|Hylli i Drites
Fr. Zef Pllumi and “Live to Tell”
by Kate Schank
It was shortly before Fr. Pllumi died on Sep. 26 of 2007, that we informed him that in fact the first of his great historical novels would be published very soon in the US. Of course, he was overjoyed. Now his writing will become even more well-known, with translations not only in English but also in French and Italian. Regretfully, I did not have the chance to meet him personally. But I will always be grateful for his sponsorship of my translation. Petro Zheji is to thank as well, who is already well-known as a translator and author in Albania, (“Shqipja dhe Sanskritishtja”), and provided his expertise and professional guidance.
I did communicate with Fr. Zef via telephone on many occasions regarding the translation of the books into English, and exchanged several letters with him. It was always a pleasure to speak with him, a wise priest; as if talking to an Uncle, a friend, an encouraging voice, at the same time ready with kind advice. A quote from one of his letters, stating on the subject of my new marriage that: “Love is like a flower that needs to be cultivated, if not it will die. To cultivate love, patience is required.”
As part of his rich and phenomenal life, he was there to see the churches which had been closed in 1967 by the Communist government in Albania; re-opened in 1991. Mother Teresa had sent her own sisters there to St. Anthony’s church in Tirana where Fr. Zef was stationed, and not being political herself, she facilitated the re-opening by receiving the key from Nexhmije Hoxha, which was then handed over to Fr. Zef. Nexhmije wanted to demonstrate that the communist government was not against religion.
Perhaps upon hearing of this encounter one may reflect, and think: perhaps there is a likeness in character? There is underlying proof in his autobiographies that his strong belief in God, his great faith, had supplied him with more than human spiritual strength and physical endurance.
Jan Petrie, who accompanied Mother Teresa on the trip, remarked upon her meeting with Fr. Zef, that even after his years in prison he was indeed full of vitality and seemed to reflect the spirit of his little grand-nephew, who they had dressed as a friar. He then was dressed in his traditional Franciscan robe, which had been previously forbidden. JP recalled the wonder in Fr. Zef’s eyes, full of life.
This month, February of 2008, the English translation of Fr. Zef Pllumi’s book trilogy “Live to Tell” will see the light of publication in the United States. Finally, his voice will be heard in the Land of Liberty. This true autobiography is one of religious persecution in Albania after the war, and injustices brought about by the onset of a new communist order. It is a story that some would prefer remain untold, or some may not wish to hear at all.
These memoirs bear an undeniable historical significance, not only in the author’s homeland where they were scribbled, but across the globe. Described is what happened in the country of Albania beginning just after the second world war, from the perspective of a young man from the Franciscan seminary in Shkodra. He was the youngest employee of “Hylli i Dritës” magazine from 1943-1944, and the personal secretary of the provincial Fr. Mati Prendushi. As such, his trouble began because the communists assumed that he must know a lot, and they would be able to get secret information out of him. The first novel “Live to Tell v.1” takes place in Albania from 1944-1951. Clergymen who were martyred, who should not be forgotten, are described here and their portraits featured. Many great sacrifices were made, in the struggle for Catholicism. Herein is written evidence of the crimes and atrocities committed under a newly implemented communist regime. The innocent were persecuted, as clergymen fought for the survival of their religion, their history and culture, their life’s work. Many lives were lost, criminals reigned and invoked terror, and it was a breakdown of order. Perhaps even reminiscent of the Holocaust.
Aside from its place in history, this is the remarkable story of a man that most would consider a hero, a man of incredible spiritual strength. Was it his powerful faith in God and belief in his religion, surely that made his will so strong? Alone, he was forced to combat the toughest of circumstances, both within and around him. He tells of his battle not only to defy the odds of science and survive even the extermination labor camps, but the struggle to maintain his faith, fight for his religion, uphold his duties as a priest, and act according to his beliefs. He is a witness, who relates to us step-by-step the chronicle of what he experienced, now many years later.
He saw priests become martyrs, Frano Pjetri for example, who before being executed exclaimed: “Long live Christ the King, the Catholic religion and Catholics worldwide, Long live the Pope, my blood and body will remain here, but my heart and soul is with the Pope, Long live Albania.”
A quotation from the book (p.241 English version), (p.322 Al. version):
The superior Fr. Marin Sirdani called me into his own room to have a word
“I appreciate your decisiveness, but everything must have its measure,” he told
me. “What goes beyond is just plain stupid. Do you understand? You have
arrived here at the worst moment Catholicism has ever seen, especially for us. Go
back to your village where you were. Hide out, don’t open your mouth, and
don’t trust anyone or anything. We need you alive, not dead. We old people,
even if we die, have lived long enough. But you young people must live. God is
great. Thanks be to the Blessed One that He created death, because otherwise,
people would be the slaves of tyrants forever. And they will die one day, too, but
you must live to tell! If you do nothing else, live only to tell. Do you understand
what that means? The others have died, and we are dying. All of us will die for
nothing, unless there is someone to tell the story of what happened. Whoever is
left must tell the story! It’s not a question of us reaching our end—there’s no
doubt about that. But our memory and example should live on for coming generations.
Do you understand that? Friar Zef, as today I am your superior, I am
ordering you to go. Save yourself! And live only to tell!”
Aleksander Sirdani/ executed.
Dom Nikoll Mazreku, featured below; survived the Beden Camp (part of a brigade of 29 priests) April to Nov.28 1948, the Big Prison in Shkodra, and the Maliqi swamp together with Fr. Zef Pllumi.
A biography (from back of v.3):
Fr. Zef Pllumi, born on April 7th 1924 in the Mali i Rrencit village of Lezha Albania, as a youth entered the Franciscan school in Shkodra and pursued his elementary and secondary studies at the “Illirium” high school through 1942. In wartime, he pursued a college theology course at the Franciscan monastery in Shkodra. In 1946 the monastery was forced to close, and he was arrested on December 14th along with the majority of other clergymen. A military court sentenced him to 3 years in prison by 1948 which he spent in Shkodra, Beden in Kavaja, and Orman-Pojan in Maliqi. After surviving 3 years under hard labor and conditions of torture, he returned to the Franciscan Walnut Tree monastery in Shkodra. It was 1958 when he transferred to the Dukagjin mountains where he stayed until the churches closed in 1967. At the end of that September he was arrested again and sentenced to 25 years, which he spent in Spac in Miredita, Krypore in Vlona, Ballsh in Fieri, Zejmen in Lezha, and Perpaim (Saint Vasil) in Saranda. On April 11, 1989 he was freed after having been very ill. In 1990 he returned to Tirana as a cleric, where besides his religious activities he worked fervently up until his death in Sep. 2007, to contribute to the enrichment of Albanian culture and education; which had suffered for nearly 50 years.
Fr. Pllumi is also known for his many and various other writings, including: “Rrno Vetem per me Tregue” pjesa 1, Tirana 1995, pjesa 2 Tirana, 1997, pjesa 3 Tirana, 2001, “Antipoezi per Shekullin e Njizet” (poeme antiepike) Tirana, 2001, “Françeskanet e Medhaj”, Tirana, 2001, “Ut Heri Dicebamus (Sic Thonim Dije. . .) Tirana 2002, “Para Nji Mije Vjeteve (Ngjarje te dheut te Arbenit) Tirana 2003, “Frati i Pashallareve Bushatli te Shkodres, Shkoder, 2004. In 2006 he was awarded the National Honor (“Nderi i Kombit”) by president Moisiu, and the same year the literary prize Golden Pen (“Penda e Artë”), for his “Live to Tell” series by the Ministry of Albanian Culture.
“Juria paska pranuar edhe mendimin ndryshe, edhe mendimin e kundërt, këtu besoj është vlera që ka demokracia. Kjo është vlefta më e madhe që i bëhet librit tim. Të tjerat janë për mua kurora që çohen në funerale që i vdekuri nuk i sheh”, Zef Pllumi at the awards ceremony: “The jury has in fact approved of my contrary opinion, and I think that is the value of democracy. This is the highest honor it has given my book. The rest, for me is just garlands, which mean nothing to one as he rests in his grave.”
http://sq.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zef_Pllumi [2-17-08 “Zef Pllumi”]
Although Fr. Pllumi may now be at rest, his great spirit and important literary work will live on for a long, long time. Remembered, in spite of the suffering he endured, as full of wonder, young in spirit like a child, inexhaustibly he strove to work for the benefit of the country and culture. We can recall him always and forever in “Live to Tell”, as we follow the details of the trials and hardships of the life of this remarkable man, and learn from the power of his faith. It is a story which deserves to be heard by as broad an audience as possible, widely recognized for its historical importance, and the strength of his heroic character.