Interview with Mrs. Elda Stefa Naraci, daughter of Kostaq Stefa, the translator and the companion of American doctors that landed with their aircraft in Albania during the War in 1943. Kostaq Stefa the Albanian who was shot by the communists in 1948.
Mrs. Elda lives in Trieste, Italy, together with her family.
It was November 8, 1943.
Scenario: Second World War.
An American transport aircraft C-53 with 30 Americans on board, among others 13 doctors, 13 nurses and 4 crew members, was leaving Catania, Sicily, Italy heading to Bari, in order to help some wounded American soldiers.
Due to extremely difficult weather conditions and them being followed by a German aircraft called “Messerschshmitt”, the US plane is forced to make an emergency landing in a lost place of Albania. The crew had no absolute idea where they have landed which it also happened due to the demolition of the internal compass of their aircraft.
The place was called Belsh, Elbasan. After several days of a long and tiring walking journey accompanied by a group of partisan couriers, led by Hasan Gina, a former student of Kostaq Stefa they finally arrived to Berat where they would be scattered in hideouts planned for them in relevant families.
Kostaq Stefa was the person who would accompany them, who would later on become their translator since he knew English very well and since he would be the person in whose house two American nurses would be sheltered as well.
Mr. Kostaq completed his studies, in the Albanian-American Technical Institute, in Tirana, which would later on be called “Harry Fultz” in 1926, where he had excellent grades and thus was assigned there as a professor. He later on was awarded with a scholarship in Florence, Italy.
The American nurse, Agnes Jensen Mangerich and Vilma Lytlle saw themselves very relieved and safe in the house of Kostaqi, they were also helped and supported by Kostaqis wife Mrs. Eleni Stefa. They managed to communicate in English which at the time was a rare thing in Albania. This was a highly intellectual Beratian family. Kostaqi studied in England and Florence and his wife, Eleni, was one of the very first five women who attended the Normal school in Korca and became a teacher. She, on her end, spoke little English but they nevertheless were able to communicate together. This, as women especially, made it possible for Eleni to come to a greater help to the nurses for any personal needs or concerns.
On January 9th, 1944, after 63 days of ordeal hiding away from the Germans, majority of doctors, nurses and other members of the crew, through the cooperation of English-American services, managed to cross to the Southern Italian coast. Only three nurses were left, who after further housing in Berat, in March they managed to cross the Albanian border, and reach Italy as well. Kostaq, as an unseparable and a loyal companion, accompanied them up to the Karaburun peninsula.
Kostaq Stefa was in London where he received the proper preparation with his boy scout group sent by his school. Sir Robert Smyth Baden-Power himself handed him the classification as the Masterscout where Kostaq further went for his studies in Florence, Italy.
On September 8th, 1947, in the house of the Beratian translator- Kostaq Stefa, who hid two nurses and helped their whole group- arrive several soldiers who communicate to him the arrest warrant!
Kostaq gets arrested with the pretext of a farce accusation that he was “an agent to Americans”.
That period was, inter alia, constituted with arrests of other technisians of the American school of Fultz.
It then begins the calvary of his family: his wife and their five children.
Pretext: cooperation with Americans, who from allies in the where converted to the enemis of the Albanian country.
In the wake of March 3rd, 1948, Kostaq together with three other people is placed in front of the execution board and is executed there.
Kostaq was executed in 1948 along with three other compatriots.
He, whom the partisans have appointed as a translator, a companion and a person who would hide the Americans during the War and who carried the so called ‘guilt’ that he has studied and worked with the American technicians in the Technical Institute of Fultz in Tirana, in the school where he had a student such as Mehmet Shehu, the number two of the Albanian communist nomenclature of the time, was shot dead by the Albanian communists.
Hello Mrs. Elda! Warm welcoming to the ALBANIA NEWS.
Thank you and welcome to our place as well.
I understand that the arguments that we will go through here, will be the very saddened ones for you. At the same time, I believe that for persons such as your father, the best way to remember and value them is constituted precisely over the fact that it has to be talked about and discussed about them.
My father was born in a patriotic family. He was the grandson of Konstandin Kristoforidhi, and the grandson of Gjergj Stefa, a Berati representative at the League of Prizren. Other patriots came out of his family tree.
My father himself was considered to be an intellectual at the time too. He studied at the Albanian-American Technical Institue in Tirana which has later taken the name of Harry Fultz. He was in London, England where he has been well trained with the Boy Scout group sent by his own school. His classification as a Masterscout was handed to him by Sir Robert Smyth Baden-Powell himself and he further went to continue with his studies in Florence, Italy.
His English was a good as his Albanian, and so was his Italian.
In Berat, my father worked in the education section, helped the Red Cross, was a very well known human rights activist, helped the Çams when they had faced their relevant difficulties, one which the history is very well familiar with.
In fact, we had partisans in the family. My only uncle was a partisan, three of my mothers brothers were partisans. The type of partisans that strongly believed in a cause, in great ideals…
In your family there were 5 of you as children, brothers and sisters. You yourself, almost 9 years old faced a tragic moment of the shooting of your father at the time. How did your mother manage to fill in your fathers void and at what age did you become aware of the way your father has left this world?
I believe that it was precisely your mother who has told you everything about your father’s achievements, and more precisely the episode which has determined the unjust and macabre end to his life…
Yes, I was very little.
At first I did not understand anything about what happened. This was also because my mother wanted us not to be affected by the trauma, she was very delicate and carring with her children. Only our oldest brother Alfred understood everything, which at the time was 13 years old and was very mature and intelligent. He stayed very close to my mother. I didn’t understand much in the beginning over the fact that I have also gotten raised at my Uncle’s in Durres, but Vangjushi and Tina in Berat they certainly had it harder.
It was precisely Alfred at the time a teenager- born in 1934- who was sent to the investigation body by my mother that day, March 3rd to be precise.
My mother got the news about my father that his life has been forgiven on March 2nd, where they have communicated the news directly to her since on that day they have taken him to the station for a very short meeting of only 4 minutes. As he told her: “You see my wife, we have to have full faith in justice? Since they will take me to prison in Burrel, bring me some clean clothes, the coat, etc…”
When they removed his handcuffs for only a few minutes his hands were covered in blood…
My mother asks my brothers teacher for permission to ask Alfred to go to the station, whereas she continued to stay in class.
Alfred took some pasta that my mother gave him, to send it to the police as in our mind this was somehow a bit of a relief for us: “My fathers life was forgiven, they will not give him death penalty…They will transfer him to prison in Burrel.”
When Alfred arrived to the station, the policeman threw the pasta on his face and they tell him:
“Get out of here, your father was shot last night! “ He came back to my mother crying so bitterly, my mother was at work with her students and couldn’t believe her own ears. She then went back to the station herself where they have confirmed the macabre news about my father and they told her:
“Now say, Long Live the Party!”
They have shot my father on March 3rd at 2am…
Furthermore, according to my mothers requests when our relatives would come for condolences in order for them not to fear or traumatize us, they would take us away from the house, they would send us over to the neighbours so that we wouldn’t hear them crying.
When our father died at the age of 42, we were very little. Our youngest sister Tina, the same day that my father was shot turned one year old only! Tina never celebrated her birthday!
For the very first time she has ever celebrated her birthday was with the coming of democracy.
Of course, as I started growing up, I started understanding many things, even the things that our mother never expressed openly. One day after a very emotional explotion I told her: “Mother, do not bother, you better openly tell us that the cursed date of March 3rd made for our family to get strickened by a bomb…!” She looked at me with a lot of sadness.
Although, I must say that our mother in our presence, meaning in frot of her own children, never cursed Enver Hoxha’s rulers. She never wanted to cause us deeper pain, she didn’t want us to be fed with more hatred that we had and the sadness we had carried.
My mother was dressed in black at the age of 34 and put on a black headscarf at the same age. When the school director saw her in it, she told her: “You cannot come to school with this headscarf on, you either remove it or I will fire you!”
My mother did not remove her headscarf and thus got fired. We were left in the mercy of fate.
My mother was extremely skilled in her profession as a teacher. The Congress Party had to first finish its work which it took her several months to recouperate from and start working after a few months, in other words she was jobless from March to November.
What happened to your father, it consists of a great disappointment of former partisans who believed in a particular cause, a just one and, as they did not want the installation of a dictatorship; that was not the way they wanted for Albania to be governed for which their friends have given their lives… Is that right?
Precisely, many honorable partisans and their families, over many of those elements, that were part of the so called institution “Protection” (Mbrojtja), which would later on be called “State Security”, who were followers of an ideal in which they have believed in got highly disappointed of such similar cases.
We may have had releatives among their ranks, but they also got scared and they were not able to express or excuse themselves in any other way other than saying:
“We are not able to judge, only the Party deals with this…!”
I understand that in the family you have received thank you letters from Americans saved by your father. What year did you start receiving these letters and what were the feelings you all had in the family over this?
Agnes, one of the Americans of that operation, the one that stayed in our house at the time, was the first one to come to Albania with the coming of democracy.
It was October 1995 and she was at the age of 75 when she first came back for a visit. She went right away with such mixed feelings: missing the place, feeling emotional and sad, went to Belsh, Elbasan, at the place where the aircraf first landed in 1943. There she retraced with a lot of pain and sad memories everything that happened those days.
From there, she insisted to go to the Stefa family in Berat, at the translators house Kostaq, in other words in our house!
She came to our house with so much longing and so much love. She met my mother with a lot of love and longing, and thanked us countless times. She remembered the time when she was hidden in this house during the War, and when she said to our mother:
“Ah, we are finally sleeping in a real bed, after such a big ordeal and a long, long road through the mountains!”
She also remembered the moment when one of her colleagues, suffered from so much pain on his feet as the shoes he had were nearly destroyed from the miles and miles long walk they took in order to get to Berat from Belsh, and where Kostaq repaired the shoes, since the colleague was trying real hard to recover from his feet as they were in great danger of gangrene…
At one point, we heard her say to our mother: “Where and how did the Germans find Kostaq? Those Germans that they then killed him…”
“Ah, no Agnes, – my mother said – Kostaq was not murdered by Germans, but by the Albanian communists!”
She was stunned, shocked.
Agnes created a deep report with our mother throughout the years. They both corresponded with each other regularly.
In fact, when in 1997 our families came to Trieste, Italy and we claimed for political asylum, Agnes, as soon as she found out about the situation, did everything possible through the American embassy in Rome to speed up the process of political asylum practices so our request would get approved as soon as possible. And in fact, this is how the whole approval happened.
Thus, after Agness visit at our house, she promised us that as soon as she would return to the US she will do everything possible to contact her former colleagues that were part of this operation, to let them know that she had personally visited us in Albania and that she is keeping in touch with us. She kept the promise and, soon after we started our contacts with other doctors of the operation of that time. They started writing to us many thank you and appreciation letters which we keep with a lot of love in the archive of our family, a couple of copies we can attach for you in this interview here.
We know that the American Medias lastly wrote about the death of Harold Hayes, the American army doctor, a last survivor of this odyssey in Albania during the Second World War.
How much interest did the State of the US put on this issue and on your family on the whole while you were still in Albania?
The US while we were in Albania showed interest towards our family through its diplomatic staff and representatives accredited in Albaina, or through its ambassadors in particular.
Ambassador William E. Ryerson in 1993 was the one who took part in the great ceremony that was realized in the honor of my father in Berat- when his whereabouts were found…- for his well worth burial at the cemetery of Berats Martyrs.
Ambassador Ryerson was present through lunch that was given in order to honor the ones we lose and love as part of the Albanian tradition. It was as if my father died that day and not years and years ago…
After some time, something very monstrous happened as a result of some fanatic people who have caused damage to my father’s grave. The American ambassador at the time Mrs. Marisa Lino was informed about this problem and was personally interested in fixing the grave of my father to make it anew again, she also further stated:
“We have to build a new and a graceful grave, as it is well deserved for a very well respected and an honored man who lies in the Martyrs Cemetary!”
When ambassador Arvizu got transferred to Albania, we have left Albania and were located in Trieste, Italy already. However, wit the initiation of the Mayor of Municiality of Berat, Mr. Fadil Nasufi where a grand ceremony took place in Berat over which a road name of Berat was named after my father we went to Albania from Trieste specifically for this event.
After this ambassador Arvizu came to our house many times, he had a lot of interest, love and respect for our family and our issue.
Together with my mother and all of us really we have shown and described many memories of that time, in fact I have done a small exhibition of old photos of my father at our house. He would pay attention to the slightest littlest corner of our house because he wanted to see with his own eyes every inch of the house that hid American nurses during the war.
When it comes to my fathers activities, reflected in the old photos of our family archive not only did the ambassador pay attention to them, but he was stunned to see Mehmet Shehu in one of my father’s photos, he had no words to express his feelings when he found out that he was my father’s student, and that Mehmet himself went to the technical American school.
Ambassador Arvizu insisted to realize a documentary over this history and thus, this documentary has was viewed in our presence, in the presence of the family members of Hasan Gina the courier who acompained the Americans, and in the presence of ambassador Arvizu himself and many other friends and relatives of our family.
On the other hand, as an American citizen and as the protagonist of this operation, event and issue, Agnes the American nurse wrote a book about this history.
Two other books were written by Americans after. However, regretfuly I must confess that the book written by Cate Lineberry, does not have the quality nor the accuracy or the right truthfulness of events in comparison to the real book written by Agnes.
In fact, even the American journalist who lastly wrote on New York Times over the death of the last American doctor of that mission in Albania, Harold Hayes, does not have the complete accuracy in his writing since his writing was based on the book of Cate Lineberry and not the one written by Agness Jensen Mangerich, who was more coherent over the Albanian reality of that time, over the Albanian generosity, over the fact that Albanians shared their corn bread and cheese with them, basically over the upholding of the Albanian compassion and generosity as a feature that truly characterizes us, as such.
We take the opportunity to express our sincerest condolences to the Harold Hayes family for their loss.
The Albanian state, how much did they care for this topic, how much effort and respect did they put over this issue?
During Berisha’s governing my father got the title of the “Martyr of Democracy”. His remains rest in the Martyrs Cemetary of Berati.
They took care of making him a well worth grave.
Our city of Berat had tremendous respect for us. The city of Berat remained close to us and valued us as a family for our saddened past, and at the same time valued us for the merits of our family and my fathers merits especially.
In Berat, as mentioned before, a road is named after my father.
Your mother, the honorable woman, the Teacher of People, Eleni Stefa wrote a book over the memory of her husband, your father. As an ntelectual Albanian woman, a former teacher and one of the very first teachers in Berat, one with great reference and writing skills, she deserved to confess a different life.
How did she cope with everything during the period that she was writing the book…?
She was of course, very emotional during the whole time, but she was extremely happy when the book was finished. After she saw the cover for the book, she got really saddened and said:
“Ah Kostaq, the luck you had…!”
There were times that she would read the book on her own with glasses keeping in mind her old age, and when she’d get tired I would continue to read for her. She passed away at the age of 102.
When she turned 100, Trieste organized a huge party for her through the municipality as they always do as part of a tradition in Italy in order to show respect for the 100 year olds. She was very happy about it.
Your mother Eleni, did she personally know Enver Hoxha?
Yes, she did.
She knew him during her youth in Korca. She went to the Normal school after which she became a teacher, whereas, Enver studied in Korca at the Korca Lyceum.
The school, to which my mother went to naturally, was a female school only, but in other words they were students of the same period in the same city and they would gather at the common ambients and that’s how they new each other.
In fact, I know that my parents randomly met with Enver Hoxha at a hotel in Bari, Italy around the year 1939. My parents went to that city and randomly met Enver at that hotel who at the time went to meet up with hist sister and her husband, Bahri Omari. If his sister only knew that her own husband’s fate would end the same…!
According to you, “how much” and “how” does the Albanian population know his history?
Oh, in a very partial and distorted manner, not the reality of it…
In what way do you think that you take after your father Mrs. Elda?
I believe that I am mostly like my father in a way that, he was extremely passionate about foreign languages and so am I. I love foreing languages, I learned Russian very well and I worked throughout many years as a Russian translator in Albania and Italy. I can also speak English and Italian, and I have mostly done this autodicactly, keeping in mind the time I am in and my own age now.
I also have a lot of passion for literature. I read great books of grand Russian authors which for me at the time was considered to be not only a great passion but also a privilege to find the materials that they have asked for as they were not always available.
First published in Albanian language by Adela Kolea under the title “Berat, Lufta e II- të Botërore: mjekët amerikanë të shpëtuar nga babai im dhe fati që atij iu rezervua më pas”.
Translated by Saranda Shala
This interview is available also in Italian language.