Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery

Fier Martyrs' Cemetery

Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery

Many of the Martyrs’ Cemeteries throughout Albania are situated on hills, sometimes quite high hills, in the vicinity of the cities and towns. This is the case with the Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery which, when it was constructed, would have been clearly seen from the centre of the town, the area around Sheshi Pavarësia (Independence Square) and the Bashkia (Town Hall). Up to the 1990s the buildings weren’t that tall but subsequent construction of high-rise flats has meant that you don’t really see the cemetery until you’re almost upon it.

As you come to the cemetery from the northern side a residential road brings you to a small, now abandoned, white building – all fittings having been removed. This is too small to have been a museum that were normally situated near a cemetery (and anyway, there’s a proper Historical Museum in the centre of town, in a good condition, looking as if it has only recently been refurbished and with many fine exhibits from the Socialist period). The building must have some connection to the cemetery (perhaps a place selling flowers on special occasions, but that’s only speculation) as it wouldn’t have served many other purposes.

From this building there are a series of steps taking you to the lapidar and statue at the highest point of the hill. The graves are laid out to the right of the steps, with the tombs on two levels. The whole area is relatively clean, the tombs are undamaged, and although the grass is growing between the stone tiles and a little untidy around the graves it is obviously cared for, at least on an occasional basis.

Probably when the cemetery was originally laid out there would just have been a lapidar, although not the one there now. If we go back to the late 1940s and early 50s the lapidar would have been a simple affair, sitting on the highest point, with a star somehow attached to the highest point facing the approach steps or perhaps surmounting the pillar.

The present lapidar sits on a large, raised plinth and must be, at least, the second reincarnation with the area being improved at the same time the statue was added. But what you see today is not what would have been seen at that time in the early seventies.

I’m almost certain the plinth and lapidar are from the 1970s but they have recently been restored following years of neglect and vandalism. The people and the Bashkia (local government) of Fier made a decision, anything up to ten years ago, to recover and recognise the past sacrifices of local people in the National Liberation War. It was in 2010 that the new (and awful) Liri Gero statue was unveiled and the monument to the 68 Girls was given a new plinth. It would make sense to think that the cemetery was restored at the same time.

The top face of the plinth is covered with marble tiles, is in a very good condition and are in three colours – red, white and brown – with a simple geometric pattern all the way around. The concrete below is unadorned, but clean and undamaged, and raises the plinth about a half a metre above the surrounding area.

The lapidar itself is a simple tall, rectangular pillar, wider at the bottom couple of metres or so, and then soaring vertically upwards. Whether the original marble facing was stolen or just fell off due to neglect I’m unsure. Now it is covered in white and greyish marble slabs from the top to the bottom. The highest limit of the widest part is indicated by a frieze of narrow, red tiles. However, there’s been a bit of cost cutting as the tiles on the topmost part of the lapidar are only on the side facing the steps and half way on the right and left face giving the impression that the decoration is ‘functional’, that is, on those parts most people will see as they come up the steps.

Fier Martyrs' Cemetery

Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery

There’s also been a bit of cost cutting on the metal decoration on the main face. At the bottom there’s a large laurel branch with nine leaves. This looks to be treated sheet steel but there are signs of rust appearing at the joins of the leaves and the branch. Higher up the words ‘Lavdi Deshmoreve’ (‘Glory to the Martyrs) runs in large, golden letters vertically from the top down. From a distance this looks quite smart but once close up you can see that the letters have been made out of sheet steel, boxed, in three dimensions and then painted with gold paint. The elements are starting to take their toll and the paint is fading and rust is starting to show. At the top of the column, a few centimetres from the top, is a large, red, metal star – the symbol of Communism.

This is the first time, so far, that I’ve seen sheet steel used in the renovation of a lapidar. Whether the laurel branch would have been on the original I don’t know but the words ‘Lavdi Deshmoreve’ almost certainly would have, it’s universal on Albanian lapidars. But almost invariably the letters would have been made out of the more expensive bronze and it’s possible the originals had been looted and melted down for scrap.

The other component of the Fier Cemetery lapidar is a large (about twice life-size) statue of a female partisan. Being Fier, which still celebrates the bravery and heroism of Liri Gero and the 68 Partisan Girls, it’s not a surprise a female statue was chosen.

Fier Cemetery - Female Partisan

Fier Cemetery – Female Partisan

The figure stands on a solid block of concrete a couple of metres to the right of the monolith. Unusually, this statue has a name, ‘Liria fitohet dhe mbrohet me pushke’ meaning ‘Freedom won and defended by the rifle’. This is the implied meaning of most of the statues in such circumstances, taking its lead from a the revolutionary slogan of the Party of Labour of Albania, ‘To build Socialism holding a pickaxe in one hand and the rifle in the other’ – what has been gained by the workers is never guaranteed unless they are prepared to fight to defend them from all attacks, whether internal or external.

The statue is made of concrete and is the work of Gjergji J Toska and Qiraku Dano and was inaugurated in 1972 (or perhaps 1973). Toska was from the region of Myzeqeja, which is just to the north of Fier, between Divjake and Lushnje. In an interview he has said that where he grew up had an influence on his sculptural works. The sculpture took about 18 months to create and it was one of a number that had been commissioned for other cemeteries in the country. During the period when these type of sculptures were being installed in Albania it was normal for final approval to be granted by a local approval commission, in the early 1970s none such existed in Fier so photos of his work were sent to Tirana, where the work was well received.

Again there are elements that appear as a recurring motif. The woman is striding out as if she were climbing in the mountains, representing Albania and the fact that the Partisans used the hills as their base to attack the invaders and soon controlling the countryside, leaving the occupation forces surrounded in the towns.

In her right hand she holds the top of the barrel of her rifle, the butt of which is resting on the hillside next to her right foot. Although her weapon is a good representation of a bolt-action rifle it is much bigger than it would have been in reality. It would have taken, indeed, a true Amazon to fire such a weapon. But a weapon of such a size was necessary to allow the pose the sculptors have chosen to represent.

Her legs are as far apart as possible and she is stretching up to hold the top of the gun. Her left hand is stretched out behind, and above, her head to hold the right, top edge of partisan flag (and later to be the national flag of the country) with its symbol of the double-headed eagle with the Communist star above the heads. The top left corner of the flag is being held taut by having a fixed bayonet used as a short and temporary flagpole and the material is scrunched up in her hand so we don’t see the normal rectangle of the banner but more of a trapezoidal shape. The bottom right of the flag hangs down and partially covers her long hair, resting on her shoulder, a small triangle fluttering free. She has a determined look on her face and looks into the distance, to the left of her rifle.

Her limbs almost form an X, the right arm and left leg in a straight line, the other two limbs not doing so as her right leg is higher up the hill she is climbing. This gives the figure a sense of dynamism. She is moving forward as well as going up, going higher. Stretching she is pushing herself to achieve more. As a Partisan this is first and foremost victory in the National Liberation War against Fascism but in that war Communists were fighting to rid their country of the invaders but also in order to build a new society. And once the revolution is won it’s not possible to rest on your laurels. It’s difficult to make a revolution but it’s even more difficult to build a new sort of society – which will be constantly under attack from the capitalists, both in the country and from without, and more the powerful imperialist nations. So the task of a Partisan changes after liberation but it doesn’t get any easier – hence the title of the statue.

The Partisan is dressed in full uniform and has the red star on her cap and (what would have been) a red bandana around her neck. Around her waist she wears an ammunition belt.

Although it’s not immediately obvious from the front on looking at the back of the statue we see that her long hair is being blown over her left shoulder, indicating that a strong wind is blowing into her face. Another indication of being in the high mountains and suggests more movement as the flag would be fluttering.

Freedom won and defended by the rifle, GJ Toska and Q Dono, Fier (Martyrs' Cemetery) 1972

Freedom won and defended by the rifle

The statue looks to be in very good condition and has recently been painted, the paint showing few signs of wear but then I don’t think that Fier gets particularly harsh weather conditions at any time of year. As with most of these concrete statues they would not have been originally painted at all, just the unadorned concrete, but this is a general approach to the cleaning and renovation of monuments now in different parts of the country.

The grave of Liri Gero will be in this cemetery, but I was amiss on my last visit and didn’t identify exactly where it is. I will remedy that on my next visit.

Fier Martyrs' Wall of Honour

Fier Martyrs’ Wall of Honour

In some of the Martyrs’ cemeteries there’s a list of all those from the area who died in the war. However, this is not the case in Fier. On the first floor (which documents the period from pre-war years to 1990) of the Fier Historical Museum there’s a wall of remembrance, listing those from the Fier district who gave their lives for National Liberation. Although a recent creation it has all the aspects you’d expect from the Socialist period. The background is the Communist red and in the centre there’s a large black, double-headed eagle. Over the two heads is a golden star. At the very top are the words ‘Deshmoret e luftes antifashiste nacionalçlirimtare’ (Martyrs of the National Liberation War) in gold letters. And then, also in gold letters, are the names of 443 men and women from the Fier district – many more than are commemorated with a tomb in the cemetery.

Location of the Fier Martyrs’ Cemetery.

It’s best to arrive at the cemetery from the north, going up Rruga Skender Muskaj, from Rruga Jani Bakalli, and taking the first left along Rruga Koli Stamo – this brings you to the derelict building at the bottom of the steps.

GPS:

40.719541

19.56362402

DMS:

40° 43′ 10.3476” N

19° 33′ 49.0465” E

Altitude:

36.4m

Other lapidars in Fier.

So far I have been concentrating on the more elaborate monuments that come under the heading of ‘lapidars’ and which have been identified by the Albanian Lapidar Survey. To me that makes sense as the more ornate and complicated works of art have a story to tell and, although sometimes it has been difficult to find the information, it has been a pleasure trying to unravel what is before us. However, the vast majority of lapidars are more modest, but in their own way as important and significant a part of Albania’s history as the grand works of sculpture. More importantly all these small lapidars commemorate men or women who died fighting Fascism. Sometimes only two or three but even though they may not have been honoured as ‘Heroes of the People’ they were fundamental in the victory of November 1944.

In a sense the condition and evolution of the three other lapidars in the centre of Fier encapsulate the problem that Albania has in dealing with its past. Revolutionary Socialism never has been, and never will be, a State of all the people. For many reasons, class background, ideological and religious convictions, simple greed and selfishness there will always be those who will resist and use every opportunity to sabotage or undermine any achievements in a Socialist society. To all these negative factors have to be added the mistakes that the revolutionaries make, either out of ignorance, excessive zeal or even those who have infiltrated the Party in order to undermine its work, that exacerbate an already difficult task. And that’s before you have to take into account efforts by economically more powerful external forces to destroy a socialist society by whatever means possible.

This means that symbols of a past period are bound to be targets once the revolution loses support amongst a significant proportion of the population. In Albania the easiest target was the General Secretary of the Party of Labour for the majority of the time of Socialist construction, Enver Hoxha. As do all revolutionary Marxist-Leninists he believed in the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, a concept that developed from the concrete experience of workers in different parts of Europe seeking to build a society which was not based on exploitation and oppression. By presenting and arguing this ideological stance Hoxha was branded ‘Dictator’ by his enemies and detractors. It was to their advantage to try to make the concept, that has to involve the vast majority of a society to be successful, into a personal, individual matter.

But the idea of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ developed from the defeats that workers had undergone throughout history but especially from the late 19th century onwards. The thirty thousand men, women and children who were slaughtered in the last week of May 1871 at the end of the Paris Commune; the massacre of the Spartacists in Germany in 1919; the Civil War in Russia when the White forces were supported by 14 countries which only a few months before were sworn enemies; the interventions that Albania itself was subject to in the first years after liberation by the combined efforts of the British and the Americans all reinforced the truth that if the workers want to take real, and not just imagined, power (as is promised by Social Democracy and the ballot box) then they have to fight as much after the revolution as before it.

When we come back to the idea of the lapidars in Albania we see that Hoxha therefore become the easiest target. Public statues of him and the likes of the Memorial to the Berat Meeting of 1944, where he is a prominent figure amongst the fine sculpture where many tens of people were depicted (a sad loss), were destroyed in the early days of the counter-revolution. Now he is printed on mugs and pens in the souvenir shops of Gjirokaster or found as a small stone bust in small Albanian produce shops throughout the country – although a large bust of him is presently covered in a white tarpaulin in the ‘Sculpture Park’ behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana (or at least was in May of 2015).

The issue then becomes what to do with the other monuments, in the main commemorating those who died in the Anti-Fascist National Liberation War, in a country with such a small population that virtually every family would have had a relative amongst the country’s martyrs, within a generation or two. This meant that the majority of the monuments weren’t conscious targets of attack by reactionary forces but time, mindless and infantile vandalism and general neglect would play their part in erasing the country’s past.

There are a lot of questions which address this issue of identity, relationship to the past and how culture in general is seen in Albania today but that will take some space so I’ll return to that at a later date (or else this post will never end).

However, a part of that debate can be seen played out in the Fier lapidars.

Monument to the Three Martyrs

3 Martyrs - Fier

3 Martyrs – Fier

On the right hand side of the road, about 200m from Sheshi Europa Plaza (on the Fier ring-road) on the SH73 – the road to Berat – is a modest monument to three young men killed in the fight to liberate the city from the German Nazis. This is more typical of the lapidars around the country than those I have documented so far and if you didn’t know it was there it would be very easy to miss. Unlike War Memorials in the UK it is not common for there to be some sort of railing around the monument, not now nor in the past.

More typical but also on the modest side of typical. Some of the lapidars seek to impress as they soar skywards, although there may not be a great deal of ornament or decoration, but this one is minimalist and only stands about 2 metres high. So we have a simple, concrete monolith and on each side of that column there are two ‘wings’ which extend to just below half way up. It’s painted white (and fairly recently going by the condition) and the only other aspect of it is a marble plaque fixed to the top half of the facade. In most of these cases there would have been a red star but I could see no indication that something had been fixed just above the plaque (where you would expect to find one) so it’s possible that one was attached at the very top, normally a painted iron star attached by short, narrow pieces of reinforced iron. Whatever the situation in the past there’s no star there now.

Although it has been repainted there has been no attention paid to the plaque. The letters on the plaque had been cut out of the marble and then made more obvious by being painted in black. That has worn and it’s now very difficult to make out the words, especially if you aren’t good at the language and can’t make assumptions of what the words should be. In different places I’ve seen fairly badly delineated letters, perhaps more good intentions than skill, so this is something that has to be taken as it comes.

The most important point I wish to make about this lapidar is the fact that, to all intents and purposes, to most Albanians it doesn’t seem to exist. Obviously it exists as an entity but not for what it represents. On the day I visited this lapidar the area immediately around it was relatively clear. It sits at the side of a field where there is a small lay-by. When the ALS team visited it was holding up a moped and breeze blocks for some construction project were being stored right beside it.

3 Martyrs - Fier

3 Martyrs – Fier – photo by Marco Mazzi

Now, was this done consciously – that the people who were treating a war memorial as just a convenient post against which to lean their bike and therefore making apolitical statement – or unconsciously, not realising what it was and the bike and the breeze blocks had to go somewhere? Or are these small and unobtrusive lapidars just victims of their own simplicity, people don’t see them unless they really look?

Carved into the marble plaque are the words:

Më 27-VII-1944 ranë në luftën për çlirimin e qytetit të Fierit dëshmorët e Luftës Nacional Çlirimtare Tomor Dizdari, Orman Zaloshnja, Vangjel Gjini.

This translates as:

On 27-VII-1944, in the fight to liberate the city of Fier during the National Liberation War, the martyrs Tomor Dizdar, Orman Zaloshnja, Gender Vangeli fell.

At that time this area would have been considered well out of the town centre so, this is presumably the location where they actually died. So far I’ve been unable to find any more information about the three martyrs.

Location:

GPS:

40.71874003

19.56974097

DMS:

40° 43′ 7.4641” N

19° 34′ 11.0675” E

Monument to the 11th Brigade

11th Brigade - Fier

11th Brigade – Fier

This monument is right in the centre of town, not far from the Bashkia and at the junction of the street in which the Historical Museum can be found. This is a step up from the previous lapidar, displaying more architectural elements but without involving any sculptural elements. This particular lapidar also demonstrates the process, stated long ago and now again becoming a trend in parts of the country, of updating/upgrading/restoring/renovating the lapidars. Here the old has been demolished and a new created in the same location – and it’s almost a replica. But not quite.

Both consist of a platform, which has three steps on the right hand side of the long edge which continue on the right hand narrow edge. On this platform a monolith rises up to a height of about eight. On the left hand side of this monolith there’s a curved buttress at the bottom. It’s here where there’s a slight difference between the old and the new. On the old this right hand structure is joined by another rectangular slab of concrete which extends upwards about a metre over the first. On the new there is a space between these two components and the concrete in between is painted a deep red, which continues from under the curved buttress. On both the versions a concrete slab about 2 x 4 metres is placed at 90º to the lapidar.

Although there’s a possibility that the old has been renovated I don’t think this is possible, at least not for all of the structure. The platform has been faced on the lower part by false brick tiles, as have the steps. The top of the platform has also been covered with marble tiles. This would cover all the wear and tear of over 40 years on the concrete so that part might be part of the original. I don’t think this is the case with the rest of the lapidar.

11th Brigade - Fier

11th Brigade – Fier – photos by Marco Mazzi

Apart from the separation of the two slabs of concrete it all looks a lot smarter, the edges are sharper and I don’t think that can be achieved with a repair job (and would you put new, modern concrete on a crumbling forty-year old base? Also the slab that contains the letters appears wider than the original. Another difference is the red star on the facade that faces to the left. On the old this is larger and has greater depth whereas on the new it’s smaller and flatter.

The wording on the two versions is also slightly different. On the old the letters are just stencilled, in red paint, onto a white background – these were probably not the original but a later ‘restoration’. They are:

1 Nentor 1944 Brigada E XI-S

This translates to:

1 November 1944 S Brigade XI

S is for Sulmuese. This can be translated as assault, shock or guerrilla group. Units of the Albanian Partisan Army were not designed for mass, set battles. They could move fast and therefore weren’t as heavily armed as the Fascist opposition which ultimately secured them victory. It is one of those contradictions of war that the better equipped force can actually find that what appears an advantage on paper, in crucial circumstances, becomes a hindrance and bogs them down in a way that makes them vulnerable. The E? This is a grammatical device which seems somewhat redundant.

There are indications that there might have been more text or an image of some kind (on the edge close to the column) but there’s no way to work out what might have been.

The letters are almost the same, but not exactly, on the new. They are inlaid on a large rectangle of marble (a much more sophisticated presentation than the previous version) and read:

1 Nentor 1944 U formua brigada XI Sulmuese

This translates as:

1 November 1944 – the XIth Assault Brigade was formed

This is confusing to me. I believe that the 1st November 1944 is the date when Fier was liberated from the Nazis. The 11th Brigade would have been formed long before that as the whole of the country was liberated on 29th November of that year.

Location:

GPS:

40.72572702

19.55575199

DMS:

40° 43′ 32.6173” N

19° 33′ 20.7072” E

Monument to Petro Sota and the 1943 Nazi Massacre

Petro Sota and 1943 Massacre - Fier

Petro Sota and 1943 Massacre – Fier

The third lapidar in Fier is different again. It’s a simple monolith, which is made grander by being placed on a plinth, and is in the public park in the centre of the town. On the side facing the centre of the park there’s a marble plaque with an inscription. The park is now considerably smaller than it would have been when the lapidar was first installed as a huge chunk of it has been taken up by a large mosque. Considering that all the other lapidars in the town have been cleaned recently this one is showing signs of wear, although structurally sound, and the inscription – black paint in the carved marble – is showing signs of wear it’s still quite easy to read the words.

What makes this lapidar unusual is that it actually commemorates a person and an event. So far I haven’t come across monuments where the space is shared.

The first is recognition of another of Fier’s sons in the National Liberation War, Petro Sota. He became a Communist before the Italian Fascists invaded the country in 1939 and once the town was occupied he worked as a courier of information, news and materials for the liberation cause. He was a driver and had a certain amount of freedom to move around and with different ruses got around the roadblocks and checkpoints the Fascists imposed or order to maintain control of the town.

On one occasion he used a child sized coffin to bring in the Party newspaper and on another caused the Italian soldiers to follow him, allowing free passage for those who were bringing in contraband. He is remembered as when, in July 1943, things went wrong on a mission he was able to destroy sensitive Resistance material before being killed.

He is recognised in the top half of the inscription:

Petro Sota, vrarë më 13 korrik 1943 nga fashistët italianë duke kryer detyrën e ngarkuar nga njësiti gueril.

Which translates as:

Petro Sota, killed on 13 July 1943 by the Italian Fascists, carrying out tasks entrusted to him by the guerrilla unit.

The second half of the inscription asks more questions than it answers. This is:

Po këtu më 10 shtator 1943 nazistët gjermanë masakruan 45 qytetarë të pafajshëm

In English:

But here on September 10, 1943 the German Nazis massacred 45 innocent civilians

So far I don’t have the information that explains exactly what happened and why. This was just after the Nazis replaced the Italian Fascists, who had by this time effectively withdrawn from the war on all fronts. It’s possible the Germans wanted to stamp their mark on the country, knowing already the sort of fierce opposition they would face from the Communist Partisans. Also, exactly at this time the German forces were being defeated outside the village of Drashovice (in the Selenice valley close to Vlora) so it could have been a massacre caused by the Nazis’ frustration.

Whatever the reason 45 is a lot of people at one time and what surprises me the most is there wasn’t a more substantial monument to the event, as there is in Borovë and Uznovë. The names are not even listed, the event only meriting a couple of lines on a very modest memorial – and shared at that. Something to investigate.

The tally of Nazi five atrocities, in effect war crimes, in Albania that I have identified, so far, make the decision to establish a memorial to the German dead during their invasion of the country even more of a mystery, apart from establishing the fascist credentials (or at least forelock-tugging attitude) of past, post-1990 governments in Albania.

Petro Sota

Petro Sota

The reason for the lack of a memorial to those 45 people becomes even more confounding when we look at a statue of Petro Sota that was unveiled in 2014. I have the utmost respect for what Petro might have done during the Liberation War and I have no problem with the placing a bust of him in the town of his birth – but aren’t we forgetting priorities here? Another question for which there is, as yet, no answer.

This new stature is the work of Fatos Shuli (a sculptor I have not come across before and about who I know nothing) seems to capture the individual that was Petro Sota. His picture in Flasin Heronj të Luftës Nacional Çlirimtare (Heroes of the National Liberation War Speak for themselves) gives the impression that he was a dapper dresser before the serious work of ridding his country of the invaders got in the way. This idea of style is captured in the new bust but, I must admit, I question the priorities of the Fier Bashkia.

Location:

GPS:

40.72619397

19.55685496

DMS:

40° 43′ 34.2983” N

19° 33′ 24.6779” E

Liri Gero and the 68 Girls of Fier

Liri Gero - Tirana Art Gallery

Liri Gero – Tirana Art Gallery

Many monuments, statues and lapidars from Albania’s Socialist period have suffered over the years, through outright political vandalism or just neglect. However, there has been a bit of a sea change in recent years but this has not come without its own problems. Here I want to develop the ideas of Albanian Socialist Realist art by looking at two works produced to commemorate the life of a young partisan woman, Liri Gero, and also a work in commemoration of 68 young women who also left their home town of Fier to join the partisans fighting the Fascist invaders.

Liri Gero

Liri Gero

The first thing to know about Liri is the meaning of her name. Liri means Freedom, indicating her parents were at least nationalist, if not much further to the left, and possibly supporting the growing communist movement at the time of her birth. In a country that had a long history of fighting foreign invaders naming your children in such a way was making a political statement.

Soon after the country was invaded by the Italian Fascists in April of 1939 Liri, along with many other young people, started to take part in activities that opposed the occupation and assisted those actively fighting against the invaders, especially after the declaration of the National Liberation Front at the Conference of Peza of 1942.

However, as the struggle became more intense, and the betrayal by the collaborators and sycophants of the ‘nationalist’ Balli Kombetar (who were formed in November 1942 to cause confusion – the name literary means ‘national front’ – amongst the Albanian anti-Fascist masses) became a much more real threat, it was suggested that Liri leave her home town of Fier and join the partisans in the mountains, in the fighting war.

In any guerrilla war the struggle in the owns and cities occupied by the invaders is as important as that on the front line but when such activity ceases to be practical, or too dangerous for particular individuals, then the only way forward is to leave home and join the partisan army. Liri was one of many young women of her generation who did just that. Disguised as the bride in a wedding party she was able to leave Fier, which was then under the under the control of the Italians, in 1943.

Partisan çeta

Partisan çeta

In October 1944 Liri was part of a unit that attacked a German Nazi column in the vicinity of Fier. Although the partisans inflicted severe damage on the Nazis in this attack Liri was wounded and later captured. With just a matter of weeks before their final defeat (and when the war throughout Europe was going badly for the Germans, especially on the Eastern Front where the Red Army was moving ever closer to the German capital) the Nazis first tortured the 20-year-old and then poured petrol over her and burned her alive – and the reactionaries have established a Nazi war memorial in Tirana.

In volume 2 of ‘Flasin Heronj të Luftës Nacional-Çlirimtare (‘The Heroes of the National Liberation War Speak’) the collection that recounts the stories of many of those who gave their lives in the struggle against Fascism, her dedication, torture and death is described poetically:

‘When you go to the Cemetery (in Fier), under the name of Liri Gero you may think lie the remains of her beautiful young body, but this is not the case. It’s just a handful of ashes from her heart burned for the freedom of Albania.’

Being so young when she got involved in the anti-fascist struggle, and her equally premature death, she became a prime candidate to be singled out and immortalised in bronze during Albania’s Cultural Revolution. She would stand as an example to the young and it would also play a part in commemorating, celebrating and emphasising the role of women in Albania’s Socialist construction, in the past, present and future.

The sculptor chosen for the task was Mumtaz Dhrami, the sculptor who produced so many fine works during this period of artistic development in Albania’s Socialist period, including the monuments at Peze and the magnificent Arch of Drashovice.

(When I first published this post on the 29th October I mistakenly attributed this piece of work to another sculptor, Hektor Dule. These mistakes, unfortunately, will happen from time to time due to the difficulty of obtaining some of the basic factual information.

However, when I started to revise the text to show the facts I realised that this is all part of the different approaches to art in a socialist and capitalist society. Under capitalism the first question is who. Who produced it, as if that person is someone famous then the piece of art might be worth money, and with recent ‘investment’ in art a great deal of money. It’s for this reason a signed sketch on a paper serviette is worth a fortune just because the signature of Pablo Picasso is in the corner. It becomes valuable not because of its intrinsic artistic value but because of its association.

In Socialist Realism the most pressing question is what. What does it represent, what is it trying to convey, what does it mean to the people who see and relate to it, what role can the artistic object play in educating the people. And as those were the most important questions asked in a society attempting to build Socialism the artist as an individual became secondary. For that reason many of the lapidars and monuments in Albania don’t have any indication of who actually provided the artistic skill.

As we live in a world where individuals are praised way above the collective this creates a situation where some ‘artists’ consider that they are being hard done by, in comparison with ‘artists’ in capitalist countries. For this reason they start to grumble and for the same reason some have run away to the capitalist countries, not to have more freedom to express their art, not for the fame, but for the financial reward that they can receive in a different society from the one that nurtured, educated and trained them.

By being somewhat obsessed with getting the details of who might have created any particular piece of art I am also falling into the trap of bourgeois individualism. I find myself reluctant to post an article if it omits such information as it might appear incomplete. But that’s not the meaning of Socialist Realist art – it’s the message not the messenger.

In discussions about art many years ago, when Britain actually produced things rather than being a nation serving countless variations of coffee, it came up that those skilled engineers, for example, who could take a piece of raw metal and with their skills and experience turn it into a part necessary functioning of a complex machine, weren’t used to signing their work. Those who worked in agriculture didn’t sign their potatoes before they sent them to market, but if we didn’t have their skills then the vast majority of the population in so-called ‘developed’ societies would starve.

So why should an artist sign his/her work? Who is the most important in society? No society can produce or develop any sophisticated art unless they first are able to create a surplus of those things that society needs. All artists, in all societies, in all stages of development of civilisation rest on the shoulders of the workers. Why should one be named if the other isn’t?

To finish on this matter, before the whole post goes along too acute a tangent, what of those workers who took Dhrami’s ideas and turned it into the bronze object under discussion. Shouldn’t their names be noted – if the ‘artist’ were to have his signature somewhere in view?)

Liri Gero - National Art Gallery

Liri Gero – National Art Gallery

The statue is slightly larger than life-size but we only have her depicted from the thighs up. She is shown dressed as a Partisan fighter, not in full uniform as such but in a manner that allows no doubt that she is a full-time member of the fighting force. The pose is as if she were standing to attention and she presents a calm demeanour, serene and confident and clear about what she is doing. She wears a cap with the star of a Communist clear at the front.

The only images I have seen of her show her with long tresses, braided on both sides of her head and hanging down in front of her. I’m sure that, as a young woman she was proud of her hair but to go into conflict with such long hair is not a wise move and I would have thought that one of the first acts after joining her partisan çeta would be to visit the barber. None of the pictures of the guerrilla groups show the women with long hair. However, by depicting her with her long tresses Dhrami has made an easy reference to the photos that people would have seen in different museums throughout the country as well as in magazines and other publications produced at the time.

So she has a full head of hair, spilling out from under her cap, and the braids hang down and finish just over her breasts. Around her neck she has a bandana (yet another symbol of her communist affiliations) and she is wearing a thick woollen sweater. There’s a rifle slung over her back and her right hand is holding the strap of that rifle just over her chest. Around her waist she has ammunition pouches attached to her belt and on her right hip hangs a Mills bomb (British made grenade).

It is what she holds in her left hand which makes this statue stand out as one created with a socialist realist perspective. Her left arm hangs loosely down by her side and in her fist she has a bunch of flowers.

Liri Gelo - flowers

Liri Gelo – flowers

This is complimentary to the rifle. Socialism cannot be built, or maintained, without the rifle (symbolising force, or at the very least the threat of force) but the ultimate aim is a society without conflict. How long that will take is still to be decided and the twists and turns along that road are abundant. This idea of flowers in the hand of a young women prepared to use violence (and, for her, ultimately, giving her life) is part of a long-held view of communists, that we fight for bread (meaning freedom from exploitation and oppression, from want and the anarchy that comes with capitalism) but we want the roses too (a fulfilling and productive cultural life in companionship with others, and not just being spoon-fed the ‘culture’ that capitalism supplies, as long as it can make profit.)

I’m not exactly sure where the statue of Liri would have originally stood. Being made of bronze it was designed to be outside (and is still in a very good physical condition). There used to be a properly organised statue park in the area around the National Art Gallery and it would make sense that it was here the work was exhibited. If on a plinth it would have been minimal, just separating the statue from the ground, allowing the viewer the opportunity of being able, physically, to relate to the young heroine and her place in history.

Its location now is with other still extant statues that have come from different parts of the Tirana area. To the right hand side of the Art Gallery there’s a ramp and a service entrance to the building. This doesn’t seem to be used on a regular basis and is not an area that is cared for. When I first visited at the end of 2011 there was a shanty type hut but that has now been removed, but the area is in no way organised or what could be called an exhibition space. The area is dirty and the statues, although out-of-the-way, are not displayed in any manner that you would expect of works of art.

What I have described as the ‘Sculpture Park’ is really just a storage area for the statues. At one time they were all in a line, Liri amongst them but by the time of my visit in 2014 a new statue of Stalin had been added to the collection and Liri was moved so that she had her back to the building and was facing the other statues.

The Original Sculpture Park

The Original Sculpture Park

Also on my early visits it was possible to get close to the statues without any hassle but a vandal attack on the Soviet produced statue of Stalin and the Albanian (damaged) Lenin, with them having red paint thrown over them in 2011, has meant that visits are discouraged. That’s a pity as, although in a far from ideal circumstance, here it is possible to get an idea of different examples of Albanian Socialist Realist sculpture as well as being able to appreciate the noticeable differences from Russian Soviet interpretations with the black statue of Stalin – presented to the Albanian people upon his death in 1953.

So that’s the Socialist representation of a young woman who gave her life for her country and people.

As stated above Liri was from the town of Fier, which in socialist times was a major industrial centre – that’s all but gone now and is a place of industrial archaeology rather than industrial production.

Although the industry might have gone there has been an effort in recent years to remember and commemorate the past. As part of that Fier is one of the few towns in Albania that has a functioning museum, very recently renovated, where you can find information about the anti-Fascist war as well as some examples of Socialist Realist paintings and sculpture.

(I’ll be writing about the Fier Historical Museum in a future post but here I will just provide information about its location. It can be found in Rruga Leon Rei, which is about 200m west of Sheshi Pavarësia (Independence Square).

Location of the Museum:

GPS:

N 40.72448

E 19.55532

DMS:

40° 43′ 28.1280” N

19° 33′ 19.1520” E

Well worth a visit. Across the road from the museum is a monstrosity of a (at least in May 2015) half-finished and stalled private educational institute.)

As part of this recovery of the past the city decided to erect a completely new statue to Liri Gero – to the best of my knowledge there had been no local monument to her, other than her grave in the Martyrs’ Cemetery. This statue was inaugurated in 2010 and is located at the edge of a small park in the centre of the town.

Whatever the intentions behind its commissioning this modern statue of Liri is a ludicrous and hideous depiction of the woman who Liri definitely wasn’t. It’s the absolute antithesis of the example to be found behind the National Art Gallery in Tirana.

It’s wrong in virtually every way. The figure is similar to the Dhrami piece in that we don’t get the whole body, this one is from the knees up and it is also a little more than life-size. That’s the only things the two statues have in common. The first thing that strikes the viewer is that you get a crick in the neck to look at it close up. The bronze statue is on a plinth more than two metres high and its impossible for the viewer to have any connection with the young woman, she’s placed on a pedestal in the literal and figurative sense.

New Liri Gero Statue

New Liri Gero Statue

When we get to the statue itself we see no connection with the actual life of young Liri. It’s in a neo-classical style and a silky dress clings to her body, emphasising the female form, her breasts straining to break free of the material. A thin cord around the waist is pulled tight so that it accentuates the hour-glass figure of the torso. The dress itself is of a style that no woman, or even young girl, would have worn in pre-liberation Albania – and would draw a not too sympathetic attention today.

If her clothing is bad things get even worse when we look at her hair. The pictures of Liri show her with long hair, a style that would have been common with girls of her age at that time but here she is represented with hair of which Rapunzel herself would have been jealous. (With the wonders of the internet I’ve just had a look and you can buy Rapunzel wigs that must have been what the sculptor forced his model to wear.)

There’s so much hair!

Liri Gero - hair

Liri Gero – hair

Its crazy. This isn’t a young woman who was tortured to death after going to join forces with those wanting to free their country of foreign invaders. No, this is a young woman who’s going out on the town, has been to the supermarket for a bottle of cheap vodka and now intends to dance until dawn, as happens in many British towns and cities.

Whereas the Dhrami Liri is serene, confident, sure of herself the 2010 Liri is flighty, frivolous, would fit into the stereotype of a ‘dippy blond’ (Liri was dark-haired) and wouldn’t know how to spell Fascism let alone have the understanding to fight against it.

I don’t know why such a statue was commissioned by the Fier Bashkia (Town Hall) or what they were thinking about in paying for such a representation of one of the towns most famous daughters. It was good that the town wanted to have their own statue to her but did it have to be so alien to the actual woman herself?

To the best of my knowledge those who are responsible for this monstrosity are the ‘artists’ Haxhiu Kalluci, I Kasem and A Shuraj. How they divided up the work I don’t know but I would have thought that one, at least, would have to have concentrated on the hair – it’s a sculpture in its own right.

The best thing about the monument is the inscription on the front of the plinth.

We have the words:

Liri Gero

1924 – 1944

Heroine e Popullit = People’s Heroine

And a short inscription which reads:

Si flutura drejt drites shkon njeriu drejt lirise

This translate as:

‘As moths are drawn to the light so man is to freedom.’

Across the road is a monument to other brave Fier women. Obviously very well organised, in a town that was occupied by the Fascist invaders, on the 14th September 1943, under the cover of darkness, 68 young women and girls left to join the Partisans. Not only was the actual leaving of the town a dangerous activity they then spent the next few days walking all the way to Berat to join up with the increasingly more powerful and organised Communist led National Liberation fighters.

This quite exceptional (not just in Albania but other parts of Europe fighting against the Fascists) decision of such young women to take the path of the greatest resistance was celebrated in Fier with the commissioning of this simple but nonetheless effective sculpture. The plinth upon which it stands at present is new although the bronze bas-relief fixed to it has all the classic hallmarks of those sculptures produced during Albania’s Cultural Revolution.

Monument to 68 girls joining Partisans

Monument to 68 girls joining Partisans

As is normally the case there is no name or date on the sculpture itself so I have no idea who was the artist or exactly when it was inaugurated. As many of the sculptures of this period were commissioned to mark specific anniversaries I would hazard a guess that it was first shown to the public on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the women leaving the town, i.e., 1973.

Neither do I know if it is in the original location or whether it has been moved from somewhere else. (So many lacunae in the history of Albanian lapidars!) Although it does seem to fit where it is now the bas-relief design suggests that it might have been high up on a wall of a building such as the Bashkia – although that’s just speculation on my part.

What can be stated categorically is that it is in a very good condition. It hasn’t undergone any vandalism and the target of the reactionaries, the stars on the flag and the Partisan’s cap, are both intact and undamaged.

The monument consists of one female partisan depicted as if she is emerging from the national flag. The flag is fluttering in the wind and at the extreme left hand side, at the top, can be made out the double-headed eagle with the Communist star above the two heads.

The tips of her fingers of the right hand just brush against the eagle’s feathers as if this is what she is seeking to attain. She’s fighting for Socialism, for a future. Her whole stance is one of going forward, striving for something higher, reaching up to the stars. But to attain that goal she needs to use force, as such aims have never been attained without the use of arms. For that reason she holds a rifle in her left hand, gripping it just in front of the bolt.

Carved into the wooden stock of the rifle are the letters VFLP, signifying “Vdekje Fashizmit – Liri Popullit!” (“Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People!”). This has been seen on a few lapidars previously described, such as Heroic Peza, the Peza War Memorial and the Arch of Drashovice. This tradition of writing slogans on weapons was begun in the 19th century during nationalist struggles and was adopted by the National Liberation fighters in WWII. As well as other imagery, these letters on her weapon declare that she is a Communist Party member.

The young woman is shown in a semi profile and, as I have already said, she emerges from the folds of the flag so we really only see the top half of her body. She’s wearing a thick woollen sweater and around her neck she has what would have been a red bandana, together with the star on her cap a signifier of her political allegiance to the Communist cause. A full head of shoulder length hair pushes out from under her cap.

The bottom half of the bronze statue is fixed to a concrete block faced with slabs of red marble. The top half of the statue extends above the block creating the idea of the free-flowing of the flag and gives the impression that the young woman is almost flying, taking off from the block.

There are two inscriptions on the modern pedestal, on the front:

14 shtator 1943 68 vajza Fierake dolen partizane

‘On 14th September 1943 68 girls from Fier blossomed into Partisans’.

On the back:

Lule, yje për lirinë krenari për Shqipërinë

Flowers, stars for freedom, the pride of Albania

There are certain similarities to the work of Hektor Dule of the female figure which is in what used to be the National Assembly Hall in Tirana – the fluttering material, the figure seeming to emerge from, as well as being a part of, the national flag, together with the determination on the face of the woman.

Although separated by a road and barely 10 metres there’s a world of difference between this depiction of a female partisan and the travesty that is the new statue of young Liri Gero.

This close proximity of two different ideologies, two different world views, as depicted in art helps to understand both. The new Liri statue is populist in place of being popular, in the sense of presenting an image to which ordinary people can relate. It represents the young women as young women see themselves in today’s Albania, not concerned with their own national identity but aiming to ape the banalities of capitalist culture. In a sense it’s the result of the ‘celebrity culture’, the facile, the emptiness of present existence where individuals become famous for being famous, not for anything significant they might have achieved.

The new is brash, vulgar, noisy – it screams at you. But it has nothing to say.

The old is serene, dignified, full of symbolism and meaning.

I read an article where a near-contemporary of Liri and the other young women bemoans the fact that the young people of Fier today don’t know the story of what happened during the occupation. Not only do that not know they don’t want to know. They are so caught up in the accumulation of consumer goods, the search for the ‘good life’, that they don’t know where they got to where they are now. But neo-liberalism doesn’t want people to remember the past, if they did they might want to change the future. Already the crash of 2008 is being forgotten – to be remembered when the next one comes along. And if you can’t completely forget the past – as has been the attempts in the destruction of lapidars and statues throughout the country over the years – then you can distort history so that any meaning is taken out of the images.

If there’s a tragedy surrounding the life of young Liri Gero it’s the way that life, and its violent end, is being ‘celebrated’ in the 21st century.

Location:

About 50 metres south from Sheshi Pavarësia on Rruga Ramiz Aranitasi

GPS:

N 40.724719

E 19.557984

DMS:

40° 43′ 28.9884” N

19° 33′ 28.7424” E

Altitude:

24 m