An Austrian in Albania

I WISH THAT I had taken a photograph of it when I was visiting Tirana, the capital of Albania, in 1984, the last year of the life of its long term dictator and admirer of Josef Stalin, Enver Hoxha (1908-1965). I managed to get at least one photograph of a statue of Stalin in Albania, the only European country that still displayed monuments to this by then mostly discredited Soviet dictator. However, in May 1984, I failed to take a picture of something I have never seen outside Albania or in Albania when I revisited it in 2016. What I failed to record on film was the sight of men walking along the streets with heads of flowers whose stems they were holding between their teeth. Their lips were hidden behind the blooms. I mentioned seeing this to several people who have visited Albania, and none recall seeing flowers being carried that way. So, I was beginning to wonder whether my memory was playing tricks as time passed.

A few days ago, I was browsing the bookshelves in an Oxfam charity shop when I noticed a travelogue that contained a few pages about the author’s experience of Albania, which he visited several decades before my first encounter with the country. I was thrilled and relieved that my memory had not failed me when I read the following words he wrote:

“The inhabitants of Tirana love music and flowers. You can see men going around with roses in their mouths. They seem to use them as an extra buttonhole.”

These words, translated from German, were published in the “Frankfurter Zeitung”, a German newspaper, on the 29th of June 1927. They were written by its journalist, the Austrian novelist Moses Joseph Roth (1894-1939), better known as ‘Joseph Roth’. The book in which I found his articles on Albania is “The Hotel Years”, edited and translated by Michael Hoffmann and published in 2015. The anthology of Roth’s writings covers countries, to mention a few of them, including Austria, Hungary the USSR, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Albania.

Roth visited Albania in 1927 and published six articles about it between May and July that year. He mentioned the love of music in Tirana. This observation relates to both the mandolins played mainly by Albanians who had unaccountably, in his opinion, returned to their country after having lived abroad, mainly in the USA, and to military bands.  During his sojourn in the capital, he notes the seemingly endless army exercises and parades that are carried out throughout the day.

By Cora Gordon, 1927

With regard to the Albanian army, it was his impression that they were poorly equipped:

“Now the army has Austrian rifles and Italian ammunition, bullets that jam, magazines that can’t be clicked in, British knapsacks that can’t be secured with Italian straps, covers for field-shovels and no field-shovels with which to dig trenches, Italian officers who don’t know commands in Albanian, …”

And, he asks:

“For whom do they exercise? Surely not for their country? Because half the country is unhappy with their government – for reasons of idealism.”

Reading this, made me wonder why Roth was sending reports from Albania between the end of May and the end of July in 1927.  Near the end of his largely unflattering description of the country and its people, he wrote:

“Albania is beautiful, unhappy, and for all its current topicality, boring.”

Although Albania is anything but boring for me, I was curious about its “current topicality” during those months in 1927. Roth’s readers probably knew, but that was long ago.

I looked at various issues of the “Times” newspaper of London and other sources to discover what might have interested the world’s press in Albania at the time that Roth wrote his articles. On Monday, the 6th of June, the Times noted that diplomatic relations between Albania and its neighbour Yugoslavia had broken down. On the 27th of May, Mr Juraskovitch, an interpreter at the Yugoslav legation in Tirana, was arrested and his house was burnt down (www.jstor.org/stable/25638310?seq=1). Naturally, the Yugoslav government objected. On the 31st, Tzena Beg, an Albanian representative in Belgrade, explained to the Yugoslavs that Juraskovitch was an Albanian citizen and that compromising documents had been found in his possession. Mr Sakovitch, the Yugoslav chargé d’affaires, disclaimed all knowledge of this and demanded the release of Juraskovitch. Hussein Beg Vrioni, the Albanian Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that his case was purely an internal matter. On the 4th of June, the Yugoslav legation was withdrawn from Tirana. The following day, the Albanian government declared that it was taking the case to the League of Nations.

On the 5th of June, the “Times” noted that many Albanians feared that this diplomatic incident would create anxiety and unrest in the country, and many felt that the flames were being fanned by a third party with a great interest in Albania, Italy. According to “The Annual Register, Vol. 169- for 1927” Italy had:

“…sent to Berlin, Paris, and London a Note calling attention to alleged preparations on the part of Yugoslavia for an immediate invasion of Albanian territory. The crisis had arisen as the result of the arrest by the Albanian police of a certain Jurascovich, charged with espionage on behalf of the Yugoslav Government. Refusal to release the alleged spy led to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Minister from Tirana, and to the Italian Note. The matter was, however, satisfactorily settled between Italy and Yugoslavia.”

Eventually in November 1927 after much Italian antagonism to the French and their cordial relations with Yugoslavia:

“ … the Italian Government published the text of an Italo -Albanian Treaty of defensive alliance.”

This was not the first attempt to forge an alliance between Italy and Albania as is illustrated from the following quote from “The Annual Register”:

“Relations with Italy and Albania were disturbed at the end of 1926 by the first Tirana Treaty and became more strained in March, 1927, when the Italian Government addressed a Note to the Great Powers (Germany, Great Britain, and France) accusing Yugoslavia of military preparations against Albania.”

Thus, Albania was being dragged gradually into the strong influence that Italy held on it until the Second World War had begun.

Roth travelled to Albania around about, or just after the Juraskovitch affair had begun. This might have been one reason for his visit. Another thing that might have attracted his attention, which was reported in the “Times” of the 10th of June 1927, was the growing unrest of many Albanians, particularly in the north, resulting from dissatisfaction with the government of Ahmed Zogu. However, by mid-July, a couple of weeks before Roth’s last article about Albania, the two countries, Albania and Yugoslavia, had come to a more or less satisfactory settlement of the Juraskovitch affair.

My surmise is that Roth came to Albania not out of curiosity but in connection with the diplomatic incident and the strained relationship between Albania and its Slav neighbour. My impression is that the urbane Roth cared little for what he observed during his time in Albania. His description of his arrival sets the tone for much that appears in the anthology of his Albanian travel writings:

“ … the hut, like so many attractions these days, has a guest book; sitting over the book is a man in a black uniform, rolling himself a cigarette, and this is the Albanian border police. A master of the alphabet, but unused to writing, he sits there whiling away the time of new arrivals by painstaking scrutiny of their passports … I cut short his study by offering to set down my name for him … Workmen are repairing the road. There are always two hunched over together … they collect little scoops of sand on their tiny shovels or in their bare hands, pour it into scars and potholes, sprinkle a few stones on top … and stamp it down with their bare feet …”

Roth also remarks on the telegraph wires linking Durres with Tirana. They were:

“… strung not on masts, but on crooked trees, which have been lopped and cropped. They used to stand by the wayside, a home to birds … now they are redesignated as telegraph poles … equipped to transmit journalistic reports – the twitterings of political sparrows – to Europe…”

Whereas Roth’s descriptions of Albania in 1927 are hardly flattering to the country, some other travellers, who visited it that year, published a far more flattering account in the same year. The travellers were Jan Gordon (1882-1944) and Cora C Gordon (née Turner;1879-1950), who wrote and illustrated a book called “Two Vagabonds in Albania”. It is amongst the best books I have read about the country. Unlike the critical and disapproving Roth, they take a delight in what they observed and convey that beautifully in their text and the illustrations they created.

Roth would be amazed by the changes that have occurred in Albania since his visit in 1927. I was also staggered by the changes I saw between my first visit in 1984, when I saw men with flowers in their mouths and motorised vehicles were few and far between, and 2016 when Tirana had become a modern city with traffic congestion and tall buildings to rival those found in any of the world’s large cities.

Hidden in the rocks

MY FASCINATION WITH MILITARY bunkers began after visiting Albania in 1984, when the country was stilled being ruled by the last regime in Europe that still revered Joseph Stalin. Tiny Albania was surrounded by potential enemies, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Italy across the Adriatic. Having had his country invaded many times in the past, Albania’s dictator, Enver Hoxha (who ruled between 1945 and 1985) was determined to make the country as impregnable as possible. One approach that he adopted was to cover (literally) the entire country (towns and villages included) with small (and large) concrete bunkers, many of them were hemispherical in shape. As Albania was never invaded after 1945, the effectiveness of these concrete structures that looked like a severe rash of pimples was never put to the test.

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Bunker at Torcross

The same can be said of the numerous concrete bunkers that were constructed in many strategic places all over England before and during WW2. Fortunately, the Germans never managed to invade the UK, with the exception of the Channel Islands. Judging by how useless the Maginot Line proved to be in France, I suspect that the British bunkers would have been fairly useless had the Germans invaded.

Today, we visited the tiny hamlet of Torcross in south Devon. It lies at the southern end of the long causeway that separates the sea from Slapton Ley, a large freshwater lake. While sitting at an outdoor table on the sea front at Torcross, I was staring at a picturesque rocky outcrop when I noticed what I thought was a rock with a rectangular slit cut in it.

Looking more closely using my camera’s zoom lens, I realised that the slit was really there, but it was cut in something that was not rock, but a thick concrete wall. The wall looked identical in texture to the rocks surrounding it. I realised that what I was looking at is an old bunker that ovelooks the long stretch of Slapton Sands, which is on the sea side of the causeway. It overlooks what would have been a perfect beach for a foreign invasion force to land.

In fact, the stretch of beach known as Slapton Sands was used by an invasion force in 1944. It was not a hostile force belonging to the Axis powers, but a friendly one used by Allied troops. The troops, mostly Americans, were using Slapton Sands to practice or rehearse the planned landings (on D Day) that were about to take place in Normandy as a prelude to recovering Western Europe from German occupation.

As I have described in another post, the rehearsing Allied troops were attacked by German boats, resulting in the tragic deaths of over 700 young Americans. The Germans, based in France, attacked the beach at Slapton Sands because they had picked up very busy radio signal activity in the area. Luckily for the planned invasion of France, the German attackers had no idea of what was being rehearsed at Slapton. Had they known they might well have returned to do even more damage that might have sabotaged the D Day invasion plans.

An amphibious tank, recovered from the sea in 1974, stands at Torcross as a memorial to the men who lost their lives during the German attack of the boats and other military positions at Slapton Sands.

The bunker, which I spotted at Torcross, is known as ‘Pillbox Torcross’. Near to the former Torcross Hotel, this was one of six bunkers at the south end of Slapton Sands. What I thought was concrete is actually local stone (see https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MDV39402&resourceID=104).

 Hence, it blends with its surroundings far better than it would have had it been built in concrete. Whether or not this and the other bunkers nearby were of any use when the Germans attacked during the very early hours of the 28th April 1944, I cannot say. However, I feel that given the devastating results of the German attack, this is unlikely.

Today, Torcross is a popular place with visitors. It has several eateries and places to stay. During past visits to this delightful spot, once the scene of a horrible tragedy, we have eaten good seafood at the Start Bay Inn, which is only a few feet away from the tank memorial. The inn was established in the 14th century, when it was known as ‘The Fisherman’s Arms’.

Visiting Torcross provides a good place to reflect on the heroism of those who fought in WW2. Little did those 700 or more men lost in this place in 1944 know that their sacrifice has allowed us to enjoy holidays at this beautiful spot. Whenever I am at Torcross, I have mixed emotions: joy because of the place’s great natural beauty, and sadness when I look at the tank memorial and remember why it is there. Had the D Day landings been thwarted, who knows under what kind of regime we would be living today.

An Indian hero

SUBHAS CHANDRA BOSE (1897-1945) was, along with Gandhi, one of the most important fighters for the independence of India. Without doubt, the activities of Bose and their consequences were one of the main reasons that the British left India in 1947. A one time president of the Indian National Congress, he later parted ways with it.

Before 1940, Bose was placed under house arrest in Calcutta by the British. In 1940, he escaped and made his way to Nazi Germany, where he arrived in 1941. The German authorities were prepared to cooperate with him to bring about the downfall of the British Empire in India.

After the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese, Bose and his colleague Abid Hassan Saffrani (1911-84), who was studying engineeringin Germany and anti-British, were placed on a German submarine in early 1943. It took them to Madagascar, where they boarded a Japanese submarine that took them to Japanese occupied Sumatra. Then, they proceeded to Singapore, where Bose persuaded captured Indian troops to fight the British to gain independence for India. It was during this time that Abid Hassan Saffrani coined the salutation ‘Jai Hind’.

Bose led his Indian National Army on an ill fated military expedition to enter India via Burma. In 1945, Bose was killed in an air accident in Japanese held Taiwan. Abid Hassan Saffrani returned to India and after Independence served his country as a diplomat.

The photograph shows Bose with Abid during their journey on the German submarine in 1943. (Bose is on the left with spectacles)The print I saw is in the possession of a nephew of Abid, who lives in Hyderabad.

Some days before I met Abid’s nephew, we met a lady in Calcutta. After spending an evening with her, I expressed my interest in the anti-British activists, who lived in Calcutta. Hearing this, she revealed that she is related to one of them. We asked which one. She told us that her grandfather was Sarat Chandra Bose, the brother of Subhas Chandra Bose who helped Subhas to escape from Calcutta in 1940. We were amazed to hear this.

Scene in a ticket office

BUDAPEST KEL PU 83 Farewell 2

I used to visit Budapest in Hungary frequently in the 1980s during the Communist era. I had many good Hungarian friends there. They were very hospitable to me.

One day, I happened to visit the advanced booking office at Budapest’s grand Keleti (Eastern) Station. I have no recollection of where I was planning to go, but that is not relevant to the true story that follows. The smallish rectangular room was lined with about ten (or more) counters at each of which there was a booking office official. 

A young Soviet Russian soldier entered the room. He was in an immaculately smart uniform and looked proud. He went up to the first counter and spoke to the person behind it. After about a minute, he was instructed to go to the next counter. Once again, he spoke to the official behind the window at the counter. And, after a few minutes, he was directed to the next counter. This went on until he had visited each counter in the room and reached the last one. At the last one, the official indicated that he should leave the room as he was in the wrong room for obtaining tickets for Soviet military personnel.

You might have thought that the official at the first counter he visited would have directed him to the correct place, but no. So great was the average Hungarian’s disdain for the Soviet soldiery that was keeping their country under the thumb of the Soviet Union that the officials in the booking office conspired together to waste the young Soviet soldier’s time and humiliate him. It was a beautiful example of passive resistance.

Stay away from the windows

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Many years ago sometime during the 1980s, I spent New Year’s Eve in Belgrade, which was then the capital of a country that no longer exists: Yugoslavia.

I was staying with my good friend Raša. He enjoyed a good party. We set out to attend one in New Belgrade, which was built after WW2 on the left bank of the River Sava, a tributary of the Danube.

The air was chilled when we left Dorčol, the old part of the city where Raša lived. There was an odour in the wintry air that I always remember: the smell of the smoke from the lignite that was burned in central heating units in the city.

As we travelled in the tram towards New Belgrade, my friend explained that many retired military personnel lived in New Belgrade. Many of these people kept guns and rifles in their flats.

Raša advised me to keep off the balcony and well away from windows as the last midnight of the year approached. The reason for this was that as the new year began, drunken people would begin firing their weapons to celebrate. There was a good chance both of being struck by poorly aimed bullets and by others that ricocheted when they struck walls and so on.

Midnight came and went, but I cannot remember hearing any gunshots. Maybe I had imbibed too much vodka and other highly alcoholic drinks such as sljivovitz and loza!

Now, Yugoslavia is only a fond memory as is my friend Raša. I last saw him in May 1990. He passed away several years later after having done much work to help refugees caught up in the civil wars that tore Yugoslavia apart.

They made Kalashnikovs here…

This  extract from “REDISCOVERING ALBANIA” by Adam Yamey describes a part of Albania where much weaponry was manufactured during the Communist era (1944-91).

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“We followed the River Osumi upstream [from Berat], passing an isolated working military camp with camouflaged concrete buildings. The road wound up the valley crossing numerous tributaries of the Osumi. Next to many of these small bridges there were construction sites, which were associated with the building of the Trans Adriatic Pipeline. This will carry gas from Kipoi (just east of the Greek city of Alexandropolis) to Seman (a few kilometres north of Vlorë on the Adriatic). From there, it will go under the sea and resurface at the southern Italian coast south east of Lecce. This gas-carrying modern ‘Via Egnatia’ (or maybe it should be called ‘Via Igniter’) will follow the valley of the Osumi, then curve around Berat, before heading westwards towards the sea. It is part of a huge project to transport gas from Azerbaijan to western Europe.

The town of Poliçan was a pleasant surprise. We were expecting to find a drab place because of its industrial heritage. Far from it: Poliçan was a cheerful, vibrant place. We parked at the top end of the sloping triangular piazza named after the large mountain (Tomorr: 2,416 metres), which dominates the area around Berat and Poliçan.  The piazza, is a right-angled triangle in plan. Its two shorter sides were lined with well-restored, freshly painted Communist-era buildings with shops and cafés.  We joined the crowds drinking under colourful umbrellas outside cafés on the Rruga Miqesia, which runs off the piazza towards the town’s cultural centre and Bashkia (both built in the Communist period). It was about 11 am on a working day. There seemed to be many people with sufficient time for sitting leisurely in cafés or just strolling up and down the street. A girl, who ran a mobile ‘phone shop (on her own), sat with friends at a table in a café near to the shop, and only left them if a customer entered her showroom. A long out of date poster on a building advertised a meeting in Tirana for adherents of the Bektashi sect.

Near the upper end of the triangular piazza, there was a new marble monument commemorating Riza Cerova (1896-1935). He was born just south of Poliçan, and became a leading protagonist in the ‘June Revolution’ of 1924, when supporters of Fan Noli forced Ahmed Zogu to flee from Albania. For a brief time, Noli became Albania’s Prime Minister. However, at the end of 1924, aided by the Yugoslavs and Greeks, Zogu made a counter-coup, and then assumed control the country. Soon after this, he had himself crowned ‘King Zog’. Following Noli’s defeat, Cerova joined the German Communist Party, and later returned to Albania where he led anti-Zogist fighters. He died during an encounter with Zog’s forces.

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Poliçan was important during the Communist period. It was home to an enormous arms and ammunition factory, the KM Poliçan, which was opened in 1962. This produced its own versions (the ASH-72 and ASH-82 series) of the Kalashnikov gun as well as other munitions.  The factory lies amidst cultivated terraced fields on the slopes of a natural amphitheatre away from, and beneath, the southern edge of the town. Workers used to approach the factory from the town by a long staircase. We counted at least twenty-five industrial buildings in the complex, many of them with broken or missing windows. None of the numerous rusting ventilators on these edifices were emitting smoke, and there were no signs of life. The slopes surrounding the factory below were dotted with concrete and metal entrances to underground stores and tunnels. During the unrest of 1997, KM Poliçan was temporarily taken over by criminal gangs while the city was in ‘rebel’ hands. The factory is still used, but mainly to de-activate out-of-date Albanian weaponry. It was difficult to imagine that the peaceful scene, which we observed from a track overlooking it, had such an explosive history.

We travelled southwards through cultivated countryside and past occasional forests, always following the sinuous course of the Osumi. At the edge of Çorovodë, the administrative capital of the Skrapar District, we saw a tourist information poster beside a squat hemispherical Hoxha-era concrete bunker. It portrayed an Ottoman era bridge, which we hoped to see later. In the town’s main square, there was a socialist-realism style monument: a pillar topped by a carved group: one woman with three men. One of them was holding a belt of machine gun ammunition. The base of the monument had ‘1942’ carved in large numerals. On the 5th of September 1942, Skrapar became the first district in Albania to be liberated from the occupying fascist forces. There was a bronze statue of Rizo Cerova in a small park next to the square. Elegantly dressed in a jacket with waistcoat, he is shown holding a rifle in his left hand. His face looked left but his tie was depicted as if it were being swept by wind over his right shoulder.

We ate a satisfying lunch in a large restaurant next to the park, the Hotel Osumi. It backed onto a fast-flowing tributary of the Osumi. After eating, we entered a café a little way upstream to ask for directions to the Ottoman bridge that we had seen on the tourist poster. We were surprised to discover a ‘black’ man at a table, chatting with several Albanians. He spoke perfect English, which was not surprising because he was born in Tennessee (USA). He was teaching English in Çorovodë under the auspices of the Peace Corps.  With pencil and paper to hand, he was compiling his own map of the town. When we told his companions that we were trying to find the old bridge, they advised us that it was only accessible with a rugged four-wheel drive vehicle.

Driving further southwards, we reached the spectacular Canyon of the Osumi (Kanioni i Osumit, in Albanian). It is about twenty-six kilometres long, deep, and narrow. At places where the road came close to the edge of the canyon, we obtained good views. From above, it looked as if the cultivated rolling fields and pastureland had been cracked open. The crack’s walls were steep sided, with dramatic striations of whitish rock. Far beneath us at the bottom of this fissure, the River Osumi flowed around its many bends. Standing at the canyon’s precipitous edge, we could only hear birdsong and water rustling over the river’s stony bed far below us.

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Retracing our steps to Berat, we passed an abandoned building with a fading circular coloured sign painted on it. It depicted a grey cow standing between a woman in a white dress, who was writing on a clipboard, and a man in a white coat such as doctors wear. In the background, a man in an overcoat holding a shepherd’s crook, was leading a flock of sheep towards the grey animal and its attendants. Around the edge of the picture, we read the words ‘Stacioni Zooteknise’, which literally translates as ‘zoo technical station’. The building with its peeling plaster and patches of exposed brickwork had once been an animal husbandry centre.”

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Adam Yamey’s book REDISCOVERING ALBANIA is available from Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com, and is on Kindle