The Trek Back

THAT YEAR, WINTER CAME EARLY in Sofia. Simo left in the middle of November, and a few days afterward snow covered the streets. Then Kosta Yoveff stopped coming to school. We paid little attention to his absence, because every once in a while he would stay out for two to three days, then reappear. But a whole week had passed and there was no sign of him. Had he gone to join the armed groups? He had said he would at one of our first meetings.

Kozareff and I went out looking for him. We were puzzled by his disappearance, more so that he had not recently given us a hint of his intentions. We went to the basement apartment where he lived with an old couple from his own village. The old couple said they did not know exactly where he had gone. About ten days earlier he had told them he was moving in with a friend, and they had not seen or heard of him since. We were not quite certain, but our conclusion was that Kosta might have crossed over and joined one of the armed Macedonian groups that were very active in his part of the country.

And so, little by little our group dwindled. Some moved away; some left school and went to work; others, like Simo, went back. Our group of twenty was now reduced to fouróKozareff, Dimkoff, Yovanoff and Ióand we stuck together like never before. Some afternoons we stopped at a confectionery and spent an hour or so reminiscing, reviewing the situation and making plans for the weekend. Almost every Sunday we were together studying, or following the crowd to the Prince Boris Park. It was nice and pleasant but we sorely missed our triends, especially those who had gone back, since we did not know if they had arrived safely.

During the winter and early spring months of 1920, I made it a point at least once a week to visit Evtim's coffee house on Positano Street in the hope that someone, somehow, had heard from home. I made frequent visits ta Mito's place on Maria Luisa for the same purpose. But there was no news from home, although there were rumors that Alexandroff's armed groups had penetrated as far as our part of M acedonia.

At the beginning of May it was announced that the Belgrade government had relaxed the rules for some of the refugees who wanted to return. The announcement said that once or twice a week the train could be boarded at Tsaribrod, on the way to Skopie. This tempted us and increased our nostalgia. Then a heavily censored letter came. Each letter had been opened, read and resealed.

I received the first letter from home around the 20th of May. It was short, only on one side of the sheet, and written by my sister Veselinka. She said dad was home and well, but my mother had been bedridden for some time and Teta (Aunt) Dina was taking care of the house. That was very disturbing news. My mother was frail and never in perfect health, but she had never been bedridden. It was clear that the tribulations of the war, the fear caused by the evacuation and invasions, the lack of food supplies and medical care, plus our absence, had had an adverse effect on her health. This caused me to spend many sleepless nights. I loved my mother. Would I ever see her alive? And my dad.... Why had he had my sister write and had not even signed the letter? Was he really all right? Was he really home? Many thought went through my mind. He could be incarcerated, or exiled somewhere in Serbia, and they were keeping the news from me. Yes. That is it. That is why not dad but my little sister wrote the letter; that is why the envelope was opened, then resealed. My aunt and my cousins, especially Simeon, tried to console me, but I could not put those dark thoughts out of my mind. It was a nightmare.

The next day I wrote my family a short note wishing my mother an early recovery and asking my dad to write to me. I went to the post office and asked for the registered mail window. They said they did not accept mail destined for Serbia. They told me I should go to the Serbian legation and have it mailed from there.

But by international law, the Serbian legation was actually Serbian territory. If I stepped inside, would I be retained and shipped back to Resen ? According to international law I was a Serbian citizen, subject to the rules and regulations of that country.

The last week of May was the time set for the final examination at schoolóthe most important one. Failure to pass would set me back a whole year. I felt that, under the circumstances, and in my state of mind. I might not be able to receive passing grades: this added to the mental anguish that I was going through.

A few days before the start of the examination I made an appointment with the school director, Dr. Velcheff. I explained to him my worries and my state of mind, and asked for his advice.

"1. too, come from Macedonia . . . you know that," he said. "At one time or another, all of us have gone through what you are experiencing now. But, somehow or another, all of us have made it. Forget your worries for a few days and concentrate on your studies and I know you will make it. Your grades for the year have been fairly good. That may help for any deficiencies you may encounter in the final exams. So go to it. Pick yourself upóbe a fighter! "

The director's words sustained my faith. I passed the examination with fairly good marks, but the worries about my family persisted. For two or three weeks I was afraid that I might have a nervous breakdown.

I went to the coffee house on Positano where Evtim, the proprietor, told me that Mito had some news for me. I hurried to Mito's store. As soon as I got in, he opened the cash register, handed me a letter from home and said, "Here, read it."

The letter was from his father in Yankovetz. In a postscriptum he said: "Nicola Nizam told mc that if Christo needs money, give it to him and he will pay me here."

This revived me. I could have jumped for joy. My father was home, safe and alive. This is what I had been expecting to hear for more than 16 months.

Now that school was over, more and more of our friends were heading back home. "Sofia was good, Bulgaria was hospitable, but home is where we belong," said Dimkoff. "Is it not what we have been planning right along?"

Kozareff insisted that we stay, saying: "Enough of our friends have returned, and you cannot do anything more."

"George and I have made up our minds to go." said Dimkoff, "It will be good if the four of us go together. "

I hesitated for a few minutes, then thought of my sick mother and said: "All right, I will go back with you."

When I went home I did not know how to break the news to my aunt and my cousin.

"You are welcome to stay for as long as you want," said my aunt, "so think it over good and do what is best for you. "

But my mind was made up.

Going back did not mean just boarding a train from Tsaribrod, for Nish and Skopie. It entailed some formalities, the most important of which was: Will the Serbian consular authorities in Sofia give us the necessary permit? Will they be satisfied with our answers during the interrogation of why we are in Sofia and why we want to go back? We decided to stick more or less to the same answer, and above all, not to show any fear or any hesitation.

As we were approaching the gates of the Serbian consulate I felt a pain in my stomach, a disgust and a sadness such as I had never experienced before. I felt as if I were sticking my head inside the lion's den.

The guard at the gate took our names, inquired who we wanted to see and why, and asked us to wait inside the gate. There was a room and a shelter to the left of us, but we were not asked to go in. The guard came back and said the officer in charge was busy: We must wait. After about 30 minutes we were ushered into a large room with a desk and chair in the middle but no chairs or no benches on the side.

The first question was why we wanted to go back. Was not Bulgaria good enough for us? Were we being treated badly, and by whom?

Our answer: We want to go back because our families are there and we want to be with them.

Did the Bulgarians forcibly bring you here during the evacuation?

No. We came here because we were afraid the war might be fought in our areas and we did not want to become casualties.

By the changing grimaces on his face I could tell he did not believe a word we said, but pretended to accept our answer.

"You were in school here. Are you going back to school after you get home?"

"That will depend on the financial and economic conditions of our families. If they need us to work in the stores, or the field, we must help to recoup what has been lost during the war. "

His face tightened and he said sarcastically: "You will make good lawyers. I will sign your permits if you promise not to engage in any Bulgarian propaganda. "

We had been coached from early childhood to deny any insinuations that we would do anything harmful for the country.

He gave us the permits, then asked us to step next door and exchange our Bulgarian levas for Serbian dinars. We went home, packed the suitcases with our personal belongings, left all our Bulgarian books, destroyed all letters and notebooks and cleaned our pockets of all pieces of paper, names and addresses.

The attachment to our homeland, the love of our families aroused in us the same nostalgia which several months before had carried Simo home, and we were on our way.

Kozareff boarded the train and accompanied us to Tsaribrod. We spent the night in a dingy inn in that little border town to await the train from Pirot that would take us to Nish and Skopie. It was hard parting with this good friend. He felt our pain and we felt his. It was reflected in his face, in his voice, in his manners. We knew he loved us, and he knew we were fond of him.

Early the next morning, before we started to the station, he took us aside and whispered: "I have been asked to relay this message: Keep your eyes and ears open and find a way to report any misdeeds of the authorities."

We embraced and kissed, trying hard to hold our tears. We were parting with a valuable friend, a true human being, one who would sacrifice his life to save ours.

Before we boarded the train, an elderly Bulgarian clerk at the station warned us to be patient. "There may be Serbian passengers who would try to provoke you," he said.

This was a two-wagon train dispatched especially to pick up passengers at Tsaribrod. Both cars were empty. Together with other returnees we bought our tickets at the station in Pirot. The two wagons were hitched to the main body of the train and we were off to Nish and Skopie.

The old clerk was right. We were confronted by provocateurs as soon as we entered the car. Young Serbians, some of them drunk early in the morning, used every dirty word in their language to berate us, the Bulgarians. One or two of them came by us shaking their fingers, threatening us with their fists and swearing. Even the other passengers, all Sebians, got angry at them. An old, tall and husky man got up, confronted the troublemakers and shouted: "Leave the young men alone and let them go home in peace. No young man anywhere is responsible for what has happened. It is us, the old people. We start wars, the young fight and die. Leave the kids alone."

Meekly the provocateurs took their seats and never made another whisper. We reached Nish in time to change to the train going to Skopie.

The car we entered was packed. It was a multinational crowd of Serbians, Albanians, Macedono-Bulgarians and Turks. Since no one knew who was who, we reached Skopie sometime after midnight without an unpleasant incident. Dimkoff said there was a Hotel Balkan somewhere on the main street and we headed for it. The door was opened, and a sleepy clerk told us he had only one room with a double bed, but he could throw a few blankets on the floor. We took the room and paid the man.

"Hvala lepo," (Thank you kindly), said the man. "Blagodara kraino is the right word," George told him. "That is our language. 'Hvala'is Serbian."

"Psst, tiho, tiho, " (Easy, easy), said the old man in a whisper. "The place is full of Serbians."

We asked him the best way we could get transportation to Veles. The old man said he might be able to arrange for a fee. Early the next morning an old rickety wagon, drawn by two horses, stopped to pick up us and two other passengers. The trip was uneventful. We did not know the other two passengers, a man and his wife; they did not make an effort to get acquainted with us and the whole six or seven hours of the ride passed in silence.

We spent the evening in the han (inn) of Dedo Atanas, an old friend of the Dimkoff family. Dedo Atanas told us he knew a couple of men connected with the military who drove an army truck, carrying mail and supplies back and forth. For a few extra dinars the man might be able to take us as far as Prilep. But this time there was only one driver. The other one had had too much slivovica (whiskey) the night before and was unable to move. We noticed that our driver was sobering up, but he told us not to worry: "I drive better with some whiskey in my belly. " He was a jolly fellow and all the way to Prilep he entertained us with songs and jokes.

George and I wanted to go to a hotel or inn to spend the night, but Angel Dimkoffwould not hear of it.

"There is plenty of room in our house," he said, "but if there is no room the three of us will sleep on the floor. We have been together for a long time. Don't separate from me on the last evening. God knows when, and if, we will see each other."

His mother and father met us at the front door. They cried and embraced us as if we were their own children. George and I felt perfectly at home. George said to me: "No wonder prilepchany (people from Prilep) are noted for their friendliness and hospitality."

Neighbors started coming in, relatives, young adults and girls who grew up with Dimkoff, and the large house was full of people exchanging greetings, embraces, and exclamations. It was a beautiful homecoming.

One of Angel's friends introduced us to Lozancheff, whose first name I do not remember. He was from Bitola, visiting friends in Prilep, and was going back the next day. This young man, a little older than we were, was closely related to Atanas Lozancheff, one of the leaders of the llinden insurrection. A good patriot, he could hardly wait to get a private moment with us and hear about things in Bulgaria. Not knowing him or his political leaning, and remembering Kozareffs admonition to be careful, we were quite reticent. Then Angel's sister told us Lozancheff had been released from the prison in Bitola only a few weeks earlier. That gave us some reassurance, but we thought it wise to be reserved. Since he was going back the next day, Lozancheff suggested that we travel together. When Angel took us to the station of the narrow-gauge railroad, Lozancheff was there waiting for us and had even bought our tickets.

"Do not be suspicious of me," he told us. "Like you, I hate the regime. I am oneofyou."

The little train was ready to leave. We said goodbye to Angel and promised to keep in touch. Lozancheff added: "I have a girl friend and I come here often. I will be glad to help." He astonished us further when he told us he was a very close friend of Simo's and knew who we were. He was the first one, of the many others, who, despite the inflicted punishment, remained loyal to his Bulgarian heritage.

In Bitola we stopped at the Hotel Makedonia. George could have gone home. Brusnik, his village, was not far from thecity. But he, too, was anxious to see Simo.

After about an hour, Lozancheffand Simo came to our room. Simo was bursting with emotions and could not hold down his tears. He stretched out his long and strong arms, grabbed and entolded us, kissing first me, then George, and started mumbling: ' Slava tebe, Gospodi, slava tebe." (Glory to you Lord, glory to you.) He could not believe his eyes. He thought it was a dream.

I asked about the general situation. With great enthusiasm, Simo reported that the spirit all over the country, especially among the young, was like the Rock of Gibraltar. At all private festivities they sang only Bulgarian patriotic songs. He said the unoffcial leader of the group in Bitola was Toma Tsurnomaroff, a man five or six years older than the rest of us. Was Toma doing this on his own, as a dedicated Macedonian, or was he appointed by some higher authority? In eitherway he was giving a valuable service. But if he was appointed by a higher authority, that would mean that the network of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization had reached to this westernmost part of the country, close to the Albanian border. It meant also that if Toma had been appointed to be in charge of devoted groups in Bitola, then, followingcustom and tradition, every cityand even every village had its own local leader.

George and I had no chance to meet Tsurnomaroff. But on leaving Bitola the next day for my home town, a couple of thoughts kept bothering me. In Tsaribrod, just before parting, Kozareffhad taken us aside and suggested that we keep our eyes open, remember and report any misdeed of the Serbian authorities. Now Simo and Lozancheff were suggesting the very same thing. Was this just a coincidence, or had the same suggestion been relayed way down here by the secret network of the Macedonian organization? George and I wondered.

We were under the impression that we were to be the bearers of that order, or suggestion, or whatever one wants to name it. What was going on here? We were coming here from Bulgaria to boost the morale of our youth, to advise them not to believe the incessant propaganda. And what did we find but that, except for a few misled youths, the spirit among the others was high. To be persecuted, jailed or mistreated was a badge of honor. This obstinacy, this fearlessness bothered the authorities as much as the frequent skirmishes with armed Macedonian patriots.

Sensing all this, another thought went through my mind: What gave our group the right to assume that our ehildhood friends, our brothers and sisters, would succumb to the intensive pressure to renounce their national origin and proclaim themselves as Serbs? Outwardly, and of necessity, they might give the appearance of submission. But deep down in their hearts, they knew their national origin and they prized it as did their fathers and grandfathers before them.

This attitude later became well known and well dramatized in 1927 during the stormy trial in Skopie of the Macedonian students. Among the defendants were many young men who had left Sofia and come back to their homeland. More than three dozen of them were arrested and maltreated; some were murdered or beaten to death. All ofthem were charged with the "crime" of trying to create a free and independent state of Macedonia. This famous trial lasted over three months and hit the front pages of many newspapers in Europe and in the United States.

Dr. Ante Pavelich, a very prominent Croatian lawyer from Zagreb, went to Skopie to defend the arrested students. In his final summation he painted a grim picture for all the world to see of the Serbian lawlessness and cruelty in Macedonia.

To back up his accusations, Mr. Pavelich waved in the courtroom the official order issued by Naumovich, jupan (governor) of Skopie, which stated that for a tooth the government would take a jaw, and for an eye the inquisitors would take a head. He enumerated the students murdered by off'icial organs of the authorities in the streets of Skopie and other parts of Macedonia. The list of the names was long, but a few should be mentioned who were personal acquaintances of mine:

Toma Koyumdjieff of Strumitsa, Georgi Angisheff of Negotino, Boris Andreichin of Tetovo, Sotir Gurdanoffof Prilep, Traiko Popoff and his father Theohar of Gevgheli, Ilia Dimeff of Gevgheli, Kolio Chakaroff of Doiran and many, many others. Two of the leaders of the Macedonian Youth Organization were Dimiter Chkatroff of Prilep, a classmate of ours in the Sofia Gymnasium, and Dimiter Geuseleff of Doiran. Both received a prison sentence of 10 years. Chkatroff was a university graduate with a degree in engineering, Geuseleff had a Ph. D. degree in philosophy. Because neither one of them would relent, their sentences were prolonged. Even this injustice and severity did not succeed in breaking them down.

I do not claim credit for myself and the group I worked with for the establishment of the widespread Macedonian Youth Organization. The seeds were there and planted in fertile ground. But those of us who had come back from Bulgaria helped water the plants when and where water and guidance was needed. Like the rest of us, the leader of the Macedonian Youth Organization, Dimiter Chkatroff, was a refugee in Sofia and, like us, had returned home because home was where he belonged.

I must also report that both Chkatroff and Geuseleff, who had survived their long imprisonment and the inquisition of the Serbian secret police, were murdered by the present Serbo-Communist rulers in the so-called "Macedonian" republic, an artificial creation of the Belgrade hierarchy, to facilitate the Serbianization of the Bulgarians in Macedonia.

George and I spent two days in Bitola, mostly in the company of Simo and Lozancheff. They introduced us to several young men who held the same views we did. It was refreshing and reassuring that none of them had been influenced by the constant propaganda for Serbianization.

Early the next morning, we were packing and getting ready to leave when we heard a knock on the door and a husky voice saying: "Open up in the name of the law. " I was half-dressed, but rushed and opened the door to see two men, one in uniform, the other in civilian clothes. I asked them to come in. The men, who had ordered us to open the door "in the name of the law," did not have, and therefore could not show us, any search order. But they had badges and those badges gave them the right to interpret the law the way they wanted.

"Show us your permits," said the man in civilian clothes. He was one of the local Greeks who served the Serbians in many capacities ... as a secret agent, a policeman, a torturer of those he disliked, and an extortionist.

We presented our permits.

"Why are you coming back? Did you get tired of Bulgaria, or are you coming here to spread Bulgarian lies?"

"We are coming back because our homes and our families are here, and nothing else."

"Then tell me, what was that conference you had last night with Lozancheff and Simo? We know they hate our government. "

George said, "Those young men are old friends and they came to welcome us back. And if you want to know what we talked about it was girls, the things all kids of our age talk about. Nothing else. "

"When are you leaving?" asked the Serbianized Greek. I told him that both of us were leaving for home immediately. He said: "Be sure, when you get back, to report your presence to the local police. And keep your noses clean, otherwise you will be awful sorry you came back. You will grow old in Glavniacha (the dreaded Serbian prison where criminals and political offenders are locked up in the same cell)."

They made a thorough search of our luggage and our pockets and left.

"I think," said George, "we will have to face many interrogations like this. "

"They may even be worse," I said and started repacking. We said our goodbyes in the room. George waited downstairs for someone to take him to Brusnik and I went to Milenko's Inn. Yovko, the coachman, and visitors from Resen usually stopped at that hostlery.

I was lucky.Yovko, an old friend of the family, was ready to pull out. He embraced me as if I were his long-lost son, grabbed my suitcase, and asked me to ride in front with him because the coach was full. A well-informed and talkative man, he told me some of the most important things that had happened since the war, how many of our townsmen had been jailed or maltreated, and warned me to be careful of so and so, because the people of Resen thought they had become informers.

When we reached Resen the passengers got out and paid their fare.  I started to get down. Yovko said to remain, that he would take me all the way home.

"Your father has some of the best whiskey in town," he said. "He is not too generous with it, but this time I know I will get a full, big glass."

For as long as I could remember, old Yovko had been the unofficial "taxi" driver between Resen and Bitola.  He used to say that his two black horses knew the road so well they could make it to Bitola without the driver.  No one could dispute that claim.