A Vlach’s Life in His time
Part I. Family
My grandfather, Costa Cicma and his wife, Despina, had eight children; four sons—Dimitri, George, Nicholas and John, also four daughters— Maria, Kiratsa, Theodora and Hrisa. He was not wealthy, his pay as a leader of the Armatoli (protectors of the town) was not sufficient to support so large a family. His wife’s brother, Costa Ghiaragaki, was one of the town’s most prosperous citizens but he was without an heir. It was finally decided that he be allowed to adopt one of his nephews— mv father, George Cicma. He was given their surname and was brought up as their own son; however, there was no legal adoption and my father later resumed his original name, Cicma.
The oldest son, my Uncle Dimitri, did not wish to take up his father’s occupation and, with less than a grammar school education, he left Turia-Kragna; going to Smirna in Asia Minor to “seek his fortune.” Here he learned to read, write and speak the Turkish language and became acquainted with many of the Turkish customs. He made many friends, some of whom had lived in Romania; they told him that it was a beautiful country, rich, and that anyone could get a good job there and make a lot of money.
Dimitri remained in Smirna just long enough to save sufficient funds to travel to Bucharest, the capital city of Romania. He was amazed and delighted to find that the Romanians spoke the language of his hometown; heretofore he had believed that this language was indigenous to Macedonia! He proceeded to make an extensive study of the Romanian Language and, when he felt he had mastered it, he went to the Romanian-Macedonian Society and requested that they finance a school in Turia-Kragna for the purpose of teaching the people to use their native tongue more fluently and to provide better education, in their own tongue, for the children. This plan was approved and Dimitri returned at once and opened a small school in his own home. At first only relatives enrolled but the school soon became so popular that the class was too large to be held in the house and Uncle Dimitri went to the town officials and asked them to permit him to hold his classes in their school.
The school was, of course, directly supported by and under the control of the Greek Orthodox Church and all subjects were taught in the Greek language only. The officials, who had been thoroughly Grecomanized (although they spoke only a little Greek— just enough to talk to Jesus), were alarmed at Dimitri’s progress and refused his request. They also reported him to the Greek Bishop at Grebena, citing his “Great success in subversivework.”The Bishop delivered an ultimatum, ordering my uncle to relinquish his foolish idea or suffer the consequences. The punishment was well known—he would be denounced as a heretic and expelled from the church.
Dimitri knew that his cause was just and ignored the Bishop’s decree. Accordingly, the Bishop excommunicated him for his disobedience to the Edicts of the Greek Orthodox Church. In those days, to be excommunicated was one of the worst possible punishments—everyone feared the Church—it was generally thought and honestly believed that anyone who was excommunicated would shrivel up and die before the end of forty days (Excommunications as used by the Greek and Roman churches and, especially by the Pope, enabled the churches to subdue and control all influential people, even kings.)
The grip the Greek Orthodox Church had upon the populace goes back centuries when the local, pagan people were converted by it to Christianity. The Greek Orthodox Church kept them for many centuries in fear and ignorance—stating that Christ was a Greek and that he spoke only the Greek language! Greek churches and schools were established in every town to teach “the language of Christ” and thus to Grecomanize all inhabitants so that Greece could even tually claim the entire territory as her personal domain. The men were truly gullible—they wanted to be able to converse with Christ when they went to Heaven so most of them started to learn Greek. The women, however, could not be bothered and continued to use their own language in the homes and with their children; in this manner, the Romanian language was preserved and handed down from generation to generation, even unto this day.
During the forty days following his excommunication, my uncle was shunned by everyone, including relatives and pupils. His school was, of course, closed. He attended church by force, at gunpoint, making the priest allow him to enter. At the end of the specified time the people saw him alive, well, as happy as before and, if anything, more confident and determined to go on with his project. The villagers believed a miracle had taken place! This marked the beginning of the breaking away from the fears and superstitions which surrounded the Greek Orthodox Church as we knew it in Macedonia. The people continued to go to church to pray but were no longer prey to it.
My uncle re-opened his Romanian School and attendance more than trebled. The Bishop was advised of this and he now presented the case to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch who was seated at Constantinople in Turkey. The Patriarch denounced “Dimitri Cicma, Subversive” to the Turkish Sultan, Abdul Hamid. The Sultan ordered Dimitri’s arrest and extradition to Turkey for punishment. This decree was sent immediately to Turkish Headquarters in Turia-Kragna, commanding the arrest and prompt removal of my uncle to Constantinople.
Dimitri was the only man in town who could speak the Turkish language and he and the officer-in- charge had been friends for many years. This Turkish Officer advised my uncle as to the true meaning of the warrant—DEATH! He instructed my uncle to stop appearing in public until this order had been rescinded. For the second time the Romanian School was closed and now my uncle spent his days in seclusion—hiding in the house of his loyal friend, the Turkish Officer!
A few months later, in 1894, Greece revolted against the Turks and practically all the villages and towns of Macedonia were seized, the one exception being Turia-Kragna. Our town was strategically situated in the mountains, it had a force of about twenty- five well-trained mountaineers (Armatoli), a fully equipped Turkish Arsenal and, most important, the personal supervision of Dimitri Cicma.
The Turkish Officer-in-charge was thrown into panic at the thought of doing battle with only a handful of men and his initial reaction was to surrender immediately. My Uncle Dimitri was very anxious to protect the town from the plunder and rape to which it would be subjected at the hands of the Greek Guerrillas and also to save the life of his Turkish friend. He persuaded the panic-stricken officer not to flee or surrender but to open the Arsenal, arm the peasants, stationing them where he, Dimitri, directed. The officer agreed and they were armed, assigned stations, and told to fight on until reinforcements could arrive. They fought for three days and nights; holding back the Greek forces until the massive Turkish Army arrived and drove the attackers back to the gates of Athens, regain ing fully the control of the Macedonian area.
The General who directed the Turkish forces was surprised to find that Turia-Kragna was the only undefeated town; he learned that the guerrilla bands were halted here only because of the leadership and ingenuity of my uncle. He now gave Dimitri Cicma full Jurisdictional, Military and Civilian power over all of Northern Macedonia. Dimitri was given the title of “Pasha”—in the name of the Sultan and was made General of the Army, without portfolio, as he did not wish to have an active part in the affairs of the regular Militia.
Dimitri later made the long delayed trip to Constantinople. The Sultan personally awarded him two decorations and sanctioned all powers previously invested in him by the General. Cicma Pasha was also granted power to open Romanian Schools and Churches in any part of Macedonia (the now defeated Greeks had closed practically all theirs). Dimitri reopened the churches and, with three other Romanian teachers, revitalized the school at Turia-Kragna. He was influential in setting new standards of work so that the students were now being prepared for entrance to institutions of higher learning; later he established a school which was solely for the education of girls.
My father, George Cicma, was by occupation a leading shepherd, my Uncle John was the Commandant of Police, while Uncle Nicholas taught in the Romanian School, under Dimitri.
My father married twice, he had fourteen children by his first wife, this wife died of pneumonia and later he married Despa Harisi, my mother.
George Cicma was a deeply religious man who, although having little formal education, was always trying to acquire religious knowledge when and where ever he could. He would never undertake any important task without first consulting his Maker through much prayer and sup plication. He was an honest, fair- dealing citizen, considered well-to-do because he owned many flocks of sheep, goats, numerous horses and mares; he employed ten or twelve shepherds to care for his animals. He was extremely courageous and none of the mountain outlaws wished or dared to molest his flocks—every one tried to be his friend.
From April through the middle of October, the flocks were pastured on the mountains in Macedonia but in the winter these mountains are covered by ten to twelve feet of snow and the flocks must be taken into Greece to graze until the middle of March at which time they return to our Macedonian territory. I was the first born to George Cicma’s second wife; five other brothers and two sisters followed, all of whom lived. Until my fourth year I was always sickly, my parents had little hope for my survival. My mother did everything possible to build up my strength but to no avail; she gave up, finally, and my Aunt Maria took charge of me when I was three years old. Under her care, with the assistance of my father, I improved a little.
In Macedonia there were few doctors, in Turia-Kragna there was none. Shortly after my fourth birthday, an Albanian traveling physician, Dr. Theodorides, came through the town. He examined me and told my father that the only cure for me was to be taken to the mountains for no less than three months, to be fed a simple nourishing diet, including fresh lamb, cold spring water and plenty of fresh goat’s milk; I was to live in the open, in the pure mountain air for this entire period. Father decided to sacrifice this time from his work and he took me to Balsti, one of the highest mountains in Macedonia; here we stayed while some of his flocks grazed nearby. At the end of the specified time, I was as healthy as any normal child of that age; when father brought me back to the town, everyone refused to believe that I was the same child who had been so weak and ill a few months previously. I thank God that I have been well and healthy ever since.
Naturally, after such a pleasant stay on Mount Balsti, I rebelled at life in town! They finally settled me down by telling me that winter was coming and no one could remain on the mountain.
I started to attend the Romanian School in 1896; I was eager to acquire knowledge but, as the son of a well-to-do person and the nephew of the head of the school (who was also one of Macedonia’s most influential leaders) I actually worked no harder than was actually necessary. I continued in this way for two years then, in 1898, a plague of Small Pox came upon the sheep and the goats; my father’s flocks began to die by the hundreds. He was forced to let some of his shepherds go, this was the beginning of my father’s financial downfall; his family was increasing, so were his expenses and he finally had to sell his fine riding horses and mares to meet his debts as they came due.
That autumn I left the Romanian School and accompanied him into Greece to winter his remaining flocks; I attended schools at various stopping places along the route. There was one which I will never forget, the small Greek town of Cratinishti had a regional school whose educational level was particularly low; the teacher was paid only a small sum of money by the town and the pupils took turns bringing him his lunch and supper. There was no school on Saturday but each pupil was supposed to bring the schoolmaster a chicken on this day; he would load them onto his donkey and take them to the market and sell them! He was incompetent and, after I had been in the school a short time, I discovered that the extent of the subjects taught were the A,B,C’s and a few elementary words and numbers. I was still very young, but I told my dad how poor the educational standards of the school were and I insisted that he allow me to remain with the shepherds and be instructed by him; I firmly believed I could learn more under this arrangement than by at tending such a school. My father purchased the necessary books and, under his tutelage, I made excellent progress in History, Writing, Arithmetic, and Religion.
All the shepherds liked me because I was obedient and helpful; they would do anything for me—when an itinerant peddler came along, they would buy me small toys, sweets or dried fruit. These venders also sold tobacco to the shepherds, who all smoked avidly, as did most of the Greeks and Turks, young and old alike! They seemed to enjoy this so much that I decided to try it myself; I was too bashful to ask them for tobacco, so I took some of the butts which they had thrown away for my experimentation!
My father always tried to allow me to differentiate between good and evil by personal experience and, when he saw me trying to smoke, he took me aside and had a long talk with me, telling me that although he rarely smoked—except at special parties—he was willing that I smoke openly, but not the stale tobacco which I had picked up as that might make me ill. He bought me some of the best tobacco available and let me smoke one cigarette after another, continuously, until I nearly finished a good sized pouch of tobacco. I began to feel sleepy, lazy, dizzy, and finally terribly ill; this quickly cured me of my desire for cigarettes and also made me understand why my father so disliked to smoke.
The year I was nine, my father was so poor that he had to work for other shepherds in order to support his family; that same year I returned to Turia-Kragna and re-entered my uncle’s school. We studied Mathematics, Geography, Reading, Gram mar, and Geometry in the Romanian speaking classes and I also started to study French and Greek. The next year I once more had to leave school to help out; my father had a small flock of sheep pastured on Mount Balsti and he sent my brother John and me to take care of it; he remained in Turia-Kragna to try to obtain more work. Several other shepherds had their flocks in the same area so we were never lonely. Once during this period we were very low on food and decided to send John into town to tell Father to bring us additional supplies. He was afraid that he would have to make the delivery back up the mountain and so John assured our father that we were all fine and had only sent him to the village be cause we no longer needed his help! We had only goat’s milk and water for three days; at the end of that time we were all so weak that we could hardly stand. Father arrived with the usual supplies on the fourth day. He was furious when he learned the trick John had played on us but, being always a kind person with a forgiving nature, Father did not punish him too severely.
All this time I continued to study by myself. Each day when the sun was high, both sheep and shepherds had a rest period and would take naps. I utilized this time by studying. (To be continued.)