Freedom or Death. The Life of Gotsé Delchev

Mercia MacDermott



'A mother had a longed-for son,

A longed-for son, the choicest of sons.'

    Folk Song from Kukush


The Delchevs were one of the oldest and most respected families in Kukush, deriving their name from one, Delcho, who was known to have lived in the town during the Eighteenth Century. His son Dimitŭr married a beauty named Maria from a village near Salonika, and in 1844, they had a son, Nikola, who was destined to be Gotsé's father.


The family engaged in trade and was, by Kukush standards, neither rich nor poor, but of average means. In Kukush itself, Nikola owned a house, a tavern and a shop, while outside the town, he had an acre or so of vineyards, a slightly larger area of arable land and several hundred sheep. He would buy sheep in the spring, graze them during the summer under the care of hired shepherds, and in the autumn he would sell off as many as possible and slaughter the remainder to make pastŭrma - dried, salted meat, which he sold in Drama, Kavala, Serres and Salonika. He made his own wine and rakia, and, in one of the cellars under this house, bottles of wine twenty or even thirty years old were kept buried in sand. Most of the time, Nikola worked in his tavern, which was in the corn market, and on Thursday, which was market-day, he would serve hot meals as well as drinks. Nikola was no mean chef and his chevirmé - meat roasted on spits - attracted a large clientèle. Besides all this, Nikola traded in grain. Like most Bulgarians of his era, Nikola considered work a virtue and idleness a vice. He was never idle himself and he would not tolerate idleness in his children. On his return home, he expected to find his daughters knitting or sewing and his sons busy with their school books, and woe betide any of them whom he caught with no visible occupation!


Nikola was a stern, proud man, who was respected even by the Turks. He was tall, strong and handsome, and, in his youth, he was a wrestler of note. Many was the time that he carried off the first prize - 'a ram with apples wrapped in golden foil and ribbons on its horns' - at the wrestling matches which formed part of the public festivities held on St George's hill to mark such holidays as the Feast of Cyril and Methodius, which was celebrated with three days of games. Even when age forced him to give up the sport, he kept his interest in it and would take one or two likely young men into his home a few weeks before the festival to train them and feed them up, and, should one of





these proteges win the prize, he would be as happy as if he himself had been the victor.


To the end of his long life, [*] he preserved a certain flamboyance in his gait and attire which expressed his sense of independence and aroused the envy of many a younger man. He walked with a heavy, deliberate step, his head held high and his arms swinging clear of his body. Over his shoulders, he wore a chepken, [**] the loose sleeves of which moved to the rhythm of his stride; his wide trousers in national style were heavily ornamented with braid; his red fez had a magnificent tassel more than a foot in length, and frequently his hand would caress his scarlet cummerbund, which concealed a dagger in its folds.


In Bulgarian families, the man's word was law, and the women and children unquestioningly submitted to his will and authority. Bulgarian women never went to the charshiya where their husbands worked, and the family shopping was always done by the men, who would keep the larders properly stocked with food. In the evenings, when the father came home from work, the whole family would stand respectfully to attention until he had sat down to supper. In the Delchev home, the old patriarchal customs were observed with particular strictness. While still outside Nikola would cough to warn the family of his approach, so that they would be ready to receive him with proper ceremony and with evidence of work in hand. Once he had sat down, one child would bring a bowl, another a pitcher of water, and a third a towel, so that he could wash his hands. Bulgarians always wash under running water, so that, even when plumbing is non-existent, water is poured over outstretched hands.


Kukush was badly off for water. There were underground streams below St George's hill, and formerly there had been many more springs, but these had dried up when the forests round the town had been felled in the early part of the century to make room for grain and other crops. There was only one good fountain in Kukush - the fountain of Abdil Aga, which had two perpetually flowing spouts and stood on the edge of the Turkish quarter. Because the water came from a spring and was very pure, people from all over the town came there with earthen-ware pitchers to fetch water for drinking. Otherwise, they contented themselves with inferior water from the public wells or wells sunk in their own courtyards. These wells were deep and horses were used to draw up the water.


Meals were eaten from a sofra, a low circular table which was removed at the end of the meal. The family sat round it on little stools or cushions placed on the floor. The father would break the bread and give everyone a piece, while the mother would bring in the



*. Nikola died in 1920.


**. A kind of jacket. Generally the wearer does not put his arms into the sleeves.





main dish. Often the whole family would eat out of one dish, but nobody would dream of putting so much as a crumb into his mouth until the father had begun.


The people of Kukush had no stoves or ovens in their houses. The dough for the bread would be kneaded at home and then carried on boards to the public bake-houses which were to be found in every quarter of the town. Other dishes, like stews and baked meats, which required long cooking, would be prepared at home and then taken in sealed earthen-ware pots to the bake-house, and, if necessary, were left overnight in a slow oven. Kukush was famous for its banitsi (pasties): every festival and season had its own special type of banitsa filled with rice, sesame seeds, meat, cheese, fish, roe, etc., according to the occasion. Fresh fish was brought to Kukush twice daily from the nearby lakes and was cooked in a variety of ways, the simplest and most popular being to grill it over a charcoal fire. Meat was eaten more rarely, though pigs were always slaughtered for Christmas. Because pigs were taboo as far as the Turks were concerned, pork was sold secretly in the churches, and the fathers of families smuggled it home in bags, so as to give no offence to the Muslim authorities.


Originally the Delchevs had lived in a fairly small house, but one evening, when the whole family was absent at a wedding, Turks had entered the house and stolen everything. When the family returned to find their home ransacked and bare, Nikola interrupted their lamentations by saying: 'Don't cry, don't worry. I will build a big house, and perhaps the day will come when these swine will pay dearly for


That debt was never paid, but Nikola Delchev was a man of his word, and he built a new, larger home for his family. The new house had two storeys as well as cellars for storage. Wooden verandahs ran the whole length of each floor, linked by external wooden staircases scrubbed to a dazzling degree of cleanliness. On each floor there were two biggish rooms with doors and windows opening onto the verandahs, and there was also a smaller room where the daughters' trousseaux and other things were kept in wooden chests. The upper part of the house was white-washed, while the lower part was plastered with red clay, as was the custom in Kukush, and everything was kept in a state of perfect freshness and repair, for in Kukush a dirty or dilapidated house was a disgrace not to be countenanced.


The finest room was kept for guests and was furnished with minder-built-in seats along the walls, covered with hand-woven rugs and cushions. There was also a very beautiful mangal, or brazier, which Nikola had brought from Salonika. It was large and round and made of brass or copper. In the centre was a bowl containing the charcoal, surrounded by a wide ledge on which cups, etc., could be placed





when coffee or mulled rakia was being prepared for the guests, and it had a perforated lid topped by a metal bird, which was a wonder and a delight to all the children.


Bedsteads were unknown in Kukush, and the people slept on the floor on mattresses which were taken up during the day. The mattresses were stuffed with pure wool, and the sheets and quilts were always made of silk. In this land where the mulberry flourished, it was unthinkable for the bed linen and the women's holiday gowns to be made of anything rougher than natural spun silk.


The Delchevs' house stood in a cobbled courtyard, surrounded by high walls. There was no real garden, but flowers were grown in pots, and shade was provided by vines and fruit-trees bearing pomegranates apples, pears, figs and almonds. The courtyard also contained a summer kitchen, barn and stabling for the family's cows and goats.


Within the four walls of a Bulgarian house the mother reigned supreme. The man was the ultimate authority in all family matters, but he seldom interfered in the running of the home. He provided the wherewithal! and left the rest to his wife, who so organized the labour of the other females in the family that the men always returned to find the home in perfect order, with spotlessly clean floors and cobbles, with newly baked bread and steaming food on the table, with freshly-drawn water in the pitchers, with the storeroom full of home-made pickles and preserves, and an ample supply of handwoven silken sheets, rugs, carpets, personal linen, etc., both for current use and for the daughters' trousseaux. Usually the mother had many girls under her to cook, launder and clean, for families were large, and it was customary for the married sons to remain under their father's roof.


The mistress of the Delchev home was a woman as soft-hearted as her husband was stern. Her name was Sultana, daughter of Yané Nurdzhiev, and she came from the village of Murartsi in the Karadag. As a girl she had been known as a beauty, and, like all Bulgarian women, she was shy and modest in her demeanour, respectful to her elders, obedient to her husband, and tirelessly industrious. Her outstanding feature,however, was her loving kindness. Without her, the house would have been a much colder and more impersonal place. Nikola loved his children and made sure that they lacked for nothing, but he was undemonstrative and a man of few words, so that his strictness was generally more in evidence than his love. Sultana was the hearth that warmed the home, that radiated light and offered comfort to all who crossed the threshold.


A constant stream of neighbours flowed in and out of the Delchevs' house, seeking sympathy in time of illness or bereavement, or charity to tide them over some material crisis, for there were many families in Kukush which, owing to the inexorable decline of the economy,





found themselves in financial difficulties no matter how hard they tried to support themselves. Sultana never sent anybody away with empty hands or an empty heart. To the poor she would give flour, wine, rakia or charcoal, and to the worried and broken-hearted she gave kind words and a willing ear. Sometimes Nikola would arrive while such visitors were still in the house. They would tremble and freeze to attention, for they knew his stern character, but he would merely smile under his formidable moustaches, without making any comment. He knew very well what was in their bags and bottles, but he never chided his wife for her generosity. He, too, for all his tough exterior, was a man who loved his fellows and welcomed guests to his home. The two of them - Nikola and Sultana - lived together in perfect harmony, and their children benefitted both from the hidden love of their father, which was expressed in his insistence upon high standards of discipline and behaviour, and from the spontaneous love of their mother, which flowed perpetually without measure or discrimination like the sweet waters of Abdil Aga's fountain.


Sultana bore her husband a total of nine children; four boys, Gotsé, Mitso, Milan and Hristo, and five girls, Rusha, Tsotsa, Tina, Velika and Elena, and all were a credit to their parents.


Gotsé's birth was a particularly joyful event in the life of the Delchevs. The first two children were daughters, and this was not a propitious beginning in a society where men were all-important. Indeed, according to ancient custom, a newborn girl baby would be placed in her cradle for the first time when the moon was on the wane, in the hopes of discouraging further female births, whereas a boy was introduced to his cradle when the moon was new, so that the next baby might also be a boy. Until the moon was in the appropriate phase, babies were laid in a large upturned sieve, which was convenient both as a container and as a symbol, for sito - the Bulgarian word for sieve - also means 'well fed', thus ensuring that the child would be contented and quiet. [1]


The Delchevs' first-born son was born on January 23 1872 (February 4, new style), and he was christened Georgi after the patron saint of the ancient monastery above the town. The name, however, was seldom used verbally, and from the very first day of his life his mother and the whole family called him Gotsé, according to the Bulgarian custom which makes diminutives from every name.


At first the parents' joy was clouded by the sickly constitution of their precious son. For two or three years, the child had no appetite and was constantly ill or ailing. Doctors were few in Macedonia, and the sick were treated with a mixture of magic and proven remedies handed down from generation to generation: what could not be cured with rakia and black pepper, taken internally or used as an embrocation, would surely respond to concoctions of herbs, holy water or





yellow hen's dung. Prayers could be said in Church, and at Christmas time there were always the Rusalii ritual dances which were believed to bring health to the sick. From time immemorial, these dances had been performed in the Kukush area and all over South Macedonia during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany, although their origin was plainly pagan. On the first day of Christmas the participants formed groups of from ten to thirty pairs of dancers who toured the neighbouring villages dancing and collecting money, which was generally given to the Church. Their leader carried an axe, while all the others carried swords. They were dressed in their best holiday clothes, with white kilts, and two red scarves decorated with coins across their chests. Their families saw them off as though they were going to war, and, indeed, they would not sleep at home for the whole twelve days. They would, moreover, observe many strange rules: the pairs would be as inseparable as the two arms or two legs of a body; complete silence had to be maintained; nobody might cross himself or invoke a blessing on his food or his sleep; the group might not wade through water or ford a river, but passed over in carts, if it was too wide to jump; if they met a funeral, they would compel the bearers to lower the coffin, so that they could jump over it before allowing it to proceed; they tried to avoid meeting a similar group of dancers, but if such a meeting occurred, the two groups would fight and the dead would be buried on the spot without funeral. In the towns or villages which they visited, they would be received as honoured guests. They would dance to the accompaniment of two drums and two zurli [*] in the square, in the charshiya or in private homes. Everywhere one pair would cross their swords for health on people's foreheads, over hearths, at cross-roads, in doorways, by withered trees, wells, springs and other places of magical significance. It was considered especially beneficial for the sick to be 'crossed' in this manner, and they were also allowed to pass through the line of dancers during the dance - something which was otherwise taboo. On the eve of Epiphany, the dancers returned to their villages and attended special rites in the church before being joyfully restored to their families. During the period of the Rusalii, women did not bathe, or wash their children, or launder the family linen, and, at the end, the dancers' special clothes might not be washed in the house, but had to be taken outside to a well or river.


Nikola and Sultana tried everything that reason or rumour suggested in their efforts to succour their ailing child. When, for example, Nikola heard tell of the healing powers of a certain village fountain, he immediately set out with his son wrapped warmly against the winter cold. When they arrived at the fountain, Nikola would have



*. A kind of wind instrument, sometimes also called zurni.





bathed him there and then in the icy water, had not a woman filling her pitchers protested that it would be the death of such a skinny, feeble child. She even offered to give Nikola one of her pitchers so that he could take some water home where it could be heated. Nikola accepted, and Gotsé was bathed and rubbed down in the warmth and comfort of his own home. [2]


Eventually, to the great delight and relief of his parents, the child took a firmer grip on life, grew out of his indisposition and became a normal healthy boy. The change was all the more welcome because the next two children were girls, and until 1879 Gotsé was Nikola's only son and heir, the sole boy among four sisters.


Gotsé was, of course, surrounded with love and high hopes, but his father's high standards and tyrannical character made it impossible for him to be spoilt. Nikola kept a cane behind the door and he did not hesitate to use it. Every evening on his return from work, he would inquire of Sultana whether the children had obeyed her in everything. Those whom he caught without work or without a book in hand were also in danger of a beating, though sometimes he would merely send them to refill the pitchers with fresh water. Worst of all, if anything in the children's behaviour displeased him, he would rebuke their mother for allowing it. Gotsé could not bear this, and once, when his father spoke sharply to Sultana, he found the courage to defend her, crying: 'If you are angry with my mother, I'll lock you in the cellar when I grow up!' He was five years old at the time.


When Gotsé started to go to school, his father always dispatched him with the words: if your teacher tells me that you don't study well I'll beat your mother.' [3] For Gotsé there could be no direr threat, but it was an unnecessary one. He was an excellent pupil as well as being the most obedient child at home.


Occasionally, of course, even he incurred his father's wrath. One day, Sultana sent her seven-year-old son out with a sick sheep which Nikola had separated from the flock and brought home for special care. Gotsé was supposed to let the animal graze on the grass which grew here and there beside the walls and buildings. He duly took it round the neighbourhood, but riding it like a horse, accompanied by a crowd of other little boys who pushed and pulled the poor beast this way and that. In the end, its strength failed and it collapsed and died. Nikola's wrath was terrible: he was ready to hang his son head downwards, and might have done so, had not his despairing mother rushed to his defence. She could not, however, prevent him from getting what was probably the worst beating of his life. Gotsé endured it with fortitude. Normally an angry glance was enough to reduce him to tears, but this time, acknowledging the enormity of his guilt, he took his beating in silence, without so much as a whimper. [4]


While Gotsé does not appear to have angered his father as far as





his lessons were concerned, he was involved in an unfortunate classroom incident which could have had some very serious consequences. The pupils had hatched up some childish plot against their teachers, and one boy informed on them. The thirteen-year old Gotsé was outraged by this treachery and, declaring that he would rather go to the gallows than suffer a traitor to live, he plunged his little knife into the boy's back. Fortunately, the boy did not die, but Gotsé's father found himself obliged to pay the doctor's fees.


As the eldest son among so many daughters, Gotsé was expected to help his father in his business, with the prospect of eventually taking over from him. Even as a schoolboy, Gotsé spent quite a lot of time in the tavern, and often he had to carry home the heavy sacks of grain which his father had purchased. Sultana would remonstrate with her husband over this, saying that it was work for a labourer, not a schoolboy, but the champion wrestler was determined that his son should develop his muscles and be able to turn his hand to anything, and he would simply reply, 'Let him learn'.


Nikola was strict even as regards what games his son played and with whom. Gotsé was allowed out to play only when he had prepared his lessons for the following day and had done his stint helping his father. Even then, he was allowed to play only with certain children in the neighbourhood, and he was forbidden to play rough games or to get into fights. Gotsé meekly observed all these limitations, because he knew that if his father came to hear of any disobedience on his part, he would be severely punished and would not be allowed out to play in future.


Gotsé's favourite game was kaynatsi - a form of marbles played with little balls. It required considerable skill, and though Gotsé was very good at it, he was, more often than not, beaten by his namesake Gotsé Takedzhiev. The boys also liked to play at 'professions'; they pretended to be shopkeepers, using little pieces of glass and porcelain for money; they also played at 'schools', 'doctors', 'letter-writers' and 'merchants'. The players would keep the same roles each time that they played, and, oddly enough, most of them eventually made their make-believe professions their life's career. Only Gotsé never picked a 'profession'; his role was to organize the others.


Gotsé enjoyed not only the company of his play-fellows, but also that of grown-ups who could tell him stories and sing him songs. His mother was a mine of folksongs, fairy-tales and heroic legends, and when he was already at school, he often sought the company of educated men like Hristo Buchkov, who told him about far-off countries and historical events, and Poné Ikilyulev, who lent him books borrowed from the teachers who lodged in his house. Like most Bulgarian towns, Kukush had a chitalishté, or reading-room club,





founded in 1868 with the triple aim of assisting the development of the youth of Kukush, of providing maintenance for impecunious pupils, and of helping those 'who do not know what they need'. The club began its existence in a room provided by a local priest, and later moved into the vacant Bishop's residence, where every Sunday and holiday people gathered to hear books and newspapers read aloud and to listen to lectures. Books were still something of a rarity and luxury in private homes, and the reading room club played an immensely important role in the life of the Bulgarian community. The club's library contained a surprising variety of books, including works by Plutarch, Cervantes, Corneille, Moliere, Chateaubriand, Dumas, Goethe, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Alphonse Dauder, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Zola, and Maine Reid. English literature was further represented by Oliver Twist, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, the Merchant of Venice and A Comedy of Errors. There were books about such famous people as Dante, Gutenberg, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Voltaire, Byron, Lassalle, Proudhon, Lessing and Darwin, and there were also 'dangerous' books, such as the Communist Manifesto, Engels' Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and works by Plekhanov and Kropotkin.


There was plenty of enthusiasm for enlightenment in Kukush, but money was short. The town was in the grip of economic depression and, with the best will in the world, its citizens could not afford to be generous. As Kuzman Shapkarev put it, they 'extracted lard from worms' and 'tallow from flies', [5] collecting a few para from everyone who visited the club for readings or lectures.


Gotsé became a voracious reader of everything that he could lay his hands on and eagerly absorbed knowledge from every source available to him. Thus he passed his childhood, in study, work and play, strictly yet lovingly supervised by parents who were determined that he should grow up educated, disciplined, industrious and just. At the time, his father may have seemed the dominant influence in his life, but, in fact, it was Sultana with her unfailing love and gentleness who did most to mould his character. When Gotsé grew to manhood, he practised the strictness of his father only in relation to himself, and, where others were concerned, it was the compassion which he had learnt from his mother that determined all his actions, a compassion that knew no discrimination and was extended to friend and foe alike.


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1. See Shapkarev. Sbornik ot bŭlgarski narodni umotvoreniya. Vol. I Sofia 1968. p. 368.





2. Oral memories of Lika Chopova, recorded 1974.


Much of the material about life in Kukush and the Delchev family is taken from the

memories, both published and verbal, of Lika Chopova, daughter of Gotsé's sister Rusha. Lika Chopova lived in Kukush, but was born too late to know Gotsé personally. Her memories are, therefore, in part, what she was told by other people.


3. Lika Chopova. Spomeni za semeistvoro na Golsé Delchev. Septemvri VI/5 1953.


4. P. Yavorov. Golsé Delchev, Sŭchineniya. Vol: III. Sofia 1965 p. 55.


5. See Chitalishté, Year I. Book 15. l.V. 1871.