the beginning of the First World War (sometimes described, for some bizarre reason, as ‘ The Great War’) and that is the so-called ‘Christmas Truce’ of December 1914 where soldiers of the German and British armies put down their guns and kicked around footballs in ‘No-man’s Land’.

The work of a Stoke-on-Trent sculptor called Andy Edwards it depicts private soldiers from both sides tentatively about to shake hands, each with a wary look on their face as this was going where soldiers rarely went. As a reference to the kick-abouts that followed this first contact a football sits on the mud between them.

The present statue is made of fibreglass and is in three parts to make it easier to be transported from place to place but there are plans for up to four bronze copies to be made if the money can be found. The first would go to Messines in Belgium, close to where some of these events took place, and one of the others would be set up in a public space in Liverpool.

(It is interesting to bear in mind that this project might struggle to obtain what is a relatively small amount of money (£200,000) when we consider that whatever government Britain will be cursed with after the 7th May 2015 the people of the country will be shelling out £30 billion plus pounds for the renewal of the Trident nuclear submarine fleet.)

The two men are approaching each other but it’s obvious they are not totally trusting of the other. There would have been few occasions when they actually shared a language as the fraternisation was, in the main, between men of the working class on both sides, many of whom would have been barely literate.

In an earlier model they were actually clasping each others’ hand but the final sculpture has captured the final moment just before that happened, their fingers only an inch or so apart. Their wariness is also shown in the way that they don’t look directly at one another and also by their stance, which is bent forward as if creating distance whilst at the same time they are about to touch one another.

This is really the maquette from which the bronze statues will be based and the final statue will be situated out in the open and this model felt strange inside a building, albeit in a large hall. It might have been better if it had been placed in the middle of the hall, with lots of space around it, rather than close to the stage. Also if it had been placed parallel to the windows then the light would have been more even and would have allowed visitors to get an idea of the detail rather than being blinded by the light behind the British figure.

It’s important to remember that the vast majority of those involved in this quite unique event would have been long-term professional soldiers. Very few volunteers, even those who did so in the first days of the war, would have received sufficient training, or even had been kitted out with uniforms and boots, to have arrived at the front less than 5 months after the start of hostilities.

What also has to be remembered was the idea that existed in Britain during those months was that ‘the war would be over by Christmas’ and many of the volunteers didn’t really think they would end up at the front. When they did arrive they were full of patriotism and love of King and Country, for which not an insignificant number of them were to die within the next four years (and is the slogan carved into the stone at the Menin Gate in Ypres). If the line had been full of volunteers they would not have had the same approach to the ‘Hun’ as the professionals. Volunteers would have been on a mission, something which the jaded men who had started to experience the new form of trench warfare, with its long periods of just being there and doing nothing interspersed with short periods of sheer horror, were starting to question.

One of the questions that has to be asked about the ‘Christmas Truce’ was why it was just that, over a few days at most and only a truce? If you don’t think it’s worthwhile killing other workers from another country on one day why go back to ‘business as usual’ the next? There had been some serious fighting in those first few months of the war but nothing like the carnage of the likes of the Somme or Verdun.

They could have just decided that perhaps those European political parties that had discussed the upcoming war in Stuttgart and Basle (in 1907 and 1912 respectively) were correct in calling upon workers to refuse to kill other workers for the sake of their respective ruling classes. They could have walked away from the front for good and left the officers to fight it out, at least it was for the interests of their class that the war was being waged. But lack of political leadership in both Germany and Britain meant that such mutineers would have felt isolated and would have been ostracised and pilloried back home. It’s no surprise that recent Labour Governments have taken the country to war (or supported wars when in supposed ‘Opposition’) when they can trace their roots back to the jingoists and warmongers of the early 20th century.

If we now move forward a couple of years we have to ask another question: Why was this not repeated? Why was there no real opposition to the war, either at home or on the front lines, when the situation was immeasurably worse than it was in the winter of 1914?

The enthusiastic volunteers at the start and, from 1916, conscripts joined what remained of the ‘professionals’ of the British Expeditionary Force but there was never anything comparable to the breakdown in discipline that was seen along such an extent of the Belgium trenches.

After experiencing the fear and the noise and the mud and the rats and the water and the gas and the shells and the hopeless charges and the death of friends and the incompetence of the leadership and the fatuous statements of the politicians and the hopelessness of their plight and the loss of hope of ever getting back to their families and loved ones and the despair of ever living a life again where pain and destruction was absent the British soldier never stood up again and said NO!

The only mutiny that took place amongst British forces wasn’t of the men who had ‘lived’ in the trenches but in a British training camp near the French town of Etaples. There the men who hadn’t even faced a gun fired in anger stood up and fought against the brutality of their own side, the sadistic Army trainers who considered their role in life to terrorise young men who had a one in three chance of not returning home at all or doing so seriously wounded, either physically or mentally.

I support the little that they did in September 1917 but why wasn’t there anything more significant carried out by those who had seen and suffered so much?

The only example where soldiers decided that they were merely being pawns in the hands of capitalism and imperialism and that they had had enough was the mutiny of the Russian peasants and workers who, in their hundreds of thousands, walked away from the front at the beginning of 1917. The difference here was that they had the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, the only signatory to the Stuttgart Resolution and Basle Manifesto who actually stuck to what had been decided long before the dogs of war were let loose. They then went on to make the October Revolution and start the long and arduous task of trying to construct socialism.

On the other extreme there were those who really enjoyed the blood lust that is war and when denied the opportunity to kill their fellow workers from other countries then turned against their own people. Germany produced the Freikorps who were involved in the murder of the revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and other Communists (in 1919) and who later morphed into the SA and SS of the German Fascists. Britain produced the Black and Tans who terrorised the Irish working class during the Irish War of Independence (1920-22).

So what’s the situation now, a hundred years after it was shown that war wasn’t really a part of human nature (if only for a short time)?

The supermarket chain Sainsbury’s purloins the story and makes an advert to attract shoppers through its stores at the busiest and most competitive time of the year – but it’s OK as any profits from the chocolate bar shown will be donated to the Royal British Legion.

The events of late December 1914 will eventually be swamped by the rest of the ‘celebrations’ about the war (I’ll never understand how we have got ourselves into a situation when we commemorate the beginning of a war), which will be going on for another three years yet, and will be forgotten when it comes to the anniversary of such fields of slaughter as the Battle of the Somme.

Scenes of the killing fields of Flanders and stories of what it was like to be in the trenches doesn’t seemed to have put off young people from joining the British armed forces, even though they can see what it is like for present day squaddies who have been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq – and the warmongers are gearing up for other conflicts. Some of those who are wanting to enlist are of an age that they can never remember a time when this country hasn’t been at war in the Middle East yet they’ll volunteer to go to war and a not insignificant number of them will come back suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Why don’t they see that they are fighting (and some dying) for control of oil or the geopolitical ambitions of the western capitalist powers?

At the same time as the country remembers ‘The War to End All Wars’ we are in the hypocritical situation of allowing the government of Britain to continue invading and causing havoc in country after country with no foreseeable end. (As an aside here I recently saw a map of the world and of the 196 countries that exist only 22 of them haven’t been invaded at some time in the past by the British!)

Adverts for the armed forces, which virtually disappeared when the British army was kicking in doors in Northern Ireland are now everywhere and with direct reference to fighting in desert regions of the world. And every year there is now Armed Forces Day at the end of June. This latter introduced by a Labour Government this all creates an atmosphere where war is a part of everyday life, a natural consequence of the world in which we live. Parents of soldiers who have died in combat are quoted as saying their children dies ‘doing what they loved’. What an infantry soldier is trained to do is to kill so why do we accept psychopathic behaviour as honourable if in uniform but punishable (in some parts of the world by death) in other circumstances?

Until we can come up with a solution to all those issue then ‘All Together Now’ will only represent what could be, even should be, but not what is.

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