There are many stories that are passed down through families, tales that are told over dinner tables, and legends that are never transcribed, only to be lost as time passes and memories fade. Some of them are amusing, some of them are dark and wrought with struggle, but few have the power to inspire both awe and sadness like the story I am about to tell you.
This is the story of Beqir Zhepa, an extraordinary Albanian who experienced a life that many of us could not even begin to conceive.
Born on September 26th, 1928 to an Albanian family that had settled in Tirana, his father Ramadan Zhepa, was a great patriot who fought bravely during the anti-fascist war. Ramadan and his wife Nënë Gjylja were blessed with four children; three boys and one girl, Beqir, Petrit, Zhavit, and Lirine, with Beqir being the oldest.
During Beqir’s youth and due to his fathers feverent beliefs, the family home became a stronghold of the Albanian anti-fascist movement that had developed during the early part of the 20th Century. Frequent faces at the Zhepa house included Qemal Stafa, Mustafa Gjinishi, and Myslym Peza, as well a many other revolutionaries and anti-facist insurgents.
Then, in the Autumn of 1943, Beqir experienced his first brush with war at the tender age of 14. One day after finishing school, he passed by his fathers’ shop and Ramadan asked him if he could run an errand for him, taking an important document to Peze because none of the other couriers were available. Beqir new that his errand was dangerous, but he saw it as a noble duty that he had been entrusted with and he jumped at the chance to undertake it. So, he set off to Peze, letter in hand, not realising that this life was about to change forever.
“I was only 14 when my father sent me to Peze to get a letter about the movement of the German forces in 1943. I was supposed deliver the letter and then return to school the next day but that night I was held in Peze and the next day I could not get back because the area was surrounded by Germans.”
After delivering his letter to the Partisan stronghold in Peze, Beqir attempted to return to Tirana but unfortunately, the area was surrounded by enemy forces and it was impossible for him to leave. Seven days into the offensive known as “Operation 505” which started in early November and successfully cleared Partisan units from the Peze region, the Germans declared a victory having killed over 100 and taken around 1650 prisoners. Beqir, who despite his young age, was considered as one of the Partisans was shot by a German solider as he tried to escape.
Having been injured and subsequently captured by Nazi forces, he was interred in a camp in Elbasan before being transferred to the Sajmiste concentration camp near the town of Zemun, Serbia. He spent four harsh months as a prisoner there before being moved on to one of the most famous and feared concentration camp complexes; Mauthausen-Gusen, at the beginning of 1944.
Mauthausen was located 20 km east of the town of Linz in Upper Austria and it is widely regarded as one of the largest labour camps of WWII. As with other Nazi concentration camps, inmates were forced to work as slaves in atrocious conditions. Inmates were starved, beaten, executed, and disposed of without a second thought- this place that young Beqir found himself in was akin to hell on earth. Many historians have tried to ascertain just how many people lost their lives at Mauthausen during the Second World War as it is a seemingly impossible task, but most sources place it somewhere between 90,000 and 320,000 men, women, and children.
Upon arriving at the camp, Beqir was forced to line up with other prisoners in a yard at the camp to complete a mandatory roll call. As the German officer called out his number (99779), Beqir cast his eyes down, not realising it was his turn to speak as he did not speak German and could not understand what the guard was shouting. The guard repeated the appeal a further two times, at which point a Russian inmate called “present” in his place. Realising that this declaration was not true, the Nazi guard sentenced Beqir to torture and he was beaten within an inch of his life and left for dead next to one of the furnaces. These furnaces were used to dispose of dead prisoners, and this would have been Beqirs’ fate if it had not been for a fellow prisoner, a Spaniard who noticed that he was still breathing. Prising his almost lifeless body from the mounds of dead prisoners that surrounded him, the Spaniard took him to the prison nurse where his injuries were tended to. Then, after a short recuperation, Beqir was returned back to the brutality of the prison camp, thankful for his life, but scarred by his ordeal.
When speaking of his time in Mauthausen, Beqir struggled to find the words.
“I saw a lot of terrible things in that place. We worked a lot and ate very little, but we were tortured a lot. I can not tell them what I’ve seen, because they need days and nights to make them understand.”
Mauthausen was one of the last Nazi camps to be liberated at the end of the war, and it was not until May 5th 1945 that the Americans released the survivors to their respective countries. Beqir, along with six other Albanians were photographed at the camp; their skin pulled tightly over their bones, looking more like walking corpses than humans. They were then driven to the Austrian border and left there to make their own way home.
“It took us more than two months on foot to arrive in Tirana- it was July 10th 1945 by the time we arrived.”
After suffering abuse, beatings, near death, illness, and malnutrition, these young Albanians managed to walk home from Austria to Albania with determination in their minds and fire in their bellies. Beqir was just 15 years old at the time of his journey home and despite all that had happened to him, he summoned the strength from somewhere deep inside, to put one foot in front of the other until he reached Tirana. Upon arriving in front of his house, Beqir found a letter that had been sent to his parents, informing them of his death. Ramadan and Gjylja had long resigned themselves to the sorrowful belief that their first-born son had died in a concentration camp sometime around his 15th birthday, but here he was, stood in front of them, ghostlike and skeletal but very much alive.
After surviving the impossible and undertaking a monumental journey on foot from Austria to Albania, Beqir and his family hoped that life might return to some semblance of normality. Unfortunately, this was not the case as Beqir, suspected of being an American CIA and German Gestapo spy, was put under surveillance by the increasingly fearful Enver Hoxha. His every move was followed, every word he uttered was listened to, and he found it almost impossible to try and live a normal life, as well as to recover from the ordeal he had suffered as a teenager.
Then, in November 1970, Enver Hoxha’s paranoia came to a head and Beqir was arrested for agitation and propaganda and after six months of investigation, he was sentenced to prison. After serving his time, he was released and took a job as a cigarette seller before being arrested again in 1986 under similar baseless charges.
Imprisoned in Vlore, it was here he saw his father for the last time through the bars of a prison he was unjustly incarcerated in. Later in life, Beqir would describe how the most painful part of all of his struggles, was missing out on important milestones in his life, and the lives of those around him.
After a life of false imprisonment, violence, and oppression, as well as defying the odds in the face of adversity time and time again, Beqir passed way on April 15th 2016.
His last words were:
“I succeeded in battling my battles for what I thought was right, but now my time is up, it is now up to you to tell the generations what I fought and suffered for.”