My Macedonian Heritage
In 1983, while our son Andy was attending the University of Vienna for his junior year, he made contact with some of our relatives in Skopje, Macedonia, northern Greece. Andy, his roommate, I and Rosie and I flew from Vienna to Thessalonica, then took a car to a Greek village. The next day we hired another cab for our trip to Skopje. The relatives came running out of their house, hugged us, and invited us inside to meet Rosie's aunt, her father's sister.
We stayed in a nearby hotel and visited with the relatives for three or four days. Even though the country was still under Communist control as part of Yugoslavia, we enjoyed our time there. Then we spent a couple of days in Belgrade, with a room at the Hotel Moscow. Belgrade was a beautiful city, very, very well kept as the center of Communism, in contrast to the Bulgarian and Macedonian cities that were still in horrible condition from the bombings of World War II.
About twelve or fifteen years ago, while the Communists were still in power, Rosie and I went to Bulgaria with our sons Johnny and Tommy and his wife, Alexia. One woman we met, a Communist, became a good friend. She gave me three books, all written in Bulgarian. One was about Bulgarian costumes and village customs, the second was about the churches and their artifacts, and the third was on political history.
Very pleased to have the books, I put them on top of my clothes when I packed my luggage for our trip to Macedonia. We were driven to the border, where a young soldier looked at our passports and visas, then opened my luggage and saw the three books. No one had told me that taking books from Bulgaria into Macedonia was illegal.
The soldier opened the political book and read something about two Macedonian heroes making a mistake by not going along with the revolution. "You can't take this book," and said he would confiscate all of them. "Wait a minute," I answered. "I'm an American-born citizen, traveling in this country. These books were a gift from a woman in Bulgaria, and although I don't read Macedonian or Bulgarian, I want to take them to America. You know only one part of Macedonian history, the one you learned in school here. I know the three parts: the Greek version, the Bulgarian version, and the Serbian version."
Then an officer came over. "You can't take these books," he said. We'll confiscate them, or we'll take you and the books to jail. You can go to court in Skopje in a few days and claim them. If they feel you deserve them, fine; if not, they'll keep them."
My sons and daughter-in-law were becoming upset. "Give them the books," Johnny said. "No, they're mine," but the soldier took them anyway. Tommy and Alexia left us to visit her relatives in Greece, while Rosie, Johnny and I spent one night in Skopje. Then we decided it might not be safe to stay in the country, so I gave a relative $100 to take us to the border. He was delighted, because that was a month's pay.
When we returned to Fort Wayne, I wrote to the head librarian of Macedonia, Dimiter Bashevski, and enclosed $50. Explaining that a soldier at the border confiscated my three books on Bulgaria, I asked Mr. Bashevski if he would try to find them and return them to me. I also told him that I instructed the soldier about the three versions of Macedonian history, but I did not mean to offend him or his country.
About a month later a letter arrived from Mr. Bashevski, along with the $50. "I'm returning the money; thank you, but it wasn't necessary. I located your books and the report of the incident. You were right in explaining to the soldier about the three parts of Macedonian history, but you made a slight mistake. There are four parts; also the Macedonian version. We are returning your three books, plus two more on Macedonian history, one in English and one in Macedonian. Now you will know the whole story."
I never met Mr. Bashevski, although I tried several times. About two years ago someone in the Time Magazine office called him on my behalf, but by then he was either out of work or out of power, and I didn't want to infringe on his privacy. I still have the books, and my friend Vlado reads them when he visits, pointing out any slanted or misrepresented history.
In the early 1950s, when the Army sent me to Munich, I had tried but was unable to meet the Macedonian revolutionary Ivan Mihailov. Years later, in about 1986, I obtained his phone number and talked to his housekeeper/secretary Vida. "I would love to come to Rome to meet Ivan Mihailov," I told her. "He's my hero." "It all depends on his mood," she answered. "Call back in a few days; maybe I can tell you then if he will meet with you."
When I called again, Vida said I could "have an audience" with him. She told me to stay at the Excelsior, the most expensive hotel in Rome. A limousine driver named Cassandra brought me from the airport to the Excelsior, where I checked in and then called Vida. Although she told me to come to their house the next day, that morning she said their place had no air-conditioning and was uncomfortable. "Could you arrange for an air-conditioned meeting room at the hotel?" I talked to the hotel staff, and they gave us a small conference room where we could also have lunch.
Cassandra drove Ivan and Vida to the hotel. He stepped out, a tall, thin, distinguished eighty-year-old. "Ivan," I said in Bulgarian, "it is a pleasure to meet you." We hugged, kissed, and hugged again. His brother Tasa also came, the first time they were together in forty or fifty years.
During our visit, Ivan said, "Georgi, you are Bulgarian" and moved a finger around his neck in a semi-circle gesture. "Don't betray the ideals of IMRO." He repeated the gesture, saying "Don't betray the ideals of the MPO." I understood his meaning: if you betray them, I'll cut your throat. "Be fond of the Vardartzi; love them as brothers and sisters," he said, "because from Vardar will come the independence of Macedonia."
After so many years of waiting and hoping, I finally met my hero, Ivan Mihailov, the IMRO leader. And he was correct in believing that Macedonia would eventually become an independent country.
A few years ago I invited Vlado and Risto to meet me in Zurich, Switzerland. A friend of Risto's drove us all through the country, and we stayed at a hotel in central Switzerland. The next day he drove us to Geneva, where we toured the United Nations building and met its head librarian, Theodore Dimitrov.
The following year Vlado, Risto, and I decided to make the trip again. Vlado told me that a couple of Macedonian Secret Service officials wanted to interview me in Zurich. "Why in Zurich?" I asked. "They know I'm coming to Macedonia. Why don't they interview me there?" But Vlado said all he knew was that they wanted to talk to me in Zurich. "Don't worry about it."
But I did worry. Two foreign agents whom I didn't know wanted to interview me and wouldn't say why. "What if they take us somewhere, shoot us, and go back to Macedonia," I asked Vlado. "No one would know anything about us. If they don't want me in Macedonia, why don't they just declare me persona non grata?"
I called our State Department, which had made arrangements with the U.S. Embassy in Berne for my trip to Switzerland. "I don't know why they want to interview me," I explained, "but if they're like you, they'll be carrying revolvers, and I won't be carrying anything. I don't want to be caught in that situation." The official told me he would contact their security agents in Zurich. "Call us a couple of days before you arrive," he said, "to tell us when the Macedonians are coming. The American agents will be there."
I landed in Switzerland in the morning, cleared customs and as I went through the gate with my passport, two American security agents came over and introduced themselves. We had coffee together while I explained the little I knew. They told me to take a taxi to the Marriott Hotel and they would follow. I met Vlado and Risto there; we all had rooms on the second floor. As I was unpacking, the Americans came to my room to discuss the situation.
I met with the Macedonian agents, George and Dushko, at a table close to a window. "Why did you come from Skopje to interview me, spending money on airline tickets and hotel rooms? I haven't done anything against your government or against anyone." They chuckled a little and then explained. "We wanted to have a vacation, so we used you as an excuse. But tell us, what do you do when you come to Macedonia?"
"Nothing illegal or immoral," I said. "I'm an American first, and if I see something out of line, naturally I want to report it to my government. I go to the Embassy and visit with Ambassador Hill. I talk with people in the State Department, including Roderick Moore, when he was the Consulate to Macedonia, a bright, articulate American diplomat. From what I hear on the streets, your government is still pro-Communist, pro-Serbian. You're anti-Bulgarian, and I don't understand why."
They asked a few questions, then one reached down and gave me a little box. I opened it, and there was a nice tie. The other man asked more questions about internal problems. "I'm not interested in what you do or what your government does. But if you try to do something that affects the American government, I'll go to the American Embassy and report it." That satisfied him, and he, too, gave me a small package - another tie.
After our meeting, I rented a van and the Macedonian agents went with Vlado, Risto, and me through central Switzerland to Geneva. After making our hotel reservations, I called Theodore Dimitrov at the United Nations. "Will you show my friends some of your Swiss hospitality?" Theodore came to meet us with a lady friend and took us to his villa. After serving food and drinks, he went to a little podium and started lecturing, a very, very good talk. The next day he showed us around town and gave us a tour of the United Nations library, opening the files on Macedonia. I enjoyed it, because I enjoy being with people such as Theodore, who are bright and will answer questions. I've never been afraid to ask questions, which I learned to do years ago from the nuns at St. Patrick's.
After an overnight stay in Zurich, we left for Skopje. George tind Dushko invited us to dinner that evening with another Macedonian, Zhivko Georgievski. We drove and drove, and at a dark restaurant parking lot, a car pulled up next to ours. "I want you to meet Dobri Velichkovksi," Zhivko said. "He's head of the Macedonian CIA." We went into the restaurant together and ordered drinks. "George," Dobri told me, "We have a book on you as thick as a telephone directory, on all of your Macedonian activities for the last five years."
I sort of chuckled as he continued. "You've been in Australia five times; you've met with various Macedonians at meetings there. You met with a person named Chris Altin at the Hyatt Hotel in Melbourne, and another named Stoyan Sarabinoff. Of the two, Chris and Stoyan, who would you say is the best Macedonian?" I looked at him and jokingly said, "You may not like my answer, but personally I thought Stoyan was the better man." With that, he reached down. I thought he was going for a gun, but he had a present for me, another nice tie. He picked up the tab and said, "We should see one another again." I said, "I'd like to visit with you."
A couple of days later, a chauffeur took me to the government office. Dobri offered me coffee and juice, and I learned that he was the nephew of the wife of our priest in Fort Wayne. Later Dobri hosted a party for me, then took me to lunch and dinner during the two weeks I spent in Macedonia. He introduced me to the Interior Minister, Tomaslav Chokreveski, and we had a very enjoyable visit. Then I met the Foreign Minister, Blagoy Handziski, who gave me a nice present of ancient coins, and another Minister, Lubimir Freckovski, who spoke English very well.
During our visit to Greece, I got into an argument with a Greek priest in the village of Blatsa, who said in Macedonian that I was Greek. I answered that this section of Macedonia had no Greeks; we were Bulgarians.
The next day at the Greek border, we got out of the car and I handed my passport to be stamped. Back in the car, we saw the police drive up. "Which one of you is Lebamoff?" he asked. In Macedonian I said to Vlado, who was driving, "If he orders me to get out of the car, you slam on the accelerator, break that barricade, and we'll be across the border before he can pull his pistol and fire at us. If we duck, he'll miss us." But Vlado froze. "I'm Lebamoff," I said as I rolled down the window. "Where were you born in Greece," he asked. "Sir," I answered, "I'll tell you the same thing I told the priest who called you." He looked surprised as I said in English, "I was born in the United States. My father came to America in 1907, ninety years ago. He was Bulgarian from Macedonia. There were no Greeks here, only Bulgarians and Turkish soldiers." He smiled and said, "Have a nice day. Proceed."
When I returned recently I learned they had a report on me. "What's your father's name," they asked. The next time it was, "What's your mother's name?" When I go back again, they may say that I can't come in, that I cause problems there. If they do, fine; I'll just miss my friends.
When I'm in Macedonia, I go into the villages and speak the dialect. But there's always a spy in the crowd, always someone who will sell information. When my brother Ivan was in Macedonia ten years ago, he noticed a police agent watching him in the hotel. Seeing Ivan look his way, the agent quickly picked up his newspaper to look as if he was reading it. Ivan walked over and said to him, "What kind of an article is that? You're reading it upside down." The man ran out of the hotel, holding the paper to his face to hide his identity.
In a Skopje mountainside restaurant with Vlado and Risto a few years ago, a man came to our table. "Lebamoff," he asked, "are you Bulgarian or Macedonian?" "I don't know who you are," I answered, "but I'm American born. Who are you?" He said his name was Risto Bitovski. "You keep using the word Bulgarian," he argued, "when you should be saying Macedonian." "Mr. Bitovski," I said, "let me tell you something. My father was born in Aegean Macedonia in the village of Visheni, where there was a Bulgarian school and a Greek school. Ninety percent of the students went to the Bulgarian school. There was a Bulgarian church and a Greek church, and ninety percent of the people went to the Bulgarian church. My father said that the language they spoke was the Bulgarian dialect."
"Your father was wrong," Bitovski said. "The language you speak is pure Macedonian." "You're telling me," I answered, "that I have to go home to my father's grave and say, 'Papa, you were wrong. We were not Bulgarians; we're Macedonians'?" He said, "That's correct."
"Then let me ask you a question, Mr. Bitovski. If you insist the language my father spoke in Aegean Macedonia is pure Macedonian, then why did Tito change the alphabet in 1945 and come up with a new alphabet?" He turned around and left. But my point was: Under Tito, the Bulgarian alphabet was slightly changed, and some letters were changed to Russian or Serbian letters. The city of Skopia became Skopje, which is a more Serbian word, but it is not Bulgarian.
Back at the hotel that night, Bitovski came down the stairway. "One moment," he said. "I was wrong today and want to apologize." I told him, "As I said before, be what you want to be. I'll love you for being a Macedonian, and you love me for being an American - with a little Bulgarian leaning. But if Bulgaria is not your mother, she has to be your sister. If she's not your sister, she has to be your cousin. We are related somehow."
About three years ago Ambassador Hill called me in Fort Wayne to say that Macedonian police in Tetovo, which is Albanian, took down the flag from the city/county building, stomped and spit on it and burned it. There was a fight and some were arrested, including the mayor. Representative Gilman was asked to hold Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the brutality of the Macedonian police - Christians against Muslims. "George," Ambassador Hill said, "we need your help. See what you can do to quell this."
I called Washington and talked to Representative Gilman. "Being a Jew," I reminded him, "you are dealing with the same problem in Macedonia as with Palestinians against Jews in Israel." He said he understood my point. Then I called Senator Helms' office, and explained the situation to his assistant. "Rest assured," she said, "I will tell the Senator." No hearings were ever held.
I help the staff at the American Embassy in any way I can, in 1999 as an observer in the Macedonian presidential election. At that time the country was still reeling from the influx of 300,000 refugees and the NATO air strikes on Kosovo earlier in the year. All of the parties are pro-West, so NATO's presence was not a factor in the election. The winner was Boris Trajkovski, president of the Methodist Church in Macedonia and a frequent visitor to the United States.
Recently reading CIA material in the Washington archives, I learned that former President Kiro Gligorov and former Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski are both ex-Communists. The new Prime Minister and President of the Parliament, Ljubco Georgievski, says he's pro-American, pro-western, but his father was a confirmed Communist and his grandfather was an anti-Macedonian Chetnik who fought with the Serbian police against IMRO.
I was interested in learning more about Dosta Dimovska, who as Minister of Interior Affairs is in charge of Macedonian intelligence. According to the CIA reports, before joining the government she had been a professor of Marxism at the local university. I know Dosta, and not long before I read that information, she had told me, "Keep away from certain people." I don't know why she didn't want me being friends with them, and the next time I saw her, "Dosta," I said, "I read about your background. You corrupted the minds of young Macedonians. You made them Communist with your thoughts and conversations; you made them Serbian. Now you've taken a bath, dressed up in new clothes, changed your act, and you're pro-American, pro-western." She turned white; I'm sure she was upset that I saw the article.
"Dosta," I said, "all governments spy on one another. We know what you're doing; you might know what we're doing. But you're always underestimating us. The Americans aren't as dumb as you think; we know corruption." I haven't talked with her since then, nearly a year ago. Now she's accused in a Watergate-style investigation of wiretapping. She denies it, saying the Social Democrats, the Communists, were responsible. My name was mentioned in the paper recently, reporting that my phone conversations were sometimes tapped during my stay in Skopje last year.
There is a lot of political corruption in Macedonia, which hinders foreign involvement in economic development. In the last ten years the government started paying back its people for the property that the Communists had confiscated. But the government officials have new automobiles and villas and Swiss bank accounts, and are not helping the poor. Those people are told to "just shut up if you want to get paid every month."
There's also corruption in the Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Croatia governments; not as much in countries further north. About ten years ago Ambassador Hill told me that Czechoslovakia has the infrastructure, the talent, the factories; all it needs is assistance to begin production. In ten to fifteen years, he said then, Czechoslovakia will be a capitalistic, western-oriented country.
Several times before my trips, I wrote to the Bulgarian community in America and asked for donations to take to IMRO Brotherhood over there to help the needy. Once I brought $4,500 in cash, and as I watched the president of IMRO count the money, one woman, the daughter of a legendary hero, told him she wanted $500 so that a crippled woman could buy a wheelchair. I wish she had taken all the money. I'm sorry I ever gave it to the organization, because the members spent it on themselves. One day I gave $10 to a lady looking in her purse for enough money to buy her groceries. "Thank you," she said, "thank you, thank you."
Last year the Macedonian Prime Minister asked for help in trying to sell a hundred million dollars worth of tobacco. I tried, but none of the large G. S. companies were interested. Then I learned from the president of the Southeastern European Business Council, in New York, that the head of the Macedonian tobacco industry for the past thirty-five years, under the Communists and then the free government, supposedly stole $200 million and became one of the largest stockholders in the Philip Morris company. "That's why Philip Morris isn't buying the tobacco. He told them that if the government can't sell the tobacco, within two years it will collapse and the Communists will be back in power."
I reported to the Embassy what I had learned. "Why can't the Macedonian government bring this guy to trial?" I asked. "If he's found guilty of corruption, tell the State Department to tell Philip Morris to sell his stock and give Macedonia a $200 million line of credit." But then I learned that the guy is close to someone in the government.
The International Monetary Fund has millions of dollars to distribute in Macedonia, and those who handle the program want assurance that the funds will be used constructively. "We want to make sure you build this item," they say, "and find a market for it." Someone from the Macedonian government asked for $10 million each for five new companies. "Fine, but you have to pay it back. How will you do that?" The mentality is to get the money to build a factory and then sell it, with no plan to repay the loan. In America, a businessman would have to explain why he needed the loan.
The Macedonian officials plead, "George, tell the people in Washington that we need money." But my friends in Washington tell me that "money" is the incorrect word. "Say 'we need financial help to support the army, to build infrastructure.'" Macedonia wants to lure Western investors, particularly Americans, so that the new republic can become self-sufficient. Our Ambassador is trying to convince Wal-Mart to open a warehouse in Macedonia. There is already one in Turkey and a Wal-Mart store in Germany. A new Wal-Mart in the Balkans would serve about 40 or 50 million people in the area south of the Danube.
In addition, several Americans in Macedonia are trying to convince the government that its capital, Skopje, could become the "Hong Kong" of Europe. As a duty-free city, Skopje would draw much-needed Western money as well as thousands of visitors to this very picturesque but largely unknown area of Europe.
For decades, policymakers worldwide considered Macedonia as representing no ethnic or political reality, no nation or race. Now that it is a republic, I hope that Macedonia will become as economically and politically stable as the Western European countries. If and when Macedonia is admitted as a member of the European Union and NATO, equal with Bulgaria and Greece, our homeland will be a truly free and Independent nation.
Last year I was awarded a medal for distinguished service to the Macedonian
people. That is my proud ancestry and perhaps my legacy as an American
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