US-based Albanian organizations divided over museum plans on former notorious labor camp

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 23, 2018 17:12

US-based Albanian organizations divided over museum plans on former notorious labor camp

Story Highlights

  • Joe DioGuardi, a former US congressman of Albanian origin, says he opposes the identification of the southern Albanian town of Tepelena as the “Albanian Auschwitz” and has called for the project to be cancelled or be decided through a local referendum

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TIRANA, Aug. 23 – Albania's plans to turn an abandoned forced labor camp where hundreds of Albanians considered enemies of the former communist regime are believed to have been killed in the late 1940s and early 1950s into a memorial museum in honor of victims of communism has clashed the two main organizations representing Albanians in the United States and around the world.

Joe DioGuardi, a former US congressman of Albanian origin, says he opposes the identification of the southern Albanian town of Tepelena as the "Albanian Auschwitz" and has called for the project to be cancelled or be decided through a local referendum.

DioGuardi, 77, who served as congressman in the late 1980s and visited Albania in 1990 just before the collapse of the decades-long communist regime, is also the founder of the Albanian American Civil League, a Washington-based lobby group whose mission during its three decades of operation has been to fight for human rights and the self-determination of Albanians.

Meanwhile, the Pan Albanian Federation of America, Vatra (Hearth), a New York-based organization that has been lobbying Albania since 1912 when the country declared its independence, says it strongly supports the project to build a museum of communist crimes in Tepelena, where hundreds of children are believed to be among the dead during the camp's operation from 1949 to 1953 under then Stalinist Albania.

The debate comes as an exhibition has opened at the now abandoned barracks of the former notorious labor camp in Tepelena where a memorial is expected to be set up in honor of the victims. The exhibition featuring documents about the notorious labor camp comes as part of events marking the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

Earlier this year, comments by an Albanian historian that conditions at the Tepelena labor camp were 'not so bad' infuriated the former politically persecuted and camp survivors bringing testimony of inhumane conditions at the site and lack of food and medicines.

DioGuardi says branding Tepelena as the "Albanian Auschwitz" is too much for a place that has much more to take pride in and something that creates a false impression about Albania, unique in Europe during World War II as the only country which had more Jews after the war than it did beforehand, offering protection thanks to its code of honor.

In his letter to Tepelena Mayor Termet Peci, DioGuardi says Tepelena should be identified with Ali Pasha, the 18th century Albanian governor who tried to break away from the Ottoman Empire and British poet Lord Byron and a place where key wars were fought for Albania's freedom.

Tepelena is a town of some 10,000 residents famous for its Ali Pasha castle and Uji i Ftohte (Cold Water) spring tourist attractions.

"I have been shocked and deeply concerned about recent efforts to depict your beautiful and historic town of Tepelena as 'Albania's Auscwitz.' This as you know - related to some strange plan to turn the former military barracks in your town into some sort of museum and memorial complex as the 'extermination camp in Tepelena'" he adds in his letter.

In a later reaction on social media, DioGuardi rather withdraws from the initial stance, saying he is "fully aware of the immense suffering, horrific torture, inhumane conditions, and systematic persecution of the people of Albania during the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, and supports the idea that memorials should be built on important prison sites in Albania so that the past horrors inflicted on the people by the communist regime after World War II are never forgotten."

However, DioGuardi maintains that comparing communist repression in Albania with the Holocaust, or any prison or internment site in Albania with Auschwitz, where almost one million Jews were systematically gassed and incinerated, is completely wrong and unacceptable.

"Attaching the 'Auschwitz' label to the Tepelena internment camp creates the false impression that Jews were killed in Albania. In reality, Albania is the only nation in the world that saved every Jew who either lived in Albania or sought refuge there during the Nazi Holocaust. This unique and proud history between Albanians and Jews should leave no room for misrepresentation or confusion," says DioGuardi.



Vatra supports museum project

US-based Pan Albanian Federation of America, Vatra, which has lobbied the US Congress on Albania and Albanians for more than a century, says it "strongly and unequivocally supports the construction of a museum to identify communist crimes and in remembrance of the innocent victims exterminated and imprisoned at the notorious Tepelena camp."

"The European Day of Remembrance for victims of Stalinism and Nazism makes us all reflect to see if during almost three decades of Albanian democracy, victims of the totalitarian system have been duly honored, and above all what lesson has our society drawn from the not so distant past," Vatra says in a statement.

"Those exterminated during the Hoxha dictatorship, the imprisoned and the persecuted remain to this day, the most painful part of the Albanian society's consciousness, on whom not only remembrance, but above all the unstoppable appreciation to suffering and sacrifice would be the best way to heal wounds," says the association.

"The history of communist dictatorship remains history which has its roots in the executions' blood, the suffering of long imprisonment terms and suffering of big number of families in internment camps," it adds.

"If we forget the fact that the communist dictatorship was nothing more than a criminal system against its own citizens, then we will be destined to never cure those painful wounds," Vatra concludes.


Regime victims

A report by the Institute for the Study of Communist Crimes has unveiled the 45-year communist regime that collapsed in the early 1990s imprisoned or interned for politically motivated reasons more than 90,000 people, of whom about 7,000 were killed or died of tortures.

However, almost three decades after the collapse of the communist regime, almost half of Albanians still remain nostalgic about communism

According to a 2016 survey report tracing perceptions on Albania's communist past, almost half of the population of Albania sees late dictator Enver Hoxha's role in the history of the country as positive.

Almost half of the people surveyed think that Communism in Albania was "a good idea, poorly implemented."


 Communist legacy

Albania has started to transform some sites associated with the Communist era into sites of remembrance, such as the House of Leaves in Tirana as well as Spaৠprison north of the country, building legacy for current and future generations and serving the country's emerging travel and tourism where sites of the communist past are one of the top attractions among foreign tourists.

A downtown Tirana facility that housed for a short time the notorious Gestapo Nazi secret police during the country's occupation under WWII and was the interception headquarters of the Sigurimi secret service under communist for more than four decades until the early 1990s, the House of Leaves has been transformed into a museum of secret surveillance, showcasing one of the country's darkest periods to the younger generations and foreign tourists.

A former prison camp in Shkodra, Albania's largest northern Albanian city known for its anti-communist resistance, has also turned into a museum of communist crimes.

Plans are also underway to build a museum in the notorious former Spaৠprison for the politically persecuted under communism which served as a forced labor camp for about two decades until the early 1990s.


Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 23, 2018 17:12