As I grew I wanted to know more about our family and this is what he told me:
My great-grandfather, whose name my father did not know, went to Istanbul to find work and there was hired to run a vegetable garden. During a visit to his home he decided to take back with him to Istanbul and put to work his 14-year-old son, Kote. Greatgrandfather died a year later, leaving Kote alone in Istanbul. The young man was taken in by a friendly Christian Arab family. Whether he kept on gardening we do not know, but he grew up to become a handsome, strong and fearless man. Although illiterate, he became fluent in Turkish, Greek, and French, as well as Bulgarian.
At that time the Sultan of Turkey wished to placate the rebellious Bulgarians in his wide empire. He appointed Stephen Bogoridi, a Bulgarian nobleman, as governor of the island of Metelin in the Sea of Marmara. The governor wanted a countryman to accompany him to the new post and the large Bulgarian colony in Istanbul recommended my grandfather.
The exact nature of my grandfather's duties is not known, but there is Speculation that he was appointed tax collector. The custom in the Turkish empire was for some of the tax money to remain in the pockets of the collector. At any rate, when my grandfather after 10 years returned to his home town of Yankovetz he was one of the five richest men in the county. My father considered him to be the fou nder of the family and its patriarch.
Kote Nizamoff bought a lot of land and a flour mill in Yankovetz, built the t'ortress-like home I havedescribed, and invested in property in the center of Resen. He married, fathered three sons and two daughters, and settled for good in his home in Yankovetz.
When the villagers began collecting money to build a new Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church, Grandt'ather Kote supplied most of the t'unds needed. In tribute, the villagers decided that when he died, he would be buried in the back of the church where, according to tradition, only the local priest could lie. The demise of my grandfather was followed by a division of his property, with the largest share going to his oldest son, Dimitri. My father became a grocer.
At hanest time, when the freshly threshed wheat or freshly milled flour was brought into our home to carry us through the severe winters, she filled special containers and it was my duty and my sister's to deliver them to the families she was trying to help. The same was true in the late fall when two hogs were butchered. We went to the same homes with generous helpings of pork, lard, and sausage.
Other well-to-do families did the same. In this respect the village had a kind of unofflcial welfare program, one that helped but in no way degraded the recipients.
Teta Dina, a poor widow, lived on the far side of the village in a small, unpretentious home that had been built by her husband. Neatly whitewashed, with flowers all around, it looked like an oversized doll house. Teta Dina was always on my route of deliveries.
Many years have passed since then, but I still have a vivid memory of my last visit to her in 1914, when the Serbian army had replaced the Turks in our part of Macedonia_one oppressor exchanged for another.
Except that her cupboard probably was empty, there was nothing in the one-room home to indicate that its sole occupant was desperately poor. The earthen floor was neatly treated with homemade paint. This paint was obtained from the topsoil of a ravine close to the village monastery. When soaked in warm water, the particles of soil dissolved into a reddish solution. Left overnight, it produced a creamy substance that was used for coloring and polishing floors and brick walls.
My father used to say that in any industrially developed country, this topsoi1 would be turned into a money-making enterprise. But our village had neither the knowledge nor the money to develop it.
On the right side of the room there was a medium-size window whose wooden shutters were painted blue. On the floor, underneath the window, lay a straw-Mled mattress covered by a homespun yambolia (bed cover). The fireplace was near by. Over the fireplace and on both sides of it there were wooden shelves holding dishes and cups, mostly products of the local pottery makers. (Resee was noted for the art and quality of its pottery production). Handmade doilies covered the shelves.
Above the fireplace was the icon of St. Dimitri, the family saint and protector. The icon was the product of a local, self-taught artist who made a good name for himself after an exhibit in Bitola, our provincial capital. A lighted wick flickered constantly in a glass jar filled with water and olive oil. In days of need and lonelinessóand these may have been manyóTeta Dina stood solemnly before this icon, made the sign of the cross and prayed. Her prayer and faith in her patron saint sustained her and gave her strength to carry on.
The area on the left side of the fireplace was almost bare. Two crudely-built chairs covered with beautifully embroidered cushions stood invitingly against the wall. Their unworn appearance indicated that the home had few visitors. A few steps farther on there was a locker made of polished oak. Its door was sturdy and had a padlock on it. Above the door were vases with indoor plants.
On the day of my last visit I entered the small front yard, was greeted by the old dog, and knocked on the door. Teta Dina lifted the cover of the peephole, smiled and let me in.
As a peasant woman she had never learned to read and write and had never crossed the boundaries of our county. But, like many in our country, she possessed natural intelligence and the manners of a wellbred person. She bowed and shook my hand, a custom prevalent in Macedonia in those days, then inquired about the health of my mother and father and the rest of the family, mentioning every one by name.
When this traditional ceremony was over, she politely accepted the container I was delivering and uttered thanks that my mother had remembered her. She invited me to sit on one of the chairs and went to the corner of the room to remove the contents from my dish. Then she went out through the back door, washed the dish and handed it back to me.
Teta Dina was of medium size, slim and lively. Her dark brown eyes retained much of the flame that had sparkled there in her youthful years, but they also reflected a deeply buried sadness. Her prominent forehead, the high cheekbones, the silky black hair tinted here and there with gray clusters protruding from under the black kerchief she wore (a sign that she was a widow) gave her the appearance of a classical beauty. Her pretty face bore faint furrows, the inescapable marks of a hard and lonely life.
I took the container, rose, and was prepared to leave.
"You must wait a few minutes," she said. "Please sit down."
She went to the corner of the room, lifted a white cover and unlocked a small trunk. Presently she came back with two small, beautifully embroidered handkerchiefs.
"These are for your mother and sister," she said. "Give your mother my best regards and my thanks. And this is for you." She handed me an apple and bade me goodbye.
Teta Dina had not accepted the food I brought as charity but as a gift from a friend, and she returned the dish to my mother with her own gift, her own token of appreciation. She was a proud woman who would rather die from hunger than beg. And she had other ways of showing her appreciation.
Whenever my mother was ill, or heavily occupied with house chores, Teta Dina came to lend a hand. Traditionally our family celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas with a lavish dinner for our relatives and friends. We also celebrated the name days of my father and myself, which fell about a week apart in December. Teta Dina was always there to help clean the house, bake delicious pastries and cook.
On one such occasion in December-of 1914, when the political situation in our country had deteriorated and relations had worsened between our people and the Serbian occupiers, Teta Dina overstayed. It was past ten and the imposed curfew hour was nine p.m. The Serbian police were on the lookout for Macedonian revolutionaries and deserters who did not want to serve in their army. Like most Macedonians, our family was on the off'cial blacklist. We considered that an honor.
It was unthinkable to let Teta Dina go home by herself. In those days in Macedonia, no respectable woman ventured out by herself at night. It was also unthinkable for my father to go with her. The police were looking for any reason to place him under arrest. My father said I was old enough to take Teta Dina home. Armed with a strong stick to protect her and me from the village dogs, I went out.
It was agreed that on my return I should not knock on the door. That might alert the patrol. My father told me to throw three small rocks over the wall, one by one, as a signal that I had returned.
On my way back a stray dog spotted me and started barking; I could hear the footsteps of the patrol coming my way. There was a full moon and I could see their shadows as they turned the corner. I hid under a wagon loaded with hay and held my breath. Fortunately the dog had disappeared. The men on patrol came closer and spoke in whispers. They looked around, saw nothing, and left.
I reached home safely and threw the three pebbles over the wall. My father must have been standing right by the door for it opened immediately after the third pebble. My father was not overly sentimental. But this time he put his hands on my shoulders, brought me close to him and said. "You did a man's job tonight."
It was now very late. I went to bed with a self-satisfaction l had never experienced before. The conspiratorial part of that job fascinated me. As it happened, it was to follow my tracks until I left the cou ntry and came to the U nited States.
OURS WAS NOT THE ONLY FAMILY who helped the needy. Others did that, too. All who had a little more shared with the less fortunateó purely an act of friendliness and neighborliness.
But many saw starvation and death during the last phase of World War I. The Serbians had been driven from our land ; the frontier, ten miles from our village, was defended by the German army. The military had requisitioned every available edible product and had imposed strict food rationing.
During those crucial months my father was head mayor of Yankovetz and eight surrounding villages. The feeding of the people was under his jurisdiction. but the army had left nothing to feed them with. He had the coupons but not the flour, wheat, corn, meat or milk.
I was home from school, and I saw hunger and suffering and death. I saw how our village gardener and his family became the first victims.
I remember old Evtim, a tall man, very quiet, slowly dying from starvation. His vegetable garden was just two blocks from our home. I saw h im wither slowly and one day fall dead on the street, not far from our house, carrying under his arm wild greens he had picked in the meadows to alleviate the hunger of his wife. His daughter Vasilka, who had been a classmate of mine in the lower grades, lost her mind and one morning was found dead in the river. I cried for her.
It took a long time for me to get over this unnecessary tragedy, this useless waste of human beings. I remember the pain, the anguish of my father at being unable to obtain from military storage some of the food supplies requisitioned from our people. Day and night the storage area was guarded by armed patrols. My father had a stormy meeting with the commandant, Rudolph Kwiring. It would have become a fist fight if the Bulgarian interpreter, Vangel Malakov, had not stepped between them.
A few weeks after this dramatic scene the allied forces broke the German resistance. The Germans left in a hurry and abandoned the stored food. But it was too late for Evtim, his wife and daughter, and countless others who became victims of a war they did not start, or want.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has been blessed with many saints and martyrs who have performed commendable senice for God, or have sacrificed their lives to preserve their Christian faith. But the merits of some of those designated for sanctification have not been fully explained bythechurch.
Take for example St. Theodora, one of the few women whose images adorn the church inconostas and our calendars.
By all known accounts she was a woman of questionable reputation who, during the early Christian era, moved about Jerusalem and parts of Egypt. Disguised as a man she entered an all-male monastery. When her true identity was revealed, she was ejected and forbidden to return to that holy place.
Finding herself on the streets, broke and destitute, she did whatever she could to survive. But not for long. This ambitious and determined woman entered a female monastery and soon after reached the post of mother superior. Nothing more is known of Theodora. But she is listed in the Eastern Orthodox calendar and her feast is celebrated on September 11. Even on insignificant feast days the church was opened for services In rainy or wintry weather these were welcome occasions for the men, if for no other reason than to break the boredom of staying home, or as a change from the daily visit to the coffee house, since all the rumors and gossip could be exchanged at church.
Although our people were deeply devout, many of themóin some cases even members of the clergyówere but vaguely familiar with the tenets and dogma oftheir religion.
Simply put, the church was the home of God where they went to pray. God was the creator of life, the power that moved everyone and everything in the world. They worshiped Him and directed their prayers to Him. They attended Sunday Mass regularly, sat through the divine liturgy, listened to the reading of the Holy Scriptures, made the sign of the cross and silently asked for God's mercy and help.
They revered the saints. They lit candles in front of the icons. They bowed before, and reverently kissed, the images of their patron saints when celebrating their feast days.
The church rituals spoke to them eloquently. In every move, in every intonation of the priest they responded to the mysticism of their faithóthe many images of Christ on the Cross, those of Mother Mary and the Child, the likenesses of saints and martyrs adorning the iconostasis on the altar, the flickering flames of the candles, the voice of the priest and the chants of the cantorsóall of these gave force and spiritual meaning to the ritual, made hearts throb and brought tears of joy and repentance during the High Mass. At its beginning. .
THE DOOR ON THE RIGHT SIDE of the altar opens. Silence descends as the priest appears. No one moves. The worshipers stand like statues cemented to the floor.
The priest in ornate vestments, preceded by an altar boy holding the incense burner, walks with measured tread towards the altar door. Holding the chalice in one hand and the cross in the other, he intones:
"Blagoslovi, Gospodi, ludy tvoya ee dary dostoyanie tvoye. " (Bless, O Lord, your children and make them worthy of you.)
The worshipers bow their heads and make the sign of the cross.
The priest climbs the steps leading to the altar, the chalice in his left hand, the cross in his right. He holds them above his head and, with eyes raised to heaven, intones in solemn, measured voice:
"Da buded volya Gospodnya ot ninye ee do veka." (May the will of God prevail from ages into ages.)
"Amen," respond the worshipers. Then, in a fatherly voice, he commands:
"Preeidite poklonitsya ee pripadet Kon Hrista." (Bow your heads, step forward and kneel before Christ, your Lord.)
The worshipers kneel on the concrete floor. They rise again when the priest, waving the cross, announces: Blessed are those who believe in the Lord and ask for His mercy.
THE SYMBOLISM OF THESE RITUALS added beauty and solemnity to the service; it brought the worshipers closer to God, sustained and. deepened their faith in the Almighty.
What else is there to religion than faith, deep and sincere faith?"'Ý The ordinary people possessed that faith and it was enough for them.
Dogma and theological discourse were the province and the responsibility of archbishops, patriarchs, popes, not of the people.
The foundation of religion, what held it in place century after century, was deep and sincere devotion to God Almighty. Nothing more was needed than fervent belief in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, the Son of God.
In the hearts and minds of the people, nothing else mattered. TheÝ constant theological debates, the mountain of books on the existence of God, had changed nothing in 20 centuries. Either one believed, or one did not.
They clung to that simple definition of religion. They fought their national church and preserved it from extinction during five hundred horrible years of Islamic rule followed by the encroachment of the Byzantine patriarch.
They were proud of the historic fact that since the year 865, when the pagan Bulgarian tribes were converted to Christianity under the saintly King Boris the First, the services in their churches had been conducted in their own Bulgar-Slavonic language. This was much to the chagrin of the pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople, who between them had decreed that all religious senices should be conducted only in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. But King Boris, who had asked the Macedonian brothers, Cyril and Methodious, born in Thessalonica, to translate the scriptures and all prayers into the Bulgaro-Slavonic language, did not abidebythatarbitraryrule.
"Our people understand only our own language," he is reported to have said, "therefore we will praise God in our language." And they did.
Cyril and Methodious were called before a church tribunal in Venice. There the Romans and Byzantines pressed them to ban the religious services in the language of the "barbarians. "
But the two brothers stood their ground.
"God, who created us all," stated Cyril the philosopher, "understands our language, too. The Romans and the Byzantines have no monopoly on God's words. "
The meeting adjourned in disarray. The two brothers and their students were persecuted, but the language remained. Thus, the forefathers of the people in our village created their own church, with their own language, their own saints and martyrs.
THE OTTOMAN TURKS DESTROYED much of the old Bulgarian cultural institutions along with monuments and books. But some elements were preserved in the monasteries built in the deep forests or in inaccessible mountain places. And when in the early part of the 18th century the oppressed Bulgarians began their revival, the first strong voice came from Mount Athos. It was the voice of the monk Paisy of Hilendar. He had traveled through central Europe to gather documents and compile the first Bulgarian history following the Turkish conquest towards the end of the 14th century. The spark that came out of Mt. Athos ignited all of the Bulgarian lands in the Balkans, including our own village of Yankovetz.
The St. Mary Monastery, nestled in the thick forest above the village, stood as a living monument to the uncompromising and fierce struggle to preserve the faith of their forefathers. It added strength, not only to their devotion but to their national pride. It sustained them through the constant flow of difflculties.
The struggle reached its final point in the 1860s, with Istanbul at the center. That city was the capital not only of the Ottoman Empire but also of the Byzantine Patriarchate. The young Bulgarians who had gone there to earn a living had taken active part in that historic struggle and had brought it to its final victory.
In 1870, the Grand Vizier announced the Sultan's Firman granting independence to the Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church. Iubilation spread over the Bulgarian lands including, of course, all of Macedonia. The Gree} patriarchate retaliated by branding the Bulgarians as schismatics, but that had no effect. The days when the curse of a pope, or a patriarch, caused pious people to tremble had passed.
In Resen, my grandfather Kote Nizamoff, one of the richest men in the county at that time, celebrated the victory by buying a large, beautiful home in the center of town and announcing that it would be for the exclusive use of the bishop, whose official residence, following historic precedent, was in Ohrid, capital of the ninth century Bulgarian King Samuel.
Resen could boast of its contribution to the cultural and political life of pre-communist Bulgaria. It had given the new country two prime ministers, two appellate judges and one supreme court justice, one brigadier general and five colonels, more than two dozen educators in various disciplines, three doctors and four attorneys, as well as one very distinguished journalist, literary critic and historian ómy cousin, Simeon Radeff, who eventually became ambassador to the United States.
l n the late spring of 1916 when I returned from Sofia, my maternal grandfather and some other elderly people wanted to know, first of alh not if I had seen the King of Bulgaria, or some high-ranking generals; they wanted to know how many bishops and archbishops I had seen. Did I see the palace of the Holy Synod? Was it big, ornate? Did I attend service in the National Cathedral Alexander Nevsky, the largest in the Balkan Peninsula, built by the Bulgarian nation as a tribute to Tsar Alexander of Russia who in 1878 helped liberate Bulgaria trom the Turks?
I still remember the puzzled expressions on their faces when I told them that the Synodal Library was a large, tall building with rooms and shelves bulging with theological books.
"Why all those books?" asked one of the oldsters. "Don't they believe what the Holy Scripture says?"
"Of course they do. They do. But these books explain and define every word of God and what it means to us."
'What is there to define?" said my grandfather. "I read the Scriptures and I understand them. Why can't they? Is this what they teach in those schools down thereódispute the word of God?"
"A waste of time and money," added another. "And mark my words. Someday one of those overeducated people will start telling us that there is no God, that Christ was not crucified. They will start telling us that Moses invented God to save himself from the anger of the rebellious Jews. And you know that that will be the end of the Church . "
"And probably the end of the world, too," said another. "God will punish us for such blasphemy."
"Don't you think that books of this kind are of great value?" I asked.
My grandfather said, "Of course books are of great value, but on different subjects, not on God, not on the Scriptures. Books on history are valuable good, true history. Books on Alexander of Macedonia, whom the Greeks have falsely proclaimed to be one of them, on how he conquered the whole world with some 35.000 soldiers. Books on the Italian Columbus who discovered America, for instance. The writing of that great man Jefferson who is supposed to have said that God has created all men equal and that all men should be tree to govern themselves. Or books on medicine, on agriculture, books to make life healthier and easier. That is what is needed. Not books on the Scriptures."
"Grandpa," I saiid, "you missed one category: books on folk songs and dances, and, of course, books on freedom."
I knew the word freedom would spark a heated discussion. And I was right. That discussion lasted for hours, while my grandmother kept the wine glasses full and the Turkish coffee on the fire.
"Well," said Uncle Stefo, "at least those books inspire you and instill in you love of freedom. Take us, for instance. We live in Macedonia, but most of us are of Bulgarian nationality and we have struggled for our own Bulgarian schools and churches. Yet, what happens?
"The Balkan Christian countries got together to kick the Turks out of Macedonia, and they did. But our part of Macedonia, which was supposed to be given to Bulgaria after the war, was kept by the Serbians. And what did the Serbians do? Proclaim us, against our will, as Serbians, close our Bulgarian schools and churches and force us to speak their language. Even the Turks didn't do that.
"Now, in this raging war, we are under Bulgarian civil rule and we are happy, but the military are mostly Germans. And the Germans are losing the war all over. So what is going to happen to us when they leave, when Germany and Bulgaria are defeated? The Serbians will come back and start all over again to Serbianize us.
"God, is there going to be an end to the sufferings of our people in Macedonia? What matters if we are Bulgarians, as long as we obey the law and are good citizens?"
I saw sadness in their faces, as if they had a premonition of things to come.
It was the last time I had a chance to talk to these village sages as a group. Old age was hanging heavily on them, with death creeping close behind.
The war continued in our sector as it did all over Europe. Day and night the guns echoed across Lake Prespa and around Mt. Galichitsa, ten miles away. Life in our county took a radical change for the worse. Food was scarce. Bread, the staple of our people, was rationed, and meat was unobtainable. Most of these sturdy old men died of malnutrition.
Then, in October of 1918, the allied armies broke the German-Bulgarian
resistance on the Macedonian front. During a panicky and dangerous evacuation
I again found myself in school in Sofia, staying with my aunt, while my
family remained in Resen. For more than two years I agonized, not knowing
whether they were alive or dead.