Life in Our Village

Yankovetz, a suburb of Resen, was not a town and it could hardly pass as a village. Most of its inhabitants were Resen s storekeepers, artisans, money lenders and goldsmiths. Resen was a city of perhaps 5,000 and the seat of the county government. The police, the malfunctioning courts of law and the prison were located there.

Both Resen and Yankovetz stood on the Via Ignatia, the old Roman highway which stretched from the Albanian town of Duratso to the Turkish capital of Istanbul. That road was still in use and in good shape when I was born in 1903 and while I grew to young manhood. No one can dispute the fact that the Romans could build good roads using slave labor. The caravans to and from Solun to Duratso, through Bitota, Resen, Ohrid, Struga and Debar in Macedonia, passed through our village carrying manufactured products, sugar, coffee and salt. On many occasions they stopped in Resen or Yankovetz to rest men and animals.

The local inns had ample accommodations for the horses or the water buffaloes which carried these loads, but rooms for the men were few; many of them were satisfied if they obtained a spot in the haystack.

The village had no clubhouses or saloons. Two coffee houses, one across from the other, operated by two rivals for clientele, served as gathering places for the village men. They were forbidden grounds for members of the opposite sex. They served small cups of Turkish coffee, tea and rahat lokoom, a special Balkan delicacy. Seldom wine or rum. The clients were not pretentious. They came to spend their idle hours, talk, and relax after a hard day's work at their stores or fields. In that respect the coffee houses acted as social clubs where ideas were exchanged, news of the world was sifted and the new arrests by the Serbian authorities were reported.

Sitting on homemade wooden chairs around crudely made tables, which never saw a tablecloth, they played cards and rolled the dice. No money was involved. This was all for fun and the loser paid for the coffee served at the table.

Although their almost puritanical view of life did not permit gambling and drunkenness, someone every once in a while took in too much wine and left the coffee house slightly inebriated. The stares and sarcastic remarks he encountered on the way home had a sobering effect and made him realize that he had broken one of the rules of life.

The villagers talked about their work in the fields, the progress of their crops, the need for more rain. They discussed the rising prices of imported goods, such as sugar, kerosene and salt. They thrashed over village problems. But most often they talked about politics and especially of international politics, a subject close to the hearts of oppressed people. It was a subject of lively interest to all present. More often than not, however, theirs was a discussion with erroneous interpretations, for the news that trickled to our village was very sparse. Most of the facts were either exaggerated or were laced with so many additions that one could hardlytell the fact from the fiction.

Except for the government-appointed village official, who usually was appointed from Serbia and therefore was an unreliable source of information, no one in the village received a newspaper. And since all the newspapers entering that part of Macedonia were published and edited by Serbians, the people did not have faith in them. So they refused to read them.

News of the outside world, sign)ficant or not, was usually transmitted by local people whose business carried them to Bitolia, the provincial capital. Many of our own people in that city read newspapers from Western Europe, mostly from Rome and Vienna. The readers would whisper the important news to the visitor from Resen or Yankovetz. If the news was about some important event of shifting European diplomacy, the chances were that by the time the bearer of the news arrived home he was prepared to garnish it with a few details of his own in order to make it sound more dramatic and effective. Regardless of the remoteness of our area, however, our people somehow instinctively made intelligent evaluations ofthe news of the day.

As I grew older, this fact intrigued me a great deal. The recollection of their perception surprises me even today. They had a clear vision of the superiority and importance of each of the great powers in Europe, and of the interests of those governments in the international chess game.

The only unknown factor was the United States of America. Until World War I no one considered America to be a military power, although it was obvious that, if circumstances warranted, the U.S. had unlimited resourcesómanpower and wealthóto shift the balance from one side to the other.

Most of the time, however, the villagers concentrated on the news that related to the Balkans. The war of l912against theTurks, and in 1913 the war among themselves, had ended with tragic consequences tor our people. This part of Macedonia, predominantly Bulgarian in character, history and language, was supposed to have been handed over to Bulgaria after the defeat of Turkey. But the Serbians had reneged and kept the land against the will of the people.

When conflict again loomed in 1914, our people were still under Serbian domination. And because of this duplicity and forced denationalization, there was no love lost between us and the Belgrade administration. Our people felt cheated and oppressed. They had fought the Turks for decades at great sacrifice, only to exchange one ruler for anotheróa Moslem oppressor for one that was Christian.

That is why, in discussing the news of the world, what our people wanted to hear was: What are the European powers going to do about our plight? Who is going to alleviate our burden as Austria and Serbia get ready for war? Will the Austrians and the Germans be able to extend their positions all the way down to our own country and sweep away the Serbian regime? Will Bulgaria join in the fight for Macedonia? And what if Dedo Ivan (Grandfather Russia) is on the other side? After all, Dedo Ivan is big and strongóthe strongest of all.

At this point one would hear the calm voice and measured words of Dedo Stefo, the village wise man, who had spent many years in -i; Istanbul and Odessa, who spoke Russian and knew the Russians well.
His words would fall like gushes of hot water over the heads of those present.

"Listen to me," old Stefo would say, "do not count too much on Dedo Ivan. Russia is looking not after us, but after herself. If her own interests dictate, she will help for our liberation, but if her interests do not dictate, she will do nothing. Remember that. " After a puffon his cigarette, Dedo Stefo would add: "All great powers are like that. 1: They look after themselves; that is why they are great. "

Angered to no end, the old Russophile Tashka would pound on the table, stand up, for he was short and fat, and say in a loud voice:

"Tell me Stefo, tel1 me! Did not the Russians liberate Bulgaria? Answer me that, ha?"

"They did," replied Stefo, "but you know why? They wanted to make of her another province of Russia so as to get easy access to the Bosphorus and Istanbulóthe dream of every Russian emperor. But Stefan Stamboloff, God bless his soul (and here old Stefo made the sign of the cross), stopped them. He thanked them for helping to drive the Turks out of Bulgaria, then asked them to kindly leave and let the people enjoy their freedom. "

IN THE COFFEE HOUSE forum many heated debates raged on political subjects. At such times the dice stopped rolling, the cards lay spread on the tables and everyone was tuned to the discussions. But when the one seated by the door spotted the approach of the police or of one of the two police informants, the subject was dropped and the card games were resumed full blast.

As had their fathers and grandfathers before them, born and raised under the oppressive Ottoman regime, they instinctively knew when and how to end a political discussion. They were also accustomed to the curfew. This penalty had been added for not conforming to the wishes of the alien government, which they resented but were helpless to overthrow.

When the sun set behind the Galichitsa Planina and the veil of darkness descended over the village, the stillness outside the coffee houses was broken only by the footsteps of the patrons trotting back to their homes, locking themselves behind heavy gates and high walls. This was the time of the evening when, one by one, a hundred kerosene lamplights would appear as if an unseen hand had placed small stars in the curtained windows of the village homes. Then, except for the occasional bark of a dog, hardly a sound could be heard.

Were these people actually sleeping, or plotting? The night patrol could never determine the answer. But the danger of an uprising was always present. It lurked at every corner, behind every tree.

I remember well the home in which I was born and grew up. My grandfather had built it like a fortress. It was larger than the ten others surrounding it, the 11 forming a circle whose back yards were accessible to every family in the group. Our home was surrounded by high walls. A small but heavy door provided entrance to the front yard and the house. Next to the door there was a wide, two-winged gate, made of heavy wood, that was opened only at harvest time or on occasions when a wagon was to be admitted. Another heavy door, always locked at night, was the inner entrance to our home. On the ground floor there were two bedrooms. The upper floor had three more, each with a fireplace, and a wide veranda, large enough to hold 50 people. The veranda had no glass windows, but wooden shutters kept out the rain and the snow.

The storage room was on the ground floor. Wheat, corn, flour, salted meat and everything needed for the winter months was kept there. In the front yard there was a bake oven and a water well. These were primarily for emergency use. In case of danger, or search by police, one could escape by just opening the door to the back yard and crossing to the back yard of another home. Our home also had a secret room in which the two Nizamoff families, those of my father and his brother' Yakim, kept their valuables and their always-loaded Mannlicher rifles. The house had been searched many times, but the Turks and the Serbians had never come close to finding the secret room.

My father, whose name was Nicola, was the youngest of three brothers and our bedrooms were on the ground floor. Yakim's family occupied the bedrooms on the upper floor, which also had a large room called the reception room or guest room. The oldest brother, Dimitri, housed his family elsewhere.

Sitting on heavy and comfortable straw mattresses around the fireplace after curfew, our family would discuss the rumors of impending searches and arrests. But we as children spent much of the evening listening to our parents tell stories which they had heard from their own fathers and mothers. My mother's name was Maria; my brothers were Krusto and Boris, and my sister's name was Veselinka.

Many a night my brothers, my sister and I fell asleep listening to our mother tell Bible stories and speak of the meaning of God, the sacrifice of Christ and the need of prayer. She would also tell us about the heroic death of her brother, Clement. He had lost his life while serving in the ranks of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization in the fight for a free and independent Macedonia, one in which all of its peoplesóBulgarians, Greeks, Vlahs and Turks included ówould have equal rights and responsibilities. Uncle Clement was the first one to fall in a skirmish with a regiment of Turkish soldiers. He lost his life a few months before the Ilinden insurrection of 1903.

My father, on the other hand, would dwell on the heroic exploits of Gotse Delcheff, a legendary revolutionary leader in our country. My father never forgot to remind us that one winter night in 1901, he and his friends had been summoned by Delcheff to a discussion in the mountain village of Zlatary, some five miles from our place. They had braved freezing rain and the danger of meeting a Turkish patrol and had reached Zlatary at the break of dawn.

"He was a great man, son, a great man," my father would say, "A highly educated and dedicated man. The Turks feared him." The story would end with my father singing his favorite songs which the people in Macedonia had woven about Delcheff and his heroic exploits.

My father had a melodious voice. Three years before he died at the age of 93, a professor from the folklore institute of Vienna visited him at his home in Yankovetz and recorded a few of the folk songs he liked best and one that was almost of his own creation.

Father surely was elated by this honor. He must have felt he was making an important contribution to folklore. More than that, the tape perpetuated the memory of his beloved hero, Gotse Delcheff.

I believe these stories and songs were lessons to prepare us for the struggle that lay ahead, and for adulthood. Our parents wanted us to realize the plight of our own people and to understand that salvation lay only in winning freedom.

"We are not free," my father would say, "but we are not slaves, either. Not as long as we know how to stand and defend our God-given rights."

I listened to my parent's stories with delight and innocence. Many times I daydreamed of becoming a member of Delcheff's group. How good it would have been to see that great man and be ordered by him to perform some useful service fot the freedom of our people! I did not know then that my hero, the great man, had been killed in a skirmish with the Turkish army five months before I was born.

Since most of the homes in our village were built next to one another, and each was linked with a neighbor's house through the back yard, the imposed curfew had very little effect. The streets were empty but neighbors visited each other, played cards and told stories. Their social contact was not disrupted. One of the men who had joined the village administration, and pretended to be on the side of the occupiers. secretly was one of our most trusted people. He found ways to let us know when a search was planned and who was to be interned. The suspect would suddenly disappear, having crossed into Greek or Albanian territory, and would make his way to Bulgaria or to the United States.

I remember clearly that when Serbia declared war on Austria and Belgrade issued an order for full mobilization, most of the men between 18 and 35 found their way into Albania. Why should they fight for a regime they hated? The few who were caught unaware and put in uniform later deserted.

ONE INCIDENT THAT AROUSED much fear and excitement in our home is still very fresh in my mind. It happened in the early spring of 1911.

By order of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, a relative of ours assassinated a renegade and traitor who had joined the Turks and revealed to them some organization secrets. As a challenge to his former leader, the renegade had kidnapped his 3-year-old nephew and cut the boy to pieces. The assassination of the traitor took place on a Sunday morning in Resen when the streets were almost bare. Everyone was either in church or getting ready to go there. The Turks surrounded the town and searched the gardens and the cornfields, but the terrorist had disappeared. By prearranged plan he hid under a bridge, half covered by water and mud, and stayed there until dark. Then, using all the byways known to him, he arrived unnoticed in Yankovetz where, also by prearrangement, the front door of the home of one of our neighbors was left unlocked. He got into our back yard and from there into the secret hiding room. We, the children, knew nothing of this.

The next morning, almost every house was thoroughly searched but the Turks found no trace of the man. A few days later he made a successful escape and joined the revolutionary group. This man was well educated, a member of a very distinguished family in Resen. His uncle, Andrea Lipscheff, was for seven years prime minister of Bulgaria before the advent of the communist government.

The evening of the escape, the man who assisted the assassin came into our store in Yankovetz just before closing time. He whispered something to my dad. I remember how my father filled a large wine glass with rakia (whiskey) and said to him: "Drink, Lazo, this is on the house. You did a splendid job."

I saw this and I heard it, but I never breathed a word of it to anyone, not even to my mother. except for my beloved cousin Zorka, a fanatic and a patriot to the marrow of her bones.

In 1912, against the objection of the whole Nizamoff family, Zorka married a like patriot, knowing that he was tubercular. All that mattered to her was that he was a devoted member of the Committee and no promise or threat would disuade her from marrying a sick man.

Because Yankovetz was fenced in by thick forests on three sides and the air was fresh, cool and clean, he moved into our home to recuperate. He slept on a makeshift bed on the veranda.

At night I could hear him cough incessantly, a deep, loud cough which tore his lungs apart. I could hear him scream from pain and from a high temperature that could not be brought down because there was no ice to be had. His suffering broke my heart. Every evening, before I went to bed, my prayer was for his early recrvery.

In retrospect, I wonder if my concern was for the man who was the husband of my beloved cousin or for the dedicated fighter for freedom. He died a year later, leaving Zorka with a three-month-old son.

His suffering and his early passing left a wound in Zorka's heart. She lost the desire to live. Life had become an unbearable burden and her delicate body began to melt away. I could not look at her. I wanted to remember her as she had beenóstrong, vibrant, a fighter against oppression, a fearless person ready to jump in the fire in the name of freedom and justice.

She died in the fall of 1923, after I had emigrated to America. The tragic news reached me in New York City, where I had moved from Connecticut. For a few days I felt numb and paralyzed. I was alone and lonesome in the big city with no one to share my deep sorrow, no one to console me. I stayed in my room, cried and cursed, cursed and cried.

Then, one afternoon, I dressed and went to the Russian Eastern Orthodox Church on East 94th Street. There was no one in the church. I lit a big candle in front of the icon of St. Mary, fell on my knees before the holy altar, and prayed. I prayed for Zorka and her husband, I prayed for my family, and I prayed for my oppressed homeland.

The next day I went back to work.