By Agron Alibali, LL. M./Senior Fellow, University of Massachusetts, Boston/
In life and afterlife, great men interact with each other in unusual ways. As we remember today the 50th anniversary of the passing of Bishop Fan S. Noli, 53 years ago on this very day President John. F. Kennedy was assassinated.
John F. Kennedy and Noli knew each other well. John F. Kennedy represented Massachusetts for many years in the U.S. Congress before becoming President of the United States.. Noli, who engaged so effectively President Wilson in 1918 must have worked with J. F. Kennedy thirty years later as well.
Future research must focus on this earlier, lifetime interaction between these great men. The resources are right here in Boston: at the J. F. K Presidential Library and the Fan S. Noli Memorial Library.
Before I begin let me make a few remarks on the previous presentations. Ambassador Berisha mentioned the efforts to place a sculpture of Noli at his birthplace in Qytezë, or Ibrik Tepe, in Thrace, Turkey, describing how the place has now been settled by Moslem Bulgarians. In U.S. archives I have found a letter that Noli sent to Faik Konitza around the WWI period where the former describes the deep pain he felt for being unable to assist his family in Ibrik Tepe, who was being forced to flee the place.
Dr. Thanas Gjika referred to Faik Konitza’s conversion to Catholicism. It should be noted that, according to Konitza’s Application Form at Harvard University, to the question about religion he responded this way: “Albanian Catholic”, and not simply “Catholic”. The adjective “Albanian” is essential and crucial in describing Konitza’s religious leaning at the time, which was
1 Presentation at the Symposium for the 50th Anniversary of the Repose of Bishop Fan S. Noli, St. George Cathedral, Albanian Orthodox Church of America, South Boston, MA, November 22, 2015.
2 This work is based on one chapter of the forthcoming book “Faik Konitza, Contrasts of a Diplomat”. Copyright © All rights reserved. No part of this presentation may be published or disseminated in any form without prior written consent of the author.
….primarily patriotic, being imbrued in Shkodër of late XIX Century, the cradle of Albanian nationalism in the Catholic North.
Thirdly, Prof. Pano rightly referred to VATRA and Noli’s efforts in 1918 as having had the attributes of an Albanian government in exile, which brings me to the topic of my presentation.
II. Year 1916 – the beginning
U. S. Archives further evidence the claim that the Pan-Albanian Federation of America, VATRA, The Hearth, during 1916-1918 acted as an Albanian government in exile.
The beginning of this valiant effort is vividly described by a simple pledge card widely distributed in 1916 with the following statement:
“Current history shows that there can be no permanent peace in Europe until the Balkans are tranquil. A free and independent Albania is necessary as a buffer state between rival Powers if there is to be peace in the Balkans. Therefore, I believe that, when the new map of Europe is made after the war, the London Conference of 1913 should be respected, and the territory of Albania confined to its lawful owners who have possessed it from time immemorial: and I hereby enroll myself among the Friends of Albanian Independence”.3
The voluntary group, called “Friends of Albanian Independence,” was set up through the valiant efforts of Fan S. Noli, and was composed of prominent American endorsers, some known personally to him. Its goal was to spread the word for the suffering of Albanians during the war, to gather support among the American public and to assist VATRA’s efforts in preserving Albania’s independence.
The signed pledge cards and eventual contributions were to be returned to Fan S. Noli at VATRA’s office address at 97 Compton Street in Boston, MA, to Christo Dako, at 18 North Street, Southbridge, MA, and to Joseph F. Gould, a Harvard graduate who could have know Fan Noli, and who later became an eccentric and prolific writer.4
3 The Outlook, Volume 112, 1916, the Reader’s View, pp. 156-157. The reference contains also a list of prominent supporters of “Friends of Albanian Independence”.
4 Jill Lepore, Joe Gould’s Teeth, the long-lost story of the longest book ever written, The New Yorker, July 27, 2015 issue.
As the events evolved and the U.S. entered the War, soon the tide turned and the European conflict was coming to an end. Meanwhile, the secret Treaty of London that partitioned Albania became public. Obviously, in those historical moments VATRA rose up to its valiant task and lead the unparalleled effort to preserve Albania from extinction.
III. Fan S. Noli, among the most surveilled leaders in history?
Pursuant to a FOIA request some times ago, I was able to find Noli’s FBI file. Thick, detailed and complex, the file reveals that Fan S. Noli was subject to a strict surveillance for many years, beginning in 1946, where someone accused him of being a communist, based on Noli’s book on Beethoven and the French Revolution. The FBI quickly started a full-fledged investigation, involving many branches and special agents. After many years of surveillance and investigation, finally a Special Agent of Greek-American extraction reached the conclusion that there was nothing to support the charge that Noli was a Communist or received external, foreign funding. Therefore he recommended the termination of the investigation.
It should be noted that, throughout this entire secret operation, Noli was treated by the FBI with the utmost respect and decency, always keeping in mind his personality and stature as the widely respected leader of the Albanian-American community.
However, archival research reveals that Noli was subject to other surveillance and investigations even before, ranking him among the most surveilled personalities ever.
That was the case in 1918, after the U.S. entered the Great War, and enemies of the Albanian patriotic cause in America found a good pretext to get rid of VATRA, Noli and other Albanian activists by accusing them of being in the payroll of Austro-Hungary, an enemy country to the U.S.
Noli was the President of VATRA at the time, and he was leading the most robust and fruitful effort of the Albanian-American community to save Albania from final dismemberment.
Such movement was seen extremely unfavorably by some Greek nationalists and Italian activists in the U.S., who saw an opportunity to finally settle the score with Noli and the Albanian-American patriotic movement.
VATRA’s office and Noli’s apartment at that time were located at South End and Back Bay, and both locations became subject of a most intense surveillance. Dictaphones, or the most advanced listening devices of the time, were placed at VATRA’s offices and at the Fruit Store of Chris Kirka, one of VATRA’s leaders and Noli’s closest collaborators and friends. Noli and his closest collaborators were often shadowed by [F]BI agents. Noli’s apartment at 53 Clarendon Street and office were searched in his absence and without a warrant.
Photo 1. Fan Noli’s apartment in 1918 at 53 Clarendon Street, where the search took place. Noli rented a small room on the ground floor. The photo is current.
At the very beginning the investigation encountered a difficult problem: translating the surveillance product from Albanian into English. U.S. authorities therefore used three sources: a Greek-Albanian activist, Liolion, editor of a Greek-American newspaper in Worcester; Giorgio La Piana, an Albanian-Italian or Arbëresh, who later became a Professor at Harvard Divinity School, and the Qiriazi sisters. These four people assisted the [F]BI in countless hours of listening to and the surveillance of VATRA, its leader Fan S. Noli and his Albanian-American close collaborators.
The product of this rich archival material is extremely valuable in helping us today, or almost one century later, to revisit and reconstitute the historical, outstanding work of VATRA as the de facto government of Albania in exile in 1918. The archival sources reveal that VATRA indeed assumed the essential elements and core functions, and in many respects, acted, as Albanian Government in exile at the time.(Map 1. Boston’s South End neighborhood, where Vatra’s office were located, at 97 Compton Street. The street no longer exists.)
IV. The core elements and functions of the Albanian government in exile
The essential elements of a national government are its territory, people, the legal framework connecting the government to the governed, and international recognition. The only major difference between a regular national government and a government in exile is the territorial element. A government in exile is removed from its territory, and only indirectly exercises its jurisdiction and related functions.
The VATRA Board at the time was leading a large organization on the ground, with dozens of branches all over the U.S. Its members were representative of almost all the regions and towns of Albania, including Kosova and Çamëria. It should be noted as a digression that Kosova’s first representative in the U.S. was Faik Konitza, as revealed in a letter he sent to Charles Crane in 1911. Fan S. Noli was the only person among the members of the Government in Exile that was not from proper Albania. All the others were from various regions, within or outside of the 1913 boundaries, and mainly from Southern Albania.
If we review the essential elements of a government in exile with respect to VATRA’s activity, the territory of that Albanian government in exile was proper Albania, within its ethnic-linguistic boundaries, as described by Mehmet Konitza in his work The Albanian Question.
The population of such territory was composed of the people living in Albania and all those that were born there and had immigrated mainly to the United States, especially after the unspeakable massacres committed by Greek terrorists in Southern Albania in 1913-1914.
VATRA was the element that glued this fabric together into a coherent and effective government. It should be highlighted that in 1916-1918 Albania itself was in the most difficult conditions. Central Albania at some point was ruled by Essad Pasha until the Austro-Hungarian advances to a line approximately in the Vjosa – Devoll – Pogradec axis. Korça was effectively ruled by the French Army, which allowed the ephemeral Republic of Korça to institute a rudimentary and democratic form of self-government. Vlora, Gjirokastra and, briefly Janina and Çamëria, were under Italian administration. Therefore, VATRA was the only institution that reflected a unified and coherent Albania in the eyes of the world.
The seat of this government was VATRA’s headquarters at 97 Compton Street in Boston’s South End. This street today does not exist. U.S. archives show beyond doubt that Boston’s South End and Back Bay neighborhood were transformed, under the leadership Fan S. Noli and all the other VATRA’s leaders, into a true cradle of Albanian nationalism.
As for the international recognition, the Albanian government in exile faced considerable opposition, intrigue and backstabbing from the Greek and Italian Embassy in the U.S, as well as from extremist and radical Greek ultra-nationalist circles. While certainly far from being a formal recognition step, this government in exile achieved a major public relations boost and indirect moral support from the U.S. government, especially after the historic meeting at the White House between President W. Wilson with a number of various community leaders, including Fan S. Noli on the 4th of July 1918. Curiously, even as Noli was preparing for this historic meeting he was being watched by the [F]BI.
In general, the core functions of a national government are: (i) Finances and tax collection;
(ii) Public order, defense and security;
(iii) Education, culture and healthcare for the people;
(iv) Foreign affairs;
(v) Public relations and communications; and (vi) Public work.
i. Foreign Affairs
In foreign affairs, obviously, the main objective of VATRA was the titanic diplomatic battle to preserve the independence and territorial integrity of Albania. The minimum objective was the preservation of Albania’s boundaries of 1913. The maximum objective was the re-institution of Albania’s ethnic-linguistic boundaries. The foreign affairs function was carried out by Fan Noli and Mehmet Konitza, the later being one of the most eminent diplomats of Albania. In his groundbreaking pamphlet “The Albanian Question” Mehmet Konitza succinctly outlined the country’s key foreign policy objectives as follows:
(i) Confirming the country’s territorial boundaries according to ethnic-linguistic lines;
(ii) Establishing a sovereign government that could make sovereign and independent decisions;
(iii) Maintaining strict neutrality in international affairs.
Noli and Mehmet Konitza were helped in their work by Dr. Mihal Turtulli and Nikolla Kasneci, both also operating in Europe.
As for the finance and taxation attribute, VATRA was able to collect more than 160,000 USD in 1917-1918, which today is worth approximately 3 million USD. The funds enabled the maintenance and operation of the basic functions of the government. That included especially the funding of the diplomatic efforts in Europe, but also the support for VATRA’s operation in the U.S., including its various publications. This unprecedented patriotic effort was entirely voluntary, and was based on the contributions of thousands of Albanians who were doing mainly manual work and under very harsh conditions.
iii. Defense and Public Order
American archives show also the extent of the public order and security attributes of the government in exile. Upon the proposal of Mehmet Konitza, VATRA instructed Aqif Përmeti to constitute a Voluntary Force that would be ready to be deployed on the side of the Allies in the European theater. This was meant to become mainly a striking force that would have both a military and police character, like a gendarmerie. Aqif Përmeti composed an important training manual for this voluntary force.
This important government attribute caused enormous alarm especially within Greek radical nationalist circles, as seen in various protests they sent to the U.S. government. They knew very well that such a force, composed mainly of a young, strong and uncompromising group of men from Southern Albania, would be a direct threat to their goals in Southern Albania.
In terms of pubic relations and communications, Fan S. Noli and the core Albanian leaders knew well the intricacies of how to win hearts and minds of the U.S. and European public opinion. They worked very well with the press and were able to put their point of view on the record and in plain public view. The public pledge reprinted above further demonstrates this point. Also, they knew very well that they needed to maintain secrecy in their communications in the circumstances of the World War and in the face of Greek-Italian intrigues. They were fully aware that they were being watched and that were under surveillance. They joked often about their letters being censored and delayed.
To avoid surveillance and to secure their communications of vital importance, the government in exile sometimes utilized extraordinary measures, such as the use of trustworthy personal couriers who would verbally pass on the message. Sevasti Qiriazi, who was assisting the [F]BI in the surveillance process, complained in June 1918, thus providing the remarkable case of a certain Faik Dadani, who was treasurer with a VATRA branch in Waterbury, CT, and was sent as a personal courier from Fan Noli to London to send a “proverbial” message to Mehmet Konitza. “It seems – added Qiriazi – that nothing was kept in writing and the message he was carrying was very important and secret”.
V. A tentative reconstitution of the Albanian government in exile
Based on a careful review of the American archival files at our disposal and the structure and activities of VATRA at the time, we can tentatively submit that the Albanian government in exile in 1916-1918 was composed as follows:
Prime Minister: Fan S. Noli
Deputy Prime Minister: Kolë Tromara, Minister of Foreign Affairs: Mehmet Konitza ,Minister of War: Aqif Përmeti,
Minister of Economy and Finance: Loni Kristo ,Minister of Interior: Koli Rodhi, Minister of Public Works: Kristo Kirka, Minister of Education and Culture: Kostë Çekrezi Minister of Press: Bahri Omari.