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

4 thoughts on “Gjirokastra College Bas Relief

  1. Thanks for this. Thanks for the description of the statue in the castle too. When the time comes there’ll be plenty of material for an exhibition of socialist art in Albania.

    Did you see the tekke just south of Gjirokastra, with a tomb of a bektashi holy man ? (On the net, it’s called the Asim Baba tekke.) And if you did, did you see the rows of what look like chicken hutches on the mountainside just to the south. I was told that Enver Hoxha had them built as houses for roma people, who he detested. I wonder whether it was true. The person who told me wasn’t gloating.

    • One of the common aspects of all those socialist societies that collapsed in the final years of the 20th century is that they all get blamed for all the ills of capitalism (as well as for the mistakes made under the time of socialism). I’m not surprised at that. After all this is just part of the propaganda war against any society that seeks to create a life where the majority, and not the minority, benefit. Therefore all lies and calumnies are heaped on the shoulders of socialism. The problem is that too many people are gullible and believe any garbage they are fed.
      This is the case with the idea that Enver Hoxha ‘detested’ the Roma. Where’s the proof? Just some hearsay. In the years when the country was attempting to construct socialism I can’t remember substantiated claims being about racism because I don’t believe it was a problem.
      The internet allows, nowadays, anyone with a critical function to investigate this. I did and will bring two reports to your attention.
      To quote from the first one:
      ‘Before the 1990s the situation of Roma was quite similar to the rest of the Albanian population. They worked in different state sectors and incomes of their families were on the same level as incomes of the majority of the population. After the 1990s, however, the situation of Roma people in Albania grew critical; most of the Roma people lost their jobs because of the privatisation of the state industry. The democratization process that developed in Albania and the period of transition caused an economic catastrophe for Roma families. Some factors influenced the conditions of Roma in this period in particular, for example, the competition on the free trade market and labour market and migration.’ 
      http://www.politeia.net/Newsletter/politeia_newsletter_45_may_2007/quarterly_theme_roma_in_europe/the_situation_of_the_roma_minority_in_albania/
      Even the UN agrees:
      ‘During the socialist period, improvements in housing, education, health care and social services of the Roma were evident. In the rural areas, they found employment in agriculture and farming. In the cities they worked in construction, public services and handicraft sectors (Taho 2002). Their status relative to the Albanian majority improved.’
      and
      ‘With the collapse and closure of state enterprises, and due to the lack of skills, low educational levels, and discrimination, Roma moved from a state of a relative well being to extreme poverty during the post-socialist transition period. They are currently the poorest and the most marginalized ethnic group in Albania (De Soto and others 2002). Studies have shown that their level of poverty is two times higher than among ethnic Albanians, while this condition is further deteriorating (De Soto and others 2005). The decline of Roma living standards during the post-communist transition has affected this group in a more significant way than it has for other groups of the population. This downfall has created a vicious circle of poverty, which produces illiteracy and low educational levels among Roma that further intensifies their marginalization in the society.’
      http://ccs.dogpile.com/ClickHandler.ashx?ld=20150501&app=1&c=info.dogpl&s=Dogpile&rc=info.dogpl&dc=&euip=79.76.243.195&pvaid=b34cf29505ee46c1a469e1a9c1c29326&dt=Desktop&sid=1830193568.999174835772.1430500761&vid=1830193568.999174835772.1402909476.330&fcoi=417&fcop=topnav&fct.uid=dd3d3d58dbe24d7aba4f4da1c2db054d&fpid=27&en=0WEFU%2fZhSoTF%2fFm%2bpLeuVl4UPZzISdzyg%2baGYj7N8ISb7M1aTnzzgA%3d%3d&du=europeandcis.undp.org%2f…%2fFile%2frbec_web%2fvgr%2fAlbanian_Roma…&ru=http%3a%2f%2feuropeandcis.undp.org%2fuploads%2fpublic%2fFile%2frbec_web%2fvgr%2fAlbanian_Roma_Report_english_reduced.pdf&ap=4&coi=771&cop=main-title&npp=4&p=0&pp=0&ep=4&mid=9&hash=EAFE525B2E2E31C5BAE2FE54D31160F2
      (That’s a ludicrous address, isn’t it?)
      So, in less than 5 minutes I was able to come across proof that during the time of socialism the life of the Roma improved. Since the restoration of capitalism their conditions have spiralled downwards. Who, then, detests the Roma?

      • Hi, and thanks. There’s quite a lot more on the web, actually – on the roma in Albania under socialism generally (e.g. their resistance to the attempted ‘homogenisation’ of the Albanian people) and specifically on the roma in Gjirokastra (e.g. their difficulties after the end of socialism when landowners reclaimed the land that had been taken from them, where roma people had since settled), but it’s difficult to know how much to believe. Any or all of the writers might be consciously or unconsciously writing to conform to some extent with a pre-established narrative, they all seem to be viewing Albanian society as privileged outside observers, etc, etc. In any case, none of them have anything to say about those lines of hutches on the bare hillside you can see to the left of path as you approach that tekke.

        I found it hard to believe what the person with me said about them, and I’m sure he didn’t mean it as a full account. He spoke some English, I spoke very little Albanian, and I imagine he was simplifying things for both of our sakes, maybe his perception had been affected by his close relationship to the tekke. Had it defended the roma ? Had it fed them ? Had it resented their presence ? Had the tekke been a centre for roma devotion ? As I said, he certainly didn’t seem to be gloating. Was he adapting the story to fit what he thought i thought ? Did the special status of Gjirokastra come into it ? The hutches had a strikingly ephemeral look (no gardens, no real streets, no square…), and it occurs to me that they might have been only meant as temporary. Maybe they’d wanted to clear some site outside the town for a few days for a fair or something ?

        ‘Homogenisation’ is a redo;ting-sounding word, but it isn’t hard to appreciate why something of the sort it should have been felt desirable. The far north east (Bajram Curri, Kukes..) still felt like a law unto itself when I was there in about 2002, and in Korce I saw a roma man and boy with a dancing bear.

        If you go to Saranda, you could have a look at what I was told had been meant as a socialist model farm, about five miles out of the town on the left-hand (inland) side of the road.

      • Dear Michael thank you very much for collecting this part of our history and culture (and for not being one more voice in the defamation chorus about that period).
        Just to show how ludicrous this propaganda can get, an American tourist in her blog about Albania explained the promenades Albanians do in the evening in most cities, as a custom born during communism by “people trying to exchange messages about the regime”.
        I mean, why should a nation promenade for half century exchanging messages and never protest? Even once.

        If you are interested about why Albanians did what they did during socialism, why they became the only Atheist country in the world and why they became the extreme opposite after the 90′, as well as a deeper background context, write me.

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