After the armistice of 8 September 1943, when Italy capitulated to the Allies, Peppino became a deserter, fleeing the Nazi and their concentration camps for more than one year. His fate, together with that of more than 20.000 men like him, has remained hitherto largely unknown in Italy. In 2019 I found my grandfather’s handwritten notebook, in which he had listed places, events, and people he met day by day in Albania from 9/8, 1943 until his way back home, on foot, in 1945.
Buzëmadh. I could not find the name on Google Maps, or in the 1939 Guide to Albania. Albanian friends had never heard about this locality either. It was the “furgon” from Gjirokastër to Vlorë, on which I had to settle lacking better alternatives, that took me to the right place. A stop at the coffee shop on a roundabout, I got out to stretch my legs, and there was the street sign: “Buzëmadh”. And, suddenly, the old man with the kid riding the mule appeared at the horizon. A grandfather with his grandchild. He said hello.
One of the very rare things my grandfather used to tell about his time as a disbanded soldier in Albania, was that he was forced to eat land turtles in order not to starve. It was such an important fragment for me. What intrigued me the most is that upon arriving in Albania,
I discovered that Italians are called Breshkaxhij – turtle eaters. This definition originated during the Second World War, (but it is still in use today). “Debatik”
is a popular Albanian movie confirming this. How have I lived until now without this piece of information?
Not on Google Maps
“If It’s Not on the Web, It Doesn’t Exist at All” it is what we are used to think nowadays. But what about the places that elude the Internet? I found one of them looking for Muharrem Sulo. I could only find Buzëmadh by traveling 3 times up and down the country, thanks to a random bus stop. In Albania they say “E treta e vërteta” (Three’s the charm). This is why I entered
that territory as a sort of magic land, where past, present and imagination merged - as soon as I got the confirmation that my grandfather hid there, with Mario. Pepi & Mario.
From 1939 to 1943 Albania was an Italian protectorate
and more than 100.000 Italian soldiers were deployed to the Balkan front to fight alongside the Germans. In Albania, Italian soldiers were mainly based in the South of the country, at the border with Greece, one of the regions that witneseed the Greco-Italian War.
The fascist military propaganda was made of songs, slogans, symbols, and illustrations.
And, as in this case, it shuttled between the front and home, via postcards.
The title of my project refers to one of the most iconic works in the history of net.art: “My Boyfriend Came Back from the War” by Russian artist Olia Lialina, a browser based internet artwork from 1996. MBCBFTW is one of the first works of net.art engaging non linear-storytelling through hypertext. The story – the get-together of two lovers after the end of a war – unfolds by clicking on images and texts. The interactive narrative offered the possibility to create branching pathways and many possible outcomes through a story.
It is as if the stereotype of the Breshkaxhij validated the veracity of my grandfather’s story, revitalized it, breathed new life into it, materialized it, expanded it. It is no longer just my imagination, it is no longer just my private memory. In Albania it has become a reality. The funny paradox is that every time I mention this piece of trivia (not without a certain awkwardness) everyone brushes it off as the stuff of urban legends. It was I who confirmed that it is indeed a fact, who reclaimed that truth, which gave a new meaning to my story.
Military Base in Delvinë
The Italian Army in southern Albania was based on the hills of Delvinë, not far from Sarandë (then renamed Porto Edda by the fascists). The Parma division, to which my grandfather belonged, was stationed in Delvinë throughout 1940-1941. It is the last place Klodian and I have visited following the photos. We were lucky enough to meet a local historian who recognized the buildings in the pictures and showed us their ruins, not far from the current town hall, built at the time of the communist regime.
Tirana National Theater was built in 1939 by the Italian architect Giulio Berté, inspired by metaphysical aesthetics. It has survived many political transitions and was active until recently. On May 17th 2020, despite a strong opposition, the building was torn down. An important site of the cultural patrimony was erased, leaving a gaping hole in the memory of the country and creating an empty square in the public space, a sort of “negative monument” in the center of Tirana.
Muharrem Sulo’s nephew Isa and his wife Suzana welcomed us for a delicious lunch at their property. They recounted what they remembered his grandma used to say about Pepi (my grandfather) and Mario. Muharrem was Kryeplaku (Village Chief) until 1946, when the party confiscated his land. The family has got the land back after 1997, and I could visit the places where my grandfather worked for more than one year as a “sbandato” (straggler). I naively asked Isa if his land was full of turtles. When he asked me why, my answer made him laugh.
“When I return to Italy, I will send you a beautiful cow” – one of the Italian soldiers hidden from the Nazis in Buzëmadh told a farmer. This story was passed on to us by an old man we met while searching for Muharrem Sulo. That cow, of course, never reached its destination, because Albania closed its borders in 1945, until 1997. Even letters, postcards, messages never made it, and some of the people we met in Buzëmadh were actually waiting for news from the Italians they had been hiding. Who knows if they ever tried?
The Missing Postcard
Since the beginning of the project, I have been looking for a precious postcard of Tirana National Theater. I looked for it at antique dealers and present-day souvenir shops, but I couldn’t find it. The missing postcard. Built with an experimental and lightweight material of the 1930s, the Populit, Teatri Kombëtar ceased to exist at 4:30 am, on May 17th, 2020. “It is on Google Maps, but it doesn’t exist”. What will happen to the digital archives of disappeared buildings? How do you claim that memory?
If one can say with certainty that no film has ever been made in Italy about Italian soldiers in Albania before and after the Armistice, it is even more certain that in Albania that subject is a common trope of communist propaganda films from the 1950s to the 1980s. More often than not, the figure of the disbanded Italian soldier serves the myth of the good Albanian partisan. Thanks to these movies, I could reconstruct part of that missing story that my grandfather, and many like him, did not want to remember.
Wedding in Jorguçat
My grandfather’s photo archive consists of shots of Italian soldiers in their informal activities, military exercises, gatherings, and plenty of civilians, taken with an Hasselblad camera. Apart from the fascist propaganda images produced by the Istituto Luce, documents from the 1940s are actually rare - like the collection of the Italian photographer Giuseppe Massani. In this photo my grandpa has documented a wedding in Jorguçat. I do not know who these people are, but I hope that by disseminating these photos a story will emerge.
As a child I used to daydream about the version of the story I was told, of my grandfather coming home from the war on foot, walking from Albania to Italy. As if looking up his route on Google Maps - which didn’t exist at the time - I remember following his path across the Balkans, a vertical line going up north, then left, to home, which was next to the house where I grew up. Such a distorted version of events revolves around his ring with the symbol of Albania, the two-headed eagle. Most probably a military ring made in Milan in the 1930s.
The list of Albanian novels dealing with the Italian soldiers in Albania after the armistice is not very long, but the names include some of the country’s greatest, such as Ismaïl Kadaré or Petro Marko. If the former is translated into several languages (and many films are based on his stories), the latter is unknown abroad, and the book in question, Qyteti i fundit (The Last City) is one of the most poetic building blocks of the missing story. On the other side of the Adriatic, apart from a few memoirs of veterans, we find just blank pages that will remain so.
My grandfather’s office in Delvinë military camp. The
back of the photo reads: “The new, but still miserable office”. Peppino worked as a quartermaster sergeant in the Parma division. From 1941 to 1942 the division was based in Delvinë, with jurisdiction on a predominantly Greek-inhabited region in Gjirokastër County.
The photos he took depict Jorguçat, Sotira, Porto Edda, Lukovë, Borsh, Granch, Kranë.
I do not have pictures after 1942, just a notebook starting on September 8, 1943.
The Pear Tree
A lonely pear tree in the middle of an olive tree grove at the entrance of Muharrem Sulo’s property. Just one pear tree, heavy with big, yellow pears. I knew at once that I had come to the right place and that it was
a message sent to confirm it. “Pear trees” happens to be the literal translation of my surname: the family name I have inherited from my grandfather.
As soon as I was leaving the property, in the middle of the road, we met the turtle. It was your way of saying thank you. And I thank you, grandfather, for making this journey an endless quest.
The long braids of the women in this beautiful photograph remind me of the braids my grandmother wore as a child, which I treasure to this day.
The photo was taken by my grandfather at the church in Jorguçat during the Orthodox Easter celebrations in 1942.
My grandfather’s photo archive consists of candid shots of Italian soldiers going about their informal daily activities, military exercises and gatherings, and civilians, plenty of civilians. I hope that by disseminating these photographs more stories will emerge.
Easter in Jorguçat
Jorguçat is the first locality we visited following my grandfather’s photos with Klodian. It is part of a territory on the Greek border inhabited by Greek minority communities. Under the communist regime, the authorities banned all religious activities and destroyed thousands of religious buildings. In some cases, the churches were dismantled and ‘stored’ in warehouses awaiting the time to rebuild them. Against all expectations, however, the Orthodox Church in Jorguçat seems not to have moved an inch in 80 years.
Having digitized my grandfather’s archive, in March 2021 I continue my search through Albanian partisan songs. In the middle of the third wave of the pandemic, from my flat in Paris, I cast a message in a bottle into the Ocean of the Internet. I write a message to the nickname “Gavagai”, a stranger who has translated a huge number of song lyrics from Albanian to English on a kitschy site called “Lyrics Translate”. Against all expectations, he replied at once and we initiated a long conversation that would be continued by e-mail.
Together with “Credere, Obbedire, Combattere” (Believe, Obey, Fight), “Vincere” (Overcome) was a popular fascist slogan. The official postcards of the Italian Army that Peppino sent to Manfredina make up
the fragmentary mosaic of a love story that grew between home and the front, an intimacy mediated by the propagandistic imagery of the fascist regime. The correspondence was the result of the peculiar epistolary phenomenon of the “war godmothers”, women who were assigned to correspond with a soldier on the front.
When Manfredina was admitted to a special boarding school to become a teacher, she had to give up many things. The first regulation she had to comply, right at the outset, was snipping off her long thick brown braids, which she kept forever. Today, I am the keeper of those braids. They are more than 100 years old, but their texture and color are intact. That hair is the repository of a trauma, and mark the end of a free life. This is why I treasure them, as a perpetual reminder to live life exactly as I wish, without renunciation and without constraints.
“I have my hands full, but I always think of you. Your Peppino”, Jorguçat, 6/8/42. At the time of their
correspondence, my grandparents didn’t know each other very well. A certain Caterina, a senior official of
the fascist regime, assigned Manfredina, a gifted student with a vocation to become a teacher, to the role of Peppino’s “war godmother”. Through the messages they exchanged on the back of photographs and the postcards we can follow the evolution of their long-distance relationship that in 1948, back in Italy, culminated in their marriage.
From the notebook, on November 28, 1943: “Romsi-Busmati. We work for Muarem Sulo until August 44”. Some of the soldiers who no longer belonged to a proper unit took refuge in the homes of farmers, working for them in exchange for food and shelter, ever in danger of falling prey to German reprisals. This story
is recalled in many Albanian movies and books. But no
traces are found in the Italian memory. I went on a quest to trace Muharrem Sulo and found his descendants and his house in Buzëmadh.
Aulon. To my ears it seems the name of a mythological deity. Aulon is the original name of the city of Vlorë. Vlorë is the city from where my grandfather boarded a ship to sail back to Italy in December 1944. Vlorë is the port from which I arrived in Albania. I am glad that I finished my trip with Aulon. It made total sense. Always grateful for his amazing contribution to this magic journey, and for being there with Aferdita - divinity of beauty, love and fertility - that we met on the top of the mountain where Muharrem Sulo used to live.
1939 Albania Guide
1939. End of the age of travel. The era of tourism begins. As does the fascist occupation of Albania. The first Tourist Guide of Albania, by the Consociazione Turistica Italiana, also saw the light that year. The cover and the format are very reminiscent of Mao’s Red Book. A strange coincidence for a country that will turn into an autarkic communist state in 1944. The guide on the left found me at an antiquarian shop of Rruga Qemal Stafa in Tirana. The one on the right is the anastatic reprint published in 1997, after the country reopened.
Service in Jorguçat
A service for Easter 1942 on the plain below Jorguçat, whose ancient old town is located on the hill behind. Italian fascism was based on a strong link
with the Catholic religion.
A good fascist was a good Catholic, too. This is also why in Italy the transition from the fascist regime to decades of Christian Democratic hegemony was comparatively easy. The sparseness of the architectural landscape makes it easier to recognize the slopes of the hills and situate the photo of the service - and the more bizarre one of a play for soldiers.
Sotira is the second place Klodian and I visited following my grandfather’s photos. The road signs are bilingual, in Greek and Albanian. We are in the Dropull area, a predominantly Greek-inhabited region in Gjirokastër County. To get to the village from the main road, the bus driver had to call the taxi driver Ilir (from Illyria, the ancient name for Albania), who drove us to our destination. The school is right at the entrance
to the village, and it is very well preserved, although the gate is locked. It will soon become a museum.
“Gavagai”, the person I contacted on the website “Lyrics Translate” is Klodian, an Albanian researcher originally from Gjirokastër, now living in Israël. He helps me finding on the map many of the places that are mentioned on the back of my grandfather’s photos. His grandmother comes from one of the Greek minority villages in the South of Albania, where my grandfather stayed during WWII. He invites me to join him in Gjirokastër in the summer of 2021. We meet and start the road trip to the Dropull area by public transportation.
Sotira is the second place we visited following the photos with Klodian. It is a Greek minority village on the border between Greece and Albania. Sotira was also occupied by the Italians. A series of photos shows soldiers and locals, mostly children, posing in front of the camera. In 80 years only one other Italian has come back to visit, the son of a senior official of the Fascist regime. Local men are in the public space handling public relations. The women, at home, are the guardians of memory. And of the wi-fi password.
She never spoke of the moment when she discovered that he was alive. This was the starting point of my research. You fear that your future husband is dead, and after almost two years of silence, he comes back. Everyone, including his parents, believed him dead. They both passed away a couple of months before he reached home. What a shocking moment. What a joyful moment. But nevertheless, she never mentioned that moment, that episode. How is it even possible? Today, I celebrate your secrecy, dear grandparents.