On Sunday, May 8, 2022, a small remembrance ceremony was held at the St. George Albanian Orthodox Cathedral and the Noliana Library in Boston, Massachusetts, honoring the memory Norbert Jokl, a professor of linguistics and chief librarian at the University of Vienna. According to an Office of Strategic Service card of 1943, Jokl was considered a “world-famous” linguist and a “foremost scholar” in the field of Indo-European and Albanian language studies. Jokl perished in the Maly Trostenets extermination camp eighty years ago, on May 11, 1942. The OSS was a US intelligence agency active during World War II.
Jokl dedicated his entire life to the study of the Albanian language and to complete an Etymological Dictionary of Albanian language that, like Greek, is a separate branch of the Indo-European family. He was a close friend of many prominent Albanian statesmen with strong ties to Boston, including Bishop Fan S. Noli – the founder of Albanian Orthodox Church in America in 1908, and Faik Konitza, Albania’s top diplomat in Washington [1926 – 1939].
After the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938, because of his Jewish origins, Jokl was expelled from the University of Vienna and was banned from its library. At the darkest moments of his life, Jokl attempted to move to the United States. His plan was to escape Nazi persecution and to complete his work in America, surrounded by his unique library and papers and by people that knew of his work. But he needed support and help. Unfortunately, Jokl’s attempts in 1941 to get help from colleagues at Princeton, Yale or at the Rockefeller Foundation did not yield any fruits.
Led by Noli, the Albanian American community in Massachusetts and New England would become the proverbial friend in need. Established in these shores at the end of 19th century and originating mainly from the Korca region of Southeastern Albania, the historic community had worked hard, integrating itself successfully into the Boston societal fabric. The urgent efforts to save Jokl’s life were, probably, Albanian-American community’s finest hour. Directed and inspired by Noli, two prominent members of the community, Elias Mitchell [aka Lili Mihal] of Jamaica Plain, Boston, and Rako Theodhore of Manchester, NH, wrote two Affidavits of Support to the US Consulate in Vienna on behalf of Jokl. In a letter to Noli, preserved at the Noliana Library in South Boston, Jokl expressed his most profound gratitude to Mitchell and Theodhore for their most courageous gesture.
Alas, Noli’s rescue plan did not succeed. Jokl was arrested on March 4, 1942, at his small apartment in Vienna. His brutal death in circumstances still not known is officially recorded on May 11, 1942, precisely eighty years ago.
Jokl left no heir. To date, he has no grave.
His desire was to complete his work surrounded by his books, and wherever he would end up in safety, in America or Albania, to bring his library with him. After Jokl’s death, his library and papers were confiscated, “denazified” and placed at the National Library of Austria. It was Jokl’s express desire to bequeath all his books, papers and belongings to the “Albanian people.”
Jokl’s own expressed desire and Boston Albanian community’s relentless efforts to rescue him would qualify the Noliana Library in South Boston as the best place to preserve Jokl’s Library and Papers, and where these two most prominent people and close friends, would be united and repose in eternity.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, University of Massachusetts, Boston.