The stories we’ve told you so far have been of patriots and ordinary citizens who fell foul of Albania’s brutal communist regime. But for this episode of the memory files, we wanted to give you a slightly different perspective.
Koco Theodosi was an elite member of the communist party and a politburo member. He held many high-ranking positions, including that of deputy prime minister.
He and his family lived in Blloku, an area of the city shut off from the rest of the country. This small section of the town was heavily guarded and was home to the party elite, their families, and dictator Enver Hoxha. Here the rules were somewhat more relaxed. While the rest of the country starved and struggled, those in Blloku lived a life of relative luxury. They ate well, could dress in more western fashions, and enjoyed a level of freedom their fellow countrymen could not.
But even in this enclave of privilege, people were not entirely safe. They lived with the threat of falling out of favor hanging over them at all times. As Enver Hoxha became more paranoid and desperate to cling to power, even those closest to him suffered. He regularly purged high ranking officials, even his close friends and confidants. They were rounded up, charged with frivolous crimes, and either imprisoned or executed.
Some, like Mehmet Shehu, committed suicide in suspicious circumstances. Today, Blloku is the vibrant heart of the city. It is home to bars, clubs, high-end shops, restaurants, and various other businesses that Hoxha would not have approved of. It’s almost like after the fall of communism, the people claimed back this enclave of privilege and made it theirs, a show of defiance against their oppressor.
While sympathy for the downfall of the elite is in short supply, we thought it was essential to show you how easy Enver Hoxha could turn on his allies and what impact this had on families and innocent children.
And that’s why we’re bringing you the story of Koco Theodos as told by his son Arben, who today still does not know where his father’s body is.
We find Arben Theodosi’s apartment quite easily as it is on one of the most popular streets in Blloku, not far from Enver Hoxha’s old villa. Despite its now gentrified surroundings, the apartment is modest, with small rooms and several decades old furnishings.
Arben is a renowned artist, a painter, and an Art Director, and when we meet, he invites us to his small library corner, where he shows us two or three catalogs of his work.
I look at the titles, and one jumps out at me as a title that made headlines a few days before, “Blloku” by Isuf Kalo. The rest are either classics or art books.
Arben has immediately sparked the interest of our videographer, Leand, who, like him, studied at the Academy of Art. Finding common ground, they spoke enthusiastically about his exhibitions, which Leand has seen.
Arben is a simple guy, that is the first thing that strikes me. He looks far from the all-important, self-absorbed, ego-centric artist image that we are often exposed to in Albania. Nor does he bear that kind of “pride” some people still manifest from their family or relatives holding privileged positions during Communism.
Extending a chocolate sweet, as is customary, he explains that he can not move much these days and that this is all he has to offer. He looks pensive but calm as the camera beings to roll, and he starts to detail the life of his father, Koco.
Koco Theodosi’s family hailed from Korca, a city in the southwest of Albania. His grandfather had been a churchwarden at the Church of St George and owned a leather processing factory. Being of means, he sent his son to France and Belgium to study both leather processing and then chemistry.
After completing his studies, in which he excelled, Koco returned to Albania to work in the family factory. His interest in the left was nurtured during his time away as he associated with left-wing students who opposed fascism. But at this time, no one had any idea what lay ahead.
Upon his return, he became aware of a group of students working towards a new system in Albania. By 1944, he had started his career as a commissioner of the newly formed democratic government of Kucova.
He moved quickly up the political ranks and held several high-ranking positions, including deputy minister of public affairs, chairman of the state planning commission, and deputy prime minister. During the last ten years of the communist regime, he was the minister of industry and energy. For thirty years, between 1944 and 1975, he was a golden boy within the communist regime, being a member of the politburo and holding some of the most elite positions in the country.
The Theodosi family lived in Blloku, far away from the harsh reality of communist Albania. While Arben and his siblings lived a somewhat charmed life, as he talks, it becomes clear they had little relationship with their father.
“Regarding our daily relationship, we did not talk a lot with our parents because they were too busy with work,” he said with little recognition of how desperately sad this was for a child.
“We mostly saw them during vacations or lunch or dinner, but they were not home most of the time. We spent our time with friends instead…we didn’t have a situation where we had a lot of contact with our parents.”
When asked about his father’s character, Arben could give some general information. Koco liked tennis and nature photography and occasionally wanted to go rowing when on holiday. As for his mother, Arben explains she was an avid reader who enjoyed studying.
Growing up in Blloku, Arben and his contemporaries had the freedom to develop political awareness amid the elite. He explained that this had begun to form by the time they started high school, and they began talking amongst themselves about prosecutions and purges in the 70s.
Acknowledging their privilege, Arben explained, “Not that we were worried, but we began to realise there was a severe disquiet about issues of ideology and politics. I could not voice them…you could feel people were worried. I saw that my father did not participate in debates and avoided arguments with a smile.”
He continued that his father knew many things going on at the time but could not do anything about it. Having an opinion or your ideology was a risk, particularly to those with a family.
Even when Arben complained to his father about how things were around him, his father did not react. Whether he criticised the regime or wore jeans, Koco said little to his son.
“I was comfortable because my father was liberal towards his children. My father never told me off for not cutting my hair or wearing jeans,” he said. While young Arben could do these things, these were fashions that were entirely out of reach to anyone living outside the confines of Blloku.
But this period of comfort and privilege was not to last. The culture purge of the early 70s had started, and Arben saw the parents of his friends, including Todi Lubonja, be fired. They began to feel fear that something was going wrong but could not analyse or openly voice them.
“Analysis was not possible, even at home, because people were could not scared and indoctrinated,” he said.
By 1974, the deep paranoia of Enver Hoxha saw arrests of military officials taking place. This struck fear in the elite, and they began to foresee it happening to them as well. Even Koco became concerned, and rightly so because, in 1975, he lost his job.
As well as losing his job, he was imprisoned, and the family were sent to Kurbnesh. Arben was set to work in a mine and his sister, working in the commune.
For two years, Koco was held in custody, accused of economic sabotage. The family could not communicate with him, see him, or send any clothing or food.
“My mother once asked to bring something, but they told her no, he has it all,” he explained.
Then after two years, he was executed. A bulletin detailing his supposed crimes, lasting for 20 minutes, was read out in public. Arben said the charges were absurd, but in the end, it condemned Koco to death by execution. The trial, case, and execution were not filmed or documented, meaning it was almost impossible for the family to find out more information.
But Arben said he has little interest in the gritty details.
“If you look for information about the process, you can find it, but we do not have such an inclination. I,t belongs to history,” he said.
The family knew that he was shot and said that many documents supposedly written or signed by his father at the time, are not his handwriting. This included a request for a pardon that Arben said was likely written by the prosecutor or signed under the effect of substances.
Following Koco’s death, the family remained in internal exile. They were cut off the capital, and the children continued harsh manual labour in mines and community work. They remained there for 14 years until the regime fell.
Arben explained that working in the copper mines caused significant problems for his health, including silicosis, an occupational disease that affects the lungs. He also spoke of how people gave him and his family a wide birth due to their bad biography.
“Communication was difficult. During work, we exchanged cigarettes and pushed wagons. It was a time when you could only save your mental health with literature; with the few books I had, with the radio, it could save you. It was a time when if you did not have a book, you were finished,” he said.
They tried to search for his body in the 90s, and while many others helped, including the families of those executed simultaneously, nothing was achieved. Even prosecutors supposedly in charge of helping retrieve victims said it was not his job to help.
As the conversation comes to a close, the impact of the unacknowledged scar that the lack of a close relationship between father and son had on Arber came to the fore. When asked, he spoke of how he could go for a simple coffee with his father but did not.
“I could have had a conversation with dad. He would not have refused me, but instead, I chose to go out with friends and to love our lives as carefree students…I could have learned something from him,” he said.
It becomes even more apparent as Arben explains that his father had little interest in teaching his son anything. “We could have shared our experiences as students in France, but he was not interested. Our relationship just amounted to mutual respect,” he said.
As the interview closed, he uttered a phrase that brought home the sadness of the situation, “there were times we joked with friends that our parents did not belong to us, they belonged to the people. Imagine that kind of indoctrinated, fake era we lived in.”
What struck me as the most tragic part of this story was not the disappearance and execution of Koco. Nor was it the fact his body has not yet been returned to his family.
What got me the most was how Koco was indoctrinated and sucked into the regime that became his life. Like many others at the time, he was so busy serving the regime that he had little time to spend with his children. Then, that same regime turned on him, destroyed him, and left his family more alone than ever before.
This is the real tragedy of a dictatorship that professed to be for the good of the people, but that ripped families apart and destroyed generations of Albanians leaving scars that are still clearly visible to this day