January 27, 2016 by American College of Sofia
Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97
On a gloomy November morning, I head downtown for a conversation with alumnus Professor Nikola Alexiev ’42. We have met several times before, the last time in May when he and his classmate and good friend Lilly Ikonopisova ’42 joined us for the official ceremony of awarding another classmate of theirs, famous Prof. Carl Djerassi, with an honorary high school diploma. Each time I have met him he has been so energetic and soft spoken that it is impossible to believe he is in fact 90 years old. Prof. Alexiev welcomes me in his cozy home on Vitosha Blvd. and further into his study where he has been busy jotting down notes on his PC. The walls are covered with framed photos, both black and white and more modern such and I sense I will learn a lot today. But we start from the beginning.
Prof. Alexiev, how did you come to attend the American College of Sofia?
My father was a merchant, a local representative of foreign trading companies. He was very intelligent and spoke many languages. Through his work, he had a lot of connections and always did thorough research before making important decisions. He was also very strict, and the times we lived in were very patriarchal indeed. So, upon finishing my pre high-school studies, he summoned me to his office and asked me what I would like to study next. “Languages”, was my immediate reply. “Good”, my father said, “I have chosen for you just the right school for that, the best one in the country actually.” And so I was sent to the College of which I knew nothing up to that day.
My family’s origin is Macedonian, my father’s parents coming from Thessaloniki and Struga and my mother’s parents – from Bitola and Ochrid. Actually, my great grandfather, was Dimitar Miladinov, the famous writer for the Bulgarian national revival. His daughter Tsarevna Miladinova (pointing at a photo of her on the wall), my grandmother, was a teacher. Her husband Nikola Alexiev, was a leather merchant and also a very interesting person. You may know that the revival heroes, brothers Dimitar and Konstantin Miladinovi, died from poisoning in a prison in Constantinople where they were imprisoned on charges of instigating rebellion among the Bulgarian population of the Ottoman Empire. But first they managed to publish their famous selection Bulgarian Folk Songs with the help of Josip Strossmayer, Roman Catholic bishop from Zagreb. After their death, the Russian consul in Constantinople, Count Ignatyev, asked his colleague in Bitola, Alexander Hitrov, to get in contact with Dimitar’s children and choose one of them to be sent to Russia where he/she could get a good education. My grandmother had four sisters and one brother but the consul chose her as the most alert of them all. She was sent to Kiev to study, and after returning worked as a teacher in Shumen and several other places before she founded the first high school for girls in Thessaloniki. Story has it that in 1913, just after the Second Balkan War while Greek soldiers were forcing all ethnic Bulgarians out of Greek territory, one officer asked my grandmother whether she wanted to stay in the school she founded and teach Greek students instead, to which she replied by boldly asking him whether he wanted to join the Bulgarian army.
On my mother’s side of the family, Robevi, almost everyone was a physician and while I would never have chosen medicine myself, my father made that choice for me. I have always liked to create, to make things with my own hands and imagination, so I was convinced I would be an engineer. But as soon as I graduated from the College in 1942, my father summoned me again and upon hearing what I wanted to be, simply said “No way! You must carry on the family tradition and become a physician.” Maybe my father was an insuperable obstacle for me or maybe my respect for him was too great to oppose him openly. But such was my destiny. And to be honest, I do not regret succumbing to his will on this one.
What are your memories of the College?
Memories! When you are 90 years old you have a lot behind you and naturally, you live with memories. Lately, I succumb to memories from my College days. I tend to dream a lot and just last night, maybe because I knew you would be coming to interview me, I dreamt of the College again. When we entered the school back in 1936 we were just kids, altogether 70 of us, boys and girls. The next year, when we were second form students, three from our class left and six new ones came from the American school in Sofia, among them my good friends Kuzman Bakrachev, Rufi Ikonopisov, Eugene Gubev, Zlatka Vlaycheva (who later fled the country and changed her name to Alice Zlatka Litov), and Tsvetana Beleva. Throughout the years students dropped out and only 45 of us graduated. (He fetches a folder where he keeps dear College memories and fishes out the faded invitation to the Graduation of the Class of 1942. I notice that Nikola and Lilly were the two student speakers listed on the invitation and I comment on that.) Oh yes, both of us recited our patriotic speeches so fervently, you should have just seen us!
I think my stay at the College was the happiest time of my life. The school environment gave us so many opportunities to grow. First and foremost, we were surrounded by knowledgeable teachers we respected greatly. They were not there by chance but were specially selected. After teaching at the College, some of them became academicians. In the classroom, they managed to make their classes interesting, so it was easy for us to follow and learn without having to spend hours cramming our heads afterwards. Teachers were always so understanding and we grew close over time. This is no surprise as we were practically living together as a big family, you know, with the College being a boarding school at the time.
The College was our own small world where we – everyone with their own qualities – were helping and trusting each other, forming friendships for life. Just think about it, 72 years have passed since we graduated and the few members of our class that are still alive feel so tightly connected, so loyal to each other and to our College. Why such overwhelming enthusiasm? To me the simple answer is clear. We lived, studied, played, grew up, and developed as persons while boarding at the College. The school provided us with unique possibilities for learning and developing our abilities including within the many extracurricular activities. With its high standards of education, the College taught us to work hard, consistently, and honestly, to be bold and brave, to stay true to one’s moral standards, and never to surrender. In short, it prepared us for our future life.
On campus we were surrounded by beautiful nature – from the trees and flowers on campus to the green hues of the Vitosha hills above us, the low humming of the small river, and the green meadows. This world of beauty and perfection we were immersed in created in us a sense of liberty and a desire for hard work and perfection. If you let me cite a letter from Mr. Black dated March 28, 1939 “Students who have studied at the College ought to be capable of achieving high results in any profession they enter in the years to come.” How wise, predictive if you will! His words have been confirmed for many College graduates before and after us and our class was no exception either. The solid education received at the College made it possible for many of us to continue our studies and enter professions such as engineers (6), architects (1), philologists (3), dentist (1), lawyers (2), physicians (6), university professors (4), all this despite the dramatic turn of events in our country with the established communistic regime and the limited possibilities, actually, discrimination against College graduates. And yet, friendly relations continued between us. Mutual help and understanding prevailed. Loyalty and honor were cherished and existed. In general, the moral standards of our College education survived. In retrospect, one realizes how foresighted our College education and social training were!
But you asked me about my memories. I remember I used to wake up early while at the College, even before the bell that rang at 6.30 AM every morning. So, I got up and took morning walks. There was a small marsh that we called Venice on campus where we used to catch frogs, roast them, and eat them. I remember these beautiful mornings, I remember the snow-covered Vitosha hills in the wintertime; I remember our teachers, the classrooms, the study room where all the boys were studying together for four years. When we became juniors and then seniors we got our own more private study rooms where we could work in smaller groups. I distinctly remember a night. It must have been May in my senior year. The weather was great outside but we were sitting in preparing ourselves for the matriculation exams in the basement of today’s Science Building, I believe. There was a net on the window and whole waves of May-bugs were flying against the net. I still remember that sound and our longing to be outside in the splendid night with its dark sky and sparkling stars.
Yet times were grand. We had so many different experiences together – in class and during extracurricular activities. I was a tenor in the choir and I also had parts in a musical Geisha and the Bulgarian drama performance of Ivanko, the Slayer of Asen among others. There was a tradition that juniors organize a special dinner for seniors with moving speeches and self-made decorations. Our talented artists had drawn on a big canvass, hanging on the bottom wall of the canteen, the College Gate with the line “Fling wide the gates!” (He fishes out the invitation from the folder. I use the opportunity to tell him about the current tradition of the Last Bell Ceremony whereby juniors present seniors with a flower and then seniors listen to their very own selection of favorite songs at the Fountain and celebrate continually counting to twelve.)
You surely know how boys and girls were separated on campus when we were students and we met each other only very seldomly at national holiday celebration at the Fountain where we played choro. Even our home weekends were alternated so we wouldn’t have a chance to meet up in Sofia. So, the only chance to meet one of the girls really was to go out at night, pass by the pool, then by the water tower after which you were officially on the girls-only ground also known as “Tursko” meaning Turkish. Then we would go to a small building next to the College entrance, which was a music room where the girls learned to play the piano during the day and this is where they would wait for us. Of course, this had to happen at a previously agreed signal that we were giving them with flash-lights from the roof of our building just before heading into the night.
You know, I read the alumni magazine with pleasure. And every time I see a beautiful campus photo of a girl and a boy sitting next to each other on the grass talking, I feel so happy for them. This is freedom. This is how it should be. But times were different back then.
Another thing I recall is this funny sport we came up with ourselves. We would buy two boxes of chocolates and whoever was bold enough to accept the challenge would take one of them and eat all chocolates while walking around on campus and without drinking water. The prize would be the other box but, of course, by the time you had managed half of the first one you would feel sick. Plus all your friends would be walking around you joking with you until you would give up or in some rare cases manage to complete the challenge.
Which one of your teachers impressed you the most?
This must be Mr. Stefanov, a Bulgarian language and literature teacher and Head of the respective department. He was so erudite, yet kind, friendly, and always ready to help. Math teacher Mr. Georgiev was also unforgettable. He was responsible for the building where we slept from second form to senior year. After school, we had compulsory activities first in the common study hall, then in smaller groups and at 10 PM when we were supposed to go to bed we weren’t sleepy at all, being young and restless and all. Before going to his lodging in the same building, Mr. Georgiev, a big man, would go down the corridors of our building and scream at the top of his lungs while turning off the lights “Lights out! Everybody go to bed!” There’s a yearbook caricature depicting him doing this.
Mr. Goncharov, our choir’s music director, who also taught Descriptive Geometry, was of Russian descent. He was very capable and later became choir conductor in the National Opera. He was very agreeable and I loved him as a teacher, as well, because I enjoyed math. He was working very professionally with us choir members and as I was the first tenor in the choir, he worked individually with me and really helped me set my voice. As a medical academy student, I won a singing competition and even had an offer to sing in the Musical Theater that I declined, determined to go on with my medical studies. That’s the sort of teachers we had the pleasure of working with.
From the international teachers Dr. Black made the greatest impression on me. He taught Psychology and Ethics. I should definitely mention Mr. Howard Bliss, as well, who taught American and English Literature. Until our fourth year, boys and girls studied in separate classes. After that, starting in sophomore year, we were divided in two mixed groups (boys and girls together), classicists and realists. The first ones studied a lot of Latin with Ms. Steele and us, realists, concentrated on math. We were happy to study alongside the girl realists in English and American Literature classes. So, Mr. Bliss was our class advisor. He had a very warm and affectionate personality. He was always smiling, very artistic, and great at reciting and singing. Somehow, he managed to daze us during classes. Much later, when our class got together in 1992 to celebrate 50 years from our graduation, also the year the College reopened, and people came from as far as USA, Canada, and Israel, Mr. Bliss sent tapes with his own songs which really moved us.
How did you experience the closing down of the College in 1942? Did you feel there was a war going on?
I remember one early morning in my junior year when we all heard a great rumble at about 5.30 AM. These were the British bombers passing above us on their way to Ploesti, Romania to bomb the oil fields there. This was the first time I saw flying fortresses in my life.
When Bulgaria declared war on America in 1941, Dr. Black gathered us in front of Sanders Hall and held a speech ringing with emotion. He said that war has been declared and our countries are opponents in it though we, at the College, remain friends and care for each other just as before. He added that he would stay behind with a group of teachers and make sure we graduated from the College in spite of the war. And so they did.
One time we organized a strike because of the bad quality of the food during the war and in particular the bread in the canteen. It was made with potatoes and was kind of soggy, so we, class representatives, gathered and decided to start a strike whereby we skip all classes one day and sit in a nearby field instead. And so we spent the whole day there, though secretly, our friends that helped in the canteen as part of their scholarship packages were nice enough to bring us meatballs from the day’s lunch. In the evening, Dr. Black summoned us class representatives for a sincere conversation. He started off by agreeing with us on the hardships of the situation but asked us to stick together in this. It is amazing, now that I think of it, how he did not punish or reprimand us, he simply explained everything in a diplomatic manner, smiled, invited us to tea and cookies, we talked some more and, just like that, the strike was over.
What is the College to you? Did you experience difficulties after September 9, 1944 on account of your College past?
The College is a dear memory but also an influence we felt every day of our lives as it shaped our characters, and made worthy human beings of us, not only knowledgeable but also socially skilled and caring for our communities, the College one and the one outside the school. This helped us enormously after September 9, 1944 when we were persecuted. Do you know that we couldn’t practice our spoken English, that we were afraid to contact, let alone meet each other because we were being followed? In those times, it was the College and what we were taught there that gave us strength, a feeling of belonging, commitment, and readiness to help each other and survive. Even without meeting each other we felt the support of our fellows who were out there somewhere. The friendship between us classmates remained inexhaustible throughout the years, immortal if you will. I am convinced that if it weren’t for this spirit we wouldn’t have managed with our lives and hardships afterwards.
Yet in the first 30 years after graduation we rarely saw each other. Only in 1972, the year local Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov passed away, did our class become bold and organize its first class reunion, the 30th anniversary of our class. We gathered at Feyata Restaurant across from Borisova Gradina and many of our Bulgarian teachers showed up, among them Mr. Kyutukchiev, Mr. Kabasanov, Mr. Panayotov, Ms. Vladova, Ms. Ognyanova, and Ms. Beleva. As a class representative I was called and asked to explain in detail what the meeting was about. We organized class reunions after that for our 40th and 50th anniversaries and afterwards we started gathering annually. But over time there are fewer and fewer of us and this year it was just Lilly, Tsetsa, and myself, so we went to Tsetsa’s place, as she doesn’t leave her flat anymore, to boost the number a little.
In 1942, upon my graduating from the College with Summa Cum Laude, my father had already enrolled me as a medical student in Basel, Switzerland. I refused to leave though as I didn’t want to leave my family behind in war times, so I started studying medicine here in Sofia. After September 9, 1944 I had a lot of trouble and was summoned a couple of times to the Communist Party City Committee, located on Slaveykov Square where the City Library is today. I was ushered in a room where 10 people were sitting around a table watching me. They told me that they would like to help me as I am such a good student but first I need to sign a letter which turned out to be a request to disown my father. What great misfortunes my father had already gone through being persecuted, all his property taken from him! He never lived to see freedom again. Naturally, I refused and was expelled. With the help of my friends and because of my good grades though, I managed to regain my student status but I was always closely watched.
Other classmates had even worse destinies. In the events after September 9, 1944 one of our classmates disappeared without a trace, some ended up in camps and came back half the men we used to know, some were expelled from universities and could not finish their majors.
When I was done with my medical studies I had to do my military service. After that I started working at the Institute for Pulmonary Diseases where I had the pleasure of working alongside good people who saw me for what I was, a young capable person with a desire to learn and develop, one that knew foreign languages unlike most, and they let me help them. But there were positions and responsibilities outside my reach. For instance, my colleagues kept suggesting me as chair of the local labor union but as soon as it reached a higher authority my nomination was declined. I had to ask my colleagues to stop nominating me as it was a lost cause in view of my past. Fortunately, I had a very good managing director who valued me for my hard work and competences, and I was able to become an associate professor. I worked really hard for this. In 1968, thanks to my father’s connections I managed to do specialized training in hospitals in Switzerland and Italy. I had an offer from the Swiss hospital to stay but this wasn’t really an option for me as my parents, my wife, and my two kids were waiting for me in Sofia, and so was my work at the institute. Times were hard but owing to my industriousness and resilience, again qualities developed at the College, I managed to establish myself and even to retire as a professor (Ph.D. and D.Sc.). It is as if the College laid the tracks of my future life and threw its light on everything I did afterwards as teacher and lecturer in medicine of a lot of medical students.
Do you have a message to our readers, ACS alumni?
I am happy for the young people of today that have all those opportunities for modern education, informational technologies in the classroom and all, that can study abroad wherever they wish. Plus they have a chance to live in real freedom, to have their say and protest when this is how they feel, things we deeply missed and longed for. I have to say I side with the protesting students today*.
I would like to finish off by wishing the younger ACS alumni and students to be brave, enthusiastic, and good citizens of our country. I hope they embrace the opportunities they get upon graduating from the College, travel and explore the world to return later and help our country and its people, for they have suffered enough.
*The interview was first published as part of the ACS Alumni Magazine in December 2013.