There are those who choose to hide their heads in the sand, and those who stand out by example. Such is the story of the extraordinary woman who’s article I’m publishing here. Albania has had its share of horror; for fifty years dominated by a monstrous regime who submitted its people to brutal torture and death. Pitting families against each other, murdering innocents, arresting anyone they chose to without reason.

Dott. Elena Gjeka Merlika-Kruja was an accomplished woman who happened to be married to the son of a former Albanian Prime Minister, Mustafa Merlika-Kruja (1887-1958). This was her only crime. She was encamped with other political prisoners for 47 years. Here she writes about a special Christmas day in 1951 when the prisoners stood their ground, firm in their religious belief and unafraid of the horrible consequences they may have had to endure.

Dott. Merlika-Kruja was in the same camp as my aunt, Bardha Bici (Marka Gjoni), they shared the same barrack and for years after were sent to the same camps. My aunt recounted the story of this particular Christmas to me as well and while it was very moving listening to her words, it really hit home reading the words on paper.

I am sharing this story because I feel that the world needs know of the horror Albanians endured, their strength and heroism in overcoming it and their ultimate triumph in the modern world.

There are still many hurdles to overcome but a people that lived through so much is sure to ultimately succeed and be proud of who they were and who they have become.


Dott. Elena Gjeka Merlika-Kruja


(Natale 1951)(Christmas 1951)

Telepena – Forty years have passed, but the memories are still so alive and so present. These sentences, these episodes, you who have lived them may not read them but to those who perhaps will attempt to relive them I am dedicating them to you, the silent and forgotten heroes of a tragedy that no one realized was occurring nor realized its extent or depth.

Angela, Maria, Anna, Antonio I can remember hundreds of names more and, like a movie sequence, many faces looking back at me, frightened eyes, pale faces, marked by a sense of terror that accompanied our everyday life.

A concentration camp of forced labor, a lagher, populated by two thousand human beings, almost all from the North of Albania: old, women, children, uprooted in a matter of hours from their homes and herded into five barracks. And to think that, at the time, the entire Albanian population did not reach one million! The plan and place was predetermined and calculated in every detail: a vast plain, almost a small battlefield, precisely surrounded by barracks, a military logistics base for the Italian army during the war between Italy and Greece, during the Second World War. You couldn’t see anything but mountains all around, a cold wind made our life in winter even more disastrous; barbed wire everywhere, absolutely prohibited was the lighting of a fire to keep warm, otherwise the punishment was that of being tied outside all night in the frigid weather. Early in the morning the wake up call. Four hundred people in each barrack, next to each other, squeezing together on boards two-stories long, the length of the barracks. There was no more than 60 centimeters or even less for each one of us; the mattresses, for those who had the good fortune of owning one, seemed tiny and narrow like small bed mats. Then the rollcall, quickly, and head to work. The younger people were all sent to the mountains: about a two-hour drive to arrive and then the fast climb up a narrow path to the top, in the woods where we would be working; you needed strong arms and muscles, chopping down the tree with an ax, split the wood, then carry it on our back down a small clearing, stow it and go back again once, twice, always descending with a new load, overwhelmed by the weight, until the quantity requested by those who accompanied us, our captors, was fulfilled. It looked like a caravan, lined in a row that rose and fell heavily, silent, our feet ached, bled sometimes, fitted with a piece of pigskin, laces holding it in the form of sandals. Until evening. Empty stomachs and mouths parched from lack of water: at sunset the long line of these human beings got back in line to make their way “home.” But always with loads of wood, large and long pieces tied with rope on our backs.

It was already dark when we reached the camp: the old, the sick, anxiously waiting for our return, always behind the high wall of barbed wire, and then the children. I could never forget our children who ran to meet us, barefoot, ragged, our children that we left in the morning and prayed to God we would find them safe and sound in the evening, yet many mothers returned to find little corpses: the illnesses, especially among children, reaped victims without mercy. There were no medicines; a doctor would run his hands through his hair when he was able to come, him too persecuted because of unproven communist faith and whose ability as a professional was fading, impotent in the face of so many disasters and so much misery. Yet the Albanian woman, the Albanian mother of those years was a woman of stoic firmness: with her bare hands she buried her creature, praying but without a tear, there were no more tears in our eyes, we cried them all! The next day we returned to work and so for years; a pot of water with a few beans and a piece of bread was our food and in the morning and bit of water, almost black, that was supposed to be “tea”.

Christmas of 1951 was approaching. Some of our fellow prisoners were priests, Don Nikoll Mazreku, Father Viktor Volaj, Father Giaccomo Gardin S.J., the latter an Italian. Others whose names escape me. We thought of celebrating that Christmas with a Mass. There weren’t only Catholics in our camp, there were also Muslims and Orthodox, but the initiative was to be ours, and it was not easy. In 1951 Churches and Mosques were still open, but they were already planning laws that would have sanctioned their closure and establish Atheism as a national “religion”. At our request the head of the camp responded with a categorical refusal: What does “Christmas” mean, said the director Xhaferr Pogace, we only recognize Easter. With great patience we explained that Easter celebrates the death of our Jesus, but Christmas was the holiday of all Christendom because it celebrates the birth. Nothing to do; worse because Christmas did not fall on a Sunday, but rather, I believe in that distant 1951, on a working day. We ensured him that we were all going to work, without distinction, only if they could grant us to return a bit earlier, before it got dark. We had no light, no candles, not even a small light. So many requests we made to our captors, and we were all united, regardless of creed. There, where we gathered to take the mountain road to work, we stopped until they promised we could celebrate Holy Mass which, in their ignorance, they could not understand what it was and why we held it so dear.

Where to say this Holy Mass? We were given the remains of a barrack, almost destroyed by Greek grenades, although one wall had been miraculously saved, there was room for everyone. And so began the work of cleaning the stones, the rocks, the weeds, always after work, in the dark with pieces of lit pine that served as torches. Don Nikolla and Father Gardin smiling among us, helping us. Father Gardin organizing the chorus, there were no more than seven or eight men and women, but we did it. Don Nikoll was to celebrate the rite; we returned with fury from work that December 25th, 1951; the half destroyed barrack was already crowded, the alter resting on the only wall left standing, erected as best as possible on a pile of stones well arranged and with a white sheet. Don Nikoll had hidden the cup, and some hosts and began the service. Inadvertently our captors came “to watch”, but I am sure above anything else they came out of curiosity to see what it was that we so much asked of them.

Who gave our weak voices so much power that it seemed our echoes almost reached the town? “Adeste Fidelis,” “Night of Stars”, “You Descend from the Stars” spread in the air. Don Nikoll said a few short words, simple, profound, which only Christianity can inspire. You couldn’t hear the softest of breaths; towards the end the sweet and slow notes of “Ave Maria” while the priest repeated, as for centuries: “Ite Missa est”, and then a burst of tears and hands were raised to heaven. And so, with all our strength “Christus Vincit, Christus Regnal”; it was now night time.

Don Nikoll Mazreku and Father Gardin are still alive, I do not know if you will ever read these simple lines but anyone who, like me, was present that Christmas in 1951 in that setting, will never forget them.

I lived forty-seven years in concentration camps, from Tepelena to Valona: yard 216, from Tirana: field no. 3 to Lushnja, Gradish to Pluk, Saver and lastly Grabian, labor camps, camps of marginalization; I was Italian, foreig, a laureate, yet I worked with the highlanders, with those farmers who taught me how to load wood on my back, to sew pigskin, who gave me love and courage; we lived a lifetime.

Back in Italy in the 1990’s I saw a church again, knelt at an altar to receive Holy Communion. Everything is beautiful, suggestive, but nothing can ever match the emotion so deep, so pure of that distant Christmas in 1951, amidst so much pain, so much suffering and yet among so many hopes in the Blessed Virgin, the Rosary, which accompanied us on the return from that labor so inhuman and unjust, the result of a damned and false ideology.

The years passed in our camp, always between work and barracks, amidst diseases and deficiencies of every type: if only one could tell of the hygienic conditions, the tortures to which we were subjected especially the old and the sick. Bathrooms nearly two hundred meters away, ten, if I remember correctly, all for 2000 people, and at night? You had to get there even if sick or impeded in any way, at any cost, or suffer an inhuman punishment: they would hang, on your neck, a pot full of excrement and brought you out among the rest of prisoners, as an example to the others, one day, two… as long as our captors felt necessary. There was time to weep and to laugh in that terrible tragedy!

Christmas 1991


Dott. Elena Gjeka Merlika-Kruja


Natale 1991

TEPELENA – Sono trascorsi quarant’anni, eppure i ricordi sono ancora tanto vivi e tanto presenti. Queste righe, questi episodi voi che li avete vissuti non li leggerete forse mai ma chi tentera’ di farli rivivere li dedico a voi, silenziosi e dimenticati eroi di una tragedia che non ci si rendeva conto, vivendola, di quanto grande e profonda fosse.

Angela, Maria, Anna, Antonio, e potrei ricordare ancora centinaia di nomi e, come sequenze di una pellicola, tanti volti tornano a guardarmi, occhi spauriti, visi pallidi, segnati da quel senso di terrore che accompagnava la nostra vita di ogni giorno.

Un campo di concentramento e di lavori forzati, un lagher, popolato da duemila esseri umani, provenienti, quasi tutti dal Nord dell’Albania; vecchi, donne, bambini, sradicati nel giro di poche ore dalle proprie case e ammassati in cinque caserme. E pensare che, a quel tempo, tutta la popolazione albanese non raggiungeva il milione! Il piano e il luogo pprescelto erano stati calcolati fin nei minimi particolari; una vasta pianura, quasi un piccolo campo di battaglia, circondato appunto di caserme, base logistica e militar per l’esercito italiano durante la guerra italo-greca, negli anni della seconda guerra mondiale. Non sivedeva altro che montagne tutt’attorno, un vento gelido ci rendeva la vita, d’inverno, ancor piu’ disastrosa; ferro spinato dovunque, divieto assoluto di accendere un fuoco per scaldarsi, pena la punizione di restare, legati, fuori tuttal la notte al aggiaccio. Di primo mattino il risvegoi. 40 persone per ogni caserma, affiancati l’uno all’atlro su tavolati di due piani, lunghi quanto la caserma. Non era concesso piu’ di 60 e ancor meno centrimetri pe ciascuno di noi’ i materassi, per chi avesse avuto la fortuna di possederne uno, sembravano dei minuscoli e stretti scendiletti. Poi l’appello nominale, in fretta, e partenza per il lavoro. I giovani tutti in montagna: non bastavano due ore di strada per arrivarci e poi arrampicarsi per uno strettissimo e rapidissimo sentiero fin lassu’ in alto, dov’era il bosco in cui lavoravamo’ bisognava avere braccia e muscoli forti, abbattere con la scrure glie alberi, spaccare la legna, trasportarla poi sul dorso fin giu’ in una piccola radura, stivarla e ritornare ancora su, una due volte, ridiscendere sempre carichi, sommersi dal peso, fino a che non si realizzava la quanita’ richiesta da chi ci accompagnava, i nostri carcerieri. Sembrava una carovana che, in fila indian, saliva e scendeva a fatica, silensziosa, con i piedi che dolevano, sanguinavano a volte, calzati da un pezzo di pelle di cinghiale tenuto da lacci a guisa di sandali. Fina a sera. Lo stomaco vuoto e la bocca arsa dalla mancanza d’acquia: al tramonto la lunga fila di questi esseri umani si rimetteva in cammino per tornare a “casa”. Sempre pero’ carichi di legna, gossi e lunghi pezzi legati con la fune sui nostri dorsi.

Era notte ormai, quando raggiungevamo il campo: i vecchi, i malati, attendevano il nostro ritorno sempre con ansia dieto l’alto muro di ferro spinato; e poi i bimbi. Non potro’ dimenticare mai i nostri bimbi che ci venivano incontro, scalzi, laceri, i nostri figli che lasciavamo al mattino e pregavamo Iddio di ritrovarli sani e salvi alla sera; eppure tante mamme trovavano un cadaverino; le mattie, sopratutto tra i bimbi, metevano vittime senza pieta’. Non vi eranoa medicinali; un medico che si metteva le mani qui capelli quando riusciva a venire, anche lui persguitato perche’ di non provata fede comunista e la cui capacita’ professional svaniva, impotente davanti a tante sciagure e a tante miserie. Eppure la donna albanese, la madre albanese di quegli anni e’ stata di una fermezza stoica: cone le sue mani seppelliva la sua creatura, pregava ma senza una lacrima, non v’erano piu’ lacrime nei nostri occhi, le avevamo piante tutte! L’indomani si tornava al lavor e cosi per anni; un caldaione d’acqua con qualche fagiolo e un pezzo di pane era il nostro vitto; al mattino un po’ d’acqua quasi nera, che avrebbe dovuto essere “the”.

Si avvicina il Natal del 1951. Compagni di prigionia erano con noi alcuni sacerdoti, Don Nikoll Mazreku, Padre Viktor Volaj, Padre Giaccomo Gardin S.J., quest’ultimo italiano. Di alcunialtri non ricodo piu’ il nome. Pensammo di celebrarlo quel con una Messa. Non vi erano solo cattolici nel nostro campo, v’erano mussulmani, ortodossi, ma l’iniziativa doveva essere nostra e non fu facile. Nel 51 erano ancora aperte Chiese e Moschee, ma gia’ preparavano le leggi che ne avrebbero sanzionato la chiusura e stabilito l’ateismo come “religione” di Sato. Alla nostra richiesta la direzione del campo pose un categorico rifuto: cosa vuol dire “Natale” disse il direttore Xhaferr Pogace, noi non riconsciamo che la Pasqu. Con immensa pazienza spegammo che la Pasqua celebra la morte del nostro Gesu’, ma il Natale e’ la festa di tutta la Cristianita’ perche celebra la ua nascita. Niente da fare; peggio perche’ Natale non cadeva di domenica ma, mi sembra, in quel lontano 1951 i n un giorno lavorativo. Assicurammo che saremmo andati tutti al lavoro, senza distinzioni, solo ci concedessero di toranre un po’ piu’ presto, prima che si facesse buio. Non avevamo luce, ne candele, nemmeno un lumino. Quante suppliche ai nostri carcerieri, ma fummo tutti solidali, indipendentemente dal credo di ciascuno. La dove ci radunavamo per prendere la strada di montagna per il nostro lavor, ci restammo finche ci promisero dhe potevamo celebrare la S. Messa che, nella loro ignoranza, non riuscivano a capire cosa fosse e perche’ poi ci tenevamo tanto.

Dove dire questa S. Messa? Ci assegnarono gli avanzi d’una caserma, quasi distrutta dalle granate creche; un solo muro era rimasto miracolosamente in piede, ma vi era spazio per tutti. Comincio’ cosi l’opera di ripulitura delle pietre, dei massi, delle erbacce, sempre dopo il lavoro, al buio con pezzi di pino accesi che fungevano da fiaccole. Don Nikolla e Padre Gardin in mezzo a noi soridenti, ad aiutarci. Padre Gardin organizzo’ il coro’ non eravamo piu’ di sette o otto tra donne e uomini ma ce la facemmo. Don Nikoll avrebbe celebrato il rito’ tornammo in furia dal lavor quel 25 Dicember 1951; la semidtrutta caserma era gia affollata, l’alter appoggiato all’unico muro rimasto in piedi, eretoo alla meglio su un cumulo ben disposto di pietre coperto d’un lenzuolo bianco. Don Nikoll aveva tenuto nascosto un calice e alcune ostie e inizio’ la funzione. Quasi inavvertitamente i nostri carcerieri si avvicinarono “per vigilare”, ma, sonon certa, soprattutto per curiosita’ veder cosa fosse quello per cui tanto li avevamo pregati.

Chi dette alle nostre povere voci tanta forza che sembrava l’eco giungesse fin quasi in paese? “Adeste Fidelis”, “Notte di Stelle”, “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle” si sparsero nell’aria. Don Nikoll pronuncio’ poche parole semplici, profonde, quali solo il Cristianesimo puo’ aspirare. Non si sentiva il ninimo soffi; alla fine soavi e latenti le note dell’Ave Maria, mentre il sacerdote ripeteva come da secoli: “Ite Missa est”, e fu, uno scoppio di lacrime e di mani che si levavano al Cielo. Allora, tutti, con forza, il nostro: “Christus vincit, Christus regnal”; era ormai notte.

Don Nikoll Mazreku e Padre Gardin sono ancora vivi, non so se leggeranno mai queste mie semplici righe ma chiunque, come me, in quel Natal 1951 fu presente in quel scenario, non li dimintichera’ mai.

Ho vissuto 47 anni in campi di concentramento, da Tepelena a Valona, cantiere 216, da Tirana, campo n.3 a Lushnja, Gradish, a Pluk, Save e ultimo Grabian, campi di lavoro, di emarginazione; ero italian, stranier, laureata, eppure ho lavorato con quelle montanare, con quelle contadine che mi hanno insegnato come si faceva a caricare la legna sul dorso, a calzare le “opinga” di pelle di cinghiale, che mi hanno dato affetto e coraggio; abbiamo vissuto una vita intera.

Tornata nel ’90 in Italia ho potutuo rivedera una Chiea, accostarmiad un altare, ricevere la S. Comunione. Tutto e’ bello, suggestivo, ma nulla potra’ mai eguagliare l’emozione cosi’ profonda, cosi pura di quel remoto Natale del 1951, tra tanto dolore, tra tante sofferenze eppure tra tante speranze nella Vergine Benedetta, il cui Rosario accompagnava il ritorno da quel lavoro inumano e ingiusto, frutto d’una ideologia bugiarda e maledetta.

Passavano gli anni nel nostro campo, sempre tra lavoro e caserma, tra malattie, insufficienze d’ogni genera: se solo si potessero raccontare le condizioni igieniche, a quali torture erano sottoposti soprattutto ivecchi e i malati. I bagni lontano quasi duecento metri, dieci, se ben ricordo, in tutto per 2000 persone; e la notte? Bisognava arrivare fin laggiu’ anche se malati o impditi ad ogni costo, pena una condanna inumana: ti appendevano in collo un pentolino pieno di escrementi e ti portavano in giro fra la gente, come esempio pe gli altri, un giorno, due, quando avrebbere trovato giusto i nostri carcerieri. C’era da pianger e da ridere in quella terribile tragedia!

Natale 1991


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