My journey to Macedonia began many years ago with stories of remote rural villages, hardship and Greek oppression, related to me by Dimana Vassos, the mother of my first husband and the grandmother of my children. She’d had a difficult life, married at the age of fourteen and bearing her first child at the age of fifteen. After the end of World War 1, with no work in the area, her husband and many other young men of the village left to try to find work in Canada. By this time Dimana had two sons and lived frugally on the little money she was sent from Canada and by taking in laundry. Since she was the only woman in the village who could read and write (taught by her mother as there were no schools), Dimana became the unofficial letter writer and reader for the women of the village whose husbands had travelled to Canada. The village was called Zagoriče (sounds like Zagorichee).
Eventually, Dimana was sent a ticket for her and the children to join her husband in Toronto. In order to obtain a passport, Dimana had to change her last name and that of her children from the Macedonian spelling of ‘Vasoff’ to the Greek ‘Vassos’ since her village had been given to Greece after WW1. At this time the people were forbidden to speak Macedonian and were required to speak Greek. But since transportation in the area was by mules and they only responded to Macedonian commands, the people said they were talking to their donkeys if caught.
Dimana arrived in Toronto and again survived by taking in laundry. Her husband paid infrequent visits but managed to father two more children before disappearing altogether. She eventually learned enough English to get a job in a garment factory where she was paid piecemeal for sewing sleeves on men’s coats. She was so quick that the other women were angry because she made them look incompetent; so to keep the peace, she held back on her finished work and handed it in when there were fewer work orders. She worked hard to put her youngest son, James Dimiter Vasoff (registered with the Macedonian spelling of his name) through High-school and help support him in University.
Dimana developed a strong network of friends in the Macedonian community in Toronto but abstained from the often heated discussions on the future of Macedonia – Socialism, Communism, Independence etc. She was an emotionally strong, independent woman; she was an intelligent, kind, caring, gentle soul. She died in 1975. I admired her tremendously.
So it became a bit of a quest – to try to find the village of Zagoriče where this amazing woman had her roots. We think we found it after leaving Struga and with some backtracking to locate the unmarked, narrow, one lane, paved, laneway leading into the village. There was a grassy playing field on which a horse was grazing at the entrance to the village. The buildings were mostly of clay brick construction, some of which were very old and in disrepair. Others were newer. The village was quite clean with no trash but obviously very poor. It was sad to me to know that Dimana’s village and the people in it still struggle to eke out an existence.
We met a family (mother, daughter,son – about 9 yrs.) in the village and at first they were reluctant to speak to us. The young boy spoke very limited English and I think we won him over when I gave him a Canadian Flag pin. We tried to explain that my husband’s family had come from this village but had limited success. It seems that even an older neighbor who joined the discussion had not heard of the Vasoffs. Were we in the right village? I don’t know for sure as there are similar sounding villages in nearby Bulgaria. We did have it confirmed that we were in Zagoriče when a man (the woman’s husband?) who understood minimal English arrived in a car.
This discussion took place at the side of the road beside what seemed to be a barnyard with chickens, a dog and cat. There was a barn but we did not know if it was used for animals. The area was quite muddy and the road beyond turned to rutted dirt so we made our goodbyes and carefully turned around to backtrack the way we’d entered the village.
It was with mixed feelings that I left this area. I admire Dimana even more than ever for carving out a life for herself in Canada after such a humble beginning. She restarted her life in a strange country, essentially by herself; she successfully raised four children putting the younger two through school and eventually she owned her own home. She was an amazing woman.
Thank you Hans, for the opportunity to tell this story and for assisting me in locating and identifying David and Brian’s roots.