Lura Limani: Can you first tell us … introduce yourself, tell us where and when you were born, and also tell us a little of the background of your family.
Father Lush Gjergj: I am Father Lush Gjergj, I was born on 21 March, year 1949 in Stubëll të Epërme [Upper Stubla], in the municipality of Viti, it is part of Karadak, or our Anamorava, as it is called now. I am the fourth child, we are four brothers. We are all alive, fortunately. I completed four years of elementary school in my birthplace, and after my birthplace I began school a long time ago, I was five–and-something-years old, with my friends. So, registration to first grade happened in the last day of the school year, when the inspector arrived. And at that time, the inspector was like some extraterrestrial! We prepared for what he will be like, who will it be.
And I was in the first desk, because I was the smallest in height, and the inspector suddenly said to me, “You, go to the blackboard. Do you know how to read and write?” I said, “Yes, I know everything we have been taught.” And then he began to test me, and said, “Have you learned by heart, maybe this and that?” At the end, the teacher intervened and said, “Comrade inspector, this one is not registered.” “Why?” He said, “Because he is not the right age, but he is the best in the class.” And then, with my happiness and delight, the inspector said to my teacher in front of all the students, “Register him today and have him pass the first year with excellent grades. And even with a present.” The present was a sort of film that moved the still images slowly-slowly, and a book, which was as if the world had been given to me.
I remember that I went home and showed it to my late mother, Dile Gjergji. I said, “I passed first class with excellent grades.” She looked at me and said, “Surely you cried and they lied to you, they pretended [you did].” I said, “No!” And as evidence I showed her the book and that sort of film, which was a letter and had a mechanism with a movement, and with a small hole for the eye to see some images, and for me at the time they were a sort of small miracle.
As I said, I complete four years in Stubēll, and then there was the dilemma, or the crossroad of my life. Because there were only four grades in Stubëll. To continue the eight-year education, the lower cycle of the gymnasium, as it was called then – I had to travel, to make a very, very troublesome trip. And I was the first generation. Before us it had never happened that anyone had undertaken such thing. The priest at that time, Father Dedë Ramaj, persuaded our family, and he persuaded us and motivated us, that without school, without education, and civilization, there wasn’t any progress. So we decided… we were a group of some twelve students. And for the first year we registered in Viti. Coming and going was twenty-four kilometers. Think now, a nine- year- old child, I wasn’t even ten, must face such a trip…
It was the year ‘59, therefore, poverty was extreme. We have never had even opanga, apart from those with pig skin, which we, my mother and the oldest children, made home. All the clothes were made from wool, because back then villagers, people, could not even dream of buying them. Apart from this, it was very difficult because there was no road. We had to often face also small roads that were very risky, as they say even now, “stream of the magjup,” when it comes down from Stubëll in the direction of Viti, and where the stream is 15-20 meters. And in winter slipping was enough for an accident to happen and for you to lose your life.
Apart from this, there were no roads! There were the roads of sheep, or better say of goats, because goats pass everywhere and sheep pass with difficulty on those small roads where my friends and I walked. There was the river of Letnica, which sometimes flooded the roads we walked on. And this river had no bridge, but there was only some wooden plank that also often moved, which was often frozen and deep, like this, almost every step was a risk for your life. What was strange then, even the older Serbs in the two Serbian villages that we had to pass, unfortunately, were an obstacle for us. Verbovci and Gerqari. And not only the children, but often also the grown- ups, let off the dogs or they shouted, why we trespassed on their own place. Then we had to find some road or another small road but we damaged farming land. And the other people complained, even though they did not treated us aggressively, because they understood that we were children and somewhere…we could not fly, but we had to pass somewhere.
All I remember from childhood and youth was extraordinarily difficult and harsh. But the greatest hardship happened to me when I was three years old, when my father suddenly died. He died at his in-laws, at my late mother’s family. And he died from the pain and suffering, because one week earlier, ten days earlier, my 17 years old sister, who was named Terezë, had died. And often when I think about life, the big part of my life that I dedicated to the blessed Mother Theresa, with 15 books, with 29 years of friendship, maybe it is my unconscious looking for my sister, whom I did not know, because the death of my father vanished any memory of my sister. I was about three years old, but I was not three years old yet. My father, I remember him! I remember him as a dream, I remember him play. But I don’t remember my sister at all. All this gave me even more motivation to live and work.
After the fifth year we changed to Zhegër. We changed for the reasons I mentioned: that we had obstacles, that there was a river, which was often a threat and a risk, and notably there were grown-ups who obstructed us. And at that time we met the priest, Father Dedë, and told him, “We cannot go to Viti!” And he said, “There is a solution! And the solution is Zhegër, because Zhegër is part of our Karadak, in Zhegër they are laramanë, they know we are Catholic and in Zhegër wehave friends. Therefore we are on the same territorial side and we have the same mentality. But there is a problem.”
I had never been in Zhegër before. I had gone to Terzije, which was part of the road and from which my mother came from, and I asked the priest, “And where is Zhegër?” He said, “We don’t have a map, but it is about twelve kilometers to go there, and twelve kilometers to come back. But there is a problem: there are no houses.” And I was happy, I said, “There are no houses, nobody will beat and threaten us.” He said, “Slowly Lush, there are all hills and mountains, and there are many wolves.” Then I said, “We have a solution for this!” “What is the solution,” he said, “you are not afraid of wolves?” I said, “I am afraid, like everybody, like every child, but we have a strong dog, and the village has some dogs which are in the condition to fight against a wolf, and surely will defend us. And that’s how we handle it.
We found the strongest four-five dogs, which were…then we called them qejtë e hekrve, which were, you know, always tied. And they followed us from the first step from the house, until school, until Zhegër. Very interesting! In Zhegër they did not enter the village, a small town such as Zhegër was then, but stopped and waited for the entire time until school ended. They did not fight and did not struggle with each other. They started to become friends, as we also became friends. And this saved us, because during four years I often heard the howling of wolves, notably in the winter, when they were hungrier, but fortunately, our dogs, in a way, turned into our guardian angels, they never let anything happen…
In Zhegër we were wonderfully welcomed. Zhegër is a place that I remember with much, much nostalgia and love. Because in Zhegër they accepted us as if we were from Zhegër, even better. And our luck was that in Stubëll we were all excellent students. Then they began to love us even more. During our trip there we would repeat the lessons of that day: together we studied, together we played, together we spent our lives. So, Zhegër for me was and remains the school that gave me the momentum, the will, the enthusiasm for learning, studying, and life.
I remember the late director Ismajl Rama, who unfortunately died in a traffic accident …some years earlier, when we had a sort of test and exam, the question then was, “What will you do now, after you finish eighth [grade]?” And I had already decided that I would go to the seminary to become an ordained priest, a Catholic priest. Then I wrote, “classical gymnasium.” And all the other girls and boys asked me, “What is this?” Because there was a real gymnasium, but the classical gymnasium was nowhere, and the only classical gymnasium was in Dubrovnik, it was the Jesuits’ gymnasium, which was recognized also by the then Yugoslav state.
Then, as I began to explain, the director, may rest in peace, Ismajl, rose… he was a gentleman, an excellent rhetorician, an extraordinarily good educator… he said, “Young kids, kids,” he said, “I will now explain to you what Lush has chosen. He has chosen the best school. It prepares ordained priests.” And then he praised the Catholic clergy and said, “Do you know what? What do we speak now?” “Albanian.” “We speak Albanian, because the Albanian Catholic clergy preserved the language, the tradition, the culture, and etc.” And he began to mention figures that we knew a little, or we only knew the names, and he said, “Our Lush will go in their steps.” I never forget that moment! And with a caress, he embraced me in front of the students, and said, “You chose the best path.”
Something else I can remember is the collaboration we had. We had the chorus of the school. For the first time we went on foot from Zhegër to the school of Gjilan for a concert. We were very tired from the two-three hour trip, nevertheless we won the first place. And for the first time, then, in eighth grade, I came to Pristina, because there was a competition of the eight-year-schools of Kosovo. And this is my memory…
As the best student in the class and the school, I went to Belgrade on an excursion. And this was my first visit…the trip was by train. I had been to Skopje, but Belgrade… an environment that speaks a completely different language, because I knew Serbian a little, some salutations, coming from a village which is completely Albanian and completely Catholic. For me it was an experience, in the first place Belgrade as the capital and a large city, then in the second, I did not know how to communicate with the other schools, or with the others. And it was an experience! One memory that bothered me was, “Why don’t I know Serbian or a Slavic language?” as we called them then.
And this is a physical and spiritual preparation for what would happen later. Because the classical gymnasium and the preparation to become a priest were not, of course, on an Albanian land. Then I had to make a request to the dioceses, which was then in Skopje and it had to be accepted. I was accepted in the Ruđer Bošković Seminary. Ruđer Bošković is a world-renowned scholar, a Jesuit. That classical gymnasium was the best known at that time in Yugoslavia.
The trip from Stubëll to Ferizaj was on foot, because there was no bus, with some big bag that was made of carton, because I did not even have a better bag. It was raining a little, that bag and everything that I had taken with me, some clothes, got wet. From Ferizaj to Belgrade. It seemed I knew Belgrade, because I had been there. From Belgrade to Sarajevo. Some 16-18, up to 20 hours. But the real adventure was Sarajevo to Dubrovnik, where there was a small train, which they called Ćiro, which went slowly, and when entering-exiting [stations] took place, you were supposed to chain it, then the passengers got out and walked parallel to the train. And this was an adventure for me. I thought, “Will I ever know how to return to my Stubëll?” Because the trip lasted two days and two nights.
And when I arrived in Dubrovnik, a medieval castle, now, a wonderful city, but up to that point I had learned and I had grown-up in a mountain place, where everything was green, where there were vegetables and fruits, where there were meadows, when I saw all those walls, when I saw the sea for the first time, when I saw a city which resembled our castles and kulla, the experience was shocking. And I began to tell myself, “Maybe I will stay here 24 hours.” My changes and experience were shocking, because it was a city like it was: the pearl of the Adriatic, a medieval city, surrounded by high walls, castles, and churches. There were no trees anywhere, there was no green anywhere, there wasn’t a flower, nothing. On one side there was a hill called Serrgj, not like our Sublovaca full of greens, it was completely rocky. On the other side, there was the sea. We were in the middle. But I did not know what I was looking at. What I saw, in shock, in fear, was the sea, all that water, and on the other side, a hill that had nothing, apart from some bush here and there. I didn’t know where to rest my eye.
And after the first day and the first nights…we were about 180 students, we had our big dormitory with 10, 15, 20 beds. There were specific teaching courses. Discipline was like the one of the Jesuits: two hours of strict study, you would not dare turn your head right nor left, nor open the desk, because the desk had a board where we put our books and notebooks. They taught us to study first, and to prepare all we needed during our strict study, as it was called. If you didn’t open it on time and did not pull out the books and the notebook, they stayed there, but you had no right to take them out and no right to open the desk, as it was called then…there was the technical term “pultin” to take out the books and the notebooks.
All these things for me were of course difficult, and completely insurmountable. And after two- three days I decided, I said, “I will go back!” But the problem was how to go back, with all that road. My luck was that my brother Father Ndou Gjergji, who was three years older than I, was with me, and three years at that age… I was about 14 years old, he was 17. He had waited for me to finish my eighth grade to continue studying together. I had managed to go one year earlier, he had paused. And I said, “I cannot stay here anymore.” But his ability, his intelligence, his maturity in supporting me… he said, “Yes, we stay and some day we will see. We have time, we can go back when you wish. And I will go back with you.” So once or twice, with this good brotherly tricks, I began slowly-slowly to settle in.
Another shock was the question of the language. I had a very strong memory then – fortunately I have it even now – so that if I read a page and closed my eyes, I knew it by heart, even if I did not understand it. But if the professor asked anything, I stopped and did not know anything. And fortunately professors were…an overwhelming part of them were Masters and Doctors of Science in different fields. When I got my grade report from my school, and when I saw that I had passed all classes with Fives and honors, then they called me to know what I understood, and said… the grade report would come every three months: the first three months, six months that was a semester, and then the other three months. This was the system there. And the director of the school told me, “Lush, we are not grading you in the first three months.” I felt bad, “Why?” and then to make me understand, he said, “You have all good grades, you are an extraordinary student! But you don’t know the language. We are giving you the chance to learn the language.” And this saved me. For three months I learned the Croatian language, how beautiful, and other classical languages: old Latin, old Greek, German, Italian, French, so that when the first three months passed they did not grade me, but in the second trimester or mid-year, I was the best student and I had all Fives.
And this then gave me the will, that I would not dream…apart from the great nostalgia that I felt, because then there was no way of communicating, a letter took an entire month to get some information. There was no telephone, nor I thought about it. So, this was my experience, the experience of studying, wonderful, but an extraordinarily difficult experience for a 14 years old, with an iron discipline, with rules and norms, so that if it were not for the support of my brother, and the great will and desire to learn everything and more…because horizons were opening up.
When I was little I thought that I knew everything, because I knew all that the teacher told me. While now, with the opening of doors and windows, the horizons of science, of culture, I began to see especially the classics, the texts in Latin, I began to see art, I began to see Dubrovnik. I began to see the coast, because we went to walk there. I remember a walk in Zara. For the first time in my life I saw Arbanasi houses. And I said, “This must be linked to us!” And there I learned the history that 300 years earlier it was the Albanians who fled the victimization of the Turk-Ottomans, and found shelter there. I remember the first visit to Split, and the tomb of Diocletian, the Roman emperor with Illyrian origins, etc.
You know, everything and more stayed and grew in my desire, will, and work, that often I had the feeling that I was sinning, I was making a mistake, when I was sleeping. However, it was all defined, and it was not the question that I could go somewhere else, because everything was according to the schedule. The bell and the schedule began to become a component of my life even though by nature I was very lively, and I was very dynamic. And I was at the age when I had the need to be more creative, to move more. Then the only movement was that the school and the boarding school had a small stadium, but we were 180 students… then the only sport was swimming. And I learned how to swim quickly, and in those few days when I could go out and go to the sea to swim, to bathe, to sunbathe, then I began to have another joy in my life, apart from what was the extraordinary taste and beauty of writing, reading, and all that was an extraordinary adventure in my life and youth.
Lura Limani: You mentioned that it was impossible to communicate with your family that you had left in the village, because there was no telephone. Whom did you, you and your brother, had left in the village?
Father Lush Gjergj: There was my late mother, and there were two brothers. My oldest brother Zef, who was 17 years old when my father died, later took the role of the oldest brother and father, because he raised us, he helped us, he educated us, he supported us. And the second brother, Mhilli, while the two of us, Ndou and I, were in Dubrovnik. Nostalgia was an extraordinarily difficult thing, and I could bear it only thanks to my brother and the group of Albanians who were there. And to chase away nostalgia and boredom, I read, I studied, I worked. Because that was my only salvation!
 A European type of secondary school with emphasis on academic learning, different from vocational schools because it prepares students for university
 Albanian shoes like moccasins, made of leather or rubber.
 Derogatory term for Roma.
 Villages in the municipality of Viti, in the mountainous area of Karadak.
 Laramans: crypto-Catholics, Albanians who during Ottoman times feigned to be Muslim.
 Literally: caged dogs. A term used to describe untamed, savage dogs.
 Gymnasium dedicated to the study of the humanities, and focused on the classical languages of Latin and Greek.
 The Diocesian Classical Gymnasium of Dubrovnik Ruđer Bošković is one of the city’s oldest educational
 Traditional, fortified Albanian house, tower
 Grade A on an A-F scale (Five-0)
 11 The Arbanasi (Albanian in Croatian) is an Albanian community in the Zadar region, Croatia. They speak a dialect of Gheg Albanian. They are known in Albanian literature as the Albanians of Zadar.