A democracy of memory in Kosovo

Published in English in Prishtina Insight and in Albanian on Kallxo.com (link here).

The memory of World War II in Kosovo is a funny one, at least for my generation. There’s an ambivalence of sorts about whether Adolf Hitler was all that bad, since the Fascist and Nazi occupation of the region did place Albania and Kosovo under one administrative unit after years of war with the Ottoman Empire and our Balkan neighbors (let’s ignore the messy fact of the Axis invasion of Albania and the quisling government created to prop up the occupation).

Alongside the not-so-bad view of Hitler, many feel a sense of pride in the recently uncovered history of Albanians saving Jews in World War II. Although hundreds were saved, the Yad Vashem museum’s database of Holocaust victims lists the names of the estimated 200 Jews from Prishtina who were sent to concentration camps and killed – with the collaboration of Kosovo Albanians.

Isolated from the broader theater of the war and from Albania itself, Albanians in Kosovo must have seen the occupation as a respite from the constant threat of Serbian rule. But the occupation most definitely had its dissenters, including the National Front (Balli Kombetar), the Communist National Liberation Front, and the Yugoslav partisan movement – fractions which also fought amongst themselves at times. In the emotionally charged and monolithic way history is understood here, there can only be one hero in the story, and that depends on who you talk to.

The reality of course, is much more messy. My family tree includes monarchists, fierce anti-Communists and former believers in the Yugoslav project – and it’s more likely than not that the political makeup of most families is a similar mosaic of beliefs and ideologies.

Our understanding of the messy nature of that time and the difficult choices individuals had to make is not quite what it should be – and an exhibition organized by Kosovo’s Oral History Initiative is trying to change that. The initiative, spearheaded by New School professor Anna Di Lellio and a team of Kosovar researchers, has been reaching out to families across the country to share their stories of Kosovo’s recent past. Each interview is recorded, transcribed, translated, and posted on their website, oralhistorykosovo.org, along with archival photographs.

In honor of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the initiative is putting together an exhibition called “Below the Radar: Memories of the Second World War in Kosovo.” On May 9, Dit’ e Nat’ will display video interviews of witnesses and participants of the war,  a booklet featuring archival photographs and stories from the families who provided them, and postcards sent from Kosovo during its period of Axis occupation (sourced from a collection owned by the University of Agder in Norway). I met up with Di Lellio a few days before the exhibition to discuss the ongoing echoes of World War II in Kosovo, and why the Oral History Initiative decided to put up an exhibition around this theme.

“Although World War II ended 70 years ago, it never really ended. The war is still very relevant, especially in this part of the world, especially in the former Yugoslavia, but also all over Eastern Europe,”  Di Lellio said. “Kosovo is a particularly interesting story, and not very different from other countries.”

Di Lellio goes on to describe some of the stories that the initiative has gathered from their field interviews, such as that of an 85-year-old man with clear memories of freedom fighter Shaban Polluzha and the Tivar Massacre – and a woman describing how her grandfather ended up spending time imprisoned both in Axis concentration camps and Partisan prisons. They’re the stories of people caught up in historical events and massive political changes beyond their control.

“These are individuals who made their choices, but the circumstances in which they made their choices obliged them – forced them – to choose between black and white. Maybe in different circumstances they wouldn’t have done so,” Di Lellio said.

When our conversation ends, I’m left thinking about the mess of historical rivalries that continue to divide Albanians, and the slow but sure way in which the truth comes to light. I only hope that in 2069, our descendents will look upon us with more compassion than we give to our predecessors.

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1 Comment

  1. NIce article. My Grandma still thinks that the Nazis came to save them from Slavs and Turks despite the fact that she witnessed how her neighbors where shot by Nazis for reasons she doesnt know until today. Which, considering the alternatives, maybe was true. I`m very sceptical about history and balkans in general. Too much propaganda, too much falsification of history. Even though I find it very interesting, there are just too many inconsistencies

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