Gjirokaster Martyrs’ Cemetery and the 75th Anniversary of Liberation

Gjirokaster Martyrs' Cemetery - 18th September - Liberation Day 75 years

Gjirokaster Martyrs’ Cemetery – 18th September – Liberation Day 75 years

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Gjirokaster Martyrs’ Cemetery and the 75th Anniversary of Liberation

Details about the lapidar, and some of the history, of the Gjirokaster Martyrs’ Cemetery (ALS 376) were posted some time ago. However, on the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Gjirokaster from the Nazi occupation I was fortunate enough to be, again, in the city.

The Nazi’s were forced from the city by the Partisans, under the leadership of the Albanian Communist Party (that was later renamed as the Party of Labour of Albania) on 18th September 1944. That date is still considered important, even through all the changes and the anarchy that hit Gjirokaster significantly during the 1990s, as the main street in the new town is still called Bulevard 18 Shtator (18th September Avenue).

On that date in 2019 a small celebration was organised both at the cemetery itself and in the theatre in the new part of town – but much less than it would have been during the period of Socialist construction. However, the event did follow certain aspects which were common of such occasions between 1944 and 1990.

There was a march from the centre of the new town to the cemetery (which is on the edge of town on the national road that heads towards Tepelene (and hence Tirana) in the north and the Greek border at Kakavija towards the south) where a short ceremony took place and this was followed a short time later by a cultural performance/speeches in the town’s theatre.

As I have said this was very low key, the rest of Gjirokaster carrying on life as normal, something which would not have happened in the past. Such an anniversary would have been a public holiday and the celebration would have been much more formal and with events taking place all over the town.

However, there are a few points I would like to emphasis from my observation on the day, which include how things were done in the past and how they were done in 2019.

It was obvious that those who still identify themselves with the Socialist past in Albania were those who wore a red scarf around their necks. This was part of the ‘uniform’ of the Partisans. This I have pointed out in many descriptions of the lapidars which have appeared on the page under the heading of the Albanian Lapidar Survey.

The military presence existed but on a much reduced level – just really a couple of officers in regular, i.e., not dress, uniform. Whether it was seen as an obligation I can only surmise. During the Socialist period the military presence would have been in the form of the People’s Militia which consisted of both men and women.

Proud Relative

Proud Relative

The tradition at ceremonies in the Martyrs’ cemeteries always consisted of children from the Young Pioneers standing at each of the tombs and during the ceremony a single red carnation would be placed on each tomb. As time passed it would obviously mean that many of the martyrs would not have any surviving relatives who might be able to place flowers on the tombs. By having the Young Pioneers do so, in a formal and organised manner, it meant that none of the anti-Fascist fighters were forgotten and left out. In 2019 it was again young people who brought baskets of flowers and then placed a single flower on each tomb – but these were older children, in their teens, rather than the younger, primary school children, who would have carried out the task pre-1990. (But someone ‘forgot’ to count the tombs as at the end of the flower distribution there were still quite a number without a flower.)

Child distributing flowers

Child distributing flowers

There was very little ‘formality’ during the 75th Anniversary celebration at the cemetery. People tended to mill around rather than stand in any formal manner. If you want to draw comparisons then the fact that this is being written on 11th November provides an easy and almost direct comparison.

At 11.00 on Remembrance Sunday (in the United Kingdom) in the centre of London at the Cenotaph there will be a very formal presence of politicians and aristocracy. After the Minutes’ Silence there will be a very formal and organised laying of wreaths and then a march past of veterans. To do otherwise in Britain would cause an outcry of indignation from various sectors of the population and media. For people to just walk by and see who had left the wreath at the Cenotaph during the Minutes’ Silence would be considered disrespectful. That was virtually what was happening in Gjirokaster on 18th September 2019.

I’m not saying that is either good or bad. It’s just to remind readers that countries have various ways in commemorating their dead in past wars. It should also be remembered that, in theory if not really in ultimate practice, in the early 1940s the so-called ‘Allies’ were supposed to be fighting on the same side and that the defeat of Fascism was the aim of all the countries. So perhaps people should remember this when they start to make judgements on the past in Albania.

Without significant help from any other army of the major warring Allies the Albanian people were able to liberate themselves from both the Italian Fascist and German Nazi invaders. In some respects that was their greatest crime – at least in the eyes of the British and the Americans. It meant they weren’t beholding to any external power and would fight to maintain the independence they had gained on 29h November 1944. It was for this reason that the British threatened and made attempts at ‘regime change’ in Albania even before the sound of the cannon fire had disappeared in the distance.

But back to the ceremony on 18th September 2019.

One small event that caused a local stir was the presence of an older man who help a portrait of Comrade Enver Hoxha, in a glass frame, high above his head in front of the images of the eight heroes/heroines of Gjirokaster depicted on the lapidar. He drew the attention of the media present as well as a number of onlookers. Though a single incident it was good to see that the spirit of the past still exists within the city.

Holding Enver High

Holding Enver High

Hopefully, readers will be able to get an idea of the event from the pictures in the slide show below.

Event at the theatre

Much of the celebration that continued in the theatre an hour or so after the ceremony at the celebration went over my head as a non-Albanian speaker. However, it was possible to get the general tone in that the Liberation of the town from the Nazis 75 years previously was still an event that needed to be remembered and commemorated.

(This is despite the fact that in Tirana Park, in the capital, there’s a monument to the Nazi fallen – put there to please the so-called democrats of Germany and, no doubt, in a bid to curry favour with a principle player in the European Union – which Albania is desperate to join and which (even though it goes against all the logic of the EU Constitution). This is likely (bizarrely) to happen in the not too distant future. High level talks are taking place in 2021 – when the rest of the EU is starting to implode – and the only reason I can see for this is the huge mineral resources that have so far remained untapped in the (at the moment) relatively inaccessible part of the north east of the country. But how many other countries that fought the Fascists in the Second World War have monuments to the dead of the invaders?)

As part of this celebration there was a small exhibition of Socialist Realist Art in the entrance to the theatre – examples which are included in the slide show below. Some of these had been brought down from the Museum in the Castle for the occasion – and can be seen in the badly maintained and positively dirty museum at present. Others seems to have come from storage – as was the picture of Persefoni and Bule, the two so-called ‘Hanged Women of Gjirokaster’, two young, Partisan women, in their early twenties, who were publicly hung in the main square in the old town on July 17th 1944. This particular picture has been added as an update to the post on these two brave young Communist fighters.

Persefoni and Bula - G Modhi 1966

Persefoni and Bula – G Modhi 1966

Also in exhibition was a brand new, and very fine, tapestry of the Liberation which, I assume, was made specifically for the 75th Anniversary. The artist has signed their name SC – but I have no further information to date.

18 Shtator 1944 - SC - tapestry

18 Shtator 1944 – SC – tapestry

Update on the cemetery

I took the opportunity of a quiet moment to have another visit to the cemetery to try to get an idea of what the Anti-Fascist National Liberation war was all about. I had missed them in the past but was slightly surprised to see that (although there are many young people remembered on the tombs) there were two children of 14 (Sulo Hysi (1929-1943) and Kristo Cavo (1929-1943)) and one 16 year-old (Celo Sinani (1928-1944)) who also fell in the struggle for liberation.

Kristo Cavo

Kristo Cavo

I have been having difficulty in tracking down someone in Gjirokaster who might know exactly who is represented amongst the eight heads which are depicted on the lapidar. In the cemetery there are a few tombstones which carry a red star as well as the name of the individual. These will be officially Heroes of the People. Two of those, Bule Naipi (1922-1944) and Persefoni Koadhima (1923-1944) are the so-called ‘Hanged Women of Gjirokaster’ and are the young female faces on the lapidar.

I am assuming that of the other Heroes of the People whose tombs are in the Martyrs’ Cemetery – Themo-Vasi (no dates), Celo Sinani (1928-1944) and Muzafer Asqueria (1918-1942) – might well be also depicted on the panel but if so I’m not sure which they are.

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Restoration of ‘The Albanians’ – National Historical Museum, Tirana – or not

Facade - National Historical Museum - Tirana
Facade – National Historical Museum – Tirana

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Restoration of ‘The Albanians’ – National Historical Museum, Tirana – or not

For the second time in less than a decade the facade of the National Historical Museum in Tirana is obscured by scaffolding and sheeting. As on the previous occasion (in 2012) the reason is, supposedly, for the renovation of the ‘The Albanians’, the huge mosaic that celebrates and commemorates the struggle for independence through the ages, the victory over Fascism and the construction of Socialism.

Under normal circumstances such work would be a cause for celebration. The mosaic is a wonderful example of Socialist Realist Art and captures the spirit of the nation at the time it was created in 1982. However, this Albania in 2021 and nothing is that simple.

The present work in progress also asks a number of questions. If, indeed, there was work done in 2012 to repair the damage caused by time and the weather why was it so badly done that it has to be done again nine years later? Was the ‘restoration’ of 2012 nothing more than an excuse to cover up the revolutionary work of art at the time the country was ‘celebrating’ the hundredth anniversary of Independence from Ottoman rule? Events would have taken place in Skenderbeu Square and for the present capitalist rulers of Albania the image of the mosaic as a backdrop to the sham celebrations would have been an ‘inconvenience’.

What was certainly the case was that chunks of the mosaic seemed to be dropping off at an alarming rate and the more pieces that fell the weaker the the rest of the structure would become. Structural damage was obvious as soon as the scaffolding was removed short after November 2012, adding credence to the ‘conspiracy theory’. This situation was pointed out in a post on this site two years ago in September 2019.

As with many of the monuments that were identified in the Albanian Lapidar Survey (many of which have already been described on this blog) ‘The Albanians’ has suffered from both conscious neglect as well as episodes of political and cultural vandalism.

Then

The Albanians Mosaic - National History Museum, Tirana

The Albanians Mosaic – National History Museum, Tirana

and up to 2020

'The Albanians' - Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

‘The Albanians’ – Mosaic on the National History Museum, Tirana

At the beginning of this century one of the five original creators of the mosaic (Agim Nebiu) was paid to destroy his own creation. So much for the integrity of the artist. During that act of destruction Nebiu changed three significant aspects of the original design. He removed; the large, gold outlined five pointed star that was behind the head of the central female figure; the small golden star that was situated between the heads of the doubled-headed eagle (that being the official flag of the Peoples’ Socialist Republic of Albania); and the book from the right hand of the central male figure, replacing it with what looks like a sack (the book would have represented both education and the written works of Enver Hoxha). In the process Nebiu created the most amazingly shaped flag.

So the question I’m posing here is ‘What sort of restoration will be carried out this time?’ The chances of the original imagery and intention being re-created is only marginally more likely than that of an ice cream surviving very long in Hell.

But there are further possibilities of ‘re-writing’ history. The War of National Liberation against the invading fascists, first Italian then the German Nazis, was led by and principally carried out by Albanian Communists. This fact is indicated by the images of the red star on the headgear of the figures on the right of the mosaic. As has happened on a number of lapidars these red stars could be made to ‘disappear’ and therefore ‘deny’ the Communists the victory.

There’s obviously a change going on in the official approach to the Socialist Period in Albania. The present (September 2021) ‘Archive’ exhibition of Socialist Realist paintings and sculptures in the National Art Gallery, the covering up of those paintings that have, for years, formed the permanent exhibition in the gallery and the closure of all the rooms and galleries devoted to the National Liberation War in the National Historical Museum itself all seem to indicate that the involvement of the Communists in the war is going to be completely obliterated.

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Monument to Communist Guerrillas – Korça

To Communist Guerrillas

To Communist Guerrillas

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Monument to Communist Guerrillas – Korça

This lapidar consists of a bronze statue, half body, starting just below the waist, around about twice life size. The statue stands on a plinth, which is about one and half metres high. This plinth and statue are part of a general structure, the background of which is a huge, stylised flag – the dimensions of the backdrop are (very roughly) 4 metres high, 3 metres wide and ¾ metre deep. All the stonework will have a base of concrete and is faced with slabs of white-ish marble.

The statue is of a young man, who, by his posture, is moving towards his right, his head facing in that direction and with a determined look on his face. In his right hand he is holding a pistol. This could well be a Berretta M1915 (which was used by Vasil Laçi in 1941). His left arm is stretched out behind him, all the fingers on his hand spread wide, a stance to provide better balance for his intended action (which is an ambush on foot).

A Berretta M1915?

A Berretta M1915?

The gun in his right hand is not facing the target but is as if he has just pulled the gun from out of his clothing and it’s in the process of swinging around so that it will eventually make a straight line from the tip of the barrel, through both his arms to the tips of the fingers of his left hand.

There’s also the impression of movement from the fact that the scarf that he has around his neck is loose and it is flowing over his left shoulder. The left side of his jacket, which is unbuttoned, is also flowing out behind him providing the impression he’s rushing towards his right and the clothes are slightly lagging behind his body’s movement.

This is a statue of a young man with relatively short hair and of someone who’s living in the city as there are no elements of traditional Albanian dress in his clothing.

On ‘flag’, above its head and to the statue’s right, is a plaque which has the words;

Me mirnjohje njësitit gueril të Korçës të rinjve komunistë Midhi Kostani, Kiço Greço, që dhanë jetën për lirinë e atdheut.

which means

With gratitude to the guerrilla unit of Korça, the young communists Midhi Kostani and Kiço Greço, who gave their lives for the freedom of the homeland.

Not the original inscription

Not the original inscription

However, this does not look like the original inscription. Just above the marble plaque there are a number of holes as if this is where individual, metal letters would have been attached to the wall. This was the more usual method of attaching an inscription. So far there’s no way of knowing (destroyed records during the counter-revolution of the 1990s) what the original description might been.

This takes on a specific importance here as information from other sources indicates that this statue was created by Kristaq Rama, and that it is supposed to be that of Vasil Laçi, who attempted to assassinate Victor Emmanuel III, in Tirana, in 1941. No confirmed date for its creation but probably mid-1970s.

However, Vasil’s name is not one of the two that are inscribed on the plaque.

He did have a connection with Korçe – his brother lived there – which is possibly one of the reasons why he may have been placed in the city. There’s no other reason why he should be where he is because he came from area around Sarande, in the south of Albania, and he spent some time before the assassination attempt in Tirana.

(If this is, indeed, a statue of Vasil Laçi then it’s not a surprise that he has been ‘written out of history’. Albanian authorities, in some – but by no means all – towns and cities in Albania have been attempting to obliterate the Socialist past and a statue commemorating an assault on the life of the puppet monarch from Fascist Italy might not fit in with the brown nosing that takes place in Albania towards the capitalist European Union.)

This statue is in very condition, as is the stonework which is part of the lapidar and there is no obvious damage in the marble facing – which is a pleasant surprise.

Location

In the main, pedestrianised street, Bulevardi Shen Gjergji, of Korca, next to the main city library.

GPS

40.61808201

20.77824402

DMS

40° 37′ 5.0952” N

20° 46′ 41.6785” E

Altitude

868.1 metres

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