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.

Monument to Heroic Peze

 

Monument to Heroic Peze

Monument to Heroic Peze

Looking like a cross between a pistol and a huge road sign, the Monument to Heroic Peze sits at the junction to the village of Peze, along the old road between Tirana and Durres. This huge block of concrete, in its imagery and words, tells the story of the important role that this small village played in the war against fascist occupation (both Italian and German), the formation of the National Liberation Front and the concept of People’s Power.

The monument (Monumenti kushtuar Pezës heroikë – Monument dedicated to Heroic Peze) was inaugurated in September 1977, on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the Albanian National Liberation Conference in Peze (the village being only 6 km from the junction where there are other monuments to the fallen, the local guerrilla unit and the conference) and is the work of sculptors Mumtaz Dhrami (who was also involved in the creation, among others of Mother Albania in the National Martyrs Cemetery in Tirana and the Monument to Independence in Vlora) and Kristo Krisilo. It symbolises the struggle and glorious history of the people of this region led by the Communist Party of Albania (which became the Party of Labour of Albania during the period of socialism) in the war for liberation of the country against Italian and German Fascism.

Inauguration of The Monument to Heroic Peze

Inauguration of The Monument to Heroic Peze

The engraving above, by Fatmir Biba, records the inauguration in 1977

When I first saw this monument in 2012 it was just plain, undecorated concrete but between then and November 2014 it had been whitewashed and then certain images, principally the stars, the double-headed eagle and some of the text, have been picked out in red and black paint. When I first saw this change in the fate of the Monument of Dema, near to Saranda in the south of Albania, I thought this was just a local change in attitude, care and maintenance rather than disregard and vandalism, but this is obviously a much more extensive approach towards the patrimony of the country.

On the edge facing Tirana

On this part of the monument there is less of a story rather more a symbolic representation of what the struggle meant to the Albanian people. From the right hand side, that closest to the main road, there’s an image of a woman facing in the direction of Tirana, seeming to look into the distance towards the capital. She’s an older woman from those normally found on such monuments, as you can make out the creases in her forehead and also her dress is not of a combatant, more of a woman of the countryside, with a scarf covering her head and on both sides of her face. Is she, possibly, a representation of Mother Albania?

It’s not quite clear but she seems to holding the top end of the barrel of a rifle in her hand. That fits in with the many other images of armed women in Albanian Socialist Realist Art and it would be somewhat strange if this is the rifle of the man to her right.

Next we have the heads of three men, all of whom are looking in the direction of the village of Peze. Are we getting here a link between the capital and Peze? Without the conference and the anti-Fascist organisation that resulted in it the chances of victory and the liberation of the capital would have been reduced.

These heads represent the unity within the country, from the Communist (who is closest to the woman and whose star on his cap is now painted red and who has a bandolier across his shoulders) to the facial characteristics of Albanians from different parts of the country, symbolising that victory was a nation wide achievement. For such a small country and tiny population there are a huge number of distinctive facial differences between those in the north and those in the south. The third male from the woman also seems to be wearing a sheepskin collar to his jacket (similar to the separate, standing individual on the other side).

In front of them a disembodied hand holds high what looks like a bayonet, again pointing in the direction of the village. In front of this are the words, in Albanian, “Populli në këmbë, partia në ballë” that mean: “The People standing up, the Party in the vanguard.” And next to these words a large star, now picked out in red.

Underneath the faces are the words: “Lavdi Pezës heroike ku u vunë themelet e Frontit Nacional Çlirimtare dhe të pushtetit popullor”, which translate to: “Glory to Heroic Peze – where were laid the foundations for the National Liberation Front and People’s Power.” The larger, first words now also painted red.

The facade towards Durres.

From the left the letters VFLP, now picked out in alternate red and black, an initialism for “Vdekje Fashizmit – Liri Popullit!” (“Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People!”) a slogan and an oath which Partisans used to express their unity of purpose.

Then there’s the slogan in Albanian: “Historia e Pezës dhe e popullit të të gjithë kesaj krahine është një histori e lavdishme që do të na frymëzojë në shekuj” which means: “The story of Peze, and of all the people of this province, is a glorious history that will inspire us through the centuries.”

Then there’s a male Partisan fighter, standing with one leg higher than the other as if he were climbing a mountain. His right hand is raised above his head in the revolutionary salute, with the clenched fist. He is wearing a cap with a red star (but this hasn’t been picked out in red with the recent painting). The butt of his rifle, the barrel of which he holds in his left hand, is resting on the ground. His shirt is open at the neck and hanging from his shoulder, on a strap across his chest, is a water bottle. Around his waist he wears a bandolier holding spare cartridges and on his right hip rests a British made Mills bomb (fragmentation grenade). His jacket seems to lined with sheepskin as it looks like a fleece showing where it is open.

To his left is a çeta (guerrilla unit) of 12 marching towards Peze, both in the sense that they head to the village which is 6 kilometres from this junction and also to the buildings depicted on the monument itself. The face of the topmost of the group, towards the back, has suffered damage and only half the face exists. There’s only one woman Partisan and she is in the middle with a light sub-machine gun in her right hand, relaxed downwards as they are not in a combat situation. Not all the weapons of the group are shown but one of the male Partisans, in the middle, has his rifle raised above his head, extending over the heads of those in front and behind him.

There are faint red stars (again not picked out in red since the recent painting) on most of the caps worn by the group, including the cap of the female. The fourth male from the front carries a pole and the flag flutters over his head. On this flag there’s the double-headed eagle and star – but again these are faint and haven’t been highlighted in the recent cleaning/renovation.

In the arms of one of the leading males is a woman, in the traditional dress of the time, with her face very close to his. This is, presumably, his wife as just behind and below her is a young boy in the process of running to his father.

They have just come from Peze which is represented by the a few buildings up a hill side, towards the front of the monument. Superimposed over the houses is a large (now) red star, providing the accolade that was given to Peze during the time of socialism – Red Peze for having played a pivotal role in the formation of the National Liberation Front. Underneath are the words “Pezë,16 shtator 1942” which translate as: “Peze, September 16, 1942”, the date of the Conference. The name of the village is now painted red and the date in black.

The narrow facade facing the main road.

This is a battle scene. On the immediate left is a depiction of the double-headed eagle, with a large red star above the heads. The eagle has been painted black and the star a bright, crimson, revolutionary red.

To the right of that is the battle scene itself. This is not really that easy to make out, this edge facing more or less north and never really getting the sun on it to bring out the shadows of the relief. Also, because of its northerly aspect it has been subject to more weathering, not serious damage as far as I could see, but there’s staining that would come from the dampness staying on that part more than the two larger faces.

First there’s a male Partisan, down on one knee and in his right hand he holds a stick grenade (almost certainly ‘liberated’ from the Nazi invader and now being returned to the rightful owner) which he’s just about to throw. In his left hand he holds a rifle which is pointed in the direction of the enemy. He’s bare-chested, his shirt flying out behind him as he puts all his effort in throwing the bomb.

On his left, close together and all pointing and firing their rifles in the same direction, are 4 Partisans, three male and one female. The second male wears a fez cap, typical of the people from the area at the time, and the woman of this group wears a cap, which would normally have a red star on the front but it’s difficult to make that out due to the weathering. They are on a slight diagonal going up from left to right.

Behind this group stands a male partisan with a rifle, but not one that is firing at the enemy. He is looking back and I can’t make out at what, if anything. It also looks to me that there may be a flag attached to his rifle which is flying back over his head. This might represent the call for others to come and join the battle.

To his left there is a woman fighter firing a machine gun supported on a tripod. Behind her and barely visible is another fighter wearing a conical, felt hat typical of the north. His rifle is over her left shoulder pointing in the direction of the enemy.

I’m not sure if it’s just the weathering but above her head it appears to be the image of a building, if so this would be a representation of a building that would have been normal in Peze at the time of the beginning of the war – virtually all of Peze was razed to the ground during the National Liberation War.

GPS:

N 41.25917103

E 19.69045102

DMS:

41° 15′ 33.0157” N

19° 41′ 25.6237” E

Altitude: 63.4m

Getting there by public transport.

There are regular buses (every ten minutes or so during the day) leaving from the centre of Tirana which have the destination of Ngoc. The Tirana terminus is a short distance from Skanderbeg Square on Rruga Karvajes, opposite the German Hospital and just a few metres east of Rruga Naim Fresheri. Cost is 40 lek. Just wait by the side of the road, just a short distance up the hill, to go back to Tirana. This route also passes the road that leads to the cemetery where the grave of Enver Hoxha is located, in Kombinant. The bus that goes off the main road to Peze is less frequent and details can be found on the post for the Peze Conference Memorial Park.