The first thing that greets you upon entering Albania’s National Museum of Natural Science in Tiranë is not a display on animals, but one centered on the life of the inspirational Albanian woman whose name graces the building: Sabiha Kasimati.

Muzeu i Shkencave te Natyres se Shqiperise "Sabiha Kasimati"

She was born 2 months before Albania declared independence in 1912 and her family returned to their homeland after living abroad. Kasimati was an exceptionally intelligent person; she was the 1st female to attend the renowned French Lyceum in Korçë from 1928-31, where she was a classmate of Enver Hoxha. This was at a time when most women were relegated to the fields, kitchen, and child rearing, while most Albanians were illiterate.

Kasimati was so gifted they made the young woman a teacher at the newly founded at the Korca Women's Institute. But her passion was natural science; she went to study biology at the American-Albanian School in Koraja, which then led to a scholarship to attend university in Italy at the prestigious University of Torino from 1936-40. After finishing her studies with perfect grades, Kasimati passed on an opportunity to work at the University so she could return to Albania to document the fish species of her homeland. Kasimati chose to live a unique life in Tirana in her own flat instead of marrying; she became active in the growing young intellectual scene that held such promise for the future of Albania.

Unfortunately the swirling dark waters of Fascism were on the rise across Europe, emanating from Hitler’s Germany, and Mussolini’s Italy which held great sway over Albania. War was on the horizon. In April 1939, the Italians invaded Albania and seized control of the government. Although they didn’t interrupt Kasimati’s work, her life would never be the same...

What happened to this bright young woman, with such a brilliant future ahead of her?

The same thing that happened to thousands of others consumed by this tragic period in history, doomed to come of age in the years of World War II.

Photo of Sabiha Kasimati inside the museum

Sabiha Kasimati’s expertise in the field of Ichthyology (the study of fish) and record of excellence at the University of Torino led the fascist collaborationist Royal Albanian government in 1943 to appoint her director of a National Museum of Natural Science despite the fact that she was NOT a fascist or even interested in politics. Kasimati jumped headlong into the work, selecting the books needed for the museum library and materials required to collect samples such as are found here today. She wanted to create a museum whose scale would be even grander than the current one, with plant and mineral resources of Albania documented as well as animals.

1943 was a turning point in the greater story of Albania as well: a few months after the museum was founded, Mussolini’s Fascist government in Italy collapsed under the weight of the Allied invasion led by the USA and United Kingdom; in September the Nazis entered Albania in response, forcing Italian army units to surrender; by the end of 1943 her old classmate Enver Hoxha’s Communist Partisans had been driven into the mountains by the German Wehrmacht and things looked desperate. But 1 year later the situation was completely opposite: The Partisans defeated the Nazis and liberated Tiranë in November 1944.

However, for intellectuals such as Sabiha Kasimati and her friend, writer Musine Kokalari who had not joined the Communist Party, things were not going to improve. In fact, they were getting worse. With horror Kasimati would learn that Musine’s brothers—also schoolmates of Enver and her—had been executed in Tiranë by the Communists only days before the big victory over the Nazis. When Musine Kokalari was put on trial in sham proceedings in 1946, her friend Kasimati mistakenly believed she could approach her old classmate Enver Hoxha on the author’s behalf.

Through 1946 Kasimati and her peers continued to work on scientific research and in 1948 she published a monumental study on fish and their economic possibilities for Albania, but the study was buried and she herself was marked for investigation by the Sigurimi, Hoxha’s secret police. The Sigurimi found that her liberal western education, fearless freedom of expression & open dissent against the growing power of the Communists made her an Enemy of the People. All of this happened with the express permission of Shoku Enver; nothing occurred in Albania without his knowledge.

Enver bided his time, and when a bomb went off at the Soviet Embassy in February 1951, she was rounded up with 21 others and accused: “These people have been put at the service of imperialist foreign espionage, they have become members of a terrorist organization. They have made propaganda about the violent collapse of the people's power and have distributed slogans for a new war from the American and British imperialists and their satellites.” Of course these were fabricated charges and none of the victims were involved in any way with the bombing.

Why did Hoxha single out his former classmate for execution?

By all accounts it was because of the way Sabiha teased him when they were in school. Enver himself, who wrote volumes on his life, remembered “the only girl” in school; Blendi Fevziu in his excellent book Enver Hoxha: THE IRON FIST OF ALBANIA tells how “he described how vivacious she was, how she made fun of everybody, how the boys would chat her up, which boy was most in love with her and whom she had taken a fancy in.” Yet “Enver was the most mischievous and clownish of them all; he teased everyone & was teased in return; he would always play tricks on the others” who nicknamed him gazhel {donkey, or ass}. Likely, Sabiha didn’t recognize how thin-skinned he was or how personal he took everything; one would think she would’ve never approached him about Musine if she had known.

Six days later Sabiha Kasimati (the only woman) and the others were executed at midnight near the Beshiri bridge over the Erzeni River outside Tiranë, tied together with barbed wire & buried in a secret mass grave. A macabre story emerged that the firing squad failed to hit her, so they were ordered to bash her to death with their rifle butts. Her study on fish was “published” by a Soviet scientist in 1955 and Sabiha Kasimati’s memory was erased—or so Enver Hoxha thought.

Until the fall of Communism in 1991, no one knew the final resting place of Sabiha Kasimati or the other wrongfully accused people framed in 1951. The mass grave of the innocents was exhumed in 1994 and their remains reburied here at the place of honor below the statue of Mother Albania in the National Martyrs Cemetery overlooking Tirana.

Sabiha Kasimati was celebrated by the new Democratic government and returned to a place of honor. Her name is listed along with the others on a plaque at the site of the former embassy on Kavaja Street, a 15 minute walk from Skanderbeg Square. Only in 2017 was Sabiha Kasimati’s diploma finally issued from the University of Torino and her name added to the Nature Museum.

The resting place of Sabiha Kasimati

It is ABSOLUTELY IMPORTANT that the tragic story of Sabiha Kasimati be told and remembered! Autocratic leaders & Cults of Personality have returned yet again; they threaten Democracy and Freedom across the world. Look how it set Albania back 70 years ago when a bright mind was extinguished by her own countrymen. The price of not recognizing and resisting before it is too late is incalculably high.

Article and photos inside this blog post by Mike Joseph 

Mike Joseph has spent nearly two years living in Tirana, exploring the history and culture of The Land of the Eagles from north to south, coast to highlands. His research is thorough, fact based and his articles are quite compressed.

You can follow along on his journey on Instagram @An_American_In_Albania

June 11, 2021