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An Interview with Dr. Hristo N. Colakovski

by Robert Nicholas Talabac

CORRESPONDENT'S PREFACE: This piece developed in the first three months of 1993. Because of mutual busy schedules, I incorporated Hristo's written responses to my initial questionnaire with an 11 March 93 interview. Since I also drew upon discussions held with Dr. Colakovski since he first arrived in the United States four years ago, I asked him to read the final draft to see if his memory corresponded with mine. This he has done.

For three reasons -- limited space, Balkan instability, and the Vlachs' precarious position there -- the resulting interview was not as probing as I would have preferred. However, I hope it informs readers about the little known Arumanian community of the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia as well as allowing one of its professional citizens to express his passion for our unity and cultural continuance. I thank Hristo for his precious time and enthusiasm.

PERSONAL

[RNT] 

Before exploring the situation of our people in the former Yugoslavian Republic   of Macedonia, please give us a brief introduction about yourself.

[HNC]

I'm 36 and graduated from the Medical Faculty in Skopje. Following graduation, I  served as General Practitioner at the Medical Center in Bitola until December 1988,  when I left Yugoslavia. I came to the U.S. in April of '89 and completed the National Medical Board Exams in January 1992. In November 1992, I entered the    National Resident Matching program, and after a period of interviews and               selection, I will begin my residency in Internal Medicine this July.

[RNT] 

Your family and their history.

[HNC] My grandfather's grandfather, Sterio (Teja) Parits, was an intelligent, affluent and diplomatic man. He was an adviser to the residents of my home village of Nizopole: Arumanians, Slavs and Turks. Because of his standing, my family enjoyed great respect and full autonomy under the Ottoman Turks. In an accident, he severed one of his thumbs, so the Turks dubbed him Ciulac or "without thumb" in Turkish. Later, this was changed to the more Slavic sounding Colakovski.

His wife, Vasilica (ts-al Teja) was a striking woman. In fact, her nickname was Sirma (Arumanian for silkworm), which implies steadfast courage and generosity as well as physical beauty. She wore ciupari, dozens of gold coins dangled across the forehead. Also ciuprechi, a large silver hand-engraved belt. [Ed. Note: These were common features in the female costumes of the Southern Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East and signified wealth.]

My great-grandfather Kota al Teja Ciulac (Kosta Colakov) was born in Nizopole. An intrepid character, he was greatly respected for his diplomatic dealings with various brigands and rebels: Comits (Bulgarians), Andartes (Greeks), and Caceats (Albanians). His tactfulness was a crucial skill in defending both family and property at that time. He was honored with the Ilinden Medal and received a special pension for his activist role against the Ottoman Empire. He lived in Bridgeport for five years in the early 1900s. His brother, John Colakov, lived and died in Bridgeport and served in the US Army. My great-grandfather met his wife Migdala Nikola in Katerini, Greece (winter quarters for many semi-nomadic Farsharotsi and their livestock). She was born in Pliassa, Albania, and her family eventually emigrated to Katerini. After her marriage, the family came to the United States. I was her favorite great-grandchild and she spoiled me exceedingly.

My family employed shepherds and workers who cared for the sheep and other livestock. Some also worked the land. My great-grandfather died in 1960. He was the last member of the family to wear the classic Arumanian costume. My great-grandmother died in 1966.

My grandfather, Giogea al Kota al Ciulac (Georgi Colakovski), now 90 years old, and my grandmother, Pandora al Pandu al Tona (Pandora Colakovska), who is 83, were born and lived in Nizopole all their lives. They are in good physical condition today with excellent memories. Most, but not all, of my knowledge of family roots and Arumanian history was acquired through conversations with them, especially my grandfather. Besides Arumanian, they speak literate Greek and Macedonian (a Slavic language). My grandfather also speaks Albanian and a little Turkish. He was a master in the production of feta cheese and cashcaval, which was exported to America. He is a great storyteller, and I could not fall asleep until he told me one every night. My grandmother was a tailor skilled in designing our people's costumes.

My parents were also born in Nizopole where they finished primary school in Serbian and Bulgarian (under these respective occupations). There were no schools in Arumanian in Macedonia. After he finished high school, my father was admitted to Aviation school and served in the Yugoslav Air Force for two years. Afterwards, he returned to Macedonia and studied Economics. He worked as a commercial director until his death in 1985. It was a huge loss for our family and his Arumanian, Slavic and Albanian friends. He valued education as an important part of one's life and he loved to help people. My mother finished technical school and specialized in fabric machines. She retired after my father died and now lives with us in New York City. She is a wonderful person and takes good care of our children.

My sister Evgenia graduated from Law School in Bitola, where she worked as a lawyer. She speaks Arumanian as well as Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, and Greek. While visiting us she is also studying English.

My wife, Theodora (family name Goga), is a computer consultant/analyst and has been working in New York City for many years. Her family originally came from Northern Greece and emigrated to Romania many years ago. She grew up in Bucharest and speaks Arumanian, Romanian, French, some Italian and Greek. My daughter Victoria of course speaks Arumanian with us. She is two. My son Nicholas was born on 6 January 1993 and is growing up fine.

[RNT]

Tell me about Nizopole.

[HNC]

I love Nizopole and miss it very much. It's a beautiful village at the base of famous Mt. Pelister. The area has unique fauna and flora and two pretty lakes near the summit called Pelister's Eyes. There are about 100 stone, two-story houses and about the same number of weekend houses owned by people from all over Macedonia.

Springtime is beautiful and the best season: the breeze across the fields and through the forests is perfumed with the scent of blooming wild flowers, herbs and pine trees. In summer, a wide variety of fruits fill the orchards. Nizopoleans from all over return to celebrate S'ta Viñera (St. Paraskeva). In autumn, the woods glow from the fusion of a hundred different colors. In winter, the whole village is serene under a glistening velenza. There is excellent skiing, I might add.

Population wise, two-thirds of the people are Arumanians. The remaining third are Slavs, Albanians and Sarakatsans (Greek). All these nationalities speak fluent Arumanian! We live together in harmony. Unfortunately, most of the remaining population consists of the elderly. It's a shame. We Arumanians in the Southern Balkans have to find a way to revitalize our villages.

[RNT]

Do you think our people should choose one name to identify themselves and, if so, what should it be and why?

[HNC]

Officially Armânj or Aromanj (Arumanians), but it is unavoidable that at times this will be used in conjunction with Vlachi (Vlachs). We've been called other names as well, such as Koutsovlachoi, Tsintsari,Karagouni, Macedoniani, Macedo-Romanians or Romanians, and but we should simply identify ourselves as Armânj or Aromanj.

[RNT]

Some Vlachs balk at Armânj or Arumanian. They say they never called themselves that, but instead used Râmâni or Macedo-Râmâni.

[HNC] My family says Râmâni, too! Look, we can make ourselves dizzy over tribal affiliations. People can keep their regional accents, dialects, etc. in their daily conversations, songs, gatherings, etc. Agreeing on one international designation will facilitate research and distinguish us from the Romanian people -- and a single name will help us achieve some degree of unity. Let people use regional names in their villages or newsletters and among friends. I must add that we can not altogether reject "Vlach" because that's how we are found in historical documents, folk songs and, further, that's how we are known in Greece, Bulgaria and in Yugoslavia.

[RNT]

Besides, Arumanians are how we are now classified in the West. What about Macedoneani or Macedo-Români?

[HNC]

It's too political and too regional. What about our people who are not citizens of Romania or who do not come from Macedonia -- the ones in Greece or ex-Yugoslavia. What about the Vlachs who are Epirots, Thessalians or from Southern Albania or Serbia? It is not fair to them. I mean no offense to our people in Romania or to Romanians.

[RNT]

Did your family experience any persecution for being Armânj?

[HNC]

No. Not my family, anyway. I don't think it's healthy to reflect on this too much. But they were subject to assimilation. My family name, for example, went through several changes during various occupations of Macedonia: Ciolakovich under the Serbs, Ciolakov under the Bulgarians, Colakovski under Slavo-Macedonians. My relatives in Greece Hellenized theirs as well.

[RNT]

What about your own children? Will they continue the Arumanian identity?

[HNC]

Absolutely! Throwing away your identity like it's dust for the wind is a tragedy, to my way of thinking. Arumanian and especially Greek helped me greatly with medical terms and vocabulary during my studies. My daughter Victoria, two years old, speaks the language. So will my son Nicholas.

[RNT]

What do you think of the unofficial Arumanian "national anthem," Dimandarea Parinteasca?

[HNC]

I respect this poem because I understand the bitterness Belimace (the poem's author) expressed in 1888 towards the assimilation of our people and the loss of our unique identity and language. It was his way of fighting back. However, I do not think we should consider it a "national anthem." Neither should we throw it away. It is simply a part of our history.

[RNT]

Personally, I cannot gain inspiration from this curse. Indeed, Parinteasca Dimandare epitomizes the very mentality which is preventing our transition into a modern culture: A song is deemed sacred; a scholar and his theory are deemed glorious and irrefutable. An unquestionable mythology is established. To challenge the status quo is viewed as anathema. Or you're simply dismissed as being ignorant. A Vlach renaissance could use the eloquence and enlightened leadership of a Vaclav Havel. So could all the Balkan nations for that matter.

[HNC]

We have so many gifted musicians and poets who could compose new soulful, inspiring songs to be sung at festivals and congresses, etc. An international contest could be held throughout our communities with guidelines suggesting themes to be incorporated and those to avoid. There are avenues to encouraging participation, especially among the youth, if people are willing to be flexible and experiment.

[RNT]

What are your own hopes and aspirations for the future and for our people in Macedonia and the Balkans?

[HNC]

I am optimistic. The language continues in every Arumanian family. To pass on this identity we need to be recognized by the various Balkan governments, and they must encourage us to develop a modern identity. This also means co-operation and compromise between all the Balkan Arumanians whether in Greece, Albania, Romania, Australia or right here in the USA. If our people constantly hide our identity in the census or maintain a passive attitude towards promoting and developing our identity, then we are nailing the lids on our own coffins, so to speak.

That's why I think we should support people like Professors Vasil Barba in Freiburg, Germany, and Tiberiu Cunia in New York. They are two of the few people who are actively taking steps to preserve and pass on Arumanian culture. In order to do so, we need a written history, schools, newspapers, dictionaries, books, recognition in museums, and contributions to music, the arts, cinema, etc. A team of historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, and music specialists should pool their talents. Professor Cunia has published several books in Arumanian. We have to support his efforts. An Arumanian/English/Romanian Dictionary is one of his future projects. Here I would like to express my deepest sympathy for the loss of his wife Florica in November of last year. She was a warm and wonderful person.

[RNT]

An Arumanian think tank is a great idea but requires organizational and financial support.

[HNC]

Yes. Arumanians from around the world, in all professional fields, should network and make time to provide talent, education, etc. We cannot be afraid of being branded "subversives" or "enemies of the nation" by ultra-nationalists for caring about our future as an ethnic group. We do not want to betray any nation or government! We are mostly known as a hard-working, industrious, generous people in Macedonia and on the whole we are well-liked. Occasionally, there are jokes or stereotypes made about Vlasi, but every group experiences this, and anyway, it is true that some of these traits can be found in our people. We even joke about them ourselves.

We can live in peace with our neighbors, contribute to the development and integrity of whatever nation we inhabit and still take pride in being Arumanians. Many of my relatives have intermarried with other ethnic groups. What am I going to do, hate my own relatives? No, I love them! Not only relatives, but what about my friends, neighbors and colleagues who are of Slavic, Greek, Turkish, and Albanian descent. I have deep affection for them as well.

Armâneashti must be introduced as an elective course in the programs of Slavic, Romanian, Greek, Albanian, and Bulgarian schools. It is unrealistic to expect to have schools solely in Arumanian and separate from the official tongue in the countries where our people are to be found, since this would hinder our children's ability to function in modern society and to compete on a national level. It would only succeed in alienating us.

We must utilize our language in our own churches, where currently the local language is used. For this we have to have a Bible in our language -- I believe a translation may exist. Or churches which have a large concentration of Arumanians can provide dual or alternating language services. However, the churches our people attend in Greece should remain under the jurisdiction of the Greek Episcopate; the Arumanian churches in the other nations should report to the Episcopates of those countries.

I would like to see more TV/Radio time in Arumanian and plays/films in our language as well. But as I have stated before, this requires effort, talent, ingenuity, networking, the organization of seminars and various workshops led by enthusiastic professionals, etc.

POPULATION, ARTS, MEDIA

[RNT]

You just returned from a trip back home and to Ohrida, a town I have dreamed of visiting since I read Rebecca West's book on Yugoslavia and saw the watercolors of Edward Lear. Tell us about this visit. Do the Arumanians have a mahala or neighborhood there as well?

[HNC]

Because of the current situation in the former Yugoslavia and dispute between Macedonia and Greece over who owns the name "Macedonia," I could enter only through the Bulgarian border. Ohrida is indeed the most beautiful city in Macedonia. It is a very old, picturesque city of narrow cobblestone streets and stone and wood houses in the Turkish style with cantilevered upper rooms and balconies. Many historic and beautiful domed churches are scattered throughout the city. It is situated in Western Macedonia by Lake Ohrida. It was originally known as Lihnida in the 4th century B.C. It was occupied by the Slavs in the 7th century A.D. and was renamed Ohrida. The city is famous for its old churches like St. Naum and St. Kliment. In these churches you can see some of the finest icons in the world. One iconographer, Terpo, was from Korçë, Albania.

[RNT]

An Arumân? Samarina once had a flourishing iconographic school.

[HNC]

I don't know his nationality. But it's true, many Armânj were gifted artisans. Their skills were much in demand throughout the Balkans.

Ohrida is also well know for its very beautiful lake, a favorite spot among vacationers and tourists in Macedonia. There is an Arumanian mahala with its own church, St. George. The service, however, is in the Slavic language.

[RNT]

This quote is from a footnote to Chapter 15 "Nationalism" in Twentieth-Century Yugoslavia by Fred Singleton (UK):

"The number of Vlahs has fluctuated so widely in the post-war census returns, that little credence can be given to the figures. In 1948 there were 102,953. This fell to 36,728 in 1953 and to 9,463 in 1961. For some unaccountable reason it rose to over 23,000 in 1971."

What do you believe to be an accurate percentage of our people who retain an Arumanian identity in Macedonia?

[HNC]

I did some research and the 1991 statistics indicate that there are 8,129 Armânj. This is a ridiculously low number! I mostly blame our own people for hiding their identity during the census. Contemplating this figure creates great bitterness in me. When I think about all the work accomplished, time sacrificed, and money spent by our people in the diaspora in terms of promoting our identity -- and even foreigners work to help us -- it galls me that many native Arumanians in Macedonia hide their identity. I am sure the true figure for our people in Macedonia is at least 10 times more than the 1991 statistics indicate.

[RNT]

Around 80,000 Vlachs?

[HNC]

There are certainly a much greater number than the 1991 figure. This desire to camouflage our identity exists in Greece as well. Greek Arumanians can support international Vlach unity and still be loyal Greek citizens.

[RNT]

When did the Government finally allow radio/television, newspapers, recordings, etc. in our language, and what are these media like? Tell us something about their viewpoints. What other cultural activities are happening?

[HNC]

We always had our music on the radio, once a week. Starting 15 January 1991 we were allowed 30 minutes of TV air time -- also once a week. The program covers international and local news, documentaries on our history, costumes, and entertainment. It is strictly in our own language.

There are two periodicals (newsletters) published by our people in Macedonia. Fenix is put out by the Arumanian Society Pitu Guli (a hero of the Ilinden uprising against the Turks in 1903) in Skopje. The other one is Lutseafire (North Star), edited by the Society Nicolae Batsaria, named for the poet who acted as a representative for nationalist Vlachs to the Ottoman Empire. These newsletters contain novellas, poetry, songs, news briefs, and ideas on how to preserve Arumanian identity.

There is also Seara Armaneasca -- "Arumanian Evenings" of poetry, music and dance which are held in Bitola, Skopje, and Krushevo. A few folk groups perform small concerts around the country. The Armânj are represented at various music and dance competitions. The children participate, too!

[RNT]

Are many of our people in Macedonia in professional fields?

[HNC]

Yes. Especially in medicine, business and law.

LIFESTYLE: TRADITION VS. CHANGE

[RNT]

What do you cherish about your Arumanian background?

[HNC]

I am proud of being Arumanian. I love speaking our language. In Macedonia we are know as mostly a generous, warm, family-oriented, hard-working people, and active supporters of progressive movements. It would take many pages to write about the positive role of Armânj in Balkan history, arts, sciences, etc. I have already mentioned earlier what should be done to ensure our survival. I stress that diplomatic dialogue with Slavs, Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians and Albanians is essential in order for them to fully accept and respect us as an independent and distinct minority. They should not deny our existence or manipulate us for their own purposes. And we have a responsibility to be conscientious citizens, which most of us already are.

Our goals have to become known to the international community. Very few, if any, Americans, would know my identity if I mention that I am Arumân. Also, we could benefit from the support any humanitarian organizations could offer if they knew of our cause.

[RNT]

What do you believe needs to be changed in terms of outdated customs and attitudes if we are to survive as an ethnic group?

[HNC]

I don't know of any outdated customs. In one article I read some years ago, the author suggested that some of our people try to preserve our identity solely by dressing up and being photographed in outdated traditional costumes. This particular event was similar to other ethnic festivals where traditional costumes are often proudly worn. Just look at the Irish on St. Patrick's Day in their kilts, or the Greeks on Independence Day. Look at the Vlach Festival in Selia.

[RNT]

What about an outdated mentality? My first trip to Greece in 1984, I attended the Vlach Festival in Selia and got into a polite argument with an old gentleman who insisted the Sarakatsans were Armânj. I remember, too, that when you first came here we had the same argument. Because Theodore Capidan was a "scholar," our people did not question his chauvinistic theories about the Sarakatsans, even though western scholars agree with those in Greece that the Greek dialect, marriage ceremonies and textile patterns of the Sarakatsans suggest a pre-classical, possibly Doric Greek, heritage.

[HNC]

This will change through better access to western education and more open forums. I'd like to emphazise that there are positive attributes: hospitality, diplomacy, our sense of humor. There's less crime, fewer divorces, scenic landscapes. And in general a more relaxed lifestyle.

[RNT]

What percent are still involved in agriculture and traditional shepherding/livestock?

[HNC]

Our shepherds still can be found living in small villages. But how many, I don't know. Not as many as before 1960.

[RNT]

I want to read you a passage from a book on Macedonia by Prebevitch that talks about Government measures towards the Vlachs and I'd like you to comment further, if possible.

"In order to do away with this nomadic way of life, the Macedonian authorities in the early sixties, using caterpillar tractors, tried to convert high mountain pastures in western Macedonia into fields yielding various kinds of fodder. Sheep flocks could then stay over the winter in new, modern, roofed sheepfolds of stone, living on fodder grown and stored on the spot. The experiment proved overambitious. Some defended the traditional sheep migrations as being more beneficial to lambing. Thus in the wilds of western Macedonia you will still see the baila, the lonely summer villages of the Vlach shepherds ... to shelter the animals from the wolves and the bears."

[HNC]

It is obvious that this appropriation of land to form co-operatives was a big mistake. After government decisions, our people left for the cities where it was difficult to survive. That is when many people started to emigrate to Australia, America and Western Europe.

VILLAGES AND COMMUNITIES

[RNT]

Is Armâneashti often heard in the streets and shops of Macedonia? In Skopje for instance?

[HNC]

Not so much in Skopje. In people's apartments and homes, yes. In Bitola, yes -- more so, in certain sections. In Krushevo, absolutely!

[RNT]

What other Vlach villages/communities have you visited in Macedonia and the other Balkan countries? Have you ever visited the Meglen Vlach villages in Yugoslav Macedonia?

[HNC]

The ones around Bitola: Magarova, Târnuva, Molovishti and Gopesh. But our biggest community is in Krushevo, a beautiful mountain city with a tragic history. I also have visited some of our communities in Shtip, Coceani, Titov-Veles and Skopje. In Greece I have visited the Vlach community of Katerini in Greek Macedonia and Larissa in Thessaly. Also in Thessaly, the Farsharot villages of Karajoli and Karitsa.

[RNT]

Karitsa? I think George Moran missed that one in his survey of Vlach villages that appeared in this Newsletter.

[HNC]

He didn't mention it in his tour of villages. It is a small village south of Katerini. I have never been to the Meglen villages.

[RNT]

What about environmental issues? Are our people involved -- especially the youth -- as was the case in Greece concerning the construction of a dam that would have flooded the Valea Kalda National Park?

[HNC]

There was a problem in Bitola around 15 years ago. Authorities created an artificial lake by constructing a canal which diverted rivers and streams near our villages. This resulted in a loss of water for us. My father was active in protesting against this. I don't have details on other incidents.

POLITICS AND ETHNICITY

[RNT]

Amazing changes have occurred in Eastern Europe as well as in the world. Initially there was an atmosphere of joy, now swept away by old ethnic hatreds, civil wars, and the foreboding rise of neo-fascism and anti-Semitism. What are the chances of democratic principles being embraced and upheld in Macedonia -- by all groups concerned?

[HNC]

I cannot really believe what is happening in Yugoslavia. It is madness. After the recent changes in Eastern Europe, I was hoping that everything would improve -- that every country would concentrate on its economy, improve its technology, and help create a more united Europe. Instead, we have been witnessing chaos and history repeating itself. Either democracy, compromise, and ethnic tolerance and cooperation take root or war will spread and only God knows what will replace it.

[RNT]

Is it conceivable that a market-oriented economy can take root in Macedonia after so many years of a centralized government? What do they export?

[HNC]

Yugoslavia was not as centralized a system as in other East European countries. A high percentage of small businesses are private. Instead of developing the economy, we have now got the highest inflation since the World War II. So much depends on recognition and stability. A multi-party, free election system does exist. Yet, the civil war, the weak economy and unclear status of Macedonia create an atmosphere of confusion and insecurity.

Macedonia exports opium, tobacco, nickel, iron, and agricultural products. However, it remains a very poor region. Much economic restructuring, training and investment is crucial for a successful market economy.

[RNT]

Tell us about the different Arumanian societies in Macedonia and their orientations and aspirations for our people?

[HNC]

Today there are many: "Pitu Guli" in Skopje; "Fratsi Manakia" in Bitola; "Santa Giurgiu" in Shtip; and Nicolae Batsaria" in Krushevo. Also, there are some new societies in Ohrida and Struga. By the way, "Lunjina" (Light) is a Vlach Society in Belgrade, Serbia. I prepared a list of some of the Macedonian societies' aspirations:

! To co-operate with the international Arumanian community in celebrating and developing our culture.

! To be recognized as a distinct minority.

! To preserve our language and culture.

! To introduce Arumanian courses in school.

! To encourage diverse publications.

! To have more radio/TV air time.

! To have some kind of representation in the Macedonian Parliament.

! To have the Institute for National History of Macedonia form a department of Arumanian history.

! To have the Institute for Folklore Marko Cepenkov in Skopje include our folklore, music and customs.

! To have the Kiril Metodij Dept. of Romanistics include Arumanian as one of the Romance languages to be studied there.

! To eventually have an Arumanian Congress held in Macedonia (so far they have only been held in the West).

! To pass legislation that would return properties that were taken away from Armânj -- schools, churches and land.

[RNT]

Since the Arumanians will never will have a country of their own -- and given the xenophobia towards minorities in the Balkans -- on what level can Arumanian unity be achieved? Can cultural freedom exist without political organization?

[HNC]

We've been scattered for too long to even think about fighting for territorial unity. In August of 1992 in Krushevo the International League of Arumanians was founded. Their goal is to have all Armânj world wide co-operate at a cultural level. As history has taught, having some kind of political organization is necessary to protect interests and identity.

[RNT]

But Dr. Winnifrith strongly suggested to our community in Albania that they do not form their own political party like the Greeks in Albania have done.

[HNC]

If not a separate party, at least some responsible group democratically appointed by our communities who will be allowed access to government. Governments by nature are bureaucratic. How else can a small people like ours ensure its proposals are taken seriously?

[RNT]

Should the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia be recognized by the world?

[HNC]

Since all the other republics in the former Yugoslavia were recognized, then yes, I think Macedonia should follow. There is no other alternative. I preferred Yugoslavia to stay united, with a considerable improvement in democracy and the economy.

[RNT]

What do you think of Greece's fears concerning recognition, and of the Greek practice of referring to Macedonians as Skopjians?

[HNC]

I can only say that referring to Macedonians as Skopjians is like referring to Americans as Washingtonians.

[RNT]

Greeks fear that "Skopjians" embracing Hellenic symbols like the Star of Vergina, or creating maps which include Greek territory, is evidence of a hidden agenda which includes eventual annexation of Greek Macedonia -- although this province is now largely Hellenized after several population exchanges earlier this century.

[HNC]

But the modern-day Slavs have been in the region that geographically was part of Ancient Macedonia for over 1,000 years. They don't want to be part of Greater Serbia nor Bulgaria, so they chose this geographical name. The Greek province of Macedonia along with its capital of Thessaloniki belongs to Greece. It complicates things, but I don't think one country should tell another what to call itself.

[RNT]

Most Western scholars agree the Ancient Macedonians were rather Hellenized by the time of Philip and Alexander. Even if questionable linguistic evidence points to a Thracian or non-Greek component -- and even if the Athenians denounced them as a barbarians -- their rulers were Greek in spirit -- especially Alexander. And yet some Slavs go so far as to claim the ancient Macedonians as their ancestors.

Alexander the Great could not have been a Slav since Slavs did not come into that part of the Balkan Peninsula till almost 1,000 years later. You have ultra-nationalists in all the Balkan countries, and there are some people who engage in this fantasy.

[RNT]

Greeks also recall their bitter Civil War, elements of which centered on the Communist party's promise of an independent Macedonia.

[HNC]

All wars are terrible. They only create more fear and hatred. My family lost two dear relatives who fought the fascists in World War II. That's why I believe borders should remain as they are. But the Greek Civil War is an extremely complicated subject. The Macedonian constitution stresses that no irredentist claims are to be made over this area. Too much blood soaks the Balkan lands and irredentist claims should cease. Greek Macedonia is and should remain part of the Greek state. Give the Hungarians in Transylvania cultural rights but don't dismember Romania. Give the Greeks in Southern Albania minority rights, but don't claim it as "Northern Epiros," etc. There are minorities in all the Balkan countries. We need to allow people to celebrate ethnic identities, but there has to be some unity, compromise and tolerance as well, under a democratic constitution.

[RNT]

Does it concern you to see some Albanians draw maps that incorporate Bitola and Ohrida?

[HNC]

Greatly.

[RNT]

What are your views on Professor Barba's organization in Germany?

[HNC]

Prof. Vasil Barba is an outstanding figure for Armânj, especially for us in Macedonia. He relit the candle that was extinguished over fifty years ago. I hope that through his organization in Germany he continues his work, but stays away from any political influence that could adversely affect Arumanian identity in Europe and elsewhere.

[RNT]

Should Romanian influence once more extend itself to the Arumanians, especially in Albania?

[HNC]

Our people in Albania should be careful on the one hand, and not burn bridges on the other. Arumanian, not Romanian, should be introduced in our schools and churches. Our people in the Balkans are in a precarious position. Look at what is going on and what could result if war spreads!

We should keep Armâneashti unique! Romanian should serve as an important model in updating Armâneashti, but we should not be opposed to borrowing from Greek, Italian or other languages. We should not embrace every aspect of Romanian culture blindly as if it were our own.

The Vlachs in the southern Balkan countries want to be accepted as loyal citizens of those countries. We already had the experience of having schools closed in Greece and Macedonia because the Romanian language was taught and not Arumanian. If Romanian is taught for cultural exchanges, for trade, for scholarship and diplomacy then that is acceptable. If Romanian culture and history is presented as a superior or true substitute for our own, then I think that is wrong, sad, and could instigate discord among all the Armânj.

[RNT]

In the Timok Valley of Eastern Serbia are Vlasi or Vlachs, but I don't believe they are Arumanians. Professor Tom Winnifrith viewed a film of a wedding in one of these Timok villages and was also struck by contrasts in behavior and culture between Vlachs of the south and the Vlasi of eastern Serbia.

[HNC]

Exactly -- their history is different. They have customs and rituals that Armânj don't have and would not feel comfortable adopting. What is the point? In fact, they are Daco-Romanians.

[RNT]

Although President Clinton warned of military involvement if the Serbs do not halt their aggression, news reports indicate ethnic-cleansing has started in Kosovo after months of both psychological and physical intimidation and abuse against the majority Albanian population. This can result in either an all-out Euro-Balkan war, involving possibly Russia and Islamic countries, or millions of refuges flowing into Albania, Macedonia, and Greece. This influx would then most certainly aggravate ethnic tensions in these countries.

[HNC]

It was a tragic mistake for the world to so quickly recognize the independence of the former Yugoslavian republics without thoroughly analyzing the situation. It all happened too fast. If the U.S. wants to help, they have to be very diplomatic. Getting involved at a military level would result in blood being spilled on both sides. You see what has already happened. Let us pray to God that peace comes and that the war does not spread.

[RNT]

What can our community do to help now? And later if things explode?

[HNC]

A small community cannot do much, I'm afraid. Prayers are welcomed.

I cannot understand all this bloodshed. Nizopole was unique in that I, a Christian, would comfortably visit my Moslem friends during Ramadan, their holiest holiday, and enter their mosques. This did not happen in other villages in Macedonia, where a village was either purely Eastern Orthodox or Moslem.

[RNT]

What is the ethnic make-up of Macedonia and how are we viewed by these people?

[HNC]

Besides Slav Macedonians, Bulgarians and Serbs, the next largest ethnic group is the Albanians, followed by Turks, Gypsies, Arumanians, and some Greeks. Armânj have co-existed happily with these groups over the centuries and Nizopole is a good example of peaceful co-existence between different nationalities. My father played an important role in this. The Slavs, however, never stopped assimilating us. I regret to say that today our people in Macedonia allow themselves to be assimilated too easily.

[RNT]

What about the old school in Bitola? I believe it now belongs to the Albanians.

[HNC]

Yes, it does. This is what I am saying. I blame our own people for not standing up. They approached the government a few times to try and get it back but were not persistent. The Albanians constantly demanded their language rights and got them. Our people were just too passive.

ARUMANIAN SCHOLARSHIP

[RNT]

Growing up, what access did you have to scholarly works on the Arumanians -- or was all your knowledge learned orally from our own people?

[HNC]

I had access to very few books about the Vlachs in school. I recall only one or two history lessons when they were mentioned as being the one of the oldest nations in the Balkans.

[RNT]

Have you read Dr. Winnifrith's book? What are your impressions? How about those of our people in Macedonia who have read it?

[HNC]

I only had access to this book in Freiburg. I discovered a great deal about our history and communities in Greece. Probably very few people have read this book in Macedonia, since there is no Slavic or Arumanian translation as yet.

[RNT]

What do you think about his comment that the Arumanian language is an ugly one?

[HNC]

I am not a linguist, but I would not qualify any language as ugly. A language can be musical or harsh, poor or rich in vocabulary, etc. I love our polyphonic music, for example. Experimenting by incorporating a variety of musical styles and developing a more literate language would challenge listeners and widen the audience for this type of music. But I have a strong affection for Armâneashti and would hate to see it disappear. New teaching methods, including audio/video labs can facilitate and enhance language instruction. To me, Armâneashti is and always will be beautiful!

FAITH

[RNT]

On the whole, would you say our people are religious? What is their situation concerning religious worship?

[HNC]

Yes, even under the communists they did not abandon their religious beliefs. Here again I want to mention the work of Prof. Tiberiu Cunia and his great job in trying to translate and publish books in Arumanian. His books are dearly appreciated in Macedonia and he has sent hundreds of them as a gift to the Arumanian community there. He could work on the translation of the Bible with a lot of support and help from all of us.

[RNT]

Are there churches that need to be renovated or built as in Albania?

[HNC]

We need to have at least some land and buildings returned to us for churches in the major cities. Of course we need financing as well. This could come from the community, government assistance, and philanthropists.

THE GREEK VLACHS AND THE ALPHABET DEBATE

[RNT]

This community is the most active culturally and yet very patriotic. They have taken offense at the Freiburg group's insensitivity to their patriotism and to other issues such as an alphabet for our language. What is the best way to approach Greek Vlachs on cultural unity in terms of such things as an agreed upon alphabet?

[HNC]

I do not see what patriotism has to do with an alphabet. The alphabet should without question be Latin. Freiburg's new alphabet is computer friendly and Professors Barba and Cunia have done great work in this area. I cannot compromise here. Neologisms will mostly have to be drawn from Latin. Armânj all over the world should unite and agree on this issue. Armâneashti is a Romance tongue. What is the point of using a Greek or Cyrillic alphabet to write a Latin language? It makes no sense.

Simply, assure the Greek Vlachs and their government that we are not pro-Romanian and only want to preserve our language and identity. We would support any progressive movement among our people in Greece that is non-violent, democratic and does not interfere with either their citizenship or ours. Or their affection for Hellenism. The Greeks have to understand that we only want cultural unity with Vlachs scattered throughout the other Balkan countries.

[RNT]

How can we assure them of that when Barba has advocated Romanian cultural predominance in the last Zborlu a Nostru and calls the (Greek) Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew a "wolf?"

[HNC]

I have known Professor Barba for many years and have had several interesting conversations with him about our situation. He never gave me the impression that he is pro-Romanian. Perhaps he overreacted because he doesn't want to see our people assimilated through a powerful and wealthy Ecumenical Patriarchate. He probably wants to see our people have the dignity and freedom to express themselves spiritually in their own language. I don't know. I have not spoken to him about this comment.

Let me say, Barba has tried to open a line of communication between Arumanians throughout the world. His newsletter Zborlu a Nostru is for all our people. I open it and read what other Arumanians are thinking or doing in the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Albania, Romania, Germany, Australia, France, Italy, and America. It makes me feel good that steps are being taken to unite our people. For this, if nothing else, we should appreciate his efforts and contribution to Vlach continuity. Our development depends on cooperation and action. Here is a man putting his heart, time and money into action.

[RNT]

Have the Armânj in Macedonia ever been invited to attend the annual Pan-Hellenic Vlach Festival held in Northern Greece?

[HNC]

No. Not officially. But here, I'd like to mention an instance of Arumanian brotherhood transcending nationalistic xenophobia. A young, wealthy Armân from a strongly pro-Greek Vlach village financed costumes for one of our folk groups in Macedonia, which otherwise could not have afforded such a luxury. There was no politics or chauvinism, but simply an expression of pride and generosity. This touched me deeply.

[RNT]

Perhaps if they promise to avoid sensitive political discussions, an invitation will be extended. Maybe the Pan-Hellenic Union of Vlachs in Greece needs to be less xenophobic about the Vlach diaspora.

You used to vacation around Katerini in Greek Macedonia every summer. Did you encounter any trouble crossing the Yugoslav-Greek border during these vacations? Why or why not? What experiences have you had with our people in Greece or in identifying yourself as a Vlach to Greeks?

[HNC]

You do need a visa in order to cross this border. Other than that I never encountered any problem crossing into Greece. I never had any problem identifying myself as a Vlach to Greeks. On the contrary, it helped me on some occasions.

I was upset, however, about some of my relatives and friends there trying to hide their Vlach identity. I attended a wedding in Greece and our people started singing a song. I recognized it immediately as one of our Farsharot songs -- but sung in Greek. Why, I asked my relative in astonishment, has it been translated into Greek? He shrugged and said, "I guess it sounds better in Greek." I was furious. It is this self-effacing passivity expressed towards our language that will put an end to us. This attitude, I believe, resulted because of several factors: We almost instinctively disguise our identity, either because of past persecutions or a sense of shame that our language is undeveloped in a modern, "civilized" world. At various times, too, you must remember that Vlachika was forbidden and ridiculed. But it is not too late for us if we recognize the positive aspects of knowing and celebrating our roots. And what you don't like, you have to speak up and suggest something better, instead of abandoning it altogether!

PRESCRIPTION FOR HOPE

[RNT]

In conclusion, both you and I have agreed on certain elements if the Arumanians are to survive into the next century and I'd like to list them for our readers:

(1) Peace, stability and democracy in the Balkans;

(2) Cultural and (to a lesser extent) political recognition by the various Balkan governments as well as the international community;

(3) Said governments' encouragement and support for Arumanian cultural goals without any political manipulation;

(4) The Arumanians' own pride, affection, enthusiasm, dedication and creativity towards their survival;

(5) Organization and distribution of goal-oriented manpower, including scholars in various fields, educators, artists, and, most importantly, youth participation;

(6) Generous funding from governments, philanthropists and the Arumanian community -- and responsible utilization of said funds;

(7) A bit of gentle romantic eccentricity, to counter Vlach self-effacement and pragmatism, wouldn't hurt either;

(8) Finally, because of a bloody record of intolerance and chauvinism in Balkan history, we need to exercise vigilance in upholding democratic ideals and maintain spirituality to challenge any destructive philosophy or movement.

But for this complicated and somewhat idealistic renaissance, are there any other qualities Armânj need to achieve our goals?

[HNC]

That's just it -- I don't consider it idealistic! We must be resolved. There is strength in unity. This is what we must strive for if we want to survive. It takes great work, sacrifice, and cooperation. All our communities must participate and be prepared to set and reach our goals. We can do it! We could learn something from the Jewish and other Western communities.

[RNT]

There is strength in unity, but democracy and cultural growth result when a group employs an open forum and justified criticisms are encouraged.

[HNC]

True. But if you continually tear apart a building before the foundation is in place, people will just give up in disgust. The international Arumanian community must agree on the basics: cooperation, cultural recognition and a single alphabet. I am not saying every village or person should feel, act and think the same or follow one leader blindly. I am saying we should agree on a foundation to build upon before we completely disappear. There are many other things I'd like to discuss, but it would take one hundred more interviews. Perhaps at another time, or at a Society Farsarotul meeting, if I'm invited.

[RNT]

You are hereby officially invited to become a member, attend the meetings, offer the ideas outlined for discussion, and perhaps even inspire some new initiatives. Thank you very much.!


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