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.

Traditional Musicians and Dancers

Gjirokastra - Musicians and Dancers Bas Relief

Gjirokastra – Musicians and Dancers Bas Relief

Although there are many monuments and statues that are overtly political, in that they commemorate events or people involved in national liberation struggles (whether that be against the Ottoman Empire or the Italian and German Fascists of World War Two) other aspects of Albanian life are also represented in various locations throughout the country. As Gjirokastra, in the Socialist period, had become the centre for periodic folklore festivals it’s not surprising to find a frieze depicting traditional musicians and dancers located there.

This is easy to miss. It’s on Rruga Gjin Zenebisi, just a couple of hundred metres further up the hill from the Partisan Memorial, on the left just before the road enters the main square (Sheshi Çerçiz Topulli) of the old town.

The artist is Ksenofon Krostaqi, who was also involved in the magnificent obelisk to education which is higher up in the Old Town. It was completed in 1983, the same year as the Monument to the Partisan. That year was the fortieth anniversary of the liberation of the town from the yoke of fascism and this prompted a certain amount of celebratory sculpture.

The frieze is composed of white blocks of lime stone and the carvings of the characters look in good condition. The stone is blackened around the edges (this is north facing and will be cold and damp for much of the year) and apart from a few missing blocks the memorial is intact.

It depicts eight different individuals, all in ‘traditional’ dress’. (Here I use the term ‘traditional’ in the sense of the sort of dress that was common before the influence of western fashion took hold in the early years of the 20th century. However, even during the National Liberation War against the fascists, from 1939-44, many people in the countryside would have been regularly wearing items of this style as can be seen, for example, on the Peze War Memorial.) I’m not an expert on Albanian dress, and all areas have their own variations, but I would assume that this is the style of dress typical, at some time in the past, of the Gjirokastra region.

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival - Historic 02

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival – Historic 02

On the right hand side are four musicians. The one on the extreme right is playing what looks like a violin. I can’t find any reference to the violin being an Albanian favoured instrument – perhaps, again, the increasing influence from the west. All foreign imports into a culture are not necessarily negative if they fill a gap missing from the indigenous culture. (Consider the use of the guitar in Central American and Caribbean music.)

In front of him (all the musicians are male) the player holds a defi (a large type of tambourine) high above his head. Next is a young man playing a surlja (an early type of clarinet) with the bell pointed up to the sky. The very end of the instrument is missing, indicating that – for whatever the reason – some of the top stones are missing. The final musician plays a lahuta (which derives its name from the lute), also know as a saze in the south of the country. This is sometimes played with a bow but here he is strumming the strings. Such a small ensemble of players was quite common in Albania and we can see that being represented (with a slightly different combination of instruments) on the Durres War Memorial. All the men are wearing what looks like the traditional (almost all-Albania wide) xhakete (waistcoat) and tirq (long woollen trousers). On their heads they wear a qylafë, a high woollen hat which is typical of the south of the country.

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival - Historic 01

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival – Historic 01

The other four characters depicted are the dancers, two male and two female. They are in the combination of female, male, female, and finally male and are all facing in the same direction, that is towards the left hand edge of the sculpture. The first three are holding hands which are positioned at shoulder height. The final male is waving a handkerchief above his head in his right hand. There is obviously a missing block of stone here which means we can see the hand holding the handkerchief but not the whole article itself.

In Albania many of the dances take their name from the region where they originated or are popular but the way these four are dancing is very reminiscent of the Greek Tsamiko (or Zorba’s dance, before he fell over drunk). That would make sense in Gjirokastra as the city is not that far from the border with Greece and influences have passed back and forth over the centuries. From my research both the men are wearing a fustanella (a skirt like garment) over a tirq with an ornate xhakete. The women are wearing what I think is the xhubleta, a long dress together with a long, free-flowing coat. All the dancers and the musicians are wearing opingas, the soft, fabric based shoes with the narrow point at the toe bent up into the air.

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival - Historic 03

Gjirokastra National Folk Festival – Historic 03

So why this monument here, on the road side in Gjirokastra?

After the liberation of the country from the Fascists in 1944 one of the many aims of the new people’s government was to improve the intellectual and cultural life of the population. Illiteracy was almost universal so education was a priority. Along with that came a recognition of the preservation and promotion of the Albanian culture through which the people could express their identity.

National Costume 02

National Costume 02

Being a predominantly agricultural society traditional – that is pre-20th century – music, dance and dress were still very much part of people’s lives. However, before 1945 there weren’t any professional theatres whatsoever in the country. The Party sought to remedy that and by 1951 the number of public performances were four times greater than they had been in 1945.

National Costume 01

National Costume 01

This was helped by the holding of the National Festival of Song, Music and Dance held in Tirana in 1949. It was repeated ten years later in 1959. In 1968 it was decided to hold the National Folklore Festival in Gjirokastra and, further, that this should be an event to take place every five years. This was the case until things started to fall apart in 1990. In 1995 the festival was held in Berat but returned to Gjirokastra in the year 2000. The last event was held in 2009 and the next is due, back in its traditional home of Gjirokastra Castle, from the 10-15th May 2015. (The ‘every five year’ schedule being missed.)

National Folklore Festival site, Gjirokastra Castle

National Folklore Festival site, Gjirokastra Castle

I don’t know how well this festival will be attended both in terms of participants or spectators. During the period of Socialism folklore dancers and musicians would appear on the streets of all the towns of the country during the nation’s celebrations (such as Independence and Liberation Days in November as well as May Day) as well as during various congresses held by the Party of Labour of Albania (PLA) or other workers organisations, such a the Trade Unions or the Women’s Union. Under capitalism these events, if they take place at all, are not celebrated en masse as they used to be and have not come across such events in my travels in the last few years

The depopulation of the country in general and some of the smaller villages in particular would also have had an impact on the continuity of the tradition which is vital to maintain a thriving and vibrant culture. It will be interesting to see what happens in three weeks’ time.

Spring in Gjirokaster - Gavril Priftuli - 1976

Spring in Gjirokaster – Gavril Priftuli – 1976

Practical Information:

If you want more information on the up and coming event in May then click here. It’s not ideal as it’s in Albanian but you might be able to squeeze out the information you require.

GPS:

N 40.07580

E 20.14172

DMS:

40° 4′ 32.8800” N

20° 8′ 30.1920” E

Alt: 286m

Partisan Memorial – Gjirokastra

Partisan Memorial - Gjirokastra

Partisan Memorial – Gjirokastra

Most of the monuments in Albania are not complex works of sculpture. Many are simple columns, with inscriptions, some of those being quite small. These are known as ‘Lapidars’ in Albania. (‘Lapidar’ doesn’t have a direct translation into English although ‘monolith’ is a possibility – and might even have a German root.) In between the monumental and the columns are stand alone statues and structures and the Partisan Memorial – Gjirokastra, is one of those.

Many of the monuments are either of concrete or bronze but this one is of stone. On close examination, and especially after being cleaned up, the stone is almost certainly limestone. The statue is composed of large blocks to create a shape that looks like the forearm of a human with a clenched fist. Carved into the facade facing the road there is the torso and head of a partisan soldier (male). Because of how it’s constructed I would have assumed it was carved in situ. The sculptor was Stefan Papamihali and it was inaugurated in 1983. Papamihali was also a collaborator, together with Ksenofon Krostaqi and Mumtaz Dhrami, on the education obelisk higher up in the Old Town.

There’s just one individual depicted on this monument. He’s a Communist Partisan, in winter gear, dressed in a heavy overcoat with a thick sweater underneath. On his head is a cap with a star at the front. He’s looking straight out at the viewer. He has both his hands on a light machine gun which is held against his chest.

Partisan Memorial - Gjirokastra

Partisan Memorial – Gjirokastra

To his left, and virtually on his shoulder, is the symbol of the double-headed eagle with a star between the two heads. On most monuments that image is usually part of the national flag but here they seem to stand alone.

Above him, at his right shoulder, is the date, in numbers of ’24 12 1943′

This was the date when the town was finally liberated from the German Fascists. The majority of the surrounding countryside in the south of Albania was liberated in the early months of 1944. Commemorating, as it does, such an important event I’m not sure why it’s not in a more prominent location, in the main square for example.

Below the image, carved into the stone, are the words:

‘Qyteti i gurtë mbeti në shekuj kala për liri’.

My translation for this is:

‘The Stone City Castle has been a symbol of freedom for centuries’

‘Stone City’ is one of the nicknames for Gjirokastra from the traditional buildings of the old town which used stones for the roofs as well as the structure of the houses. The ancient Castle dominates the city and this end of the valley and recognisable from miles away.

Gjirokastra

Gjirokastra

In general the monument is in a good condition apart from the fact that someone has had a go at his nose and the left nostril has been broken off. (Noses are vulnerable on stone statues, there’s one of Uncle Joe in Moscow that has a chunk missing from the nose.) A number of other monuments in Gjirokastra haven’t fared so well.

Partisan Memorial - Gjirokastra

Partisan Memorial – Gjirokastra

I’m not too sure is this is as a result of vandalism or more of an accident. On other monuments the first things to be attacked are the stars, but the two on this statue are undamaged. There’s an element of weathering but that would have been taken into consideration by the sculptor, taking into account the location. It’s facing in a northerly direction and there’s quite a lot of rain in this part of the country in the winter.

This is a fairly unique style and design for an Albanian commemoration of the Partisans and the victory over the Fascist invaders. In the work of Dhrami and Krisiko, on the different monuments at Peze, for example, you can notice the development of certain motifs.

The simplicity of this statue gives the impression of solidity and determination but, as is always the case in Albanian iconography, the freedom that was fought for can only be maintained by being prepared to use arms. As Mao Tse-tung said: ‘Political power comes from the barrel of a gun’.

One aspect of ALL the statues and monuments to the Partisans in Albania is that the individuals are always confident, heads raised, prepared to take on the enemy and face the difficulties of the struggle. That goes for both the male and female partisans. Compare that with the representation of the partisan in the capitalist countries, for example the Manzu monument to the partisan in Bergamo, Italy.

Since my first visit to Gjirokaster this memorial has been cleaned and looks a lot better as the black weathering has been cleaned off. All the monuments and lapidars in Gjirokaster are in a better shape than they were a few years ago, as can be seen with the bas-relief outside the high school. But this is not the first representation of a Partisan to have existed in Gjirokaster.

Gjirokaster Partisan Lapidar - earlier version

Gjirokaster Partisan Lapidar – earlier version

I have no details (as of now) about this memorial but assume it was located in the same position as the existing one.

The text reads, in Albanian:

24 Dhejtor 1943

Gjirokastra e gurte me grushtin e hekurt goditi gjithmone armiqte mbeti ne shekuj kala per lirine dhe piedestal per bijte.

This translate as:

24 December 1943

Gjirokaster, with the stony ‘iron fist’ to smash its enemies, has remained, over the centuries, a stronghold of freedom and an example to our children.

(Slightly more poetic than the statement on the present memorial.)

It’s not unusual, in the history of Albanian Socialist Realist sculptures, for there to be changes and modifications to the monuments as the society moved forward. This can be seen in the evolution of the statue in Skhoder of the ‘Five heroes of Vig’ and also in the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Borove. What is strange here is that the ‘new’ statue develops the original idea and seems to be larger in scale. However, the original was itself a fine piece of art and it seems a tragedy that it should have been destroyed (if, indeed, that was the case) just to make way for a newer and larger piece. If it had to make way for the new why not place it in the Castle Museum?

If the reason for its replacement is unsure the timing is understandable. 1983, the date on the present statue, was the 40th anniversary of the Liberation of the city. It seems that in the lead up to that date a number of new monuments appeared in the town, the stone bas-relief of the musicians and dancers and the obelisk to education being two examples of this.

Enver Hoxha - Entrance to Gjirokastra

Enver Hoxha – Entrance to Gjirokastra

Location:

The statue is at a bend of the road (Rruga Gjin Zenebisi) that heads up to the old town. If coming from the south, from Permet or Saranda, it’s the first road up on the left as you come into the Gjirokastra city limits and the monument is about 300m from the junction. There used to be a bust of Enver Hoxha (picture above) close to that junction but that would have been destroyed in the counter-revolution of 1990. This would have been opposite the most severely vandalised bus stop I think I’ve ever seen which is almost a work of art in its own right.

GPS:

N 40.076256

E 20.14575097

DMS:

40° 4′ 34.5216” N

20° 8′ 44.7035” E

Altitude: 261.4m