King Zog and the Secret Heart of Albania

Jeff Shucard

—Herman Bernstein, the United States Ambassador to Albania, 1934

On the eve of World War II, as Hitler polished up his war machine for global conquest, Benito Mussolini, his fascist ally to the south, parodied the Führer by invading the small, isolated kingdom of Albania, whose shores lay, perhaps symbolically, within kicking distance of the heel of the Italian boot. A remote and neglected outpost of the Ottoman Empire for more than four hundred years, Albania remained an impoverished feudal kingdom, largely inaccessible, lacking railways, telephone lines and electric power beyond the capital of Tirana. To complete this picture of backwardness, there were few public schools; the population was largely illiterate and people lived as serfs in mountain clans whose only system of justice was an ancient code of honour and blood vengeance called Kanun.

Albania’s ruler during the 192s and ’3s, Ahmet Zogolli, the self-appointed King Zog, is one of modern European history’s most fascinating characters. Educated in Istanbul, Zogolli was the privileged son of an Ottoman bey, or chieftain. After youthful sojourns in Constantinople and Vienna, where he acquired a taste for café society and bespoke attire, he returned home and entered Albanian politics, being a signer of the Albanian declaration of independence in 1912. Educated and ambitious, Zogolli advanced rapidly in the fledgling Albanian state, becoming prime minister, then president, before crowning himself king. Inspired by his contemporary Muslim reformer in Ankara, Ataturk, he attempted to modernize his backward kingdom by introducing a European judicial system and universal primary education. A fiscal alliance with Italy opened the door to the world of progress.

But King Zog was not without his enemies. The price of Italian investment was onerous and the psychological leap from clan to centralized government, contentious. It is reported that no fewer than six hundred blood feuds were issued against him and that he survived fifty-five assassination attempts, being wounded twice in gun battles with would-be killers: Zog, no coward and raised in a culture of sanctified killing, carried a loaded pistol with him at all times. If such accounts sound apocryphal, we might well add the 2-cigarettes-a-day jag he is said to have adhered to faithfully. The European press portrayed Zog as a charming, exotic oddity. In formal photographs we see him decked out in the full despot regalia of the epoch: chest laden with outsized medals and ribbons, shoulders replete with gold-braided, tasselled epaulettes. He looks for all the world like Errol Flynn playing Chaplin’s Great Dictator, right down to the pencil-thin moustache, the insouciant smile and the rakish tilt of the visor cap.

Ironically enough, of all the fanciful stories western journalists concocted about Zog, it is the seemingly least believable reportage that is the most remarkable: the claim that Albert Einstein spent three days in Tirana as Zog’s guest at the royal manor. Although a more unlikely social pairing would be difficult to imagine, it must be understood the visit was not a social one, and that Einstein was hardly alone in journeying to Albania. Scores of fellow Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slavs, Greeks and others were suddenly making their way to Zog’s isolated kingdom for the same singular purpose: to escape the Nazi death camps. For although this story has never been told, King Zog, despite his impoverished monarchy, despite the isolation and archaic circumstances of his kingdom, despite the fact that Albania was the only predominantly Muslim country in Europe, despite all we know of the Holocaust through literature and film, did something truly remarkable and singularly courageous in a world about to experience unimaginable cataclysm: he opened his borders to all those seeking safety from Nazi persecution. This act saved thousands of lives, and revealed what I call the secret heart of Albania, that to this day remains unknown to the world. So, yes, I can imagine Albert and Ahmet deep in conversation, in a dense miasma of tobacco smoke, on the eve of destruction, for Albert was only one of thousands of Jews who were welcomed into this humble kingdom as honoured guests, sheltered and protected. This story now makes perfect sense to me, for in a way, it is my story as well.

The chances of having an Albanian as a neighbour in Vancouver are very slim. In all of Canada, there are only some twenty thousand ethnic Albanians, half of those residing in Toronto. According to Statistics Canada, Greater Vancouver is home to only about six hundred Albanian souls. That works out to about .24 percent of the population. Most probably, like myself at one time, you have never met an Albanian or know anyone who has ever been to Albania or could even place it correctly on a world map. Don’t feel bad. Albania, like Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, all those other obscure -stans, barely registers in our consciousness. Yet sixty-some years after the Albanian people saved every single Jewish citizen and refugee who knocked upon their kingdom’s door, an Albanian newcomer to Vancouver saved yet another Jewish life: my own. If our DNA is mapped as a journey between the invisible dots the Greeks perceived as Fate, then every step of my journey to the secret heart of Albania has been guided along from one dot to the next by an unseen hand upon my shoulder, gently nudging me on.

King Zog would have been shocked by the Albania into which the symphonic conductor Bujar Llapaj was born in 1956. The once fiercely independent people who had continually resisted Ottoman occupation, who defied the Nazis in saving thousands of guests at risk of losing their lives, no longer existed. By late 1944, while Zog languished in exile in England, the political vacuum created by the Nazi retreat from Albania was filled by a group of Communist partisans led by the enigmatic Marxist Enver Hoxha. Hoxha, a complex, paranoid sociopath, looked to Stalin and then Mao as role models—Khrushchev being far too progressive for his taste. Mao, quick to recognize a kindred malevolent spirit, admired Hoxha’s brutality in crushing his enemies (real or perceived) and his total lack of empathy for his fellow man. The Chairman shipped Hoxha tons of grain while literally starving his own population to death. Hoxha, returning the compliment, created his own Cultural Revolution, a brutal campaign of dehumanization in which thousands were imprisoned and tortured. By the 196s Hoxha had succeeded in erasing Albania from world consciousness, turning it into the North Korea of Europe: a failed totalitarian society from which no citizen escaped, and into which no outsider ventured. When he died in 1985, he bequeathed the citizens of the People’s Republic of Albania an average annual income of $15 a month. So much for Uncle Enver’s beneficence.

As contact with the outside world was eliminated, so too was knowledge of Albania’s affairs and history. This was the epoch of the great Totalitarian Magicians, the masters of the act of disappearance. Poof, et voila, the past, the present (and, in effect, the future) gone in a cloud of smoke. As Milan Kundera wrote in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”

The new books were the biografi, the dossiers compiled by the secret police in which one’s very thoughts could be used as evidence of subversion. The new culture was one of enforced atheism augmented by idolatry of Uncle Enver and abject poverty. Bujar, who grew up in a small mountain village outside Gjirokaster, where his father’s one cow provided the family with milk and butter, one day watched as it was led away to a collective farm whose collective milk return to them was zero. By the time he married, there was no milk or almost anything else of value left in the entire country. As Bujar recently put it, being penniless or a being a millionaire made no difference, as there was nothing to buy, not so much as a light bulb. It was during this period of paucity that he and Lindita had a child. Lindita took their child and crossed the border into Greece.

I met Bujar shortly after he and his family arrived in Canada and he joined an ESL class I was teaching for newcomers. In a decade of teaching many hundreds of immigrants to Vancouver, I had never had an Albanian student. Neither had I ever had a student involved in the creative arts, let alone the celebrated conductor of his national symphony. We quickly became friends over Brahms and Schubert, and as we were neighbours, we often socialized. In exchange for teaching Bujar how to drive and his son Albi the rudiments of baseball, I was often invited to dinner. I always felt that I got the best of that bargain.

Late one night at home I found myself in terrible pain, paralyzed on my living room floor, stricken with a rare condition called discitis. What had begun as a backache during the day got progressively worse until I could no longer move. I began to panic. I felt as though I were being stabbed to death by a very large, sharp knife. Luckily, I was able to pull the phone over and I dialed my new Albanian friends’ number. Bujar was at my door a few minutes later to scrape me off the floor. In the ensuing days of hardship, while I struggled to get proper care from a hospital staff that misdiagnosed my condition, Bujar never left my side. I could not have survived without him.

It was while convalescing at home, regaining my ability to walk, that I also took my first tentative steps toward Albania. I could not possibly have known that the compassion Bujar showed me extended beyond himself to something much larger. I had no reason to imagine otherwise, yet I felt compelled to learn all I could about Albania and travel to his native home—in search of what, I couldn’t say.

Perhaps I was simply looking for a way of thanking him for saving my life, for there is no effective way, I discovered, to express one’s gratitude for this ultimate act of compassion: the act is at once too enormous and too ordinary for either of you to give voice to. Bujar to this day shrugs off any notion that he saved my life, yet I know without doubt that I wouldn’t be here without his help. It’s an agreeable sparring session we’ve long engaged in: my gratitude vs. his humility.

Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote that every secret yearns to reveal itself. He could well have been writing about the secret heart of Albania. I spent several futile months searching book stores and the internet for materials on the country. Unfortunately, I didn’t find anything of value—even twenty years after the fall of Hoxha it seemed there was very little interest in this forgotten land. Beyond some lifeless scholarly articles and books, and equally mundane volumes of Albanian folk tales and customs, real insight into this country was nowhere to be seen. Even the one biography of King Zog had no mention of Albert’s visit or the official sanctuary given Jewish refugees.

Meanwhile, Bujar and family settled into their new lives. Lindita found work as a violin instructor and Bujar became the principal conductor of Vancouver’s West Coast Symphony. I too returned to work, grateful to return to society, although my gait, for the moment, resembled that of Frankenstein’s monster. But I hadn’t given up my search, and one day I detected the faintest of signals that just barely registered on the Google Geiger counter of knowledge. The signal emanated from an obscure academic item, a review of a humble, poorly edited, self-published book: Rescue in Albania: One Hundred Percent of Jews in Albania Rescued, written by a Palm Springs lawyer named Harvey Sarner. The book was only available through a direct request to the author.

Even before Mr. Sarner’s illuminating little book arrived with all the facts, narratives and testimonies (including an account of his own serendipitous journey to the heart of Albania), I could now intuit that Bujar’s compassion was not singular in nature. But who could have imagined an entire culture predicated on an ancient tradition of compassion, loving kindness and a desire to help those in need? This tradition, conceived in the ancient Illyrian principles of freedom and independence, became a code of honour: besa, the keeping of one’s word, faith or promise, which even today stands as the highest ethical code in the country. One who embraces besa is someone who keeps his word, someone to whom one can trust one’s life, the lives of one’s family and guests—in fact, anyone who crosses your threshold or your border. The door King Zog opened was for the “guests” of his nation. Their protection and well-being in time of need was a matter of national pride, the pride of a people who, although isolated by geography and oppression, possessed a humanity that was universal. The Albanian people, it must be understood, did not hide their Jewish neighbours and foreign refugees from the occupying Nazis: acting as one, the entire nation, from their king to members of government down to the humblest peasant, made them all “Albanians,” issuing passports, letters of transit, identity cards, work permits, whatever documents were necessary to protect them, and welcomed them into their homes as aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers, at great risk to their own lives. In one brutal instance, the SS machine-gunned an entire village, ninety people, for refusing to provide lists of Jews within the country. Not one “guest” was ever handed over. Albania was the only European country to have a larger Jewish population after the war than before it.

It is now March 218, and I am on a two-week concert tour of the Balkans with the West Coast Symphony, led by Maestro Llapaj. My assignment is to write an account of the tour, but today we are taking a break from our hectic schedule to visit Bujar’s childhood home near Gjirokaster. The musicians do not know of my special history with Bujar, or of my long search for King Zog, besa and the secret heart of Albania. But they know their conductor. Their respect and love of his passion and dedication to the orchestra, and his talent, good humour and generosity, go without saying. For me, visiting Bujar’s home, meeting his brothers and sister, seeing where he grew up, the craggy heights above the plateau, is the culmination of this journey. Sitting on the sofa in the little parlour with his family, sipping his brother’s raki, I feel the unseen hand lift from my shoulder and I shed a few tears. Luckily no one notices. I lift my glass in a toast to King Zog, to Harvey Sarner, to the mountains and the proud, fiercely independent people who inhabited these barely accessible regions, who through the mysterious connecting of the dots brought Bujar, besa, to my door.

Today, Albania belongs to those post-communist nations generally designated by the West as “emerging” countries. Superficially, a pleasant patina of well-being coats the cities and towns, rural villages and agricultural lands we have seen and visited. Unfortunately, a cursory scratching at the surface reveals the crippling problems of a struggling economy and a political body being eaten away by corruption. On a profound level, though, it is the psychological re-emerging from the collective damage of decades of totalitarianism that represents Albania’s greatest challenge. As Mirela Kumbaro, the Albanian Minister of Culture, expressed in my interview with her in Gjirokaster, this unlocking of the prison doors, the squinting, so to speak, into the blinding light of the free world, has not necessarily been an easy transition. Kumbaro spoke of the importance of this tour, the building of cultural bridges through music, new friendships, the donating of musical instruments to young music students and the sitting down at our hosts’ tables and breaking bread. I’m already working on my next visit.

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Jeff Shucard

Jeff Shucard was born in Paterson, New Jersey. He attended the Minneapolis School of Art and Franconia College. After a decade of foreign travel, he settled in Vancouver for twenty years and worked in education and music. Now he lives in Portugal.


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