The Jailed Right

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One of the most formidable intellectuals of Albania in the ’30s, Mirash Ivanaj was jailed for 7 years in his 60s, even though he had never broken the law. Nevertheless, he never bowed until the end, just a few days shy of his release, on 22 September 1953. The life story of a rare personality, who lived in the right while surrounded by the wrong.

Under the pillow of his prison hospital bed, Mirash Ivanaj kept a poem someone had given to him to make sure it saw the light of day. Mirash asked Agron Çarçani, his hospital roommate, to get the poem out and have it published if he ever could. The poem begins with ‘Farewell o world! Farewell o life!’ – There was a question at its ending that had been tormenting many Albanians for the last 9 years: ‘God, how do you witness all the misery caused by your creations? Who reigns, tell me: they, or You?’

The Last Days

Mirash Ivanaj dedicated his last minutes to a discussion on that poem and then gave his last breath. He had been taken a few days earlier to the prison hospital. Lazër Radi, his cellmate and colleague at the translations room of the New Prison of Tirana, where Ivanaj was a walking dictionary of several languages and a true encyclopedia for his colleagues, witnessed during Mirash’s last months how his health was deteriorating more and more: he suffered from continuous pain and barely ate. However, he never complained and would not interrupt his work. It was impossible to stop Mirash Ivanaj working; that could happen only when his soul would depart from his body. When that moment came and his state seriously worsened, Mirash was taken by ambulance to the hospital. ‘I took him on my arms. He was weightless, light as a feather,’ Lazër Radi writes in his book Mirash Ivanaj, the Iron Minister. It was Agron Çarçani who saw the tall, now waning and feeble man a few minutes later entering his prison hospital room. The officers ordered the doctors to do whatever was necessary to heal him because they needed him greatly. The fact that the former Minister of Education was left in his cell to that state while his deteriorating health was quite obvious to everyone makes you think that Ndue Gëziqi, the other convict of that hospital room, was right to think that ‘these orders were given for the hospital staff to have the impression that the government would do everything to save him, but that it was impossible’. And, as the nurses that Agron asked continuously would say, intervention was impossible at that stage. Mirash Ivanaj had intestinal obstruction, but the weakened state he was left in impeded intervention. He was given medicine and injections, was checked regularly, even by doctors who had never been seen before in that hospital; however his health kept aggravating, until September 22, 1953, when Mirash Ivanaj perished. His niece and brother’s wife would receive the last letter from the Prison of Tirana, where Mirash’s close friend, Demir Vila, gave them the tragic news.

From One Place to Another

Mirash was born in 1981 into a patriotic Albanian family of Podgorica, Montenegro. His closest family relative was his brother, Martin, with whom he would share a special bond.

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Mirash and Martin Ivanaj

They were both very skilled, qualified and successful: Martin would come to head the Court of Cassation in Albania, whereas Mirash became Minister of Education. As such, even though they had no close interest, nor were they interdependent, they never separated – their souls stayed together in spite of their social positions. They studied together in Serbia, later in Rome, where both were made doctors in Law, whereas Mirash was also made doctor in Literature.

The two Ivanaj brothers graduated at the University of Rome, today known as La Sapienza

Upon returning to Albania, Mirash was based in Shkodra, where along with his cousin, Nikollë Ivanaj, he started the ‘Republika’ (Republic) newspaper. From 1925 to 1930, he was the principal of the State High School in the northern city. He then started working at the High School of Tirana, where he demonstrated a wide range of knowledge, teaching skills and selfless devotion to provide his students with the best learning experience possible. He eventually became known beyond his school; therefore, in 1933, when Pandeli Evangjeli formed his new government, Mirash Ivanaj was proposed as a Minister of Education. The new Minister undertook to radically reform the Albanian education system. At that time, there were a lot of private schools: foreign and religious, some of which educated their students with an anti-Albanian spirit. Closing them was easier said than done, given that they were under the control of Albania’s very influential neighbors. Nevertheless, Mirash was dedicated to see it through, aiming the establishment of a unified, public and laic education system. The reform got the Minister’s name, and he won supporters and opponents alike. The most powerful of the latter were representatives of the clergy and neighboring states. Their influence eventually had the King and government demand concessions, but Mirash Ivanaj could not step on his principles. If his reform was to be opposed, then he could not continue to serve as minister. He accepted the office with the condition that no-one was to interfere in his work. When they did, he resigned.

After a while, the Doctor of Law became a member of the High State Council, which drafted laws for the state apparatus and reviewed the ministries’ acts before they went on to Parliament for approval. His brother Martin also worked in that institution. They had together built a home in Tirana and remained unseparated. In January 1937, Mirash Ivanaj was assigned as Head of the State Council, while also working as King’s adviser.

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The house where the brothers lived in Tirana up to 1939. Today, the building of the Martin and Mirash Ivanaj Foundation stands on the same spot.

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Photo of Mirash Ivanaj near his house’s library

Consequences of the War

Everything turned upside down in April 1939. After they saw that their effort to organize an anti-occupation resistance was fruitless, the brothers left Tirana, as well as many civil servants of the Kingdom. Martin’s daughter and Italian wife also left to Italy after a while, taking an Albanian flag with them that is displayed today on the walls of the “Martin and Mirash Ivanaj” Foundation, established by Mirash’s niece, Drita Ivanaj. The only glue that would keep the two separated pieces of the family together were the letters.

In 1940, Martin passed away in Istanbul, which was the heaviest blow in Mirash’s life up to that point, along with the loss of his Italian girlfriend, to whom he remained eternally faithful. In 1945, after receiving an invitation from his friend Gjergj Kokoshi, the then Minister of Education in the new communist government, Mirash returned to Tirana, but did not accept any offer of public office, neither the MP candidacy, arguing that he did not deserve it as he had not taken part in the war. He only sought to work as a teacher and was dedicated to teaching, while living in a room of what remained of his house – the other part has been raided while the thousands of volumes of books in his library had disappeared. The only connection he head with his niece and sister-in-law was his correspondence, which continued regularly until it suddenly stopped in 1947. “For eight or nine months, there was nothing. We didn’t know what had happened to him. We enquired at Switzerland’s Red Cross, yet we got nothing,” says Drita Ivanaj for kujto.al. Their worry would come to an end when they received their first letter from Mirash, which gave rise to another concern: He was writing from prison.

In the Unthinkable Prison, With Clean Hands

When he came to Albania, Mirash was also welcomed, with false hospitality nonetheless, by Enver Hoxha, who knew well that Mirash, while serving as Minister, had discontinued Enver’s study scholarship. For some, this was the reason of Mirash’s arrest, but we cannot say with certainty that it was the only one. Mirash Ivanaj had been educated in the West, had contacts with foreigners and, above all, he had an uncompromising personality that stood in the way of the new government’s demands on activities such as obligatory volunteering or Marxism courses, in which he was always absent. He had the profile of an element with bad influence, therefore he was to be isolated. He was arrested in May 1947, a year and a half from his return to Albania. After around a year of detention, he appeared before the Tirana garrison court-martial, where prosecutor Petrit Hakani listed his charges, which the Court took as the basis of their decision of April 7, 1948: ‘During his time abroad, he was connected to Zog, his entourage and other agents of the Balkan Espionage Service, such as Zog’s consul, Xhaxuli, the Englishman Sterling. He tried to form a committee to work for the interests of Anglo Americans… After the liberation of Albania, the defendant returned and, according to the instructions laid upon him by the Anglo American reactionary force, he worked against the power of the people by getting in touch and collaborating with Gjergj Kokoshi, Ali Bakiu, etc. He discovered the organization of the traitorous MPs, committed agitation and propaganda everywhere against the power of the people’… Although Mirash Ivanaj denied his charges, the court-martial’s decision, confirmed by the Supreme Court after Mirash’s appeal, was: 7 years of imprisonment, forced labor, confiscation of his movable and immovable assets and loss of civil and election rights for 5 years. The decision was incomprehensible for many, but especially for Mirash. Whatever his function was, it was hard to ask him for even the smallest ‘favor’, because he never accepted to bypass the law or break the rules, even on something untraceable or insignificant.

-Did you understand? – asked the prosecutor after the decision had been taken.

-No, sir, what should I understand?

-You are convicted to seven years in prison!

-On what charges, sir?

-For agitation and propaganda against the power of the people.

-But I have just arrived from Turkey, I haven’t talked to anyone, except about curricular matters.

-But you came with the thought to commit propaganda.

-But, Sir, how can there be any law in the world that punishes your thoughts?

His belief in justice, which looks naïve in an environment where justice had crumbled to dust, and his indomitable willpower remained even during his years in prison, where he took the insults of ignorant sergeants in silence and restlessly continued the work assigned to him in the mesagjeri, the translations room. Except translation which, despite the circumstances, remained an intellectual activity that gave him pleasure, he also took delight in his monthly exchange of letters with his niece and sister-in-law, who had now moved to the United States. ’We had a regular correspondence, but we could not say much in those letters: Only one letter a month was allowed,” says Drita Ivanaj. Mirash was also visited regularly by Novka, an old lady who had been the family servant, to whom Mirash used to give every time an authorization to withdraw a sum of money from his fund of revenues from translations. After Mirash Ivanaj passed away, his body was used for study purposes at the Faculty of Medicine, but loyal Novka insisted and managed to have it removed from the faculty and finally give Mirash a resting place in the cemetery of Sharra. When communism fell and communication bridges were reestablished, Lazër Radi, Mirash Ivanaj’s friend, discovered the former minister’s grave by chance and notified his niece, Drita on the whereabouts. When she came to Albania, she made sure to have her father’s body brought there too, so as both brothers could rest at the same memorial, together in death just as in life.

The foundation Drita Ivanaj established bears both names in its offices in New York and Tirana. Among else, it aims to raise public interest on Albanian culture and education and make known the history of this country, which still has a lot to tell. A part of this history is the dictatorship period, which cast a shadow on quite a few men and women, who have a lot to offer to the present and future of their country even today, thanks to their values and activities. One of them is, without doubt, Mirash Ivanaj.

Written in Albanian by Arta Çano/kujto.al

Translated by Kelvin Zifla

*This piece of writing was based on the books Ministri i hekurt Mirash Ivanaj (Mirash Ivanaj, the Iron Minister) by Lazër Radi, Durrës 2018 and Mirash ivanaj Personalitet i shquar i universit shqiptar (Mirash Ivanaj, a Notable Personality of the Albanian Universe) by Iljaz Gogaj, Tirana 2004.

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