Category Archives: Lectures

The following is a list of speeches given by Van Christo and others. Simply click on one of the links to read the speeches.

The Vatra Band and Albania

Author: Thoma Nassi

For a long time I have wondered why some Albanian person more capable than I has not recorded for history those fateful events that took place in Albania following the end of World War I. I am now in the late evening of my life, and I realize that an adequate description of those historic happenings may be beyond my poor powers, yet someone must undertake this task before the passage of time completely dims the memory of the events that began in 1919 when the fate of Albania hung in the balance.

Following the close of World War I, Italy and Greece by a secret treaty decided to partition Albania by having Italy occupy its coastal ports and the northern part while Greece occupied the southern part, including Korça. This, in spite of President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of a policy of self-determination for small nations. As a result of this anticipated event, Albanians in the United States staged a number of demonstrations against the two aggressor nations, Italy and Greece. Vatra was most active because, as an outgrowth of its demonstrations, a group of 120 Albanian-American fighter-volunteers was formed to go to Albania, and the Albanian band (also called “Vatra”) was invited to join them.

The Vatra band had been organized under my direction in September of 1917 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Its members were young Albanian men without previous musical experience, most of them being factory workers. However, they joined the band with a great desire to learn, and, within a year, they were able to participate in concerts and parades in Boston, Worcester, New Bedford, Camp Devens in Massachusetts and in Portland and Biddeford, in Maine, and in other cities and towns for the benefit of the American Red Cross, Liberty Bond drives, and other worthwhile organizations.

The only other Albanian band in the United States in those days was the Jamestown, New York band, conducted by one of my townspeople, Thomas Vishnia.

In the early Spring of 1920, the idea of a pilgrimage to Albania to help the national cause finally took concrete form, and the military volunteers, band, and several other important Albanians were ready for the voyage.

I had just been discharged from the United States Army where I had served as a
Bandmaster. Since I had married immediately upon leaving the service, I was, naturally, reluctant to leave my new bride but because the band couldn’t go without a director – and I was the only one available – I was finally persuaded to participate.

At this point, I will not describe the interesting voyage on the Italian ship for I will confine my remarks to the events in Albania. I will say, however, that as far as the Italians were concerned, we Albanians were considered “personna non grata” by them both in Italy and in Albania.

After a short stay in Brindisi on the Italian coast, we were finally allowed to embark for the Albanian port of Durres where the Albanian populace greeted us with great enthusiasm even though we were looked upon with suspician by the Italians who, at that time, occupied Durres, Tepelena, Sarande, Gjirokaster, and Vlora.

Departing Durres after a few days, we drove in dilapidated Italian Fiats to Tirana, the capital of Albania, where all the populace, provisional government, and clergy, greeted our arrival enthusiastically. At that time, a regency headed by Sotir Peci, was governing Albania. The Albanian government had realized the value of having the Vatra band tour the country to raise the morale of the Albanian people so it arranged to send the band to all the large cities.

We left Tirana and visited Shkodra, Elbasan, Delvina, and Sarande while making Gjirokaster our temporary headquarters even though the italians were in command there. As I said, we were warmly welcomed by the populace but the Italians viewed us with suspicion. We were preparing to go to Tepelena and Vlora which the Italians quickly forbade. Nonetheless, against Italian orders we made ready to depart along with the Albanian military volunteers. Headed by two Albanian generals who had formerly served in the Turkish Army, we set out to liberate Tepelena!

The VATRA band was formed by Thoma Nassi in 1917 in Worcester, Massachusetts.  This rare photo taken in 1920 just before its departure to Albania shows the band  members and Conductor Thoma Nassi (center, top row).  Photo courtesy of Carmen Nassi Bartlett

The VATRA band was formed by Thoma Nassi in 1917 in Worcester, Massachusetts.
This rare photo taken in 1920 just before its departure to Albania shows the band
members and Conductor Thoma Nassi (center, top row).
Photo courtesy of Carmen Nassi Bartlett

As we were preparing to enter Tepelena, Italian guns from the ancient fort of the town began to shoot at us, and this single action set off the epic war against the invader Italians as the entire populations of Gjirokaster, Tepelena, and Vlora and surrounding towns rose to fight against the Italians. Albanian volunteers from all over Albania began to arrive to join the ensuing battle.

In the meantime, the Greeks had taken their cue from the Italians and began to mobilize along the Greek-Albanian border. The Vatra band and the American volunteers received orders from the government to proceed to Permet, Erseke, and Korçe. Altho the first two cities greeted us with wild enthusiasm the greatest ovation awaited us as we marched into Korçe – the Vatra band playing triumphantly and proudly – surrounded on both sides by Albanians who showered us with flowers amid joyous cries and tears. The entire Korçe district was preparing to resist the Greeks who were mobilizing at Greek border towns near Bilisht. The president of our band, Kosta Pano, spent many sleepless nights conferring with the Albanian officers and defenders on the border in anticipation of an inevitable conflict.

The League of Nations, seeking to avoid bloodshed, sent a delegation to Korçe under the leadership of Finland’s Professor Sederholm, granting him the authority to settle the dispute between Albania, Italy, and Greece, over permanent border lines.

The Greeks claimed that Bilisht, Korçe, and Erseke were populated by Greeks
which was, of course, a preposterous assertion.

It must be noted that the League of Nations delegation was favorably impressed by both the Vatra band and the volunteers from America. The band began playing two open air concerts every week at Kopshti Themistokli Germenjit. Our programs were comprised of classical music – a typical one would consist of an overture, a symphonic movement, operatic selections (usually Wagner), a Strauss waltz, and then an arrangement of Albanian songs for community singing. The people of Korçe attended these concerts “en famille” by the thousands, dressed in their evening Dullamas. They genuinely enjoyed our music, and their applause was tumultuous! I could not help wondering how many bandmasters in America would dare perform such classical programs for an American audience who, probably, would have hissed, or, at worst, walked out. Yet, these so-called backward Albanian people enjoyed it – they would avidly devour the printed programs with their eyes to feast on the descriptions of the musical selections. Yes, our stay in Korçe was one of our most cherished memories. The love of the people for good music was phenomenal.

I remember our first Christmas in Albania and our abbreviated presentation of Handel’s Messiah. There was no sheet music to be obtained anywhere except for my personal score so I hastily translated the text into the Albanian language and assembled a chorus of sixty voices. The band would play the orchestral parts. This was the first performance of an oratorio in Albania. The chorus learned its parts in record time, and the audience in the Kopshtore e Mitropolise begged for every number to be repeated.

During this period, the League of Nations delegration was very much in evidence and attended our concerts faithfully – especially Professor Sederholm who was an ardent Wagner admirer. He and I became fast friends, and he would come to our house, enjoy the Albanian dishes, and indulge himself by reading some of the few books that I had brought from America.

During our meetings, I dared ask Professor Sederholm how the fate of Korçe was to be decided. He cautioned me to be discreet lest I injure the national cause but informed me that as far as he was concerned, a nation that could produce such groups as this Vatra band and who could love music as much as the people demonstrated by flocking to concerts, certainly deserved their freedom. He seemed to be inspired by his own role, and I am sure that his recommendations were critical in the decision to free Korçe.

It became evident that more musical organizations were necessary to satisfy the insatiable hunger of the Albanian people for music. In a few weeks, another band was organized, the “Banda e Korçes”, by young students, and in a short period of time, it began to give concerts. A number of Festivals of Music were organized since local talent was in abundance. The first abbreviated opera,
“Il Trovatore”, was performed. The state director, Vangjush Mio, was a celebrated Albanian artist. This thirst for new music by the Albanian people gave me the opportunity to compose many songs whose words were written by such prominent Albanians as Kristo Floqi, Remzi Ojteze, Ali Alilani, and others. It was remarkable how these new songs spread at lightning speed all over Albania through no apparent means of communication.

We had not been long in Korçe when in June, 1920, we received a frantic call from the Vlora fighting forces asking us to pay them a visit to help keep their morale high since, at that time, they had captured Tepelena and Drashovica – the latter only about 20 miles from Vlora – and were now fighting the Italians in the hills around Vlora. This epic battle had captured the attention of the entire world, and among the foreign correspondents who were covering the war, the outstanding one was Edsel Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News and Washington Post. It seemed that all correspondents were on the side of the gallant Albanians whose bravery was described in daily dispatches. It should be mentioned that the Albanian fighters had thrown their heavy woolen brunas (capes) over the barbed wire barricades and leaped over them to terrorize the Italians. Moreover, as fast as the Italians sent over their planes, the Albanians would shoot down many of them.

Our band was situated at Droshovica and supported by the American Red Cross under the direction of Charles Hollingshead who later organized Shkolla Teknike in Tirana. Once or twice each day we went to the front to play for the Albanian fighters. We also helped out at the Red Cross Hospital which was caring for both Albanian and Italian wounded.

The Albanians had captured some 400 Italian prisoners and quartered them at the nearby town of Vaiza. They notified the commanding general of the Italian army, General Piacentini, that since they were unable to feed and clothe the prisoners, could he make some arrangements to provide for them. Receiving an affirmative response, it was arranged that the American Red Cross would drive to Vlora with trucks to transport supplies to the Italian prisoners. I made several trips to Vlora with Mr. Hollingshead and noted the complete demoralization of the Italian army on the one hand, and the luxury in which General Piacentini was living in one of the palaces on the other hand. The General invited us to dine with him, and we did so in all luxury. Naturally,
I was disguised as one of the American Red Cross personnel. Had the General known that I was an Albanian “spy”, my fate would have been doubtful!

During this time, one of the Albanian chieftains – his name, I think, was Bajram Curri – wrote an inspired little poem that impressed me so much I set it to music. Its title was “Vlora, Vlora, bjeri me te lumte dora.” The song became an instant success and in just a few days spread all over Albania. According to Dorothy Thompson in one of her radio broadcasts, “The Albanians were singing ‘Vlora, Vlora’ while they were attacking the Italians.” This song has since become an Albanian classic and is sung to this day. The thing that most surprised and puzzled me was how the songs that I wrote were able to spread throughout the entire country almost overnight and were sung and performed by native orchestras without printed copies. Whenever we visited a city or town, the populace would always greet us by singing these songs!

A few incidents while we were with the Red Cross at Drashovica are worth mentioning for they speak of the character of the Llabs, as those Albanians were called in that part of Albania: One day, as Mr. Hollingshead and I were exploring the ruins of the beautiful theatre that the Italians had built in Drashovica, we saw an Albanian emerge from the ruins with four pieces of lumber on his shoulder. Mr. Hollingshead confronted him by asking if he knew that his act of stealing was a crime, subject to jail or worse. The Albanian informed us that everybody in his town had brought home some kind of “plaçke” or “war spoils” so he was in disgrace for not bringing any home hence his mission that day was to bring back some “plaçke” come what may!

The Red Cross tried to buy some fresh corn from the nearby farms but nobody would sell any because the farmers were away fighting at the front. As a result, Mr. Hollingshead and his nurses would forage in the fields, even stealing corn, with the remark, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Finally, the Italian forces, confronted by the bravery of the Albanians and by world opinion, decided to evacuate Vlora and all of the other parts of Albania that they had occupied with the exception of the island of Sazan located at the mouth of Vlora Bay. The day arrived when all the Albanians who had fought entered Vlora with the band at the head singing, “Vlora, Vlora, bjeri me te lumte dora!” They were greeted as liberators with frenzied enthusiasm by the populace.

After a few days of festivities and rest at Vlora, we were recalled to Korçe.
I carried with me some stringed instruments that I had rescued from the
Dashovica theatre. Being an Albanian, I went for some “plaçke” too! Among these were two excellent string basses which later became the nucleus of a fine orchestra in Korçe. Our classical concerts continued and many music festivals and balls were given. The social life of Korçe flourished with all of the first families participating – replenished by other familes who came from Romania, Egypt, and the United States, now that Albania was free.

However at this time, all was not well in the capital city of Tirana where a revolution was brewing. Albania’s progressive elements wanted a purely democratic government. After a few skirmishes around the capital, the progressive forces took command and established a government with Bishop – now Archbishop – Fan S. Noli as Prime Minister. Bishop Noli dreamed of making a Switzerland out of Albania. He enlisted me to help him make plans for bringing from Italy a group of First Chair musicians who would teach at a Conservatory of Music while also becoming the nucleus of the first Albanian Symphony Orchestra. As a diversion, I taught Bishop Noli how to play the French horn during his brief stay in the capital!

Unfortunately, Bishop Noli’s government did not last long. A reactionary army headed by the ambitious Ahmet Zogu was able to defeat the government forces and occupy the capital. Bishop Noli managed to escape to Italy, a very discouraged man. When I met him later, he would say to me, “Tashi per mua me mbeti vetem mjekra (all I have left is my beard”).

An Albanian government now with Ahmed Zogu as Prime Minister was formed, and I was requested to come to the capital with the Vatra band. Naturally, we were sorry to leave Korçe and its talented, music-loving people but we were soon established at the capital with its diplomatic representatives and high social life. My own life at the capital was full of delights and frustrations – mostly, the latter. For example, I would visit the different Albanian government ministers with a list of things I wanted done for the cause of music, and I was very anxious to get them. But the ministers had different ideas, and I would be chided that the Americans were a “hurried” people.

It didn’t take long for Zogu to organize his government and pacify the country. Indeed, it is conceded that Albania became the most tranquil, peace-loving country in the Balkans at that time. One could travel across the country for the very first time without danger, and crime was non-existent.

At first, Zogu acted wisely and tried hard to interest all progressive and cultured Albanians to come back and take part in the government. I was sent to Italy twice as Zogu’s unofficial representative to induce Sotir Peci, Bishop Noli, and Faik Konitza who were all exiles at that time in Italy to return to Albania to assume top government positions but they refused. Incidently, I spent some of the most wonderful times with Bishop Noli and Faik Konitza in Rome attending concerts and other cultural events.

Ahmet Zogu had an insatiable hunger for cultural knowledge and music. Every Friday afternoon when all the government offices were closed, he would send a gendarme to my home to bring me to the palace. There, Zogu’s major domo, Hassan, would bring us coffee, and we would talk of music, especially Wagner, for whom Zogu had great affection. We would also plan the musical activities for the week. During these meetings, I remember an event that impressed me greatly and which shows how well Zogu understood his subjects. Hassan came to announce that a delegation of bajraktars, or leaders, had arrived from the district of Mati to request an audience. Zogu was dressed in a plain, comfortable business suit. Reluctantly, he asked me to wait while he went to dress himself in a spendidly-decorated general’s uniform complete with medals and gold tassels. He then walked into an adjoining room where the chieftains were waiting and proceeded to his throne. He was certainly a tall
and splendid human speciman. As soon as the chieftains saw him, they fell on their knees as if in presence of a king. Zogu then asked them to rise and state their grievances which turned out to be only some petty dissatisfactions with local authorities. He admonished them to obey the law and bow to the authorities. He then asked Hassan to order a banquet to “wine-and-dine” them. Then, he made a very dignified exit with the chieftains again bowing. He changed back immediately to his confortable business suit, and we continued our previous discussion as if nothing had happened. Unfortunately, Zogu gradually began to visualize himself as a king and became extravagant and overambitious resulting in the disasterous aftermath that we all know.

At the capital, we continued with our concerts and other musical activities. Through the Ministry of Education, I was able to organize the teaching of music throughout the country, especially in the schools. Some of the musicians which I developed and brought from Shkodra and Korçe were young men such as Kristaq Kono, Juri Trebicka, Luigi Filai, Kristaq Antoniu, and others who are, today, the leaders of music of Albania. May I say here that they are truly wonderful leaders who have developed Albania musically to an astonishing degree.

Several of my own songs were written during this time. After a trip to isolated mountainous towns, I made a collection of musical themes which I still hope to develop. One very favorite of the Albanians, my “Kenga e Mullirit”, was printed for the first time in Vlora. “Kenga e Bariut” and “Kater Valle” also became Albanian classics.

In 1926, I decided to return to my adopted country, America. The chief reason for my return was the discouragement I felt when I saw that Zogu, the brilliant young man who had done so well at the democratic helm of the government, finally became, at first, an extravagant president of the Republic, and, then, later, developed designs of becoming king. A second reason lay in the fact that my three children were growing up and needed the kind of education that could not be obtained in Albania. However, I felt as if I had sown the seeds of good music throughout the land. The Vatra band was now well-established, and several other musical organizations were also flourishing.

With a heavy heart, I bade farewell to my many friends and band members and to Zogu (who was reluctant to let me go). I knew full well that my duty was still to Albania but I anticipated dire consequences for my family if I remained. Black clouds were already gathering – Mussolini had begun his ambitious program of conquest, and Albania was one of the first to be ruthlessly attacked and conquered by him.

Tribute to the Reverend Edwin E. Jacques

I distinctly remember the first time I saw Reverend Jacques. As I reconstruct that event in my mind’s eye, it was many years ago, and the occasion was his appearance before a gathering of Albanian-Americans at the Ritz Plaza Hall on Huntington Avenue in Boston. At that time, I was about 10 years old and brought by my mother, Frosina Christo, to hear Reverend Jacques talk about his eight-year stay (1932-1940) in Kor‡e, Albania, which was the place of my birth. To such a young boy, it was absolutely fascinating to me to hear this non-Albanian speak to a large group of Albanians so fluently and with so much vigor in their own tongue!

Although I do not remember much of his talk, I can still see him gesturing in an animated manner as he made point after point about the then-existing economic conditions in Kor‡e. As a youngster where English was clearly my first language, I had some difficulty understanding his Albanian which was far superior to my own but I do recall several of his statements about the Kor‡e Albanians where he declared so emphatically, “S’kishin mjaft per te ngrene” (they didn’t have enough to eat) and “kerkonin buke” (they were seeking bread). It was apparent that the audience was moved by his appeal for assistance for the Albanians judging by the rousing ovation he received afterwards and by the number of people who surrounded him with both kudoes and questions. That was my very first impression of Dr Edwin Jacques, a caring person and true friend of Albania and the Albanians.

Many years later, as Executive-Editor of the Albanian-American newspaper, LIRIA (Liberty), I was delighted to exchange several letters with Dr, Jacques which led to his writing, at my request, an article about Protestantism in Albania which we subsequently published in LIRIA. It was a very informative piece that provided up-to-date news about a subject that was little-known in Albanian-American circles. Then, later, I was privileged to review his book “The Albanians” in LIRIA which I characterized as “the authoritative collection of data and information about Albania.”

I am pleased to say that this Book Review appears on Frosina’s Home Page www.frosina.org on the Internet for all to see. Dr. Jacques’ book is most noteworthy and deserves the widest press possible.

I know of many non-Albanians who, once they have visited the country of our origin, very quickly developed a love of the land and its people. Without question, Dr. Jacques was one of those people, and his initiatives on behalf of Albania and the Albanians were always evident. During the almost 50 years of communist rule, I know how hard he prayed for the eventual liberation of the Albanian people and for the restoration of religious freedom in Albania. How pleased he was that he did live to see that day, and to participate in its triumphant celebration. What impressed me most about Dr. Jacques was the firmness of his beliefs about the quality of the Albanians who survived under extraordinarily trying conditions. His zeal on behalf of Albanians was always constant without being fanatical as he exclaimed that left to their own capabilities, Albanians would one day take their rightful place as a respected member in the community of European nations. He was a visionary, and we can now see that prophecy begin to happen.

And Dr. Jacques knew his Albanian history only too well. For a non-Albanian, he was absolutely incensed at the decisions of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 which settled Albania’s boundaries but left more Albanians outside of its borders than within. It was Dr. Jacques who first said to me, “Albania is truly a country surrounded by itself.”

Albanians, the world over, can be proud that they had a friend in Dr. Edwin Jacques because in his spirit and in his writings, he was an Albanian.

I perjetshim qofte kujtimin i tij — May his memory be eternal.

What Vatra Means to Me

“Te lidhim besa besen, te leftojme per te drejtat e per nderin e Shqiperise dhe t’u refejme te huajve se rojme e duam te rojme me nder ne vendin tone.”

“Let us pledge our sacred word that we will fight for the rights and honor of Albania and to show the world that we live and want to live with honor in our land.”

I read those words of Faik Konitza to a gathering of people at Anthony’s Pier 4 in Boston on April 30th, 1995 which was the occasion of the removal of his remains to Albania. My talk back then was entitled “In Search of Faiku” which dealt with the visit by me and my family to Konitza in Northern Greece in August of 1988 to find the birthplace of Faik Konitza. The search was unsuccesful but it kindled my interest in Faiku whose name to me was synonymous with Vatra.

As I said back then, my first real introduction to Faik Konitza was his own incompleted book “Albania: The Rockgarden of Southeastern Europe” (edited posthumously by Qerim Panarity and published by Vatra in 1957). His name, however, was not unknown to me because as a young boy, I can still remember heated discussions between my cousin Llambi Misho, my uncle Lazi Christo, the ever-articulate Fan Noli, and others where the names “Faiku” and “Vatra” were prominently mentioned. Since I was too young at the time to have any clue about who Faik Konitza or Vatra were, I did, nonetheless, get the strong impression that my elders were talking about a very important Albanian person and a very important Albanian organization.

Many years later, I was privileged to participate in the Skanderbeg 500th Year Commemoration in Rome that was organized by Vatra in 1968 where I had the opportunity to meet Albanians from various parts of the USA, from Germany, Italy, and as far away as Australia. The one common thread that made the biggest impression on me was the absolute reverence with which these Albanians held Vatra. At the various seminars in Rome, speaker after speaker got up to exclaim the good and noble deeds that Vatra undertook on behalf of Albania and the Albanians. At no time in my life before then or afterwards have I ever heard of an Albanian organization spoken of with such high esteem and respect. Back in Rome in 1968, I had the good fortune to meet Prof. Ernesto Koliqi of Italy and Prof. Martin Camaj of Germany, and to become re-acquainted with them later in Boston when Vatra sponsored a visit by the Arbereshe of southern Italy. One of the first places these Italo-Albanians wanted to see was the Vatra office then on Huntington Avenue in Boston. Indeed, their impatience to visit what was to them an almost holy shrine was both fascinating and heart-warming to see!

After my good friend, Agim Karagjozi, invited me to come to New York today to address this body, I picked up Faik Konitza’s “Albania: The Rock Garden of Southeastern Europe” and became re-impressed with his articulate writing style and marvelous command of the English language as he described the history, manners and mores of the Albanians. Indeed, his book is worth re-reading many times for the amount of information it imparts.

In my judgement, it’s time for a new Vatra. Albania is now democratic, and a new wave of immigrants from Albania is arriving on our shores. There must be a place, common ground, where these new Albanians — Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim — can all come together in a brotherhood and sisterhood of shared experiences. It’s time for one organization under whose banner we can gather in a common quest to prove ourselves as a Balkan people worthy of notice. It’s time for us to set aside political differences for the greater good of all, to avoid the previous damage done by the in-fighting amongst the diverse political groups that defeated Vatra’s noble objectives. It’s time to re-establish Vatra as the Pan-Albanian organization that it should be by reaching out to the Albanians everywhere they are in the world — Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Greece, Romania, Turkey, and elsewhere. It’s time — the time is ripe to sow the seeds to reap the eventual harvest of new Vatrans. It’s time to establish ourselves as a presence that should be treated with dignity and respect and not as the second-class citizens that some Albanians are regarded as in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Greece! I believe it can happen, and I cite Konitza’s own words: “It should be borne in mind…that even though the Albanian is too independent and too individualistic to be subjected against his will to anybody’s influence, he still strongly believes in birth and the right of precedence and all that which is conveyed by such ideas.”

Vatra is that precedence, and if we can awaken the feeling deep within us that we can work together for the common good of all Albanians, Vatra will arise once again to assume that leadership position for Albanians it was destined to hold in the hearts and minds of the Albanian people wherever they are!
Now, perhaps more urgently than ever before, is the time for an organization like Vatra to inspire us with a “Shqipetarizme” that is so needed today – both in this country and in Albania! To me, Faik Konitza and Vatra are one and the same, and there is no more fitting salute to Vatra and to Faik Konitza than his own, truly inspirational words so let me leave you again with:

“Te lidhim besa besen, te leftojme per te drejtat e per nderin e Shqiperise dhe t’u refejme te huajve se rojme e duam te rojme me nder ne vendin tone.”*
“Let us pledge our sacred word that we will fight for the rights and honor of Albania and to show the world that we live and want to live with honor in our land.”

Who speaks for the Albanians?

Author: Van Christo

In early August of 1991, some 20,000 Albanians crossed the Adriatic Sea to Bari, Italy in search of a better life after 50 years of being shackled to one of the most repressive communist yokes in the world. Because of Italian television programs that anyone in Albania with a TV set could receive, Albanian perception of Italy was truly a sought-for land of milk and honey to be shared by the underprivileged and long-isolated Albanians. That vision was abruptly shattered as Italian militia unceremoniously herded a large group of just-arrived Albanian emigres to Italy into a soccer stadium where they were deprived even of water to refresh themselves under a scorching summer sun. Albanian protestations against such inhumane treatment were met harshly as the Italians responded with brute force. An AP news photo of a heavily-armed Italian policeman with club in hand standing over a prostrate, half-naked Albanian youth flashed across the pages of the international press and, for the first time, the entire world became only too conscious of the wretched state of the Albanians – inside and outside of that small Balkan country.

However, only months earlier, in April, other thousands of Albanians had also crossed over into Italy, and although Italian authorities registered some disapproval, the Albanians were dispersed, almost without incident, throughout central Italy into camps that offered a nurturing shelter. Clearly, the fact that the Italians provided, after this first crossing, a temporary refuge to the Albanian emigres was the impetus for the second Albanian crossing. And although more than 4,000 of the first group of Albanians voluntarily returned to Albania because of discouragement by lack of economic opportunity, their warnings did little to stem a continuing exodus of Albanians. The popular CBS television newsmagazine “20/20″ devoted much of one its programs to the plight of the emigre Albanians whom they correctly labeled “Europe’s Forgotten People.”

Who, exactly are the Albanians, and why are they referred to as the “forgotten” people? Albania, the last and poorest of the East European communist countries to undertake the first steps towards democratization, has long been an enigma to the international community of nations, especially the West, because of its isolation for five decades under its xenophobic leader, Enver Hoxha, who molded the Albanian people to his own vision of the communist state. Surrounded by Yugoslavia and Greece who had longtime territorial ambitions, Hoxha was able to play on the intrinsic fears of the Albanian people of the continual threat of invasion and subsequent partitioning of the country by its neighbors. And it was this constant threat nurtured by Hoxha that helped create Albanian “bunker” mentality. Indeed, the few Western visitors to Albania before l99l brought back an image of a country that was virtually blanketed by military bunkers – round, concrete structures with slit-like openings – where the Albanian people could fend off an invasion from real or imagined enemies. Had Albania’s history over the past 50 years been different, had the political tensions with Yugoslav and Greek neighbors been less threatening to them, then, perhaps, Albania’s future might have been different.

At various crash points throughout Albanian history, beginning with the 15th century invasion and subsequent subjugation for five centuries by the Ottoman Turks, Albania has been a pawn in the power plays of Italy, England, Austro-Hungary, France, Russia, Greece, and others. After defeating Turkey in the Russo-Turkish war, Russia imposed on it the Treaty of San Stefano (March 3, 1878) whereby large portions of Greater Albania were cut up and ceded to the Balkan slav nations of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bulgaria simply because the four administrative provinces or “vilayets” (Shkodra, Kosova, Manastir, and Janina) that Turkey had divided Albania into for purposes of control and government were considered parts of the Ottoman Empire.

It was Russia’s goal, clearly, to create a Greater Bulgaria under Russian influence while creating an independent and larger Montenegro and Serbia at the expense of Austro-Hungary whom Russia sought to expel from the Balkans. However, England and Austro-Hungary refused to accept the provisions of the San Stefano Treaty because they wanted to preserve a Turkish presence in Europe against Russia. But Albanian opposition to the Treaty was swift — it organized military forces that attacked the Serbs and Montenegrins who had occupied northern Albanian territories, and this instant and effective Albanian resistance produced continuous dissention among the world powers as the Balkans became a tinderbox threatening the peace of the Europe.

In an effort to resolve a potentially explosive Balkan problem, the Great Powers consisting of England, France, Italy, Germany, and Austro-Hungary convened the Congress of Berlin on June 18, 1878 to create a new design for Eastern Europe. There was never any question of autonomy for Albania which had been divided by the Ottoman Empire into the previously-mentioned four vilayets for adminsistrative purposes. Decisions were eventually made by the Great Powers in Berlin to partition Albania by ceding the greater portions of the four Albanian vilayets to Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece. The official boundaries of what then remained of Albania after the partioning have existed, more or less, until the present time.

The Balkan Wars of 1911 and 1912, after Italy declared war on Turkey, finally signalled the end of a Turkish presence in eastern Europe. Ismail Qemal, an Albanian deputy in the Turkish parliament, proclaimed Albania’s independence on November 28, 1912, and, for the first time in almost 500 years , an Albanian flag – - a black, double-headed eagle on a red field — was raised in the seacoast city of Vlora on Albanian soil. But on December 17, 1912, an Ambassadors’ Conference in London sponsored by the Great Powers, refused to recognize the provisional government that Ismail Qemal had formed and, instead, transferred its power on January 22, l9l4 to an international commission which decided that the newly-created state of Albania would be ruled by a minor German prince, William of Wied, who only reluctantly agreed to accept the throne (and then only because the Great Powers had promised him 75 million francs along with the lion’s share of Albania’s new state budget that would be earmarked for the “Prince’s List” for his own, hand-picked European entourage). However, his was a short-lived reign of only six months that was marked by intrigue because Wied had no intention on entrusting any real power to Albanian officials. Instead, with the help of Italian “advisors”, Wied created a private cabinet which unobtrusively worked alongside the official Albanian cabinet. Moreover, general Albanian dissatisfaction with a “foreign” monarchy was almost immediate and it was fomented, largely, by Albanian rebels in central Albania. And because Greek armies in the south and Serbian armies in the north had already assumed control of major portions of Albania, Wied’s government was doomed. The final blow came when Austria and Italy discontinued payment of Wied’s 75 million francs, so, with his entourage, he finally sailed away from Albanian shores.

World War I was again the scene of battles in Fier and Pogradec on Albanian soil between Austria on one side and France and Italy on the other side. But thanks to the intervention of President Woodrow Wilson of the USA, who single-handedly prevented the total partitioning of Albania by other world powers, Albania was admitted to the League of Nations on December 17, 1920 and finally took its place in the world of nations.

So, from 1912 when Ismail Qemal raised the double-headed Albanian flag in Vlora proclaiming the sovereignty of Albania after almost five centuries of Turkish subjugation, some fourteen successive ineffective governments tried to rule Albania culminating in the short-lived, self-proclaimed kingdom of Ahmed Zogu which ended on Good Friday, April 7, 1939 when Mussolini’s Italy invaded Albania. Some two-hundred warships with 20,000 Italian troops aboard crossed the Adriatic Sea to land at four points along the Albanian coast under cover of naval and aerial bombardment. King Zog appeared on Albanian radio exhorting his subjects to fight to the death against the Italian invaders but the very next day, Zog and his royal entourage, including 14 loaded trucks, made their way safely across the border into Greece.

It would be the subject of another talk to describe the Albanian fight against the Italian invaders who, boldened by their easy success in conquering Albania, used it as a springboard to invade Greece where, instead, they suffered massive defeats forcing their retreat back into Albania by pursuing Greek armies. This Italian withdrawal ultimately caused Hitler to send his shock troops into Albania to aid Mussolini thereby extending German participation in the war in the Balkans. After successfully driving the Greek military forces out of Albania, the Germans invaded and also occupied Greece

General Albanian opposition to the axis invaders was soon led by Enver Hoxha, a former teacher of French at a school in Korcha in southern Albania. At first, Hoxha disguised his communist leanings to form the National Liberation Front in order to enlist the support and organization of other anti-axis Albanian groups. These were formed into Albanian partisan brigades which, over a three -year period, successfully defeated superior German occupying forces. Albania, in point of fact, was the only country in Europe to liberate itself from the Nazi invaders without the assistance of foreign troops.

The battle against the Germans drew to a close when Hoxha, leading an army of Albanian partisans, marched triumphantly into Tirana on November 29, 1944 and assumed control of all Albania. He quickly established a “Provisional Democratic Government ” of Albania. However, almost immediately, Hoxha revealed his true communist intentions and for almost 50 years, fashioned Albania into the most repressive and isolationist of all the iron-curtain countries. For example, Albania was the only country in the world that, in 1967, proclaimed itself an atheist nation by absolutely outlawing all forms of religion and by closing all of the churches and mosques in Albania and imprisoning many of its clergy. Only in 1991 was freedom of religion restored.

Also in 1991, pluralism was legally permitted in Albania, and the general elections that year saw the former communists, now known as the Socialist Party, win a majority of the seats in the parliament with the Democratic Party winning only about 34% . That government fell almost immediately because of the lack of cooperation by the Democratic Party members of parliament but, in large measure, because of the massive and disruptive student strikes in Tirana. As a result, new elections were held, and in 1992, the Democratic Party of Albania won a decisive majority of votes, about 66%, and assumed control of the government. That government is still in power and, like many other former iron-curtain countries, has received some criticism for assuming some of the autocratic methods of leadership of the former communist government such as restricting the power of the press and attempting to muzzle opposition candidates. However, many democratic advances have been made in Albania such as the privitization of land, rule of law, encouragement of foreign investments, and a free market economy. I am confident these advances will continue.