Longform | Albania

The mystery of the lost aunt

By - 16.06.2021

An American-Greek Jewish family’s search for their Albanian roots.

Five years ago this summer, I interviewed an American folklorist named Annette B. Fromm for an article on Albania’s Jews. She told me that at the turn of the 20th century, a teenage Jewish girl, the sister of her maternal grandfather, eloped with a Muslim Albanian man from Filiates; a town in the Greek mountains a stone’s throw from the Albanian border and the sea. 

The family sat shiva — seven days of mourning — and her memory was banished. No family member was permitted contact. The aunt remained unnamed and lost.

Fromm has worked on Native American textiles and the material culture of Greek Jews: She helps edit a journal called Sephardic Horizons about the Jewry of the eastern Mediterranean that makes up the overwhelming majority of Greece’s, and the South Balkans’ own Jews. 

The B. in her name, the matrilineal surname of Bacolas, attests to Greek Jewish roots, but those roots are not Sephardic or Ashkenazi but Romaniote.

The Yanniote branch of the Romaniote are from the Greek-speaking Jewish community of Ioannina, the lakeside regional center to the east of Filiates. Fromm’s doctorate on Yanniote traditions, based on field research she conducted in the late 80s, is a seminal text about that intriguing community. 

"But to me it meant I have had this love affair with Albania ever since. It had this faraway, magical kind of appeal for me.”

Annette B. Fromm, American folklorist.

Ioannina’s Jewish community numbered several thousand souls with roots that could be traced back at least 1,300 years. But mass migration over the past century and the Holocaust have brought this once bustling merchant community down to about 30 people nowadays.

Until the 19th century, Ioannina Jews lived a segregated life. They were somewhat separate from the pervasive Sephardis — the much larger community that had given Thessaloniki, one of the large Mediterranean port towns, the nickname Jerusalem-in-the-Balkans, and relations outside the trade and agora with the non-Jewish population were discouraged. 

Sometime by the 1880s, an extended Yanniote family with the last name of Bacolas was found in Filiates, an Ottoman hamlet of around 3,000 people of Muslim, Christian, Albanian, Vlach or Greek origin, 30 kilometers west of Ioannina. The family had at least seven children, some of whom listed a man named Moissis as the father, the others Annette Fromm’s great grandfather Simon Tov. 

Those children included the unnamed aunt we are concerned with here, who, born in 1883 may have been the second oldest. Temper did run in the family — legend had it a son had to flee Filiates because he had thrashed the crippled brother of some local pasha who dared to pickpocket his mother.

So, if the Bacolas aunt had eloped with a Muslim, it would not have gone well with the community, and it surely did not go well with the family. “To them, she was as good as dead,” Fromm said. “But to me it meant I have had this love affair with Albania ever since. It had this faraway, magical kind of appeal for me.” 

By the 1910s, most of the Bacolas emigrated to the United States, and the memory of an unknown aunt was only a vague puzzle among very few descendants, who at this point barely knew each other.

Indelible memories from an indelible sister

In August 2020, Fromm sent me an email, out of the blue, asking: “What does it say?” 

It was a black and white photograph, with writing on the back. A cousin of hers in northern California had been going through the photography collection of her recently deceased mother, finding among the pictures of armies of uncles and aunts and cousins and family friends, in weddings, parties or official occasions, an aged woman with a black headscarf. The scribbling on the back looked Greek to her. 

“Do you know who this is?” Elyse Maltz, the cousin, asked Fromm, who speaks Greek. “What does it say?”  

 It wasn’t Greek but Albanian, and it said something like this: “To my family, an indelible memory from a sister that shall never forget you until she dies.” 

The picture was dated 1949. The dry stamp showed that it had been taken at the studio of one Lilo Xhimitiku, who around the middle of the 20th century ran the photography business in Berat, Albania, 190 kilometers north of Filiates.

We tried to find more about the history of that picture — I gave it to a friend from Berat who knows the city inside out — but Fromm eventually told us to give up, saying that identifying the connections of a woman already old in the 40s would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

One of the photographs Elyse Maltz inherited from her late mother was this one taken in Berat, which she and her relatives suspected was the only memory of a ‘mystical’ aunt that had disappeared in Albania. Courtesy of Elyse Maltz.

But last March, that friend from Berat pointed out to me a Facebook photo. A rounded, shaven-headed man in his 30s in a tight red T-shirt stood with the shy smile of someone unable to pretend he is not posing, in front of sepia-colored photographs on a blue poster. One of the pictures was the same portrait Fromm’s cousin had pulled from her mother’s belongings in California. 

My friend told me that in October, Parashqevi Sahatçi, the town’s octogenarian photo collector with a popular Facebook page, posted the portrait and asked whether anybody recognized the person in the picture. Five months later, someone responded.

Who was Lutfije Baballëku?
Berat is a town of regional importance in southern Albania. It was the main northern market of the Ottoman province of Ioannina, an area whose old name to seafaring Greeks, Epirus, meant the continent or the hinterland. This was a stretch of land from the port of Igoumenitsa in the Ionian sea in modern Greece to more or less the Osum river to the north, which washes Berat’s feet.

A common folk dance known in Epirus is named the beratçeberatis, and, come to think of it, Ioannina even had a curse and reproach: “ Don’t you crow at me like a Berat rooster!” 

The city’s wealth came from its commanding position over fertile alluvial fields to the west toward the Adriatic Sea, the pasture-rich mountains on its back, and a tradition of regional trade. 

It is quite a picturesque town. Ottoman-style houses with their whitewashed façades with upright windows of dark-lacquered frames scale down from a medieval castle to the banks of the Osum river, a Mediterranean torrent dotted by minaret spires, the odd Sufi lodge, red-bricked Christian Orthodox churches of Byzantine flair.

Thoma Gjani, a 70-year-old driving school instructor, remembered Lutfije Baballëku, who, like his grandmother, an Orthodox Christian school teacher, was an outsider who had married in town.

For much of the 1950s until her Parkinsons became too strong to let her move, every morning, Baballëku, an aging woman in black dress would leave one such Ottoman house in the lower part of town, near the Khalwati lodge and the Sultan Mosque, to go to the one just above it, where her close friend lived.

Thin and somewhat frail, a bit humped, the headscarf black, the voice soft and plain.

They would brew Turkish coffee, and then sit by the window to talk all and sundry, in Albanian and in Greek. Family affairs: If Lutfije’s late husband had just a smidge of business acumen, the family finances would have improved. The plots in bodice rippers they had been reading. They would tell children tales of Greek or Biblical mythology — she loved children, people said, and doted on them with candies or pennies.

Nobody knew her real name, but her Jewish past had been no secret.

By early afternoon, if she’d see the chimney on her roof smoking, the pots were cooking. It was the time when the men would return for the family lunch, and she’d get up and head home.

That’s what went through the mind of Gjani, when he saw the picture of the woman with a black headscarf on Sahatçi’s Facebook page. 

Many of his childhood stories had come from the conversations his grandmother had with Lutfije during those mornings. “I remember the woman,” he began writing in a Facebook comment. “She was a very good friend of my grandmother.” Kindred spirits, he added. 

Lutfije had been a deeply pious woman in a deeply pious Muslim family, Gjani said. 

Lutfije helped Ramadan open a coffee bar by the hammam but that business failed because he was not good at managing it, according to Gjani. Even if they lived by modest means, come Eid, they would be generous in distributing gifts and food. 

They had no children of their own, but by the 1920s they had adopted the son of a recently deceased younger brother of Ramadan’s as their own, and it was she who named the baby, Moisi, which is Albanian for Moses. 

Moisi grew up with two mothers at home, nënëvogla, the biological one, and nënëmadhja — Lutfije. He turned out to be highly artistic, he had landed acting jobs with the local variety theater and later in an enterprise design unit, and was an extreme hypochondriac.

She had other friends in town besides the Gjanis. The Feçis, a family of traders from Filiates had settled in Berat after Greek paramilitaries cleansed that area of its Muslim Albanians in ethnic reprisals at the end of World War II. Lutfije had been someone whom they had known since their days in Greece.

When they moved to Berat, Lutfije was among the first people they sought out, Isa Feçi, the 70-year-old descendant of the family, told me. Lutfije would go to their house down the river bank, in the Murat Çelepi quarter, roll out the prayer mat on the floor and pray. 

At times, Feçi’s grandmother would send for the carriage to pick her up and bring her to the mosque in her own neighborhood.

The singer and the historian

Nobody knew her real name, but her Jewish past had been no secret. Quite a few people knew she had escaped. The town used to gossip that Moisi, given all his mannerisms, must have been Jewish himself, because many did not know she was not his biological mother. 

The story that came from Lutfije, Thoma Gjani said, was that she was from Ioannina, that she was close friends with three daughters of an Albanian leader of a Muslim mystic order, the Khalwatis. (As such things go, these are not Mevlevi whirling dervishes or Bektashi contemplative babas, but body-piercing sheikhs). 

One day, she had said, fearing the wrath of her father for having left the door of the turkey coop open, she ran away and sought refuge with the sheikh. That man took her with his family to Berat, and later arranged to marry her into the Baballëku family, which lived in the  same neighborhood.

Gjani wrote in his Facebook post: “The singer Ludmilla Baballëku is her family.”

That’s a recognizable name in Albania. To those of a certain age, currently in their 40s and 50s, like the writer of this story, Ludmilla Baballëku, born in 1965, tintinnabulates. She had been a staple of national song competitions in the 1980s. Her repertoire in those days included Enver Hoxha regime propaganda songs like “Glorious in the Face of History,” or “Albania Has Brought Us Up.” 

Ludmilla Baballëku began her career in the 1980s as a popular singer of mostly propaganda songs.

 

Ludmilla had passion and a powerful earthy voice, and with the collapse of Hoxha’s dictatorship, it gave her a respected career especially in folk music. Early in the 1990s, she moved to start a family in the nearby port town of Vlora and got a job with the variety theater there. Her father Moisi and her mother Nurije sold the house in Berat and went to live with her.

As far as she knew, nënëmadhe had been a strong influence in her father’s life, she said. She was educated and schooled. But she had no recollections herself because nënëmadhe had died before she was born.

In 1995, Vlora’s variety theater sent its polyphonic ensemble on tour to Israel: The pentatonic a cappella gurglings from the area are the Albanian wrapped sandwich to the world music picnic. Ludmilla told the director half-jokingly that had she known, she would have joined because she had cousins there. 

In 2019, when Ludmilla was in New York for a concert tour of Albanian venues, she was contacted on WhatsApp by a retired teacher from Berat who asked if she had any documents he could use for a display in the Solomon Museum of Berat Jewish History he planned to open. “And I gave Simon the pictures,” she said. 

Those were the pictures I saw that shaven-headed man looking at: The portrait that was also found in northern California; three pictures with a dedication taken of several people in the Boston area in the late 1940s; and the only surviving picture Lutfie has with Moisi in the courtyard of their home.

For twenty years, Simon Vrusho had nurtured an obsession with the shards of Jewish culture in his area: That curious çifuti (this now highly-offensive word had originally just been the Ottoman word for Jewish) toponym he could not explain, accounts of central European Jewish families seeking refuge there for the duration of World War II, and the town’s post-war Jewish surgeon, Doctor Zino. In 2010, he had published a short book on the topic, and though that book needed a good editor — the facts often feel loose and disjointed — he had done his research. 

He had been interested in Lutfije Baballëku’s story early on. He added details to the strands: It was a mystery why she had left, but it might have been some religious revelation, he had been told. In the civil register, she had listed Castro, the Jewish quarter of Ioannina, as her birth place; he had found her ethnicity, Jewish, her father’s name Abdullah (at least this is what she declared to the Albanian authorities). 

She might have joined a caravan even before meeting Sheikh Hassan, he wrote, and she had spent a few months in Gjirokastra — halfway between Ioannina and Berat — before heading further north with him.

Moisi Baballëku, far right, Lutfije’s son, became an actor and performer. Lutfije is knitting in the center. Photo courtesy of Ludmilla Baballëku.

In 2018, Vrusho rented one of those recently built cinder block shops lining the road taking one to the castle to open the museum. It was a success. State dignitaries paid heed, wire services issued dispatches, over 30,000 curious visitors came. 

But a stroke struck him down in late 2019, not yet seventy. “It was probably his fretting too much about the museum that finally took him,” his wife Angjelina told me. 

“He was constantly stressing out about it. Rent to be paid, things to be made work.” He would explain the Jewish history of the town in thirteen displays, have visitors write in his guest book, have pictures taken, and post the messages and pictures on his Facebook page.

While in his book, Vrusho insisted Lutfije’s real name had been Maria, in the museum display, he swore she was named Sarah.

Connecting the dots
“Her real name resurfaced in her funeral,” Thoma Gjani told me. 

When he attended her funeral with his grandmother in 1963, Gjani was fourteen. He remembered that the body was washed by the women, and the imam led the prayers. 

“He had mentioned it [the name]. I was there, but I don’t recall what it was,” Gjani said.

When the town’s Muslim graveyard was razed a few years later, Moisi took the bones of his two mothers and transferred them to the new town cemetery. 

In the 1949 picture Elyse Maltz found, Lutfije signed it Matzalto, a form of Mazel Tov, Hebrew for “Good luck” and a frequent female Jewish name in those days. Lutfije Baballëku had apparently been born as Matzalto Bacola.

When Maltz saw the pictures of the Boston gathering that Vrusho had used for the museum this spring, she said, “but this is my nona!” her grandmother. So Lutfije and her brothers did keep in touch during the 1940s at least. 

Since then, another Lutfije picture has surfaced with the Bacola descendants in the United States. 

Elyse Maltz saw this photo of Rachel Bacolas from the Facebook page of the Solomon Jewish Museum in Berat and recognized it immediately as her aunt. Her grandmother’s picture was also displayed. Courtesy of Ludmilla Baballëku.

But why had she been writing to them in Albanian, a language they were not able to understand? What exactly had happened to Matzalto Bacola as a teenager in Filiates or Ioannina at the turn of the 20th century? Did she really flee because she had feared her father’s wrath, because she had been entranced, or because she had fallen for an Albanian sheikh? Who after some time left her and married her off to someone in the neighborhood? Or had she been abducted, which was an occurrence in those days?

Despite the banishment, the Bacolas had kept in touch with Lutfije. Her father had pleaded several times with her to return, and she refused, Thoma Gjani had heard. There was that exchange from the 1940s. Some daughters born to the Bacolas in the US were named Mazel Tov, which is in accordance with the old Yanniote Jewish (and Christian Greek) tradition, where the first daughter is named after grandmother one, the second after grandmother two, the third after great aunt one, and so on. And Lutfije named her son Moisi, which might have been her father’s name. 

It could have well been that Albania’s hermetic isolation during the rule of Enver Hoxha in the second half of last century was more instrumental in preventing the family from reuniting than the strict Jewish traditions.

Annette Fromm pondered on the wider significance of Matzalto’s story. What could it say about interactions between different communities “in this amazing multicultural environment” of the late Ottoman period? One possibility might have been that she was abducted, and the abductions of women in the area have been understudied. But it could also shed light on the relationships between families separated by migration. 

“Few of these specific questions can be answered directly,” she said. “The first person players are no longer with us.” 

Fromm and Ludmilla Baballëku have begun corresponding. Fromm writes in English and Google-translates it into Albanian, and Baballëku Google-translates her answers into English.

“When this pandemic is over,” Fromm wrote to Baballëku, “I want to visit Ioannina, and at that time, visit Berat. It would be lovely to meet you at some point.” Her Albania trip would be an epic one, she told me later.

Moisi Baballëku died a couple of years after he and his wife moved to Vlora in the early 1990s, his wife followed in 2013. Ludmilla buried them both in the Berat cemetery, where Moisi had reburied Lutfije years earlier. 

Moisi’s grave is a white marble crescent with a sepia picture of him reclining on a chair. “I just wish my father and mother had been alive now and had been able to talk to you about her,” Baballëku wrote to Fromm. “That would have made them very, very happy.”

Ludmilla Baballëku says she believes her grandfather met the Jewish woman who became the mythical nënamadhe while a student at a famous boy’s school in Ioannina, the Zosimaia (we have no evidence that he was educated there). He’d seen her there, they hit it off and fled to Albania together to live happily thereafter.

“You know, in a way, that’s what I wish the story was,” Elyse Maltz told me. “I’d wished she had fled for love.”K

Feature image: Courtesy Elyse Maltz.

  • 18 Jun 2021 - 18:31 | Isaak Dostis:

    Good story, Altin....too many names but I got the gist of it. Is Fromm still alive? I met her a long time ago... more on the email....warm thoughts...Isaak

  • 18 Jun 2021 - 18:14 | רות קרק RUTH KARK:

    An amazing story, and also very well researched and written.

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