Home Again But For How Long?

TWO WEEKS BEFORE WE LEFT SOFTA, on June 15, 1920. I had mailed a short letter to my parents and hinted that I might be coming home during the summer. I did not mention any specific time for fear that we might be detained for interrogation. I did not want them to be unduly alarmed.

I was short of money. My relatives had done so much for me, and I felt uneasy about borrowing from them. My father had already given me permission, in case of need, to get a loan from Mito. I did that. The sum was more than I needed, because George had very little and Angel Dimkoff and I had decided to help him.

Our trip took about twelve days. No one knew I was coming, because my letter hadn't arrived. And so, when old Yovko stopped his coach on the cobbled street in front of our house, I could hear excited voices and a rush to open the small front door.

The first to appear at the door was my sister, Veselinka. She looked at me, hesitated for a moment, then shouted as loud as she could:

"Hey, everybody, Christo is here, Christo is here!"

The whole family rushed out: my father, my mother, my two younger brothers, and my cousins who lived in the same large home. There were tears of joy and embraces. Mv mother held me in her arms and would not let go. Then the neighbors came out and the street became crowded with people, all welcoming me, wishing me well. I Could not withhold my emotions.

Now, as never before, I realized how much I had missed my family and the wonderful people among whom I had spent my childhood. This was truly a heart-rending momentóone that was never to be forgotten.

I grabbed my mother and carried her through the small gate into the house, her head resting on my shoulders, her eyes streaming with tears, her lips pasted on my face. Old Yovko came in and so did some of the neighbors. My dad's bottle of "grozdova rakia" (whiskey made of grape mash), which old Yovko called "the best in the county," did not last long. The old coachman had his two glasses and departed. So did the neighbors.

It was now past 7:00 p.m. At such a moment I felt no need of food. The tears and the cheers, the embraces and the smiling faces were nourishment even for a staning man. But my mother hurried and prepared my favorite dishóscrambled eggs mixed with slices of fresh tomatoes, chopped onions, peppers and fete cheese.

When we sat down for supper, my sister disappeared for a few moments. She returned carrying under her arm a dusty, dirty package, wrapped in paper and parts of an old shirt, and handed it to me.

"Take it," she said. "I hid them and saved them for you. Mother and dad did not know I did it. "

I opened the package. It contained yellowed sheets of paper that almost crumbled in my hands. Time and weather had taken their toll. These were some verses penned by me on different occasions. I had glorified, in bombastic phrases, our short-lived freedom under the brotherly Bulgarian occupation that we celebrated in spite of the food shortages and the fear of air bombardment by the enemy forces. In the early summer of 1918, the bombers had killed 45 civilians in Resen, among them three or four babies. I had described the beauty of our fertile valley. And yes, there were also a few love verses. The only thing of note in all of them was their innocence and sincerity. They had no literary value. No one knew that I had written them; they were my secret. I still wonder why I had not destroyed them or carried them with me to Bulgaria. My sister had found them under my mattress, then buried them in a box under the quince tree.

What was I trying to do? Be a precursor of a new kind of Iyricismó one who pours out his thoughts and sentiments but lacks depth and literary style? I still do not know the answer to this, but I knew I didn't want to keep those verses. I later tore them up and threw them away for fear that in an unexpected search of the house, a device frequently used in those days, the police might find them, use them as incriminating evidence, and send the whole family into exile. Their "poetic" value was not worth that risk.

I still remember some of them and wonder why I wasted my time writing them when I should have been concentrating on reading the works of the internationally recognized poets Christo Botev and Ivan Vazov. But I gave my sister a big hug and a kiss for having the courage to hide them.

The next morning my father and I went to the local police to report my arrival. To my surprise, two of the policemen were Marian and Ignat who had held the same posts prior to 1915, when they were forced to flee and seek refuge on the Greek island of Korfu. The sudden meeting did not evoke a discernable sign of cordiality. It was cold and strictly official. And the feeling was mutual.

The third man in the office was the so called "delovodja", or executive secretary. A dark, heavy-set man, with heavy bags under his eyes, he pointed his finger at me and warned me in a harsh, threatening voice:
"We know all about those of you who are returning from Bulgaria. We do. Do you understand me? Whydid you come back to ourland? Were you sent here to spread disruptive propaganda? Remember, if you do that, we will crush you. This is our land. Understand?"

I was sizzling with anger. The filthy bully was calling our land his land! He, and those with him had come only yesterday, while we had been there for centuries. The remains of our ancestors were buried in this sacred ground. They had outlived the terrors of the Byzentine and the Ottoman Empires to keep their land. And now this drunken punk had the audacity to claim our land as his.

Such blind and narrow chauvinism, such arrogance and lack of consideration of other people's rights, have kept the Balkan countries in constant turmoil and have earned them the uncomplimentary name "The Powder Keg of Europe". When will it ever stop so that the people can live in peace and friendship, regardless of their national origin? People of my generation have lived through bitter and often bloody struggles. It will be an unpardonably criminal act if coming generations have to go through the same fire and hell.

Some nights I stayed awake till the early morning hours, trying to understand what was happening to me and why. Yes, in Sofia I was tree and happy, but my family was here in this picturesque village. At those Sunday meetings in Sofia, had we not discussed the necessity of going home to share the struggles and the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, to inject in them the will to fight against all attempts at denationalization? Was that prompted by wisdom or by youthful idealism? At times, Iife in Sofia was also hard, for we were torn between love of family and birthplace and love of freedom. People who have not experienced such forced separation cannot realize the mental and physical stress. I was waging a psychological war within myself, and I had to overcome it. I had to.

One day, two of my childhood friends came to visit me. We talked, we reminisced, and we laughed together. They hated the regime. They hated the closing of the Bulgarian schools and the burning of all Bulgarian books, even the Holy Bible.

"There is no life, no future for us here," said llia. "Pretty soon they will be calling us to serve in their army. We must go away, we must disappear." Methody added that everyone of our age felt the same way.

I asked, "Does the Serbianization drive have any success or prospect of such?"

"The whole thing is a joke," said Ilia. "Those people are really stupid. You do not change anybody's nationality by force. You should let them come to you of their own free will. The more you force them, the more they resist. "

Their presence and their stand invigorated me. I felt better. Before they left. they gave me the names of a few people in our county who had been persecuted and imprisoned, all of them accused of antiSerbian activities. I knew most of them.

SINCE TIME IMMEMORIAL, Saturday had been the market day in our county. On that day, people from the surrounding villages came to Resen to sell their products and purchase groceries and other necessities. Many of the villagers traded in my Uncle Dimitria's store. Many of them received their mail from husbands and sons in America at the store, because there was no mail delivery in the villages. Cousin Alexander was a well-known steamship agent and money lender. I went there every Saturday, pretending to help the store. I knew some ot'the more active villagers would come there. Among them were men who had been active in the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, and most of them remembered me. Sandre Dimitroff, from the village of Kriveni, a former classmate of mine, was a fountain of information. (A year or so later, when both of us had removed to the United States, he settled in the steel town of Lackawanna, New York, where he passed away a few years ago.)

Three weeks later, Simo sent word to me by the coachman. Yovko, to see him in Bitola and bring him the "basket of apples" I had promised him.

I went under the pretense that I had to see an eye doctor. Arriving there, Simo met me at Hotel Makedonia. He told me that the meeting was set for that evening. Avoiding the main street, we passed through a back alley and entered an old, two-story house. The first person I saw there was a police officer coming down the stairs. I thought we had been trapped. Simo sensed my uneasiness and said, "Don't worry. That policeman is a Croat, married to one of our girls. His dislike of the Serbian regime surpasses ours, and he has been very helpful. "

When we entered the room I was introduced to Tome Tsurnomaroff and a young man from Kichevo, Pavel Mitoff. George and Angel were there too.

Tsu rnomaroff opened the meeting. He asked us to give our reports and the names of those arrested and maltreated. He insisted that we be brief and precise, and asked Angel to take notes.

I asked Tome if he had established a completely reliable channel to send our reports to the Macedonian National Committee in Sofia. He swore us to secrecy and said:

"The Albanian government has an official trade representative in Bitola. The man is anti-Serbian and pro-Bulgarian. He is willing to help. The woman who takes care of his house is one of our group. She will hand the report to the Albanian, and he in turn will mail it to Bulgaria from Tirana. All the information will be typed. The Sofia Committee needs this information for a memorandum they are preparing to present to the League of Nations in Geneva and the governments of the Great Powers. "

Whether the Sofia Committee received the information or not, I do not know. But all of us felt we had done our part. The meeting came to an end, and Tome suggested that we leave as quietly as we had come, keep in touch, but avoid written notes. We embraced and took our leave.

The clandestine meeting was over about 8:00 p.m. and at that hour, there was no transportation for me, Mitoff and Angel to go back. Simo insisted that we spend the night at his home, but that surely would be suspected as a conspiracy so we decided to spend the night at the hotel. George, who visited Bitola almost every market day, spent the night with Simo; however, all of us went to the hotel for supper. Lozancheff, who knew about the meeting and the agenda but was unable to attend, joined us in the hotel.

The hotel had a small room behind the kitchen, which separated it from the main dining room. It was usually used by young people who liked to sip a glass or two of wine and have some fun and talk about their real or fanciful love adventures.

"This is my land, too," I said. "I was born and grew up here." He looked at me with bloodshot eyes, as if ready to cut my throat, but said nothing. The parting was icier than the meeting. I was glad that the formality was over and went home.

The long journey, the uncertainties, the lingering second thoughts that the return was a colossal mistakeóall of these contributed to my physical and mental exhaustion. I felt weak for about two weeks and had no desire to visit or see anyone. My family was very understanding and Supportive. Nevertheless, those were some of the hardest and most discouraging days in my life.

My sister and my brothers were much younger than I, and I could not share my anguish with them for fear they might be hurt. My cousin Luba, three or four years older and an ardent patriot, became my constant companion. We shared our hopes and our fears. I loved her like my own sister.

The end of the school vacation was approaching. Angel wanted to know what the rest of us intended to doóstay home and tend to the family's business, or swallow our pride and our resolve and sign up in the Serbian Gymnasium, the only institution of high learning in our district. Both he and Pavel mentioned they had been approached by some of the official authorities advising them to sign, or face a premature draft in the army.

Up to that time I had not been approached by anyone, but hints to that effect were made to my father. Angel, who was from Prilep, said that Dimche Chkatroff, our Sofia classmate, was back and had told Angel he should continue his studies in the Bitola Gymnasium. A very bright young man and an excellent student, Dimche was friendly but aloof. But, as we have mentioned in a previous chapter, back in Macedonia he became one of the leaders of the Macedonian student and youth organization.

Since there was no other alternative, we decided we would sign up.

The night patrol had entered the main dining room. The cook put her head through the open door and whispered, "Shush. Tuka sa." (Quiet. They are here.) Immediately we changed the topic of our conversation and started clinking our half empty glasses, humming a love song.

"Lepo, vurlo lepo." (Good, very good), said one of the patrolmen. "Enjoy yourselves. You are young."

They left, satisfied that the young Macedonians were loyal and good Serbians. This same game may have been played in hundreds of places all over Macedonia. They knew and we knew it was nothing but a big masquerade, and the day would come when there would be a clash between usóa bloody clash perhaps, because they would not relent and we would not give up.

The next morning I went to see Dr. Christidi, a Greek who had examined my eyes before the war. He prescribed some drops and advised me to wash my eyes with lukewarm water three or four times a day. The same day, about noon, I boarded Yovko's coach and went back.

When police officer Marian asked me why I had gone to Bitola, I showed him the bottle of eye drops. This may have satisfied his curiosity but not his suspicions.

THE AUGUST DAYS were dragging slowly. Waiting for the arrival of September and the start of the school year, I spent my time reading, roaming the fields and climbing the steep hill to the little St. Nicholas chapel, deeply revered by our villagers. From the top of the hill I could see the four parts of our county and admire its natural beauty. To the left was snow-covered Pelister and, right below it, the grain and corn fields of the Resen valley and the hundreds of apple and pear orchards. The orchards extended to the historic shores of Lake Prespa, where I could visualize the legions of Tsar Samuel, ruler of the Western Bulgarian Kingdom during the hectic ninth century, and his incessant wars against Vasilios, emperor of Byzantium. Almost instinctively, that prompted me to recite Ivan Vazov's beautiful poem "Prespa, Prespa, Krepost Slavna" (Prespa, Prespa, famous fortress).

And I could see Yankovetz surrounded by willows, poplars and tall chestnut trees. I experienced a deep sadness, like a premonition, that this might be the last time I saw my village from the top of the sacred hill.

Following the old tradition of our Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church, on every visit to the little chapel I never-failed to light a candle and place it in front of the icon of St. Nicholas, the patron of our village and our family. I felt somehow relieved of my tensions and my fear of the future.

My visits to this shrine did not remain unnoticed by the local police. On one such occasion, I was surprised to hear steps coming from the thick forest behind the chapel. They came closer and closer, and finally I saw coming towards me the "delovojda" and the police officer, Marian, with hunting guns under their arms. Were they hunting for rabbits in August, or for bears that were never there?

I was stretched under the century old oak and, to show my contempt, did not even make a move when they approached me.

"What are you doing here all by yourself?" asked the delovojda. " Are you meeting somebody, waiting for somebody?"

I told them this had been my favorite place from early childhood and not far from here was our family vinyard. Then, to put them at rest, I added, "In a few weeks I will be going to school and will miss this very beautiful place and this holy little shrine." Then, even more emphatically, I added, "I love this place and my land. "

My last remark did not set well with the delovodja. But, willingly or not, he swallowed it and I felt that I had taken my revenge.

" Bolie u shkolu nego u voisku" (Better in school than in the army), said the delovojda.

The armyóthe army or the prisonóthis was the threat used against all of us who had returned from Bulgaria. They believed that putting us through the propaganda mill, developed especially for their schools in Macedonia, would make us instant, devoted Serbians who would willingly denounce their Bulgarian heritage. During the Macedonian students' trial in Skopie, they had ample evidence to conclude that they could not beat down the sons and daughters of a sturdy and brave people who for more than five centuries had fought and struggled to preserve the Bulgarian church, nationality and culture.

After they departed, I remained on the hill for another two hours or more. Solitude relaxed me. It gave me a chance to compose my thoughts, to plan carefully every future step. And besides, I wanted to enjoy for as long as I could the beauty of the natural panorama spread before my eyes: the fertile Resen valley, touching the shores of the crystal clear Lake Prespa, subject of many folk songs and tales. The many orchards laden with apples and pears, the tall poplar and the bushy willov. trees lined like guards on both sides of the Big River. All of this resembled a gorgeous canvas painted by the inimitable brush of mother nature. This, among other things, was the magnet that attracted me to this unfortunate land passing from the hands of one oppressor to those of another.

Yankovetz was straight ahead, but I could see nothing more than the roofs and the chimneys of the homes and the wooden cross on top of our church. where every Sunday we knelt before the holy altar and asked the Almighty God to end the sufferings of our people. But while my eyes were feasting on this picturesque scene, suddenly I felt my whole body shaking and perspiring, my heart pounding as if trying to burst out. Was this a premonition of things to come, of events that might take me away from this restful and beloved spot?

I grew up as a very devout youngster. My faith in God had never left me during the trying days of the past three years. To soften my tension and uplife my spirit, I got up and entered the small chapel. I made the sign of the cross, I stood solemnly before the icon of the revered saint and prayed for myself. I prayed for my family and for my unhappy country, kissed the holy icon, shed a few tears and left.

As it turned out, this indeed was the last time I saw the beloved and inspiring small chapel.

On the 30th of August, 1920, 11eft for Bitola to enroll in the Serbian Gymnasium. I went there with the same unhappiness one experiences on the way to the gallows. I had a premonition that this was only a charade that would not last long.

Simo had promised to find rooms for all of us not far from his home. He lived in the Yani Maale and Chifte Furne district, considered the center of all Bulgarian activities in this city of mixed population. Bulgarians, Turks, Greeks, Sephardic Jews, but no Serbians. During the Turkish regime, as during the Serbian, anyone who mentioned the name of the district was branded a potential enemy of the state.

The room he found for me was in an old but well-preserved home, a few yards from the "dangerous" district, right across the River Dragor. The barber shop on the main floor was run by a man from Resen who was a good friend of our family's.

My landlords were the seamstress Lenche and her 22-year-old son, Stoyche Atzeff. Stoyche was a character who could be described only by writers like Steinbeck or Faulkner. He lived on what his mother earned. He was not involved in politics or any such activities. He was a card player and a pool player who knew how to keep his mouth shut and his eyes open. He knew everybody and everything that was going on. Cunning as a fox, he let the police believe he was on their side.

And what the police knew, Stoyche knew, and therefore Tome Tsurnomaroff knew. A vicious circle. He was the only one who could walk the streets after curfew hours and deliver an urgent message. When the police patrol questioned him, he had the same patent answer, "Tsura trajim" (I am looking for a girl). The patrol would giggle and wish him good luck.

(Good old Stoyche died very young, a few years atter I came to America. On acoupleofoccasions, Isenthim money justtosaythank you for the many favors.)

Angel and George got rooms not far from me, and the Hotel Makedonia was only two blocks away.

The teacher who signed us in was one Djambazovich, the son of a renegade from Prilep, who had sold himself to the Serbian propagandists for a monthly stipend amounting to twice the money he earned as a shoe cobbler. This Djambazovich, therefore, owned by the Serbians, body and soul, was a vicious man who saw red anytime the word Bulgarian was mentioned.

"Remember, and remember well," he warned us in class, "this is a Serbian school and in this school, you sign your last name ending with the Serbian "vich" (Nizamovich), not the Bulgarian "off" (Nizamoff).

"My baptismal certificate states my name is Nizamoff," I said. "I don't care what your certificate states," he said. "This is a Serbian school and your name will be Nizamovich. If you wanted to be Nizamoff, you should have stayed in Bulgaria."

Oh, how I felt like putting my fist in his mouth and breaking his teeth. But that would only have landed me in jail and accomplished nothing.

The interior of the school was plastered with posters proclaiming the virtues of the Serbians and the superiority of their education, making derisive remarks about everything Bulgarian and announcing to one and all that Alexander Karageorgevich was "our beloved king". (On October 9, 1934, "our beloved King Alexander" was assassinated in Marsailles, France, by the Macedonian terrorist Vlado Chernozemsky.)

History was the subject on our first day in class. As we had expected, the authors of the textbook and the teacher had dumped out of the window all objectivity and historic fact. Even prominent Greek academicians had always referred to the Macedonian Slavs as Bulgarians, and so did many Western European historians. But this was not a lesson for the study of history. This was, pure and simple, a falsification of historic facts and documents. It was an attempt for Serbianization' a class for national genocide.

I was bursting with anger, and so were my friends. From the very first day, we knew that we were not going to last long in this so-called "educational institution".

And we did not. By the end of November, and the two-week vacation between semesters, Angel, Sam, I and a few others, had decided not to return.

Angel's father visited us for two days. He knew that I, like his son, wanted to go back to Bulgaria and continue my studies in Sofia. Confidentially, he told us that when he had been in Veles a week or so before coming to Bitola, he had heard from a reliable source, Atanas the innkeeper, that a man in Kratovo had successfully smuggled a few groups over the border to Bulgaria. He asked us to consider the matter very seriously because it was bound to involve some risks.

"Tell me one thing that is not risky or dangerous around here," said Angel. "I am for giving it a try. "

"But we have no travel permits," I said. "Now they check at every crossroads."

"Stoyche," said Angel. "Let us ask Stoyche."

We did. And good old Stoyche, with his devil-may-care attitude on almost everything, told us, "Give me a few days. For 25 or 30 diners each, I will get you the permits."

He was not kidding. The next evening he came to my room and handed me the permits, valid for 30 days. The next day I went home to explain to my father and ask for his permission. Father knew I would not return to school in Bitola and gave me his approval.

In Prilep, Angel's father instructed us to go to Veles and contact his friend Atanas, the innkeeper. The innkeeper told us to wait two or three d ays and stick to our rooms as much as possible.

"The police here are suspicious of every stranger, " he said. "If they want to know what you want in Veles, just tell them this is your school vacation and you just came to tour the city. "

Waiting in our rooms, every hour of the day appeared to be as long as the day itself. The suspense was driving us crazy, but we had to endure it.

On the third morning, Atanas came to our rooms to give us the bad news. The Kratovo man and a few young men he was trying to help cross over to Bulgaria had been apprehended at the border and arrested.

"I am sorry this has happened," said old Atanas. "For the time being, the channel is closed and no one can cross you over. "

Discouraged and dejected, we headed back for Prilep and Bitola to plan an escape through Albania, or perhaps the Greek border, some 20 kilometers to the south. We would study every possible avenue for escape. Djambazovich and his likes would never again see us in their classes. Not ever.

The Escape

THE MONTH OF DECEMBER was already upon us and the Gymnasium (high school) was about two or three weeks into the second semester. True to our resolve, we did not attend. But the search for escape, for crossing over to one of the neighboring countries, had led nowhere and we were getting desperate. It had already been announced that after January the army would call in new recruits; most certainly we would be the first ones on the list. Tome and other friends advised us to wait until spring. Winter is not the best time to approach and cross the border; tracks are left in the snow with every step. But the pressure from the school officials and other authorities had already exhausted our patience, and we had to make our move.

One morning I paid my weekly visit to Milenko's Inn, the stopping place for most people from Resen. There I ran into my former classmate, Sandre Dimitroff. When I asked what brought him to Bitola at this time of the year, he took me aside and said, "Don't breathe a word to anyone. In a week or two, a few of us will leave for America."

I looked at him with surprise and disbelief. "How? And who arranged that for you?"

"Don't you know? Your cousin Alexander and a group of men here have been sending people to America by first smuggling them over the Greek border into Lerin."

The surprise left me speechless. I went to his hotel to find out some details. My cousin explained.

"We have established an inside track in the office of the Jupan (provincial governor) and a partnership with Captain Karavitis in Lerin (the Greeks call it Florina). A reliable Turk has an almost safe channel for crossing groups over the border. Once in Lerin, Karavitis takes over and a week or two later, he delivers the passports.

"Of course, " added my cousin, "all that takes money. You know, a bribe here and a bribe there, it adds up."

That evening my friends and I discussed the matter for quite some time. The unanimous decision was to join the group. They left it up to me and my cousin to work out the details.

Simo and George said that they knew every step of the highways and byways to the crossing point at Kanally. But the group, which we named the syndicate, told us they were not taking chances because an accidental discovery would be disastrous.

And so, on a dreary, cold day in February 1921, we were told just before dusk to walk casually on the road leading to Lerin. A steady rain was falling. We started two by two at about one hundred paces apart; we carried no baggage and no papers. At a certain point, we left the main road, turned left and entered the fields. It was pitch dark when we reached the spot designated to meet the Turk. The constant rain had drenched us and left us shivering. The border line was four to five hundred feet ahead of us. To the right we could see the shelter of the patrol. The wily Turk, making his way secretly through the wild vegetation, approached the military post, counted the men inside and made sure that none of them was walking up and down at this time of night.

He gave us a signal to go quietly forward, bearing to the left of the post as much as possible. Then he joined us.

"Hold your breath," he said. "Don't talk. Don't cough. Slide down this embankment and go forward about three hundred feet. You will reach a small hill. Climb it and slide down the other side; then you will be on the Greek side of the border. Wait for a while and if you see no one moving and hear no voices, keep on straight until you reach a narrow road. Then you will be out of the view and out of the range of the Serbian post. Bear to the left and soon you will come to a very small village. There are no Greek sentries there and the people are of your own. If, by chance, some official questions you, tell hi m you are headed for Captain Karavitis' office. Say no more. "

We reached the village at dawn. The rain had stopped but the cold wind whistled and was forming icicles on our drenched coats. On the side of the road we saw a small buildingóa combination grocery store and coffee house. The door was locked. We peeked through the small dirty w-indow and noticed someone inside. We hesitated for a moment, then decided to knock on the door: our bodies were almost frozen and we needed rest and food. The half-asleep proprietor Opened the door and let us in. The place was comfortably warm. The dry wood in the stove was crackling, and we could see flame through the cracks in the pipe. We ordered whiskey to warm us up.

"You need hot tea, not whiskey," said the kind old man. "Take off your wet coats and spread them on the chairs to dry. And come, come closer to the stove and warm yourselves."

He went in the back and after a while returned with loaves of bread and fete cheese. This was not the Ritz, but the breakfast of hot tea, bread and cheese, after a night of rain, fear and hunger, was the most delicious we could have wished for. It warmed our bodies, quenched Our thirst and eased our hunger. We felt like grabbing and hugging the old man. He sat next to us, sipping his large cup of Turkish coffee. He rolled and lit a cigarette; then, with a sigh that came from the depths of his heart, he said, "Eh, bre detsa, vie begate ot tamo (pointing toward Bitola), nashita begat ot tuka, koy ke ostane vo ova nasha mile, mnogo izmuchena zemya?" (Ah, my children, you are running away from over there, our kids are running away from here, who is going to remain in our dear, long suffering land?)

He took another puff and after a moment of silence said, "Not long ago my two sons left for America. Now we are all alone - my wife and I. Will they ever come back? Will we ever see them again? Will you come back?"

There were no tears in the old man's eyes but the expression, the sadness in his wrinkled face, betrayed his inner pain. And this pain was not his alone. It was prevalent in thousands of homes all over Macedonia. Countless mothers shed bitter tears for the sons gone away, who might never come back. Like a sharp arrow, the old man's words pierced our hearts, and we felt the bitter pain of our mothers and fathers.

We paid and thanked him for his kindness. He followed us outside the store, bid us Godspeed and instructed us to turn left at the next corner and take the short, narrow route to Lerin.

In Lerin, we stopped at the inn of a vlah, who it became apparent, was expecting us. The accommodation, a large room covered with straw-filled mattresses, was nothing to brag about. But it felt good, after the dreary night, to lie down and rest. It did not take us long to fall asleep.

Late that afternoon, two korofilakis (police) came over and demanded to know who we were and see to our identity cards, which we did not have..In broken Greek (one of them knew our Bulgarian language, but refused to use it), we told them Captain Karavitis would vouch for us. They accompanied us to his office and left. Mr. Karavitis gave every one of us his personal card (more valid in Lerin than an offficial document), scribbled his name and told us to be patient. The innkeeper would be paid by him, meaning, of course, the syndicate.

With nothing to do and no place to go, we spent a few very dull and uncomfortable days in Lerin. One morning the captain's assistant, who spoke our language, came over and took us to the railroad station.

"Say nothing, speakto noone," he instructed us. "You are going to Salonica and register at this hotel. Alexander will meet you there."

My cousin asked us to go to his room. His briefcase, resting on the bed, was bulging with official papers, passports, an IOU, etc. The IOU had already been signed by our parents; now he needed our signatures. He gave us pocket money, the passports, the steamship tickets and said, "From this moment on, you are on your own. You are not to say to anyone how you came here, who supplied you with the passports. If you do, we will get in trouble, but so will your parents."

He wished us a pleasant and safe journey, put his arms around me, kissed me, and left. My cousin was not an overly compassionate man. He was all business. He was a money man.

Secure with the passports and some money in our pockets, we felt, more or less, as free men. But other things bothered us. Angel and I wanted to go to Sofia or Vienna to continue our studies. All the others were set for America.

"America is the place for all of us," said Simo, the oldest and most pragmatic of the group. "What can you do with an education in a country where every day is plagued by bloody demonstrations and skirmishes and you do not know from day to day who is in charge of the government? That is what is going on now in Austria and Bulgaria óriots, bloodshedding. Enough of that. Let us choose freedom and freedom means America."

Two days later, we bought some shabby outfits from a second-hand clothing store to make ourselves presentable and appeared before the American counsel to get our visa. This whole process took less than . one hour.

Three days later, we boarded an old steamer that no one was sure would be able to withstand the Atlantic storms and sailed for the promised land - the United States of America.