Looking out my tower I see this old house across the street. This once stunning Italianate building with marble carved pediments on the windows, an arched doorway which leads into the marbled floored foyer and a marble staircase leading up to the second floor. Once you reach the second story a balcony welcomes you overlooking my tower.
Why am I writing about this? The answer is two-fold.
In November 1944, upon the takeover of communism, my family went into hiding as they were being sought by the regime; my great-grandmother Dava, my grandmother Mrika, my two aunts Bardha and Marta, my uncle Nikoll and my young cousins Kristina, Celestina and Gjon. After they had been sheltered in hiding for some months by friends of the family, an amnesty was announced declaring that those in hiding wouldn’t be arrested. Because of the amnesty they came out of hiding, around March 1945 and were promptly picked up and brought to this home, the Guljelm Luka house, which was directly across the street from their own home. This would be their new ‘home’ for the next six months, alongside other families who were in the same predicament.
Their home across the street had by this time been confiscated by the communists and was being used as their offices; the Guljelm Luka house had been confiscated and turned into a jail for house arrest and interrogations. Can you imagine being under house arrest across the street from your own home? Seeing communist officers come and go into your house? I can’t. After six months they were sent to various internment camps and/or jail and spent the bulk of their lives under the regime in concentration camps, until democracy arrived in 1991, with the exception of my uncle Nikoll who successfully escaped from the concentration camp at Tepelene in 1949 and ultimately joined his father and older brother in Rome.
During the early years of communism the house was used as a jail until that service was exhausted, at which point it was turned into ‘apartments’. There were at least 4 families living in the house at once throughout the 45+ years. After the fall or the regime, as the original owners had no descendants, the house passed through a number of ‘new owners’, all the while continuing to descend into disrepair. What a shame!
Which brings me to my next point. The property has now changed hands again, this time it is in the lap of a developer and the steps to ‘take’ it down have begun. The project calls for the erection of a five story building. The house will be demolished and no one will ever be the wiser. I know it’s only a building, but to the many people who passed through it, in good but mostly in bad, it was a constant reminder of their past, of the evil men can impose on their fellow men. Maybe those survivors will be happy to be rid of it and never see it again, although I doubt they all feel like that. My cousin Kristina, still living on our property, looks at it every day as a constant reminder of her youth.
The story she most loves to recall is the one when she was 12 years old. Interned in the house she snuck out of it one day and managed, somehow, to go across the street and into ‘her’ house. She walked in the front door to find it all full of office furniture and people milling about. One of the communist officers found her and grabbed her by the arm wanting to know how she got there. She laughs telling me the story because she loves to tell me how she ‘kicked the officer in the shin and saw his surprised face. He dropped her arm and she did an about face and ran out of there as quickly as she could’. To this day, at 84 years old, she can recount all the small details, especially the one about the officer.
Here is where the story gets interesting, because the officer who grabbed her that memorable day in 1945 was none other that the communist officer Mhill Doci. As fate would have it, this noted criminal would, 4 years later, be the executioner of 14 innocent men in the Mirdita region, in retaliation for the murder of another communist Bardhok Biba, who ordered the murders of my uncles Mark and Llesh Gjomarkaj. Mark was Kristina’s father.
When I told her the house was going to be demolished she just glanced at it in sadness and said ‘it was a stunning house at one time’ and then proceeded to tell me the story again.
I understand progress and am all for it, but if we get ‘rid’ of all our historical sites and erase our history, good or bad, where does that leave future generations?
A future with no past has no anchor, it will be a runaway train to nowhere, aimlessly going through life occasionally glancing back and seeing a black hole, for there will be no monuments or historical buildings left to remind people of their past or whence they came and the lessons which need to be learned from the mistakes of that past.
I hope the builder will build something in character with the city and perhaps put a plaque somewhere in memory of the historical significance of the property. Just a small memento for the inquiring minds and history lovers but most of all for the Albanian people so that they will not forget that once upon a time a beautiful residence stood on that lot, a residence which in some way contributed to the history of their country.
As for Kristina….she received retribution when Mhill Doci fell into a sewer manhole one night and was left there to die!