January 21, 2016 by American College of Sofia
Interview by Lisa Kostova ’97
On a crisp and sunny morning in November, I drive across the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. I’m headed for a quiet and cozy residential neighborhood in the East Bay, a calm patchwork of one-story simple homes with Spanish motifs and sunny yards where I’m going to visit Alice Zlatka Litov, an 89-year-young writer of the book From Dawn to Daylight, My Life in Bulgaria. Alice is a 1942 graduate of the College, the last class that managed to graduate before the school was closed. I’m from the Class of 1997, the first class to graduate. Alice and I have already met once before – the 45 years that separate us dissolve as we share experiences and stories of defining and uncertain times and the people who touched our lives.
Alice opens the door and I’m greeted by a sunny elderly lady – her stature is small but there is a bounce in her step, and her hazel eyes twinkle with kindness. They light up with her open, infectious laughter and grow sad and thoughtful when she talks about the days long gone and experiences that are too vivid to forget. Her house is warm and inviting. The living room opens to a sunny deck full of flowering plants – geranium, alstroemeria, and other varietals, and to my amazement they are all in bloom at the same time. The walls are adorned with petit point embroideries and Bulgarian plates Alice made herself, as well as Madonnas, rugs, and scenes from the Bulgarian countryside. The grandfather clock in the dining room makes a comforting ding-dong sound every half hour and a deep sonorous sound at the top of the hour. I feel at home.
Alice, how did you come to attend the American College of Sofia?
Both my parents spoke English – my dad had been to the US to study and then he returned to Bulgaria. My mother had gone to an American school in Bitola, in Macedonia, where she was from. My sister and I went to the American Grade School from Grade 1 on. My brother went to a German School because most of the trade in my dad’s business was done between Germany and Bulgaria at that time. I went to the American College as one of just a few of my graduating grade school class who were selected to continue our education at the College.
Do you have a vivid memory from your time at the College?
I have several precious memories. One of them is of our sing-alongs on the steps of Assembly Hall. On Sunday evenings, our choir director Mr. Goncharov, a Russian who had fled Russia after the revolution and who was an accomplished musician and mathematician, would lead the sing-along. We used booklets called 101 Best Songs, which had a selection of American songs, spirituals and other ones like Yankee Doodle, and some Hawaiian tunes as well. It was in the evening hours, so when the sun was setting, it was a fairyland experience.
Another very vivid memory had to do with the dormitory life. For me it was a wonderful opportunity to get to know my peers – girls who came from different backgrounds and had varied interests. The dormitory where Tsetsa, my best friend from the grade school, and I were eventually placed housed twelve girls. Four of us were from Sofia and the others came from different parts of the country. The girls were all different, but all of them were so interesting to be with and we stayed together all of the five to six years we were there. I also remember the visit of Princess Eudokia, the sister of King Boris III, and how a few of us, choir members, went caroling in the dark outside professors’ residences. We also had a costume ball (not Halloween), which was a staged performance in Assembly Hall.
How did you experience 1942, the last year that the American College of Sofia was open and the year that you graduated? How did the College staff explain to the students what was going on?
At our age at the time, we were more or less sheltered. We knew there was a war, but it was not in Bulgaria, so it didn’t affect us directly. A great part of the year was spent in the College and we were not even aware of the food shortages going on. The college personnel were so good in continuing to provide for us and cook for us. We didn’t have the food coupons that the general population had to use and the college caretakers were able to find provisions for us from neighboring villages. Even though we knew that some teachers had left, the College continued – same subjects, same hours – and our teachers who remained were very calm and reassuring. And that was a wonderful thing – they proceeded as usual and didn’t frighten us. Later, when I read President Black’s book, I learned that he had to withdraw the College’s money from the bank at the last minute so he could continue providing the supplies. He had to walk on foot the distance from the bank in Sofia to campus because cars were not allowed for traveling at that time. That was 1941. I graduated in the spring of 1942 and the College was closed half a year later by the Ministry of Education.
What happened to the ACS students who were still at school?
Most of them went back to their hometowns and finished school there.
How did you find out the College was closed?
We heard about the Americans leaving campus by word of mouth. I was attending classes at the University of Sofia when the last train pulled out from the train station with all the personnel – the Blacks and some of my grade school teachers. But the American Embassy had closed even earlier, in 1942, before I graduated from the College.
In Communist Bulgaria, anyone who was previously affiliated with a Western or American educational system faced extreme scrutiny. What was your initial experience with the Communist regime?
The regime was smart because they didn’t change things right away and put a stop to everything, they proceeded gradually. The Agrarian Party, for example, was allowed to function as if there was really a two-party system. But the reality was different. My cousin and a friend of hers had put up some posters calling to people to vote for the Agrarian Party. But the secret police caught them while they were putting up the posters and sent them to prison – we didn’t even know where my cousin was. And eventually, the head of the Agrarian Party, Traicho Kostov, was hanged.
My father’s leather goods store was not closed right away but little by little. At first, imports were not allowed and it was more difficult to get supplies even from the countryside. Eventually, all private businesses withered away or were ordered to close. Another tactic was to install one person in each community of ten who would report to the Communist Party about these people – who they talked to, what they said, where they met. Everybody had a dossier. They also installed loudspeakers at every corner – that was the only news source for us, since all the radio stations were shut down except for the Communist station. They had us study Marxism in the community – it was compulsory for everyone. At that time I was 18 years old and I had no idea what Communism really was.
Because our store was closed, I had to find another job. I had an accounting background and I found a job with CARE, an American company distributing aid, food, and packages to the war-stricken countries. But the Bulgarian government closed CARE after a few years. I found a position with UNICEF and since it was an international organization, I felt more or less safe. Originally, it was headed by a Swiss physician, but then Ann Laughlin, an American, came to lead it in Bulgaria. I worked for them as an interpreter and we met with many Bulgarian officials to promote the distribution of medicines and milk in the country. We had inspectors observing the proper distribution of these products. I enjoyed working there – the personnel were very international, from places as far away as Brazil.
What changed and what prompted your difficult decision to flee the country?
After a while, the secret police came to me and wanted me to report to them what was going on in the office, who said what, who Ann Laughlin met with, and what she talked about. I felt very uncomfortable because even though I knew nothing improper was going on, I was aware the Communists could twist things around. The infamous trial of protestant ministers in Sofia was staged. They were accused of spying for the Americans and there were so many falsehoods said about them. Several interrogators spoke to me and I knew that if they continued to pressure me, no good was going to come out of it, so I had to decide what to do next. It was the most difficult decision of my life. It was a matter of morality and I could not see any way out.
I didn’t want to tell my family, not even my mother, what was going on because I did not want to worry or endanger them. The only person I spoke to was my brother-in-law, another graduate of the College. I told him I wanted to find a way to flee the country. I knew of several people who had attempted it – the office manager of CARE had tried to cross into Turkey by boat, but he and his friend were caught and sent to Belene, a diseased-ridden labor camp on an island. I knew of other people who tried to flee and who were either shot at the border or sent to prison or labor camp. And yet, I had to do something. My brother-in-law’s younger brother, who had been released from labor camp, also wanted to flee, so we decided to attempt together.
The day before I was to leave, I had some time to sit on the bench in front of our house and think about what I was about to do. It was a warm evening and I cried inwardly – how am I going to leave my mother, my sister, and my whole family, the wonderful country I lived in? I didn’t want any harm to come to them, that’s why I didn’t tell anyone. I had told my mother that we were going on a hike in the mountains, and that was all, and that’s why we had packed some food. We were leaving the next day. It was a heart-wrenching and agonizing decision. There was fear and anxiety, not only for myself, but also for my family and friends. During the last few years I was in Bulgaria, I was avoiding seeing friends, so they wouldn’t be interrogated later. I was brought up to believe that God is in absolute control. There is a saying “I have unshakable faith in the perfect outcome of every situation in my life for I know that God is in absolute control.”
How did you manage to escape?
We planned to cross the border in the Rhodope Mountains. There was a 100-mile width of land around the borders that was “no man’s land”, so we steered as far away as possible from any inhabited places and walked mostly during the night. We had a few narrow encounters – once we were submerged in water under a bridge as we hid from an army convoy passing overhead. Fortunately, we had enough food for the ten days we walked, but the last three days we were out of water.
We were exhausted when we came to the border. We realized it was the border because we looked up and saw the two outposts on top of the ridge, facing each other. We saw more outposts further along the ridge. We had to make a decision – to cross the border that afternoon or later. We were afraid there might be detection dogs and there were no trees on the Bulgarian side, so we were exposed. We decided to make a go for it and as soon as we were at the border both sides started shooting at us with machine guns. We hid behind some boulders on the Greek side and fortunately we were not hit. We were told later that the Greeks fired at us because they were afraid of Communist infiltration.
We remained in that area all night. On the next day, we started going downhill and very quickly we were intercepted by the Greek border patrol, who took us to be questioned in the village. They separated us and questioned us. We were fortunate that, unbeknownst to us, shortly before we fled, a United Nations Committee had been established in Greece to interview the refugees from Bulgaria. Before then, the Greeks had turned over any person caught fleeing to the Bulgarian authorities, the same as the Yugoslavians. It was a miracle that we survived.
Do you know what happened to those classmates of yours who remained in Bulgaria?
They were very reluctant to talk about their painful experiences, although eventually they shared some of them. One of my friends, who had become a dentist, was deprived of residency in Sofia because she was an American College graduate. She had to go to another town where she couldn’t practice dentistry. Eventually she returned to Sofia and found another job. Her husband, another ACS graduate, was sent to labor camp. The only thing that saved him was that he was a gifted skin cancer specialist. Another ACS friend, who was deprived of residency in Sofia, had a difficult life in a small village and could not return for many years. Yet another was sent to the labor camp in Belene and his family did not know where he was. Nobody really talked about their feelings – it was too difficult to relive all these hardships.
What did you do once you got to the United States?
When I did come to USA I worked for over 25 years as a Reading Specialist. In 1986, I was honored to be named “Teacher of the Year” for the Hayward School District and another award was “Teacher of the Year for Alameda County, California”, chosen among over 4,500 teachers.
You visited Bulgaria in 1992, many decades after your escape. What was that experience like?
That was truly wonderful – as soon as I got off the plane, I was met by a big crowd of happy faces and flowers. In addition to family, all my classmates who lived in Sofia had come to welcome us. It was a delightful, yet tearful and heart-warming experience. I was overjoyed. It was simply one of the highlights of my life seeing all my friends again.
What were your impressions of Sofia and Bulgaria?
Sofia was entirely different from what I remembered. The rest of the country had not changed much. There were so many block houses, gray and harsh-looking. Streets covered with potholes, it was heart-breaking. You could tell people were unhappy – they had gone through so many deprivations, so you can’t blame them. It was so sad, and yet at the same time I loved it, because it was my country, my city. The American College looked very different– the secret police had just left and we could see these old films scattered on the ground, everything dilapidated. The only thing they had improved was the Assembly Hall which was enlarged. There was a padded room on the side of the Assembly Hall and one can only imagine what it was used for. The bathrooms in the cafeteria were flooded. One of my classmates, Vladimir Palankov ’42, was a building engineer and was helping reconstruct the campus. When we came back again in 1997, it was much different.
In 1997 you saw the first graduating class and you saw the College open and functioning. What did that feel like?
It was absolutely delightful – so good to see young people on campus. The future looked bright and the whole place was full of life. The campus was different compared to 1992, but the old buildings were there and I had a lot of sweet memories touring campus.
Alice, it’s amazing that after all these difficult experiences, you’re so radiant and young at heart. What is your secret?
I don’t know if there’s a secret. I’ve always been interested in learning new things, learning what is going on in the world and staying connected with people. The College helped me so much to blossom not only academically, but also personally. I became more confident. My College enabled me to forge friendships throughout my life which has been a wonderful blessing. It fostered in me a desire to have a broader view of the world and to help those who need help. I have been very fortunate to live the life that I have lived. America has given a great deal to me and I’m forever grateful. I’m also grateful to my Bulgarian heritage because Bulgaria is where I started my life and is still very dear to me. It’s like a mother having children – every child is precious in his/her own way.
 Petit pоint embroidery – гоблен (бълг.)