DURING WAR TIMES (WW2)
In 1939 World War Two engulfed our region with Italy declaring war with Greece. My father, my uncles, and many other men from Neret were conscripted into the Greek army. They were taken to fight on the front line in Albania in a region we call Vreba. The Greek army was made up of many Macedonians who fought against the Italians. During winter quite a few of these fighters froze to death. Some of those who survived had limbs cut off due to frost bite. Many men returned to the village crippled and maimed. Some of the Macedonian fighters deserted (the Greeks called them lipotatsi) from Vreba and headed back to their villages because they feared death more from either starvation or the cold. When the men from Neret came back home, the Greek army rounded them up, took them back to Vreba, and shot them. The same thing happened to Macedonians from other villages who had deserted. During the war there were very few adult men left in the village and much of the hard labour fell to the women and older boys.
Shortly afterwards, in 1941, the Germans and the Bulgarians occupied the region. When the Germans arrived, people from the villages as well as the town's folk rushed to Lerin and started smashing shop windows, looting whatever they could get their hands on - including such things as olive oil, halva, rice, paprika etc. There was virtually nothing left in the shops to purchase. People had no money. The Germans upon arrival bought whatever food they could using fake money. They would give substantial amounts of this fake money to farmers for their crops and tell them to use this money to purchase whatever they needed from other farmers. The problem was the German Army had purchased all the available crops from the farmers to the point that there was no wheat left over for future sewing of crops. Things were so desperate that people were coming in the snow, bare footed, from as far as Epirus (region to the south-west of Lerin) looking for food. They were crying and begging for a piece of bread. Things were extremely bad. I was young when this was happening, but our home faced the village square (stret-selo) and I could see who was coming into the village. I would quite often mingle with the older men from the village who would meet in the village square, taking a keen interest listening to what was being said. I would often sell homemade cigarettes that my father had put together to these older men to obtain food. They talked amongst themselves paying little notice to me because I would have been considered too young to worry about.
The people living in the villages managed to survive a bit easier than those living in the larger towns because they could still grow the odd thing to live off. People who were fortunate enough to have a few sheep and a cow managed best. Unfortunately, with war going on all around you, even if you planted crops, it was not safe to go out and tend to them as you were likely to be shot and killed being out in the open fields. In desperate times we would dig up the snow and eat the roots of certain grasses to survive. Some people also managed to secretly hide food in underground cellars hoping that others did not find out about it. Things were so desperate that you could quite easily have been killed for a small amount of food.
It got so desperate that barbers from Lerin would go out to the villages seeking work. They would stop people ploughing in the fields to ask if they would like a haircut in exchange for food. It got so bad that people would wear hessian bags cut up to make clothes. Some who were fortunate enough to own sheep were able to darn their own clothes. I had pants made from plastic by my father. They were stiff and made noise as you walked. They also made you bleed due to severe chafing.
Shoes were also scarce. Some people tried to make wooden ones whilst others used pig skins to make pinsi (moccasins) which were extremely slippery.
When the Bulgarians arrived in 1941, the villagers made an archway
on the road close to the Krepeshina and Neret border. The archway
was made from green foliage and vine leaves were also placed on the
ground for the troops to walk on as they made their way into Neret.
All the villagers welcomed them to the sounds of church bells ringing
and rifles being shot into the air. Everyone was celebrating because
the Bulgarians had arrived. Our people had endured much under the
authoritative and oppressive Greek regime and had hoped that the Bulgarians
would be more sympathetic to our plight for freedom.
The Bulgarians gathered everyone in the village square and their
leaders Kalchov and Mladenov asked if there were any Bulgarians living
in the village. Sotir Ianakov, who was the village mayor (cojbajia),
said that he was. When the Bulgarian leaders asked Sotir where in
Bulgaria he was born he couldn't answer them and instead told them
the truth that he in fact was born in this village.
Kalchov said "You are not Bulgarian. You are Macedonian and
you should call yourself Macedonian because there will come a time
when the Greeks will come back and they will put you in jail because
you will be considered a Bulgarian sympathiser. You will continue
to suffer and you will die in jail. Call yourselves what you are -
don't lose your identity."
They then asked "Are there any Greeks in the village?"
Panayoti Vulgarakis said that he was and would die Greek because his
father was from Crete and his mother Menka Popova (her father was
a priest) is a Greek teacher. Kalchov shook his hand and said you
are a true patriot and state correctly what you are but there are
others here who are denouncing their ethnicity and they shouldn't.
The Bulgarian army came through the village on several occasions
together with the Germans and on one occasion were trying to establish
whether there were any people colluding with the partisans. On this
day they once again gathered everyone in the village square. A Bulgarian
officer had a piece of paper with the names of people they suspected
were working with the partisans and wanted to round up and shoot these
people. Lazo Tsitsulov was on this wanted list. He was known to the
Bulgarians and they told Lazo to get going otherwise he would be shot
by the Germans as he was on their list. He asked the Bulgarian soldiers
who were helping him what to do to escape. They told him to get an
egg basket and pretend to collect eggs to feed the Bulgarian soldiers
and use this opportunity to get away. Lazo raced home to collect his
rifle and say goodbye to his wife. Lazo escaped but the German soldiers
arrived at his house soon after. His wife was interrogated and because
of the shock and trauma died soon after.
On another occasion when the Germans had first occupied the village,
the Greek army had entered the Neretska planina (Neret Mountains)
in a region called the Ornitsa. The Greeks fired artillery from the
Plotcha (a rock outcrop overlooking the village). There were two recently
engaged girls who were standing outside one of the houses and they
were killed from the bombing. My father Velo and another Neret resident,
Vasil Dimirov, were part of the Greek brigade that day. My father
was very upset at what had happened and insisted that if the bombing
of the village did not stop, he would turn his gun onto the soldiers
who were bombing and killing innocent people. Luckily no further bombing
of the village took place that day. Soon after that incident Greece
had surrendered to Germany and dad came home from doing national service.
Vasil Dimirov would go on to assist the partisans. On one fateful
day Vasil was asked by the partisans to go to Lerin to obtain food
supplies, but someone had informed the Germans. Vasil was caught and
hung using fencing wire.
To provide for our family, dad would cut timber in exchange for food.
He would quite often gather a few other men from the village to go
with him. On one occasion when my father was coming back from the
valley with my uncle Spiro Marin, they ran into a German blockade
just outside Lerin. The partisans had killed two German soldiers in
Klubachista which is a town on the way from Lerin to Bitola. At this
roadblock, as retribution, the Germans were hanging people as they
arrived. They strung up a rope between two trees and put a rope around
the neck of each person, stood them up on a stool and then took the
stool away from under them. They had already hung 17 people, one of
whom was the priest from Nevoleni. My father and uncle were in line
ready to be hung as well, when suddenly the Gestapo arrived from Lerin.
They were hoping to get there in time because one of their informants
(who was a schoolteacher from Lerin) was also in line but they didn't
get there in time to save him. As a result of having accidentally
murdered one of their own, they decided to let all the others go.
Luckily, my father and uncle escaped from being executed. They were
still in shock when they got back to the village and tried to explain
what they had witnessed.
A great number of Germans were killed in the Lerinsko region. On
one occasion there were German troops getting ready to board a train
in Lerin when the English planes arrived and bombed them. Also, when
the Germans retreated, the Yugoslav partisans inflicted a lot of casualties
People lived in total fear. You could not go out and tend to your
crops or animals (if you had any). You had to be careful who you spoke
to and what you spoke about. You couldn't be sure who was colluding
with the enemy.
The partisans who were fighting with the British forces would burn
strips of bush in the mountains and place guiding lights so that planes
could drop off supplies of food, clothing and ammunition during the
night to fight against the Germans. The Germans were going from village
to village looking for these partisans and there was a great deal
of fear and uncertainty during these times. On one occasion my father
and his party of friends were getting ready to set off for the valley
in order to do timber cutting, which was to be used to barter for
food, when the Germans came into the village. They were looking for
Jovan Tsitsulev because he was working with the partisans. When one
of dad's friends saw the Germans coming, he panicked and hid in the
neighbour's alley. The Germans burnt down Jovan Tsitsulev's house
and when they caught my father's friend hiding, they decided to throw
him in the fire as well. Luckily his mother arrived just in time crying
and pleading for her son to be released. After a lot of pleading,
they finally released him. Lazo Vlahov, who was village mayor at the
time, was present but did not speak up to say that the man they were
about to burn alive was not the man that they were looking for. Lazo
must have been in shock.
During the German/Bulgarian occupation of Greece there was total
chaos. There was no food, no school, no work - just fear, starvation
and death. People were dying on the side of roads through starvation
and others so desperate for food were eating newspapers to try and
stay alive. There was a lot of stealing and looting during these times.
People were stealing from each other. Some would go to someone else's
field, steal what they could find and then take these items back to
their field. There was no one you could complain to if you suspected
someone had stolen your goods. Often people took matters into their
own hands when dealing with these sorts of issues.
Our family decided to leave everything behind in Neret and go to
Bitola (Republic of Macedonia). Dad got work cutting and preparing
timber to make coffins for an undertaker. It was close to where we
were living, and I could go to a Bulgarian primary school. The Bulgarian
army controlled the former Yugoslav region and set up Bulgarian schools
in the parts under their jurisdiction. In my lifetime I had in total
approximately 4 years of schooling - 2 in Greek back in Neret and
2 in Bulgarian in Bitola and sadly, no schooling in Macedonian. Towards
the end of the second world war and after 2 years in Bitola, mum was
becoming home sick. She managed to persuade dad to shift back to the
village. It proved to be a bad decision because my father had to give
up a good job and in the ensuing years, we were to encounter even
more hardship and brutal killings brought about by the civil war.
During the Second World War, I would often travel with my father
and a few of the other village men cutting timber. We would travel
to Voden, Karajoa (a region near the town of Sabotsko), and the Lerinsko
polije (lower, flat land near Lerin). I was too young at this stage
to go to Sveti Gora as you had to be a male over 14 to be allowed
entry. We would travel on foot with equipment such as thick woollen
blankets (chergi), saws (bichkij), axes (bultutsi) and shovels (lopati)
strapped on to our backs. We would lay down to sleep wherever we got
to when it got dark. Because I was the youngest, I would often be
sent to knock on doors asking for bread to eat. It was felt that being
a young boy, there would be a far greater chance of someone feeling
sorry for me and giving me food than in comparison to the older men.
On most occasions I was fortunate enough to receive some bread and
if I were lucky, I would get a bit of cheese as well. In the end we
survived during the German times but what was to follow was even greater
hardship and darker times.
During the period when we went logging (na bitchkia) on one occasion
we went during winter, on foot, all the way from Neret to the region
of Karajoia working north of the town of Sabotsko near the border.
We had to negotiate rough terrain around mountains (some 200km) to
get there. Dad was a well-known tradesman in Karajoa and found it
easy to obtain work. We were doing work for Popo Tsaklis (priest)
who was building a church. We were there for several weeks felling
very large trees (platani). These trees were so large that they couldn't
be placed on trestles (skelije). It was decided that the only way
we could work the timber was to dig a hole so 2 people could get inside
and work from below, whilst one worked from above. In this way, we
were able to cut the timber into smaller, more manageable lengths
that could be trimmed and shaped into different sized lengths that
were able to be used for construction of buildings. Dad was a very
skilled worker. His axe work was so good that at times it was difficult
to tell if the timber had been cut by an axe or by a saw.
It was the day before Christmas and my father said, if I wanted to,
I could leave and hopefully make it home in time for Christmas. I,
being a naïve, young 13-year-old boy, said yes. So, at about
3pm on the 6th January 1944 (Orthodox Christmas eve) I set off to
go back to Neret. I had no money, not even one coin in my pocket.
All I had was the clothes on my back, and they were struggling to
keep me warm. An old thin jacket was no match for the cold winter's
night which was to follow.
Neret was a long way from where we were and the only hope of getting
back in time was to get lifts from passing vehicles. I would jump
onto the back of slower moving trucks hoping that the driver would
not see me. When they would realise that I was clinging to the back
of their vehicle they would stop and force me to get off. I did this
several times and by night fall I had reached Voden which was still
about 100km from Neret. When I left Voden I managed to jump onto the
back of a truck but as before I would be thrown off when the driver
realised that I was hanging onto the back of his vehicle. I would
then keep walking hoping for another vehicle to come by. As it got
later in the evening the flow of vehicles along the roads diminished.
By 11pm I had reached Lake Ostrovo.
From Ostrovo, I headed towards Lerin via Gornichevo on foot. Wolves
were lined up on the mountain side. I had nothing for protection -
not even a stick to fend off any possible attack. Luckily, as I was
going up a steep part of the road towards Lerin, an army truck came
by. This truck was transporting frozen meat. They stopped and asked
me where I was going. I told them that I was heading for Lerin. They
said "We're headed that way too so if you want, you can jump
in the back but you will need to be in the freezer." As if it
wasn't bad enough being winter and wearing light, damp clothing, I
would have to endure a long ride sitting on the meat truck's damp,
icy floor. By the time I got to Lerin I was nearly frozen stiff, and
my skin was starting to turn purple.
What do I do? Do I try and find somewhere to stay, or do I continue
the journey? Neret was now within reach, only about 20km away and
I decided to continue walking. By the time I got to Mala which is
about half- way between Lerin and Neret it had reached midnight. Having
reached Mala I had another decision to make - do I keep going (as
Neret now seemed in touching distance) or do I wake up the Temoi family,
that we knew well, and hope that they would put me up for the night?
I knocked on their front door and thankfully they opened it and let
me in. I slept in their home overnight. When I was working with my
father, the night before we had slept at a vodenitsa (water driven
mill) but the place was riddled with fleas and we had all become infested.
As a result, I unfortunately infested the poor Temoi family as well.
It was bad enough waking them up in the middle of the night, but I
also gave them an extra job that they could have done without.
In the early hours of the next morning (Christmas Day) I set off
on foot for Neret, arriving there at about 10am. When my mother saw
me and the state that I was in, she broke down and cried. She was
shocked that dad would send off a young boy on his own with no food
and no money to travel nearly 200km in the snow in the middle of winter.
Mum got one of the neighbour's girls, Fania Milea, to help pick off
the fleas from my body.
Another memory of when we were timber cutting in Sveti Gora was that
of when I would be left in the bush during the weekend to clean all
the workmen's clothes. I had to pretend that I was over 14 years of
age because you weren't allowed in the region unless you were over
14 (an area controlled by monks). Dad and the other men would all
leave in the morning and go into a town called Karies to buy food
and return in the evening. I placed all the garments into a big drum
and boiled them for hours on end. I had no idea that I should be separating
the coloureds from the whites. In the end everything came out looking
grey. No one complained - I think they were just happy to have clean
clothes - the colour was of little consequence. On many occasions
we would be short of something, eg cooking oil, and I would be sent
out at night walking through mountainous forests to purchase what
was needed. We would also, on occasions, have a person that would
come through with mules loaded with wine that my father and his workers
On another occasion, my uncle Tanas Kirev (one of dad's relatives),
fell gravely ill one night. We didn't know what to do. We were in
the middle of nowhere - medical help was a long way away. We thought
he was going to die. Dad wet some warm woollen cloths with kerosene
and wiped his body all over with them. Uncle Tanas sweated out all
this fluid in blistered form. It seemed to do the trick and we believe
that is what saved him.
On another occasion we were lumbering near Voden in a village called
Vladovo. We were doing work for a villager who was making wooden carts
and wooden wheels for carts. We were there for 30 days and for most
of these days we faced lightning and rain and it was almost always
in the afternoon at around 4 pm.
The man that we were working for would supply the food for us. He
would come to where we were working in the bush and drop off food
for us each day. While we were there, dad ended up with a bad stomach-ache.
That day dad ate meat whilst the rest of us ate other things. We found
out afterwards that the meat was cooked in a copper utensil. Dad obviously
had copper poisoning, but we were not to know that at the time. Whilst
dad was writhing in pain, we were gathering around him crying helplessly
- we were trying to think how we could help him. We ended up giving
dad copious amounts of water and sugar and luckily, he pulled through.
I don't know if it was the water and sugar that helped him, or if
it was just luck.
Money was worthless during the time of German occupation of Greece, but we did very well in comparison to others. We were able to barter for the 30 days' work that we had done and in exchange we received a large amount of wheat. Dad sewed up velentsinia (large woven woollen blankets) using large needles that he would normally use to make saddles. These makeshift bags were used to place all the wheat that we were given. The man that we worked for was kind enough to transport these bags full of wheat to a nearby railway station. We then transported this wheat to Lerin by rail and then used mules to complete the rest of the journey to Neret.
The Life Story of Tanas Kirev