MITO AND HIS CHARMING WIFE, TSVETANKA, were two of the most generous and hospitable people I have ever met in my life. They not only welcomed us with open arms and hearts but went out of their way to put us at ease, to lessen our tension, to make us forgetˇat least for a fleeting momentˇthe tragic events which had brought us to Sofia.
Early the next morning Mito found a carriage and told the driver to take us to Venelin No. 23.
Venelin was at the other end of Sofia, adjacent to the Zoological and Botanical Garden, which was probably the most beautiful in the Balkans and the pride of the Bulgarian King Ferdinand, who had initiated the project.
Since it was Sunday, and the streets of Sofia were not unusually crowded, we reached the place very soon. The house in which my aunt and my cousins lived was an unpretentious, three-story building counting the basement which, as in most Sofia homes, had one or two extra rooms, kitchen and dining room.
I pressed the button and after a minute Karamfilka, the Radeffs' maid, opened the door. When she saw me she grabbed me in her arms and said, "Your aunt has been expecting you. " I presented my father. She shook his hand, and following an old Bulgarian tradition, kissed it. Then she took our bags and let us in.
My father and my aunt had not seen each other for many years. Their meeting was not without tears. After all the greetings, questions and answers were over, my aunt told us that Simeon was not in town.
A front-page item in the daily Mir of the previous day had announced that a Bulgarian delegation composed of Minister Andrea Liapcheff and General Ivan Lukov, accompanied by the councilor of the United States Legation, had left under a flag of truce for Salonica to negotiate an armistice with the commander-in-chief of the Allied forces. My cousin Simeon had been asked to accompany the delegation as a secretary and interpreter. Simeon was proficient in the French language and wrote books and articles in both languages with an equal ease.
Soon after we arrived, my other two cousins, Vladimir and Christo, came back from church. Vladimir was chief inspector of all the trade and technical schools in Bulgaria. Christo, the youngest of the three brothers, had just been demobilized. And so, for the first time in many years, my father was together with his sister, Fania, and his nephews. The whole day was spent in reminiscing, in answering questions about relatives and friends in our home town and, of course, in talking over the tragic situation that had befallen Bulgaria and Bulgarians everywhere.
I was impatient to go into the center of town to see what was happening. My father stayed home with his sister. They had much to talk about.
Sofia was in a dire mood. Anger was evident in the faces of many people on the streets, mixed with fear. They were afraid that, after the capitulation, Bulgaria might be occupied by Serbian and Greek troops to add to the humiliation of defeat.
Their anger was justified. For the second time in five years the country was facing a major disaster, one that she might not be able to overcome, and these proud and hard-working people were justly dissatisfied with their rules.
As if the disaster at the war front were not enough, a group of deserters and unruly troops, led by self-proclaimed saviors of the people, were on the way to the capital to take over the government, punish those responsible for the impending disaster, and proclaim a new form of government. How that new government was going to save the country from the punishment planned by the Allies their leaders did not say, nor did they have the slightest idea.
The attack on Sofia failed, even though there was no garrison to guard the city. The cadets in the military academy were sent into action against the disorderly troops. And the young cadets, true to their oath to sene their country and king, acquitted themselves very well. Their heroism and self-sacrifice enabled them to dispel the disturbers and save the country from impending anarchy. The ffghting around the sugar factory in the vicinity of Sofia ceased. The people felt relieved that the killing of Bulgarians by Bulgarians had at last come to an end.
When the sky is dark and threatening, any spark of light has a comforting effect. That is why, when the delegation returned from Salonica and announced the terms of the armistice, the people felt somehow relieved.
The intervention on behalf of Bulgaria by the American member of the armistice delegation averted unnecessary bloodshed and atrocities, such as those which followed the Second Balkan War in 1913. Its terms enabled soldiers in the Bulgarian army all along the front to lay down their arms and be considered as prisoners of war. Bulgaria would be occupied by French, British and Italian military forces and the command in Sofia would be rotated among the three on a monthly base.
While the terms of the agreement were harsh and degrading (all capitulations are degrading), the fact that no Serbian or Greek forces would enter the country had a soothing effect on the population.
I cannot help but state with pride that two of the delegates who accompanied Mr. Murphy for talks with the Allied High Command in Salonica, Minister Andrea Liapcheff and Simeon Radeff, my first cousin, were from my home town of Resen. One of Mr. Liapcheff's nieces was married to my cousin, Alexander Nizamoff. My father and Mr. Liapcheff had been classmates and childhood friends before Mr. Liapcheffleft to study in Sofia and Western Europe.
A few days after the return of the delegation, another event boosted the sagging spirit and morale of the population. In large front-page headlines the Sofia newspapers announced that the First Sofia Division had fought its way out of the Allied ring and was on its way to the Bulgarian capital. The papers called upon all Sofia citizens to come out and welcome the returning heroes.
For a moment, for a day at least, the defeat was forgotten. Smiles appeared on the faces of the people and the submerged national pride reappeared. The streetsˇespecially Maria Luisa, which started from the railroad station and ended in the middle of townˇwere packed with men, women and children, some waving flowers, others small flags. When the first line of the returning soldiers approached the corner where my father and I were standing, the deafening hurrahs and bravos echoed so loudly that they may have been audible on the peak of Mt. Vitosha, hanging over the capital like a giant painting Centuries ago, nature had placed Vitosha like a guard over Sofia as if to assure its people that the country and its spirit would remain indestructable.
My father and I applauded and rejoiced with the rest of the crowd. Quite a few tears of joy were shed at the sight of the returning military heroes, who were tired but still vibrant.
The revived spirit of the people was reassuring to those concerned with the inner strength of the country. As young as I was, I was sure that no matter how harsh the treaties might be, Bulgaria would survive and see a better day. During centuries of Ottoman oppression the Bulgarians had proved that they possessed the power and resilience to survive and forge ahead.
An old man of about 80 or 90, supporting himself on a crutch, grabbed my arm and said as loudly as he could, "Do you see, young man? Our spirit may be temporarily submerged, but it is still alive and strong. No defeat will bury it forever."
His determination and self-assurance were characteristic of the men involved in the struggle for national renaissance in the early part of the 1 9th century. I noticed two medals pinned on his jacket. I could not read the inscription on them but, judging by his age, he was one of the revered heroes who had fought the Turks on Shipka Pass. I asked myself: If after 500 years of Turkish yoke the country could still produce determined and fearless men like the old grandfather supporting himself on a crutch, why should it fear for its future because of this defeat? The thought was not just a youthful perception; it was a historic fact. And I felt better.
As this was a special day for me and my father, we did not feel like going home for the six o'clock dinner. Instead I took dad to a combination coffee house and restaurant on Pozitano Street operated by a man from our home town. There were much better places in Sofia, even in Resen, but this was the gathering place, the unofficial clubhouse, for people from our region in Macedonia. Many received their mail at this address. They moved, but the coffee house stayed.
Evtim, the proprietor, did not offer a large menu. Bean soup had a permanent place. The other item was either paprikash or a dish of lamb, spinach and rice. Like it or not, those were the choices. The proprietor and cook could not both play cards and prepare a variety of dishes. Besides, how many of his customers had a choice of dishes at home?
Here on that day my father saw friends he had not seen for many years. And from then on, until he returned, the coffee house became his refuge in Sofia or, as he used to say, "I was initiated in the Resensky Club. "
A passionate backgammon player, he missed many suppers. Simeon and Vladimir, who were endowed with a sense of humor, as my father was, often asked him, "Well, uncle, did you win or lose today?" My father's usual answer was, "Somehow or other, I cannot roll the dice in Sofia as I did in Resen. I always lose. It must be the kind of 'diplomatic' wine you are serving me. " Then all of them would burst into laughter.
I knew that he felt deeply the pain of being away from home, but I was glad to hear my dad joke and see him laugh.
The influx of refugees from Macedonia and Thrace, the lack of facilities, the shortage of foodˇall of these placed a big burden on the Bulgarian government.
The newspapers, the patriotic organizations and the churches appealed daily to the citizens to open their hearts and their homes to the refugees. Many did. Many shared their homes, donated clothes and blankets. A central refugee committee was organized composed of some of the most prominent Sofia citizens. Special ration stamps were issued, causing a strain on the depleted treasury coffers.
Although there were some complaints, and not a few sufferings under the difficult circumstances, the Bulgarian people extended a true welcome to their brothers and sisters forced to flee from their homes.
Most of our group were settled. Some had gone to Varna, where they had close relatives. In the midst of all this a second cousin of mine, Luba Monavcheva, was taken to the hospital where she prematurely gave birth to a baby girl. The infant survived but the mother, exhausted from the long trip, did not. The next day my father and I attended her funeral.
Almost 50 years after, when my wife and I visited my nieces and nephews in Varna, a good-looking, tall and strong woman came to my niece's apartment to see us. She introduced herself. I smiled and said, "I know you. I was introduced to you when you were five days old. I even babysat with you for a few hours while your father went to the store to buy milk."
All of us had a good laugh and I was really glad to see that the child born under such circumstances was now a mother of two daughters, both university graduates.
God has a way of setting things straight.
THE TURMOIL IN SOFIA CONTINUED and so did the influx of refugees, augmented by the men returning from the front.
The food shortage reached a dangerously low point. It looked as though the whole country was in a mood of bloody upheaval. All it needed was for some vicious group to strike a match and plunge the country into a devastating fire or a fratricidal war. At this particular and very sensithe moment, God must have been on the side of the Bulgarians for no one struck that dangerous match.
Downtown Sofia resembled to some degree London's Hyde Park. At every street corner or little park someone had climbed upon a table or a chair, and in a loud voice and with demagogic gestures was describing the situation, which needed no description. As is usual in such cases, the speakers castigated those in power for all the ills that had befallen the country. None of these haranguers had a constructive idea. They were not looking for solutions; they were just fishing in muddy water, as demagogues usually do.
I watched such a meeting on the small plaza around the church called Sveta Nedelya. There were three or four "orators" talking at the same time. My old friend, Evan Bosilkoff, who had lived in Sofia for more than five years, said to me:
"You see that man, the one with the black butterfly tie and long hair? He is a socialist."
"How do you know that," I asked, to which he replied:
"To show that they are 'smart' and 'intellectuals', socialists always wear long hair and a butterfly tie. That is their trademark; it means that they are unrecognized geniuses. And that other one, without a jacket, wearing a dirty undershirt? He is what they call a Bolshevik. His jacket and shirt are hanging in the office. This is his disguise for people to believe he is one of them. "
John had hardly finished this statement when someone grabbed the so-called Bolshevik and dumped him on the ground; then a free-forall started. There were bleeding noses and bruised faces when the police arrived and dispersed the unruly crowd. Scenes like this would be repeated day after day for quite some time.
One morning Dad and I decided to walk to town. We stopped at Boulevard Tsar Osvobodital (Tsar Liberator), where my father looked at the magnificent monument of Russia's Tsar Alexander the Second, who went to war with Turkey in 1878 for the liberation of Bulgaria. Across from it was the imposing parliament building (me Narodno Sobranie), and right behind it the beautiful, monumental cathedral Alexander Nevsky, the largest church in the Balkans. St. Sofia, the ancient church built in the 7th century, was a block away.
We turned left on the boulevard, toward the Royal Palace. The front gates were wide open and we saw people going in. My father asked a man in uniform what was going on. He said, "Shte imame nov tsar, shte imame nov tsar." (We are going to have a new tsar.) We followed him into a palace yard that was already crowded. We were pushed by others behind us and ended by the high iron fence, facing the municipal garden. Then someone appeared on the balcony and said several times: "Deputy Grigor Vasileff, please come in, come in." (Months later I got to know Mr. Vasileff fairly well. He was a good friend of Simeon's and a constant visitor.)
There was such a commotion that I can't recall exactly what happened next. The people in front of me were tall and I couldn't see much. The door on the second floor balcony opened and dozen people in uniform and formal attire appeared. I could not hear who said what. Loudspeakers were not known at that time, or if they were known, they did not have them in Sofia.
At one point the crowd was asked for silence. One of the ministers, I presume Alexandar Malinoff, announced that Tsar Ferdinand had abdicated in favor of his eldest son, Prince Boris, and had left the country. Then they ushered the new tsar onto the balcony.
A thunderous "Hurrah! Hurrah!" and "LongliveTsarBoris! Long live Bulgaria!" spilled out on the streets and I believe that for at least an hour the whole city thundered with the cheering.
As we left the palace grounds my father said: "I can always remember that I was in the palace courtyard and saw the new king of Bulgaria. " Then he corrected himself and said, "The new king of the Bulgarians, " meaning of course those of us in Macedonia.
The almost universal unpopularity of Ferdinand forced him into self-exile. But the elevation of Prince Boris was only á formality.
While it pleased the population, it had no bearing on the political and economic situation of Bulgaria. It lessened to some extent the internal tensions of the country, but the shortages remained. How the country survived without a general uprising is still a mystery to me.
The first contingents of the occupational troops began to arrive. I do not remember the exact date. What I do remember is that one morning, when my father and I were headed for the central city market, we saw a regiment of French soldiers coming down Maria Luisa Street. Except for the two officers they were recruits from the French African colonies and, of course, they were all black. This was something new for the Bulgarians, most of whom had never seen a black man.
The British and the Italians had sent contingents of their regular army, although they, too, had colonies and probably had black recruits. As long as the Bulgarian authorities lived up to the terms of the armistic agreements, the Allies did not interfere in the domestic affairs of the country. Nevertheless, the resentment of the people was visible. For reasons I still cannot understand, the people did not seem to resent the presence of the Italians as they did the French.
This was demonstrated every evening at the traditional parade on Boulevard Tsar Osvobodital leading to Borisovata Gradina (Prince Boris Park). Dozens of Italian officers and soldiers walked arm in arm with young Bulgarian maidens, talking, laughing as if they had known each other for years. Now and then was seen an English officer (never an enlisted man) with a Bulgarian girl. But I never saw a French officer with a Bulgarian girl, and many Bulgarians in those days spoke French fluently.
IN THAT SEPTEMBER OF 1918, the opening of the school year was delayed until the end of the month. The influx of refugees which had created many hardships and many problems also had taxed the facilities of the Sofia school system. While the number of teachers was more than adequate, the schools had no extra rooms for the students who had come from Macedonia and it took some time to make the necessary accommodations.
I lived in the school district ofthe Vtora Gymnasia for boys and had already bought my school uniform, hat and all. I knew where the school was. I had gone around it several times.
On registration day Simeon accompanied me. The director of the Gymnasia (high school) was a Mr. Velcheff, or Volcheff. Born in Kokoush, Macedonia, he had come to Bulgaria as a refugee after the Ilinden insurrection of 1903. He was impressed that I was wearing the school uniform, and expressed regret that many others could not buy it because there was a shortage of material.
Mr. Volcheffasked about my school records, my favorite subjects, my plans, if any, for the future. Then he and my cousin arranged my study program. I was told to report for class the following Monday at 8:00 a.m.
I spent the weekend in great anticipation and some apprehension. I had heard, and this proved to be true, that the instructors at Vtora Gymnasia were very demanding and strict disciplinarians. They would not tolerate tardiness or unpreparedness. My other concern was the kind of classmates I would have to study with. In Resen, and in Ohrid, I knew everyone. Here everyone would be a stranger.
On Monday I reported to Ivan Grozeffin his classroom on the main floor. Mr. Grozeff (some called him Doctor), a writer and a poet in his own right, was a highly intelligent and kindly man. He asked me if I had read some of the most prominent Bulgarian writers, the Russians Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. Yes I had, I said; my answer pleased him.
The classroom was large. There were altogether 45 students, nearly half of them refugees like myself. To my relief I recognized Angel Dimkoff from Prilep and Georgi Yovanoff from the village of Brusnik, near Bitola. During recess, the other refugee students introduced themselves and we formed a group of 20. The other students were also helpful and friendly. They praised our courage and our decision to leave family and friends and come to study in Sofia.
I must emphasize that the closeness of our group of refugees, both inside and outside school, was a direct product of the tragic turn of events and the circumstances that had brought us to Sofia. All of us had passed through the same fire and hell; all of us had left youthful memories buried in the land of our unhappy and oppressed country. Macedonia's misfortunes were the magnet that held us together.
On Sundays we set our books aside and hurried to Prince Boris Park. We met near the weather obsenatory, away from the big crowd below. Not everyone came. But every Sunday afternoon there was someone there with whom we could share our views and our sorrows.
At first these meetings were attended by males, but then girls started to come. These camaraderie meetings eased our tensions and strengthened our faith in the eventual freedom of Macedonia, because Macedonia was always the object of our discussions. She lived in our childhood and student memories, she lived in the sacrifices of our fathers and grandfathers, she lived in the determination of our people not to succumb to the pressures of the oppressors.
As young as we were, we appraised the situation and discussed our duty to participate in any way we couldˇif need be, to return and share with our brothers and sisters their suffering and struggle. Our presence, we thought, might boost the morale of the youths in our home towns and villages and make them less vulnerable to the bribery and empty promises of the hated regime.
"You can do what you want," said Kosta Yoveff, from a village in the Kratovo district, "but if there are armed units I will join them. I concede that we also need the preparatory work, the boosting of the morale as a prerequisite to resistance. No armed groups can operate without loyal support of the local people. "
This was the tragedy whose impact on our lives and our future was seldom, if ever, understood by the politicians and sometimes not even by intellectual circles in the free world.
While in that free world youths of our age were busy competing in football or basketball, youths in Macedonia were meeting clandestinely to plan resistance to the denationalization policies of the governments in Belgrade and Athens. We had no time for youthful pleasures.
Our young men and women were being threatened with torture and offered sugar-coated promises to turn against our own people. Few did. The regime forced us to meet privately and plan how best to meet the onslaught of the oppressors and how best to serve our country. And so some became secret agitators, some performed dangerous assignments, others carried messages, or searched for places to store arms and explosives.
And many, many of themˇduring the former Turkish regime, as well as the present Serbian regimeˇgave their lives in that unending struggle for freedom before they had a chance to frame their university diplomas.
Few in the free world understood these sacrifices and this tragedy. Their indifference was appalling.
I saw with every passing week that my father was growing more and more melancholy. His mind was always in Yankovetz and Resen. His visits to the coffee house on Positano were not as frequent, and when he did go he was even more depressed because other refugees felt the same way. My aunt and my cousins were afraid for his health. Months had passed and we had had no word from home. He knew my mother was not in the best of health and he worried about her even more because all of the responsibilities rested on her.
IN THAT SEPTEMBER OF 1918, the opening of the school year was delayed until the end of the month. The influx of refugees which had created many hardships and many problems also had taxed the facilities of the Sofia school system. While the number ofteachers was more than adequate, the schools had no extra rooms for the students who had come from Macedonia and it took some time to make the necessary accommodations.
One of the high Italian offficers of the Joint Allied Command in Sofia was a former journalist and a close friend of Simeon's. As a personal favor to my cousin, the Italian officer made arrangements for my father to travel all the way down to Bitola, some 18 miles from Resen, in a military truck which was going to Salonica. The offficer gave us assurance that no harm would befall him. And so, one day in April of 1919 my father boarded the truck, full of fears and apprehension of what awaited him on the other side of the border and at home.
I will not attempt to describe the parting with my father. The tears flowed like water from a broken faucet; I felt sick and missed school for two days. My cousin Simeon called me to his workroom and did his best to console me. He said: "Now that you are alone here, I will give you a few duties. After school, when you come home, use my workroom to study. Mother is old and Karamfilka is downstairs in the kitchen preparing dinner. When someone rings the door bell, tell the person politely I am not home. Take his name and leave me a note on the desk. You will meet many important people. If I am in, ask the person to step inside, then come in and tell me. Do not worry about your father. He will reach home safely."
Simeon was right. I met many important people of that day. In time the most frequent visitors knew me by name and also knew that I was not a servant but Simeon's first cousin, a refugee and a student.
The most frequent, early-morning visitor was Vladimir Robeff, then the editor of the government official paper La Bulgarie. The Robeffs lived a few doors down the street from us. Because of Bulgaria's delicate political situation at that time, Mr. Robeff, an old friend of Simeon's, came every morning so that both of them could go over the editorial and some of the other important political items.
The Robeffs were from Bitola. The family had taken a prominent part in the struggle for an independent Bulgarian church during the second part of the 1 9th century. My father had known some members of that family.
Although during those days Simeon was not officially connected with the government, as a former diplomat, a historian, critic and journalist who spoke fluently several foreign languages, he was kept informed by the Foreign Office and was asked for his comments. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not very far from our house and every once in a while Simeon sent me there to deliver written material in sealed envelopes. Even the guard at the door knew me and never stopped me, or asked questions.
Another frequent visitor was professor Nicola Mileff, a very good friend of my cousin and collaborator on some diplomatic documents. He came usually in the afternoon and stayed late. A highly respected historian and a kind man, he would stop and chat with me for a minute or two. He usually greeted me in the Kosturski dialect, "Risto, kaa sme voy den?" (Christo, how are we today?), to which I replied in the dialect of Resensko, "Gospodin Mileff, sme kao shto behme vchera." Simeon got much enjoyment from our short conversation.
(In 1925 the Bulgarian government appointed Prof. Mileff as its minister plenipotentiary to the United States, to fill the place of venerable Stefan Panaretoff, who was retiring. Three days before his departure he fell victim to an assassin's bullets in the streets of Sofia. I was then in New York; I read the news in the New York Times and almost fainted. A few weeks later the government appointed my cousin Simeon to take the post in Washington.)
In Simeon Radeff's house in Sophia I also met the popular writer Elin Pelin and Prof. Alexander Balabanoff, who brought Simeon the latest social gossip and invariably forgot his hat, his coat or his umbrella. I could hear Simeon and Elin laughing after the professor's departure. Simeon, who worshipped his mother, would go to her room, motioning me to follow, and apprise my aunt of the frivolous news.
Simeon and Kyril Christoff, the celebrated poet, a tall, dark man with a very prominent nose and forehead, were bosom friends. Sometime in 1918 or 1919, crushed by the second defeat of Bulgaria in five years, Christoff tried his hand in writing a novel. The title of the novel was "Tumny Zory"ˇ(In the Gray of the Morning). It came out in paperback edition and was displayed with a lot of fanfare at every newsstand in Sofia. This well-known poet and patriot must have lost control of himself because the novel was a disgrace. It was unfortunate that it appeared at a time when Bulgaria and the Bulgarians were burdened with so many troubles and when the future of the country was at stake.
The novel depicted a love affair between a disloyal woman and a bachelor. It culminated in an illicit embrace while the dead body of her husband was Iying on the living room floor. Simeon had read the book and was fuming. He thought it was an undeserved attack on the traditional moral quality of the Bulgarian people. I saw him throw the book on the floor and begin kicking it. I had never seen my cousin so angry.
He turned to me and asked, "Christo, do you remember when Kyril was here the last time?"
"I don't, but I believe it was about three months ago," I said.
"Slushai" (listen), said Simeon, "when he comes again open the door for him and tell him to wait. "
One afternoon, a few weeks after, Christoff came. I did as Simeon had told me. Then the two of them went in the study. I stayed outside and could hear the angry voice of my cousin.
"This is disgraceful," he was saying. "This degrades the Bulgarian nation as a whole. Why did you have to write such trash? I ask you, why?"
Christoff mumbled something I could not understand, then came out. For the first time Simeon did not follow to see him off. And while I remained in Sofia for another year, Kyril Christoffnever again came to our house.
While meeting all of those prominent people I often wished and prayed that I would get a chance to see my favorite Bulgarian writer and poet, Ivan Vazoff. I had recited some of his verses at school functions and memorized others because of their incomparable beauty.
That happy chance came early one September evening. The man who rang the bell was Ivan Vazoff. I recognized him by the many pictures I had seen of him in books, in magazines and newspapers. I still remember how I greeted him and said, in a trembling voice: "Zapovedaite, zapovedaite Gospodin Vazoff." (Welcome, welcome Mr. Vazoff.)
Simeon came out and greeted him cordially; then both of them went into the study.
Because of the approaching peace conference in Paris, and the Serbian and Greek propaganda claim that there were no Bulgarians in Macedonia, Simeon had written a very studious book in French whose title, translated into English, would be: "Macedonia and the Bulgarian Renaissance in the 19th Century." Mr. Vazoff had dropped in to discuss the present political situation of Bulgaria and get acopyofthebook.
The conversation lasted quite a long while. In the meantime, outside there began a drizzle which slowly turned into a steady rain. The streets grew very dark.
Simeon asked me to get an umbrella and a flashlight and accompany Mr. Vazoffto his house. I do not now remember the name of
the street, but I do remember that it was somewhere in the vicinity of the National Theatre.
Accompany Mr. Vazoff home! Me? That was a dream that I never thought would be realized. Who would deny himself the honor to accompany this national monument, this very honorable and worthy man? Why, if Mr. Vazoff were going to Patagonia I would go with him.
We departed. I held the umbrella in such a way that it would cover him. I did not care if I got drenched. This was Dedo Ivan Vazoff.
Our street was not paved then, but we had something resembling sidewalks and I asked Mr. Vazoff to walk on the inside of the street.
Every once in a while I would turn the flashlight beam to help him avoid water puddles. We walked slowly and carefully. Mr. Vazoff asked me to hold the umbrella on my side too, and protect myself from the rain. I told him at my age the rain was no problem. I felt an urge to tell him that I knew by heart many of his poems, and perhaps start to recite one. But that would be too presumptuous and my better judgment told me not to do it.
We reached his home and I stepped in. He thanked me and asked me when I had come to Sofia and where I had come from. I told him I was from Resen, the county seat of Prespa. He told me he had passed through Resen on the way to Ohrid. "Resen is a beautiful town," he said, "and has given many prominent men to the Bulgarian nation."
By this time I had got the courage to say: In Resen we believe that we are descendants of Samuel's Bulgaria; and I mumbled a few words of his poem (my favorite), "Prespa, Prespa Krepost Slavna."
He patted me on the head and thanked me for taking him home. That night
I hardly slept. I wanted to imprint in my mind every moment spent with
the patriarch of Bulgarian literature, every word he spoke, every gesture
he made and every step he took. At that tender and impressive age, and
because of my love for poetry, this was the fulfilment of a dream that
nothing in the world would be able to obliterate. Even today, every time
I pick up one of VazofPs books, in Bulgarian or English, almost instinctively
the picture of this moment appears across the text of the book and like
chimes from a far-away belfry I hear the words of one of his best short
poems ringing in my ears:
A tiny star can point theway
To sailors traveling the ocean.
A single spark begins a blaze
That sets all heaven in commotion.
Thefire that burnt John Huss shone bright,
The universe at large enlightening;
And on a stormy, starless night
More fearsome is each flash of lightning.
Tyrants, your struggle is in vain,
You cannot guench what's not for quenching!
And from the light you quench today
Springs a volcano, fire belching.
(The poem is much longer, but I prefer to end it here. The translation in English is by the British poet Peter Tempest, who has lived in Sofia for 30 years and speaks the language well. I met him in Sofia.)
I FEEL THAT MY YOUTHFUL DEVOTION to the great poet has never diminished one iota. In some ways it compensates for the pain and the hardships we encountered on the way to Sofia during the most trying days in the history ofthe Bulgarian nation.
The summer of 1919 was upon us and, despite the troublesome and uncertain situation in the country, the Macedonian Societies in Sofia, and all over Bulgaria, were planning the traditional annual celebration to commemorate those who fought and died in the great Ilinden insurrection in 1903.
That year the celebration had a dual purpose: to pay tribute to all who took acthe part in the insurrection and to 1ift the sagging spirit of the thousands of refugees, many of whom were still not settled or employed.
I decided to make my contribution by writing an article on the subject, although I knew that there were hundreds more qualified than me to comment on that great event. I still remembered the speech I had delivered in Resen the previous year; if I added a new twist to it, the article would be more contemporary. I stayed up late a couple of nights preparing it. I read and reread it and felt satisfied with what I had written. I did not sign the article with my own name and I still do not know why. The signature under it was Christo N. PelisterskyˇPelister being the beautiful mountain hanging over Resen, as Mt. Vitosha hung over the Bulgarian capital.
I hesitated over whether to mail it or deliver it myself to the editorial offlce of Kambana (The Bell). A few days before the celebration I delivered it. Nervous and trembling, I entered the office and handed the envelope to a middle-aged woman sitting at a desk close to the door. My school uniform was very much like the uniform of the telegram delivery boys and evidently she thought I was one of them.
As I was leaving the offlce I noticed my cousin Vladimir coming towards me. I pretended that I did not see him, turned on a side street and rushed away as fast as I could. That evening at dinner I hardly lifted my eyes to look at Vladimir. I somehow felt guilty for running away when I was sure that he had already seen me. I waited for him to ask what I was doing in the Kambana offlce. He said nothing and I felt relieved.
Kozareff and I and the rest of the refugee students were attending summer classes. I confided to him what I had done the previous day. He became as excited as I was. When class was over he rushed to the corner newsstand and bought the Kambana. He looked all through the four-page paper, but found no article by me.
We knew nothing of how a newspaper operates. "Forget it," he said. "They must have thrown it in the waste basket, the dirty so and so's."
Four days went by and my article did not appear. I had already given up hope. On the fifth day, during the ten-minute recess, the impatient Kozareffrushed out and got a copy of the paper,
We were already inside the classroom and Mr. Groseff was prepared to resume his lesson when Kozareff rushed in, waving the paper, and said:
" It is in! It is published! Right here on the top of the third page. "
"What is in and published?" asked our teacher.
"Christo's article on llinden, Mr. Groseff. It is in the paper."
A spontaneous "Long live llinden! Long live Macedonia and brotherly Bulgaria!" echoed in the room and the whole class was standing and applauding, something seldom done in our school.
Mr. Groseff read the article then came over and handed it to me with the short comment: "Notbad, notbad."
Going back to his desk he asked for silence and in a trembling voice said, "You boys amaze me. All of you. Your enthusiasm and your patriotism are unsurpassed. You carry in your heart the spirit of Saint Clement of Ohrida and the militant flame of Tsar Samuel the Great. Class is dismissed."
A poet at heart, he was overwhelmed by our patriotic demonstration, something that had seldom been heard in the last few months. When I looked at him he had his handkerchief out and was wiping his eyes.
(In 1924 or 1925, when I was living in New York City, a first-class mail package arrived from Sofia addressed to Dr. Victor Sharenkoff and me. Sharenkoff, a close friend of mine and president of the Bulgarian Students Association, was studying at Columbia University for his Ph.D. degree. I presume that Victor, who was in constant correspondence with Mr. Groseff, must have informed him that 1, one of his former students, was a member of the Association. The package contained one of Mr. Groseff's newly-written plays, still in manuscript form. He was asking us to translate it into English. This was a task that none of us could undertake. I wrote him a few lines to thank him for remembering me.)
I was sure that Vladimir, who was an avid reader of Kambana, had already seen the article. On the way home I tried to devise a way to clear up the situation with Vladimir.
I had stopped to see some friends and got home just a few minutes before dinner. Vladimir was sitting in his chair, reading the papers. Driven by an inner impulse, quite unexpectedly I said, "Vladimir, did you see Pelistersky's article in Kambana? That is my pen name."
"I read it and I detected that much after I saw you come out of the paper's offlce," he replied.
Simeon came in. He also had read the article. Simeon jokingly said, "Cousin, what are you trying to do, compete with me?" Then, in a fatherly tone, he advised, "Next time you try to write for publication, show it to me first. That way we can smooth some of the rough edges and cut some sentences in half."
Here I was, living under the roof of the best journalism teacher in the world. Under his guidance I could have learned much, and probably accomplished much more.
THE POLTTTCAL WTNDS TN THE COUNTRY had undergone some changes because of the pressures of the Serbian and Greek governments, supported by the French. The Paris peace conference was in progress, and the news from there of how the defeated nations would be treated was frightening. The United States delegation had gone to Paris carrying President Woodrow Wilson's 14 points proclaiming, among other things, the principle of self-determination for the people in turbulent Europe. While Wilson and the Americans were idealistic, Clemenceau of France and Lloyd George of Great Britain were vicious and revengeful. London demanded to be the sole ruler of the seas, Paris demanded as much blood as could be squeezed out of Germany and her war allies. Together they planned for a "cordon sanitaire" around the Huns that would watch Germany, monitor her recovery and choke her before she could make another aggressive move.
The plans of these national leaders, whose greed and shortsightedness would plant the seeds for another European conflagration, did not remain secret from the Bulgarians, who had reasons to fear for their future. To show a sign of good faith, in the hope that their action would ameliorate the terms of the peace treaty planned for Bulgaria, the new government adopted rules and regulations to control the activities of the Macedono-Bulgarians within the country. On November 4, 1919 they arrested the popular and fearless leader of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, Todor Alexandroff, and some prominent activists of the Macedonian Brotherhoods in the country. This action was condemned by the refugees and many other citizens. Ten days after his arrest, Alexandroff escaped and the government could find no trace of him.
For the Macedonian colonies in Bulgaria, and especially for the refugees, this was a signal that the struggle for a free and independent Macedonia would continue under Alexandroff's leadership.
Not long after his escape, many of his former lieutenants went underground, one by one. News from Macedonia under Serbian rule, reaching Sofia clandestinely, described the situation in the country. The news reports spoke of mass arrests of prominent Bulgarians there, of murders and pillages, of resistance groups who had taken to the mountains, and of combat with Serbian soldiers and police.
Born and reared in a country where the struggle for freedom had been a way of life for five centuries, we could not remain indifferent and stay on the sidelines, watching others die so that we might live and be free. In one way or another, all of us felt that we had a sacred duty to make a contribution. Age did not matter. Many of us, and our parents, had carried secret messages as little children. Therefore, involvement in one way or another was inevitable.
In Sofia we distributed appeals and responses to the government's policy which the newspapers would not publish and the postal officials would not accept. We attended meetings where the situation in Macedonia was described and the unjust peace treaties were derided. These were the first steps in our indoctrination, if further indoctrination was necessary.
Some university students, friends and relatives of ours, sacrificed their future careers and devoted their time and their energy in laying the foundation for a widespread Macedonian student and youth organization which in later years played a significant role in the Macedonian movement.
Groups of us continued meeting on Sunday afternoons at the park. We hardly mentioned our progress in school or our teachers. The main topic of conversation was the situation in Macedonia and the reorganized IMRO ˇ Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. We sifted everything we had heard or learned. Then, a few months later, the Serbian press officially admitted that there had been clashes between their soldiers and what they called "groups of Macedonian bandits and terrorists." Gavrilo Princip, who had assassinated the Austrian Duke in Sarajevo, was their Serbian national hero. But our gallant young men who fought for the freedom of their country were just a bunch of "bandits"!
The Belgrade government had set out to crush the Bulgarian national spirit in our homeland by executions, by mass arrests and by tortures.
"Perhaps," said one of those present, "we should go back, give moral support to our people, keep the Bulgarian flame burning in the hearts of our younger brothers and sisters. "
"We will be arrested as soon as we get there," said another.
"That also may be an encouragement for our people, " replied Simo Traykoff. "Let us give it a thought. I have heard that some boys from Veles have already gone back, and I have decided to leave at the end of the semester."
One could read in his handsome, youthful face an iron determination to go back coupled with an almost equal part of nostalgiaˇ the ever-present inner force which sooner or later affects everyone separated from homeland and family by events and forces beyond one's control.
Older by a year or two than most of us, Simo was born in the village of Luboyno, Prespansko, to a family which had settled in Bitola before the war. He had left home in 1916, two years before me, when the city fell into the hands of the Allied forces, and had come to Sofia. A close relative had taken Simo into his home. For over three years Simo had heard nothing from his family. That absence of news had gnawed at his heart until he was unable to bear it any longer. That longing, that strong attachment to parents and home, was now driving him to venture a trip back, indifferent to any dangers that might lie on his path.
There were moments when all of us felt the inescapabie pangs of nostalgiaˇthe longing to feel a mother's kiss on the lips and a father's pat on the shoulder.
With the passing of time the Serbians had relaxed the rules and some
of the refugees had returned. But no one from the other side was permitted
to come to Bulgaria, and no letters came from home. For almost two years
we agonized, not knowing what had happened to our families. I did not know
if my father had reached home safely. That uncertainty depressed me.
Meanwhile, the Belgrade press kept up its vicious attack on the "Macedonian bandits" who "incited" the population against their regime. This was clear admission that there was resistance. A few of our people who had succeeded in crossing the border to Bulgaria confirmed what until then was just a rumor. There was indeed resistance in many parts of Macedonia; there were repercussions by the official organs of the government. And while this was going on in our homeland, Serbia, with the backing of France, pressed its demands on Bulgaria to curtail the activities of the Macedonian Societies with a veiled threat that they might be forced to step in and do it themselves.
Disarmed and defeated, with no big power to stand behind her, the Bulgarian government was compelled to take certain measures. There were official and unofflcial threats against the refugees and the Macedonian Societiesˇthreats which were met with great indigation by the majority of the citizens. Life had now become harder and freedom limited. The strict measures of the government were met with resentment and, at times, with counter actions.
These were hard, unbearable days for me. My youthful idealism gave me a strong aversion to seeing Bulgarians hurting one another. I was too young, too inexperienced to understand the intricacies of toreign policy. The devious ways needed to preserve the state from foreign domination necessitated measures repulsive even to those charged with enforcing them.I became as embittered as most of my friends. I will never forget those days, nor the inner pain they caused me.
In spite of the threats from Belgrade, sometimes openly, other times secretly, the activities of the Macedonian Societies in Sofia went on as usual. The timidity of the government, and the readiness of some of its followers to knuckle down under the threats of the Serbians, were met with universal condemnation by the brotherly Bulgarian people. From inside Macedonia the news was encouraging. Unverified rumors had placed Todor Alexandroff in the part of our country occupied by the Serbians, while the Bulgarian police were making strenuous efforts to rearrest him.
A man with an iron will, tact, ability, and magnetic personality, Todor Alexandroff almost overnight became a national hero, not only to the Macedono-Bulgarians but to the Bulgarian people as a whole. He had the foresight and the courage to challenge the injustices imposed upon all Bulgarians by the Peace Treaties. He knew that the ~Sérbians and the Greeks would never honor the provisions for the protection of national minorities, but would simply deny that there were Bulgarian minorities within their borders. They had already listed these as Serbians, or as Greeks, and had refused to accept an impartial international inquiry.
There were those who disapproved of Alexandroff's tactics, but his actions were sorely needed to lift the national spirit. Todor was a morale booster for all of us except those few who had lost faith in the
ONE FRIDAY AFTERNOON, in early November of 1919, Simo asked a tew of us to accompany him to his uncle's home. With deep emotion and in a trembling voice, he intormed us of his decision to go back. Some retugees from Gostivarsko, he said, were leaving that day. He wanted us to know that he would remain true to everything we had talked and dreamed of together, and to let us know how to get in touch with him should we also return. Then, almost overcome and with tears in his eyes, he said: "I am leaving Monday morning. Let us do our parting here and let us hope we will see each other again."
His words touched our young hearts so much that for a moment all of us telt speechless. Then followed long and warm embraces, promises and encouragements. Only the crucifix hanging over his makeshitt bed was witness to this very painful and sad scene.
And so, driven by the irrepressible love of parents and homeland, the magic and indestructible force which disregards all dangers and obstacles, on Monday morning Simo departed for Bitola, not knowing whether his parents were still there, if they were alive or dead.
Our depression and nostalgia increased with every passing day. More and more, refugees began taking the uncertain road tor home. Kozareff, Dimkoff, I and hundreds of others, affected by the lack of news from home, the troubled political situation in the country, the struggle of the Macedonian Societies to survive, had lost interest in our studies and our grades kept sliding down. Meanwhile, more and more of the former armed comrades of Todor Alexandroff had left Sofia, and other cities in the country, and it was presumed that they had joined his forces.
Macedonian students in the University of Sofia held secret meetings; some joined the armed groups and crossed over into Macedonia. The attacks and threats in the Serbian press became vicious. It was now evident that Todor Alexandroff had restored the secret network and the Belgrade government did not know where he would strike next. Since the fight for freedom was a fight for national survival, this was welcome news for all the refugees. After all, they and their parents before them were born and raised amid such struggle. And Todor Alexandroff had become our beloved leader and hero.