My grandmother, Yugo-nostalgia and an unfinished tale
Coming of age in post-war Yugoslavia, my grandmother had seen herself as an intrinsic part of the socialist social fabric. How do I make sense of her world today?
By the time I came to know her, my grandmother had become a difficult woman. She came across as stern: She had a serious look about her, a woman not to be messed with. In Albanian we have an expression, ‘zonjë e randë,’ a miserly translation of which would be ‘a heavy lady,’ but a closer approximation would be a dignified lady. That is what my grandmother was: A difficult, dignified, proud woman; prim and coiffed even as she led the life of a recluse.
In my eyes, she was larger than life. There seems to have been some truth to her youthful physical corpulence as today her old clothes dangle on my petite frame, three sizes too big. She had a presence that demanded attention and respect whenever she walked into a room. She was always ordering us around the house to do one thing or another. Once in a while she would come down from her bedroom early in the morning, fling all the windows and doors open, and call us into a ‘work action’ — a spring cleaning with a communist flair.
Later in life, when her body had given in to old age and folded unto itself, she would continue to perform her morning ritual, carefully brushing her silver hair as it fell smoothly on her shoulders in a wave, before placing a pin on the side above her left ear to hold it in place. Every few months she would perm her hair at the same place — a small shop right off Zahir Pajaziti Square, the Ardhmëria (Future) hair salon, a remnant of Yugoslav times. Whenever I take the steps off the square and run into the laundry rack full of discolored towels that the hairdressers leave out to dry, I think of my grandmother coming home fresh from the coiffeur, a whiff of ammonia following her light, shuffling footsteps.
I live next door to Ardhmëria, so I think about my grandmother quite a bit.
1. The world of yesterday
The world my grandmother’s generation built and inhabited is but a specter in contemporary Kosovo. Unlike in Sarajevo, where you can grab a coffee at Café Tito, or Skopje, where one can buy a pin with the Marshal’s image at the bazaar, Prishtina is a desert to the Yugo-nostalgic tourist.
In Kosovo, the protracted segregation of the 1990s and the brutal 1998-99 war with Serbia, severed all real and imagined ties with Yugoslavia once and for all. The war served as an epistemic break too. All our lives were henceforth cut in half: before and after the war; the cut, an open wound still festering two decades later. Despite this break and the homogenization of public discourse through ‘the master narrative’ around the cult of Adem Jashari after the war, collective memory continues to be a site of ongoing strife. This muffled struggle is centered very much around what and who is remembered and commemorated; whose lives are mournable, what sacrifices notable.
Since the Kosovo war, as Stephanie Schwandner-Sievers has written, public memory of Yugoslavia has been both invisible and inaudible. In the rare exceptions that artists or intellectuals — members of “the cosmopolitan elite” as Schwandner-Sievers calls them — have reflected on this period, they have done so bitterly.
In private settings, however, Schwandner-Sievers encountered Tito-nostalgia similar to that found among other formerly Yugoslav nations and ethnicities. Some women remembered Tito’s time with gratitude — they had been the first girls in their family to go to school; others who had grown up in the late ’60s and early ’70s saw the socialist period as “a formative” time that had shaped their dreams. Yet the memories of this era were inextricably tied both to the hopes and aspirations that these generations had about their future, and to the traumatic experiences that Albanians endured in the 1980s and the 1990s. This “‘wounded’ character” of memory, as Schwandner-Sievers writes, might have contributed to the lack of public discussions of memories of Yugoslavia among Albanians since the Federal Republic’s collapse.
My grandmother passed away five years ago. She lived long enough to see Yugoslavia implode and lay bare internal conflicts that had preceded the ’80s but that throughout the socialist period had either been minimized, ignored or violently quashed. The 1980s had been a fall from grace for her too: According to a biography of her in a compendium published in the mid-’90s, “due to current socio-political pressures she was forced into early retirement” in 1986 from a notable career in education and political activism.
As a child, my grandmother had played messenger to the Communist Partisans in Gjakova, with her three big brothers and her sister having all joined the movement at one point or another. She had been young and the war had left a great mark on her; growing up she lived in the shadow of her brothers’ glory (her sister is mentioned less often in the family lore). To this day, the old wooden front door of the family house in Gjakova bears a plaque commemorating Fahri Hoxha, her brother who was hanged by the Nazis in August 1944. But it is one of the surviving brothers, Fadil, a commander of the Kosovo Partisans who went on to become a high-level politician in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, who is mostly remembered — and who remains a point of contention to this day.
In a rare video of my grandmother, filmed in 2012, she appears distraught and trembling as she speaks to the camera. She’s dressed in black, a color she wore at all times after her son’s death in 1993; a simple scarf adorning her grim outfit. It is supposed to be a happy day, but she’s among two dozen people crammed into a badly lit room, the office of the Organization of the Veterans of the Anti-Fascist National Liberation War (OV LANÇ) — as World War II was called in Yugoslavia. They have all come to the unveiling of the statue of Fadil Hoxha, the People’s Hero of Yugoslavia, a few days before the centennial of Albania’s Declaration of Independence — no doubt to frame the historic figure of Hoxha as an indivisible part of the history of the Albanian nation.
I was drawn to Yugoslav history like an amateur archaeologist who digs for artefacts in their own backyard.
The ceremony is a bitter celebration: After years of haggling with public authorities for a public space, a square or a street, in which to erect the statue, the organization has been forced to situate it in a small forgotten room off the formerly Brotherhood and Unity — now, Adem Jashari — Square.
Sitting next to her younger brother Skender, who is today one of the few members of the veterans’ organization’s presidency, she does not mince her words.
“This is shameful. Fadil was not a person who deserved a bust in a room,” she says, shaking her head in incredulity.
Almost 10 years later, after a flurry of promises to place it in the center of Gjakova, and much resistance from the municipal assembly, the bronze statue remains forgotten in a corner of the veterans’ offices, collecting dust.
All her life my grandmother was Fadil Hoxha’s little sister, and all my life I have been her granddaughter.
I started out to write this essay with the intention of mapping out the memories of the last few people who had either been actively involved in building a socialist Yugoslavia, or those who had barely survived its repression, but from the outset I realized that my grandmother’s family history impacted each encounter, each interview.
My family name opened doors, but it also closed them. Subjects would tell me stories they thought I wanted to hear, assuming that I was on a quest to save the family honor, or to salvage the last vestiges of “the better Yugoslav life.”
“Unreflective nostalgia breeds monsters,” Boym concludes. My pursuit was nostalgic, yes, but it was one of reflective nostalgia.
They were not entirely wrong. I was drawn to Yugoslav history like an amateur archaeologist who digs for artefacts in their own backyard.
I was born in 1988 and have no recollection of Tito, or first hand experience of the Yugoslav consumerist bliss of the ’70s. Was I being Yugo-nostalgic, and wouldn’t that be a bad thing to begin with? After all, nostalgics are considered sentimental, naive, and somewhat foolish beings. With glazed eyes they wistfully recount the past, admirably gazing at each memory like a singular marble from which time has polished off all imperfections. But as Svetlana Boym shows in her book “The Future of Nostalgia,” there is more nuance to this ultimately modern condition that stems from our need to stop time, stop progress.
Nostalgia is inherently ambivalent and can be both a yearning for a place and a time. More importantly, unlike melancholia, which is individual, nostalgia is centred on the relationship between personal and collective memory. In her book, Boym describes two types of nostalgia: restorative and reflective. The first does not think of itself as nostalgia, but as truth and tradition and manifests itself in national and nationalist revivals engaging in antimodern myth-making. While restorative nostalgia revels in reconstruction of “monuments of the past,” reflective nostalgia “lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history.” Reflective nostalgia, then, is concerned with longing, loss and the impossibility of patching up the memory gaps that restorative nostalgics so ambitiously seek.
As Boym writes, on one side we have restorative nostalgia, reinforcing a homogenous “national plot,” a collective memory based on narratives that enforce “an absolute truth.” Meanwhile, on the other side we have reflective nostalgia that emphasizes the relationship between individual and collective identity not by attempting to recreate unified narratives, but by cherishing the gaps and differences that arise from contrasting perspectives.
“Unreflective nostalgia breeds monsters,” Boym concludes.
My pursuit was nostalgic, yes, but it was one of reflective nostalgia. I tried to gather disjointed memories of my grandmother not to build a coherent narrative about her or her generation, but to reconstruct a semblance of a different temporality: One in which my grandmother had once been young and happy, a valued member of her community. Ultimately it was a search for a temporality in which my grandmother actually made sense.
3. A distinguished woman
As a former history and geography teacher, my grandmother loved non-fiction books, particularly contemporary biographies of notable people. She found solace reading about great men and women, the interplay of the personal and the historic in the course of a single life, and I’d like to think she enjoyed the gossip.
In her later years, she would read the memoirs of American presidents, first ladies and European politicians, appreciating the style in which such books weaved together truth and experience, fact and fiction. These books stood in stark contrast to the way we were used to and taught to write biographies in school, be they of famous personalities, historical figures or, especially, martyrs.
Collecting dust in my grandmother’s own personal library were dozens of such monographs chronicling the first teachers in Kosovo; books about historical figures who one way or another contributed to the prosperity of the Albanian nation, and naturally, books about her brother, Fadil.
All these books followed a pattern and repeated similar tropes. To my literary tastes, the dry narrative that accompanied these lives worth recording made them seem anything but worth living. These men and, less often, women, were born on a certain day and in a certain place but they had all somehow come from patriotic families and gone on to commit patriotic acts. These families could be described as either feudal, intellectual, rich, or poor. Sometimes people originated from old urban families; at times from land-owning noble families (familje bujare); and more rarely from working class, or farming families. But one thing all these biography subjects had in common was that they came from somewhere, their family’s patriotism paving a path of glory, preceding their arrival onto the stage of life, and forever shaping the intentions of their actions — or at least our interpretation thereof.
In this tradition, we would have to establish that my grandmother, Myrvete Limani, née Hoxha (1930), had been born in a patriotic, fatherland-loving family, who prized education above all else. She attended elementary and middle school in Gjakova, was an active member of the Anti-Fascist National Liberation War from 1942 — when she was a mere a child — and joined the Communist Party quite young in 1948.
She was one of the first teachers to graduate from the Normalja Pedagogical School in Gjakova and continued her studies in history and geography in the Pedagogical High School (Shkolla e Lartë Pedagogjike) in Belgrade. Between 1948 and 1949 she participated in the youth action for the construction of Novi Beograd. Upon finishing her studies she returned to Gjakova to teach at the gymnasium, before moving on to teach at the gymnasium in Prizren. In 1957 she moved to Prishtina to teach at the ‘Aca Marović’ elementary school (today’s ‘Faik Konica’ school).
Throughout this time Myrvete was an active member of various party committees and secretariats in Gjakova, Prizren and Prishtina. Due to her noted activism, she was appointed as a member of the Provincial Presidency of the Socialist League of the Working People (Lidhja Socialiste e Popullit Punonjës, LSPP). Between 1974 and 1986 she was the director of all pre-school facilities (entet parashkollore) in Prishtina, where she was actively engaged in expanding the number of kindergarteners and improving the state of the facilities under her supervision. Due to political pressure, she was forced into early retirement, but not before she had been adorned with two Orders of Merits for the People, and a ‘Ganimete Tërbeshi’ plaque for extraordinary contribution to “socialist education.” Looking from this perspective, one could easily conclude, as a title of a Rilindja feature on her from 1974 did, that Myrvete Hoxha Limani had been “Active Since Childhood” (Aktive Ç’Prej Fëmijënisë).
But in a different tradition of biography writing, one in which portraits of people emerge in assemblages of apocryphal stories and difficult memories, my grandmother’s life could barely be encapsulated by a resumé of ‘the reaped successes’ (sukseset e korrura) of an educator in socialist Yugoslavia.
To understand her, one would have to understand the stories she liked to tell, those she was reluctant to, and those that she considered worth recording.
In an attempt to record my grandmother’s wealth of stories, no doubt for selfish reasons as much as for the benefit of public history, in 2015 I finally managed to convince her to do an interview for the Oral History Initiative, a project I was involved with at the time.
My grandmother, who had been sharp as a tack all my life, had begun to repeat stories, grasping for things she had forgotten but knew had once been there. It upset her to not remember everything, or to have memories overpower her when she least expected them, but it also made her anxious to recount everything while she still could. The result was an imperfect interview in which her deepest hurts nevertheless managed to emerge.
Through it, I understood that despite the many abundances in my grandmother’s life — an abundance of siblings, relatives, grandchildren; an abundance of opportunities and experiences — all of it had been anchored in loss. At first the loss of her home during World War II, then the loss of her brother; later it was the loss of her youngest son, and soon after, that of her husband. By the time we interviewed her in our house’s guest room — a room kept neat for visitors that rarely ever stopped by — she was the oldest person in her family and among her peers, and she had almost nothing left to lose.
5. Elementary lessons
When Myrvete was born to Nakije and Halim Hoxha on March 22, 1930, Gjakova was a small but bustling town in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia ruled by the Karadjordjević dynasty. The Hoxhas were a feudal family that had fallen on hard times in the early 20th century and, like other land-owning families in Gjakova, hated the tax collectors — porezgjitë. “Our family was very rich, all Gjakovars know this, but you did not have cash back then,” my grandmother would say vainly. “The main butchers who tortured the people were the porezgjitë who collected taxes from house to house. When you were unable to pay the money, they collected some things from the house and took them because you had to pay up.”
Myrvete’s grandfather, Haxhi Emin Efendiu, who had earned the title Hadji after completing the holy trip to Mecca, was a knowledgeable and educated man, versed in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. He had been a teacher and led the Gjakova ruzhdije, a type of religious middle school. Myrvete’s father, Halim, also an educated man, was a merchant. In “Fadil Hoxha Siç e Njoha Unë” (Fadil Hoxha as I Knew Him), Ekrem Murtezai writes that Halim also ran multiple shops, owned land, supervised farmers and had taught in a mejtep, an Ottoman religious school. He was married three times, a fact my grandmother does not mention in our interview; nor did she ever mention to me, privately or otherwise, that Fahri and Fadil had been born to Halim Hoxha’s first two wives, both of whom had died while the children were still very young.
The family was big: Halim Hoxha had eight children, all of whom, the girls included, were sent to school. At first, my grandmother and her sister Nexhmije were tutored in a mejtep before being sent to school in Serbian (the so-called “građanska škola” — civic school) as her brothers Fadil and Fahri had been before them. “Who cared back then [about the language], as long as one could go to a school,” my grandmother would say, but people actually did care and most did not go. Throughout her life, my grandmother would occasionally joke about how people from Gjakova could hardly speak any Serbian.
The fact that the family insisted on education was a great point of pride for my grandmother throughout her life, although it was perhaps rather a function of privilege. Since following its formation in 1918, the Yugoslav Kingdom had denied Albanians the right to education in their native tongue — and only a handful of schools had operated in Albanian prior to that — the local population was predominantly illiterate. According to the 1931 census, the three territorial units, banovinas, into which contemporary Kosovo was divided, had among the lowest literacy rates in the Yugoslav Kingdom. In Gjakova, 84.2% of the population was illiterate — with only 5% of women of all ages being able to read and write. The figures were even bleaker for the Drenica region, where 86.4% of men and 98.6% of women were illiterate.
These numbers stood in stark contrast to the district of Belgrade, where, in almost inverse fashion, only 10.9% of the population was illiterate.
The fascist regime had given Albanians many of the rights that the Yugoslav Kingdom had denied.
Once fascist Italy annexed most parts of Kosovo in 1941 during the Axis forces’ invasion of Yugoslavia, it subsumed them under the Kingdom of Albania, which it had occupied two years earlier. Unlike Germany and Bulgaria, which occupied other parts of Kosovo, the Italian protectorate opened schools in the Albanian language throughout towns and villages populated by Albanians. Teachers from Albania proper and Kosovars who had studied in the Albanian lycées arrived in droves to teach in their mother-tongue. Fadil Hoxha too, upon finishing his studies in Elbasan, returned to Gjakova as a teacher in 1941. My grandmother and her sister Nexhmije, three years her senior, promptly enrolled in the Albanian school in Gjakova as soon as they could.
As a girl my grandmother, who had loved school, was a well-behaved student. Merrily, she went to school together with her sister and their friends; both boys and girls would walk in a group: “We’d protect each other.”
Fadil, who had just come back from Albania, had returned a buntovnik — a rebel, as my grandma would say. He had joined communist groups in Elbasan, and soon after arriving in Kosovo began organizing anti-fascist activities. Propagating against the Italians in Kosovo was difficult. The fascist regime had given Albanians many of the rights that the Yugoslav Kingdom had denied, most prominently allowing teaching in the Albanian language and the use of the national flag.
In photographs from either 1941 or 1942, Gjakova’s prefect, Sylejman Beg Kryeziu, can be seen dressed in full national garb in tow with a convoy of Italian officers and religious leaders as they march through the city on Albanian Flag Day. It was exactly on Flag Day — November 28, 1941 — that Fadil and his comrades organized an anti-fascist protest just as people had gathered to celebrate the national holiday for the first time in their lives. After holding an animating speech that supposedly “unmasked the politics of the occupier, who was pretending to be the savior of Albanians,” Fadil tore the Albanian flag of the Italian protectorate to pieces. Following this episode, Fadil was briefly arrested and then released, before finally moving on to bolder guerrilla actions.
In her mind, Partisans were more just than the Albanian nationalists who fought the Serbs, because they wanted liberation from everyone.
The war that was happening in the adult world also tinted the world of children. One day, after the bell rang, the children lined up in front of the school like usual, waiting for the teachers to usher them in. But that particular day, as my grandmother was waiting in line with her friends, she noticed that one of the teachers was wearing a plis, the traditional Albanian white felt hat. Although she was no more than 10 or 11, she knew that the plis was worn by sympathizers of Balli Kombëtar (the National Front), who, as she’d say, “were more nationalists than Albanians are today” and wanted the unification of the whole Albanian nation. She also knew that the ballists were “in service” of the Germans and Italians, of the occupation, and that they were against the Partisans, amongst whom, of course, was her brother. In her mind, Partisans were more just than the Albanian nationalists who fought the Serbs, because they wanted liberation from everyone — including the Italians and the Germans. Even as a young child, my grandmother had understood that she and the teacher represented divergent ideological “streams.” In a small act of defiance, my grandmother swore at the teacher.
Almost 75 years later, when we interviewed her, she was still ashamed to tell us what she had called him.
“I can’t tell you, because you will record it … I basically let him know that he was serving the invaders,” she told us, laughing out loud but her cheeks turning slightly pink.
After she used profane language, the teacher dragged her out of the row of students and put her in “jail,” a makeshift storage room under the stairs where the school kept firewood. “I was but a child, bre, a child … I was scared that there’d be rats underneath the stairs,” my grandmother told us. The teacher showed mercy and did not keep her “in jail” long, but my grandmother would regret the curse until she died. “I remember it because I made a mistake. What I said was wrong,” she said guiltily.
My grandma was a strange creature with curious ticks. Very rarely, she would indulge herself and drink a gulp of rakija from a čokan schnapps glass — “to keep the heart healthy.” She loved shirë and would drink it in a small wine glass to accompany her okra stew. She’d make the best krelanë, breaking up the crumbs by hand as soon as the dough was out of the oven. Deep down she was a romantic: The two of us went to watch “Pearl Harbor” at a renovated Kino ABC, with her enjoying the love triangle between Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale immensely. To this day I snigger at Josh Hartnett’s dumb and anachronistic line, yelled at a pivotal moment in the movie as the Japanese bombs hit Pearl Harbor: “I think World War Two just started!”
7. Of birds and fires
One spring evening in 1943, as darkness had fallen and the Hoxha family was preparing for bed, a black bird crashed into the window of the living room of the two-storied Ottoman townhouse. “It’s a bad omen,” my grandmother would say every time a crow perched on our windowsill, still deeply convinced in her superstition.
It was late March or early April — depending on the account — and just a few streets away, Fadil Hoxha, who had been roaming the Kosovo mountains as a Partisan, had gathered a small group of his best men to assassinate an Italian collaborator who had been jeopardizing their bases. His name was Ali Bokshi and he and 30 others were “bandits who were serving fascism,” Fadil would say in his interview with Veton Surroi published in “Fadil Hoxha në Vetën e Parë” (Fadil Hoxha in the First Person) in 2010. Bokshi’s men would go out together with the Carabinieri each night and attack the Partisans. He must have been quite infamous that my grandmother would later say with contempt, “Even the babes in Gjakova cradles knew Ali Bokshi, the spy.”
The Partisans — namely, Fadil, Boro Vukmirović, Ramiz Sadiku and Ymer Pula — having assessed that Bokshi was “the biggest” threat, decided to take him out “at any cost.” Ten Partisans positioned themselves across from Bokshi’s house, guns and grenades went off, but the action nevertheless went awry. “Mal Sadiku threw a grenade, but the roof of a house obstructed it and the bomb did not go off inside the house,” Fadil would tell Surroi. Instead, as it exploded, it illuminated the Partisans, and Bokshi’s men recognized the attackers. The target himself managed to escape unscathed, with only his brother Gani wounded during the action. Having failed their mission the Partisans withdrew, leaving the city to the mercy of a furious Bokshi, who seemingly went on a vengeful rampage burning down many houses and killing the men of the Grezda family, including Ferid Grezda who was a child.
“Our house was attacked first. A hail of gunshots began; we were in the room getting ready for bed [when] boom boom boom. My dad tells my older brother, ‘Fahri, run!’” my grandmother would recall. Fahri escaped, and from Fadil’s account, eventually made it to Prishtina where he later joined up again with the Partisans.
The rest of the family, thinking they were guilty of nothing, decided to stay behind. At first, the children were taken to the next door neighbor, while the father and mother stayed back. They even planned to go out and open the front door to tell the Italian soldiers, “Here you go, there’s nothing to see.” Holding an oil lamp, Halim and Nakije managed to walk halfway to the door before Nakije changed her mind. “One cannot face these people, they seem to be very angry,” my grandma would report her mother having said. And so the two of them left the oil lamp in the middle of the garden and ran to the neighbors where the children were hiding.
Not long after the Hoxha house was set on fire, the next door neighbor’s house also caught ablaze. In a panic, as both families tried to save the neighbor’s furniture and clothes from the flames, Halim turned to another neighbor seeking refuge. The family refused. “How can this be?” Halim pleaded, “I have nowhere to go, the army is in my yard.” But the neighbors, who no doubt were afraid that they too would be caught in the crossfire, wouldn’t budge, and as Halim tried to jump their garden wall, the neighbors pushed him back off the ledge. He fell back and broke his leg, my grandmother would tell us, laughing at the tragicomic situation. So now, the Hoxhas were forsaken, and Myrvete’s big sister, who was “strong, young and stout,” was forced to carry her father and go out into the sokak, street.
“We go out on the street, and we follow [my sister and father]. Our maternal uncle was close, my mother’s brother; he looked after us a lot during the war. We went to his house and stayed there,” my grandmother would recount often. “The biggest misfortune at the time was after our house burned down [when] we were looking for a place to rent and live. Everywhere we went the neighborhood would get up and say, ‘No you cannot come here.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because they will come to get you, and we will also suffer, our entire neighborhood will be burned.’”
Even though they rebuilt their house after the war, it would never be the same to her.
Finally, other neighborhoods who were less squeamish about hosting the family of a Partisan, and that had already played host to the illegal rendezvous of the armed rebels, took the family in. The Hoxhas finally settled in the Mullah Jusufi neighborhood.
This episode was deeply traumatic for my grandmother; even though they rebuilt their house after the war, it would never be the same to her. She would often talk about the old house with its great wooden shelves in the family room, filled with leather-bound, hardcover books.
By the following year, the Hoxhas’ resilience would be tested further. Two of the older siblings, Fahri and Sani, both at some point affiliated with the anti-fascist movement, moved to Tirana to work and in the hope of escaping potential persecution. Kika, as my grandmother called her mother all her life, stayed with Halim and the younger children in Gjakova. One night, after the Germans had taken over Kosovo following Italy’s capitulation and the fighting between the Axis powers and the Partisans had become more frequent, Halim, who was not a Communist himself, was arrested and sent to a forced labor camp in Austria.
He returned after the war had ended to a new reality: His first born, Fahri, had been hanged by the Nazis in the main city square with 10 of his comrades, including 17-year-old Ganimete Tërbeshi; while his other son, Fadil, had come out of the war victorious, appointed deputy commander of the Kosovo Operations HQ in what would soon become a province of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.
8. The end of the war
When the Italians entered Gjakova in 1941, my grandmother and other children had gone out to join the crowds cheering the marching soldiers, awaiting them with song and applause. Dressed in national garb, waving the Albanian red and black flag, the city center had boomed with people chanting “Long live Albania,” “Down with Yugoslavia,” “Long live baba Hitler” and “Long live Mussolini.”
When the Partisans liberated Gjakova from the Nazi forces in November 1944, cheers and celebration ensued once again. But my grandmother was not there to witness it as she was hiding with her family in Albania’s Gjakova Highlands (Malësi të Gjakovës) in Albania. In early 1944, after Halim’s arrest, my grandmother told us, Fadil had written a letter to his step-mother Kika to the effect “I cannot undertake any action. You are hostages, you will be killed,” and asking her to hide out with the younger children. The two older siblings, Sani and Nexhmije, had joined the Partisan forces. “I couldn’t go because I was young, they didn’t take me,” my grandmother would tell me. Secretly, the Partisans had accompanied Kika and the youngest children over the border to Albania, passing Tropoja and settling them in Dushaj at the house of a man called Zenel Ahmeti. The Partisans had strong bases in the highlands, with many houses taking in Partisan families when they escaped from the city, Fadil would recount. “All night, villagers would come to [Ahmeti’s] house to protect us,” my grandmother would tell us years later.
The family returned to the city once it was liberated from the withdrawing Nazi forces and with the Communist Partisans victorious. For my grandmother, the war ended then, although fighting continued throughout Kosovo as Partisans struggled to quash the anti-communist national resistance. In December, a group of hundreds of Albanians tried to take over Ferizaj, unsuccessfully; and about a month later a similar action was organized in Gjilan. In revanche “a Serbian Partisan brigade,” Fadil Hoxha would later admit, entered Gjilan and killed many civilians, “many innocent people who had nothing to do with the ballists.”
Meanwhile, fighting continued further north as well, at the Syrmian Front, northwest of Belgrade, where the withdrawing Axis forces had established a defensive line against a joint effort by Yugoslav Partisans, and Soviet and Bulgarian forces, aided by Allied air forces. In Kosovo, which had been subsumed under the Yugoslav Communist command, the Partisans tried to mobilize as many men of age as possible to send up to the front, but they were faced with insurgency. Despite efforts by the Partisans, including Fadil Hoxha himself, to convince Shaban Polluzha and his brigade of about 8,000 men to join the Partisan forces fighting against the Germans, Polluzha decided to stay put and protect his home region of Drenica. Fighting between Partisans and Polluzha’s forces ensued, and according to historian Noel Malcolm, about 20,000 Albanians joining the rebellion. By March the insurgency had been quashed completely with 44 villages in the area destroyed.
Meanwhile, the Syrmian Front was finally broken in mid April, and by May 9, the Soviet forces had declared victory in Berlin as Germany surrendered. The world war was truly over.
9. Coming of age
For most of the war, the issue of Kosovo’s status remained unclear. Despite the Bujan Resolution of 1943-44, in which the National Liberation Council for Kosovo and the Dukagjini Plain made clear that the majority of the Kosovo population was Albanian and that they desired to be unified with Albania, once the war was over the province remained under Serbia. At first, for the Kosovo Albanians who once again had remained outside of the Albanian state, the border was negligible. Immediately after the war, Yugoslavia and Albania had excellent relations and Enver Hoxha wholeheartedly supported the idea of joining the two countries. In 1945, when the newly established institutions were attempting to expand the education system in Kosovo, Albania sent 50 teachers.
“Once the schools in Albanian were opened, then we began to open our eyes, and we need to thank Albania, who sent teachers immediately,” my grandmother, who was but a middle school student after the war, explained. “Once it picked up steam, it never stopped.”
In the aftermath of the war, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) undertook a massive education campaign to eradicate illiteracy. Education was given a lot of importance by the Communists as a tool to instigate a Yugoslav patriotism as well as to combat “backwardness.” The newly established authorities organized literacy courses and expanded the network of elementary and high schools. The Normalja Pedagogical School, which held classes in Serbian, was established in Prishtina in 1945, while its Albanian counterpart was established almost a year later in Gjakova in October 1946. According to Qazim Lleshi’s book “Normalja e Gjakovës,” the Gjakova Normalja was organized in record time to prepare teaching cadres: The first day of classes was held on a Saturday.
According to the 1948 census, 62.5% of the Kosovo population was illiterate. The women’s illiteracy rate was 78.4% — although historian Isabel Ströhle suggests the actual numbers might have been higher. The CPY claimed that in one year alone — between 1947 and 1948 — 40,000 people in Kosovo attended literacy courses, and in the first 10 years of the new socialist order, the number had jumped to 270,000.
By 1947, my grandmother had joined dozens of mostly young men and women at the Normalja who had the aim of becoming teachers themselves. When we interviewed her, she insisted that she had been in the first generation of graduates, but according to a book on Normalja published by Qazim Lleshi in 1987, it appears she was in the second class. Incidentally, my grandfather Xhahit Limani, who was originally from Prizren and met my grandmother while attending Normalja, was a student in the first cohort that graduated in 1948.
Normalja was very prestigious. My grandmother would often equate finishing the Normalja with graduating university. The school itself was housed in the Institute of Industry, which had operated in the inter-war period, and prepared students to become pedagogues. Students attended classes in subjects including Albanian language and literature, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, mathematics, geography, physics, history, music and drawing. The first generation of students had no schoolbooks, which meant that the only way for students to retain knowledge was through rote learning. The excellent students repeated the lessons to the others. My grandfather, whose school record is well chronicled in his fellow classmate Lleshi’s book, had apparently excelled in gymnastics and song.
While all of the graduates of Normalja would go on to become teachers and be placed wherever the Communist Party needed them, some, like my grandfather and grandmother, continued their education in Belgrade.
“[Going to Belgrade] was an excellent feeling. It was like going to a European country, a great life achievement. We were flying, we were flying when we went to Belgrade,” my grandmother would tell us during the interview.
In a photograph with classmates in Belgrade’s central Terazije Square, my grandmother, wearing a dark dress and a jacket thrown over her shoulders, looks exuberantly at the camera as she nestles between three of her peers. She seems happy.
“We were flying, we were flying when we went to Belgrade,” my grandmother would tell us.
“They received us well. Naturally, later on, relations [with Serbs] began to hurt, but they also valued us,” she offered in the interview.
It was during this period that my grandmother, who had had a weak spot for fashion throughout her life, went shopping in one of the malls in central Belgrade. Looking for a specific size, she turned to a woman to ask her for help, referring to her as one did at the time, in sisterly fashion simply as drugarica — comrade. Most likely noticing her poor Serbian, and the accent that most Gjakovars never managed to shake off, the Serb woman turned around and without skipping a heartbeat told my grandmother with disdain: “Nisam ja tvoja drugarica!” (I’m not your comrade!).
It was a cool shower to my grandmother’s political naivete and a chip at her conviction in the party line of brotherhood and unity. Yes all animals were equal, but some animals were more equal than others.
10. Quick fix emancipation
My grandmother was a pioneer of her own kind: Amused with her own youthful audacity, she’d often tell us how she had worn a bathing suit to go swimming in the Erenik River. “In the ’50s!” she’d say, widening her eyes. The times were a-changing, especially for women.
Women had played an integral part in the liberation of Yugoslavia and the party recognized the importance of women’s emancipation. The Women’s Anti-Fascist Front of Yugoslavia (AFZ) was established in 1941 with the sole goal of organizing and mobilizing women in the war efforts against the occupation. Women’s participation in the anti-fascist efforts in Yugoslavia were unprecedented: According to official statistics, 100,000 women fought as Partisans, and around 2 million contributed to the movement in different ways.
In Kosovo, AFZ cells called aktiva organized women to collect arms, food, clothes and medical supplies, and mainly engaged them in carrying news and letters to and from Partisans. The AFZ grew in this part of Yugoslavia particularly after the war ended and was integral in propagating women’s participation in voluntary work and in organizing literacy courses. In 1947, the local wing of the organization also began publishing Buletini, a magazine in Albanian, through which it called on women to look after their homes and “gardens” (i.e. the public space), emphasizing the importance of women getting educated as the educators of children, society and the state. “Every mother has the holy duty of sending her children to school!” read one such propaganda article in the second issue.
One of the key duties of AFZ in Kosovo was to campaign against the veil, which was worn by most adult women in Kosovo. A series of articles in Buletini were dedicated to this issue, clearly demarcating the veil as an obstruction to women’s participation in the public sphere and emblematic of the region’s “backwardness.” The removal of the veil was supposed to “open up new perspectives for work and economic protection” and was particularly necessary now that women were expected to contribute to the overall societal development by working in factories, among other things, as an article in issue nr. 5-6 of Buletini read.
My grandmother Myrvete, who had joined the party and the accompanying women’s organizations, was also active in the campaign.
“All the Gjakova women, and not only them but all Kosovo women, were locked behind the veil. Young women, old women — all locked behind the veil,” my grandmother would say. A young Myrvete and her comrades would go door to door in Gjakova to convince families that their mothers and their daughters needed to remove the veil. “This was our primary duty: to remove it … We’d tell them openly: ‘It’s time to remove the veil’.”
Initially, the campaign was not a success, as it faced resistance from both men and women, but by 1951 the veil was illegal. Each member of the political and social organizations had a duty to implement the campaign, starting with their own family.
“My mother also wore the veil, I remember this well. When the time came to remove the veil … we were organizing rallies, like we do now in the square. All the women, there are pictures of this,” she told us, “would come out to remove the veil in public. Some would remove them with fury, some slowly. My mother was embarrassed. She’d tell us, ‘I’m an old woman, how can I remove the veil?’”
But Kika too removed the veil — at least the coat-like çarshaf. In later photographs of her with her family, either in front of her house or on my grandmother’s wedding day, she can be seen dressed in polka dotted traditional balloon pants, shallvare, with a black scarf tightly wrapped around her hair, her soft face and deep-set eyes visible for all to see.
11. Loose ends
I cannot finish my grandmother’s story, there is too much to say and all of it would be of little use. The map is the territory. Like Borges’ Unconscionable Map, once it would coincide with the entirety of its referent, the story of my grandmother’s life would become useless in its vastness.
I bid my grandmother goodbye on a cold December day, the cortège of her funeral fumbling through the old Prishtina cemetery, desperately on the lookout for pathways that had been overtaken by shrubs and wild plants. Zija Mulhaxha, the 80-year-old head of the veterans’ organization, said a few words about the deceased as relatives, family friends and a handful of her peers encircled the open tomb.
I do not remember the speech, but it must have begun, “Myrvete Hoxha Limani was born in a noble, patriotic family…”
Feature image: Myrvete at a public reception prepared for Josip Broz Tito’s visit to Prishtina, 1979.
All images courtesy of the Limani family archive.
This story is supported by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Gesellschaftsanalyse und politische Bildung e.V. – Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Resources used for this story:
Akademik Ekrem Murtezai. “Fadil Hoxha Siç e Njoha Unë.” Prishtinë: Libri Shkollor, 2011.
Anna di Lellio & Stephanie Schwandner Sievers. “The Legendary Commander: The Construction of an Albanian Master-Narrative in Post-War Kosovo.” Nations and Nationalism 12 nr. 3 (2006): 513–29.
Bonfiglioli. “Revolutionary Networks. Women’s Political and Social Activism in Cold War Italy and Yugoslavia (1945-1957).” Ph.D. diss., Universiteit Utrecht, 2012.
Definitivni rezultati popisa stanovništva od 31. marta 1931. godine – Knjiga 3. Beograd: Drzavana Stamparija, 1938.
Isabel Ströhle. “Aus den Ruinen der alten erschaffen wir die neue Welt! Herrschaftspraxis und Loyalitäten në Kosovë (1944-1974).” München: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2016.
Mrika Limani & Lura Limani, “Miti i Luftëtares: Analizë diskursive e literaturës mbi kosovarët në Lëvizjen Antifashiste në Kosovë pas LDB-së.” Në Feminizmat në Kosovë: Alter Habitus, 2018.
Noel Malcolm. “Kosova: Një Histori e Shkurtër.” Prishtinë: Koha, 2011.
Qazim Lleshi. “Normalja e Gjakovës: Themelimi dhe brezi i saj i parë (1946-1948).” Gjakovë: Bashkësia e Vetëqevërisë së Interesit të Arsimit dhe Edukimit të Komunës së Gjakovës, 1987.
Stephanie Schwandner Sievers. “Invisible Inaudible – Albanian Memories of Socialism After the War in Kosovo.” Në Post-Communist Nostalgia, edited by Maria Todorova & Zsuzsa Gille. New York: Berghahn Books, 2012.
Svetlana Boym. “The Future of Nostalgia.” New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Tahir Z. Berisha. “Emra Që Nuk Harrohen: Arsimtarët Veteranë (1941-1951), II.” Prishtinë: Enti i teksteve dhe i mjeteve mësimore të Kosovës, 1996.
Veton Surroi. “Fadil Hoxha Në Vetën e Parë.” Prishtinë: Koha, 2010.