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 as well.

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 would purchase.

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.

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The Life Story of Tanas Kirev


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