May 12, 2016 by American College of Sofia
Introduction by Petia Ivanova ’97
I first met Liliana when her famous classmate Professor Carl Djerassi visited the College in May 2013 to be awarded an honorary high school diploma (ironically, the professor had no official high school transcript). Liliana Ikonopisova (née Zaharieva) and Nikola Alexiev of the same class were among the guests. She walked slowly with a cane, taking small steps, leaning on her good friend Nikola (Kolyo) every now and again but oh, so elegantly. Three years later, I visit Liliana in her cozy home at the foot of snow-covered Mt. Vitosha, where she has been expecting me, in her armchair, with a woolen scarf around her shoulders and understated pearl jewelry. She speaks slowly and distinctly, her voice soft and her thoughts fluid and steady in spite of the many questions and interjections from my side (I can’t help my curiosity). Aunt Lili is what the few dozen neighborhood kids she taught English used to call her. I can’t wait to hear what she was like while at the College, and how her life turned out afterwards.
Lili, how did you come to attend the College? Tell us about your first impressions of the school. Was it hard to be away from your family? Did you make friends quickly?
My sister, Elena Zaharieva, graduated from the College in 1936. When the topic of where I would go to high school came up, my parents were explicit – the College, as they already had impressions of the upbringing and instruction offered there. I graduated from junior high school with an overall straight A, and it was clear I would get in. Some had it more difficult, as their grades weren’t very good or they had disciplinary problems. But I applied and got in the fall of the year my sister graduated. Many of the girls from upper classes already knew me through my sister, and everyone wanted me to become their “pet.”
Before the first day of school, September 20th, I received a letter confirming that I had been admitted. That motivated me greatly, and I started to embroider my initials on the sheets I was to bring along. Everyone had to, as everyone had a unique number for the laundry room where we handed in our dirty laundry in exchange for clean and ironed sheets.
It was hard to be away from my family for the first time in my life. For the first two days, as soon as somebody mentioned my sister’s name (they would call me Lencheto’s sister), I felt the tears welling in my eyes. Why couldn’t she be here now to help me along when I’m having a hard time?!
We arrived on the Abbott Hall steps, as requested, on September 20th, 1936 at 10 o’clock in the morning. Ms. Leech, the dormitory matron, was to take us 24 newcomer girls to our bedroom up on the third floor, where we dragged our bundles and suitcases with the help of our parents.
Ms. Moskovska awaited us there – she was responsible for the first form girls and showed us into the room labeled Dormitory. The room turned out to be a huge hall with 24 white iron spring beds, and behind each one was a locker for our clothes. The parents started fussing, taking apart the bundles, placing mattresses and pillows on the beds and a couple of hours later said, “Goodbye, dear children, you’re on your own now, cope as well as you can.” We were left there in a rather low spirits, teary-eyed, but luckily, time passed quickly with everyone trying to decorate their locker door with photos – of relatives, pets, and even famous movie stars like Jeanette McDonald and Robert Taylor. Quickly, the locker doors were turned to art galleries.
Friendships were forged from day one. There were girls all the way from Balchik, from Nevrokop (now Gotse Delchev); from the North to the South, all corners of Bulgaria were represented. We talked and talked until late the first evening, taking turns to tell the others where we came from, what our family was like, where we had studied, and what we were interested in. When the bell rang at 10 pm and Ms. Moskovska opened our door to say, “Time to go to sleep, good night!” Tsetsa Beleva replied, “Don’t let the fleas bite!” Everyone laughed. Tsetsa brought this and other wisecracks from the American Grade School where she had previously studied. Her English was quite good already, so she skipped one grade.
The next day, the bell summoned us to our classrooms where we were met by our English teachers. Every class had two of them – teacher A for us was Ms. Moskovska, the same kind and lovable woman who was responsible for all first form girls; and teacher B was Ms. Shedden, recently arrived from the US, who spoke no Bulgarian whatsoever. As soon as we entered our classrooms for the first time, they knew our names and used them to call on us, so they must have looked at our pictures and learned our names this way. And so, Ms. Shedden wrote 20 words on the blackboard during our first class, told us what they meant and started building from there. 20 words were all we had, but we drilled them that whole first class: “point to the window, the door, all the objects found in the classroom,” until we learned them. For some, it was very difficult to pronounce window, for instance. Whenever someone had learned a word they would point correctly, and if they hadn’t – they would look down, embarrassed. This way we started speaking English from day 1.
Since I had not always been able to point correctly, I felt burdened and came to my room after classes, threw myself on my bed, head on my pillow, and cried the whole afternoon. How could everyone else know more than I, and manage while I fail? My sister had managed. Ah, if only she were here, she would be able to console me and help me, too. As evening fell, I started to calm down. Trying to console me, Ms. Moskovska said, “Don’t cry, in just a month you will know as much as everyone else. I could call your mother, if you want me to, and it would be up to her whether she takes you back home or not…” When the girls’ school secretary suggested something along the same lines, I knew I would have to pull myself together and cope alone. Take me home? Never! I thought and then said, “Do not trouble my mother, I will be fine.” And, indeed, I coped.
When the bell rang at 5 pm, Ms. Moskovska summoned us, “Time to go to dinner in the dining hall, everyone, get ready.” All 24 girls followed her along a covered hallway leading to the dining hall, which turned out to be enormous. I learned that girls and boys would enter through two different doors on opposite ends of the dining hall, and everyone was to take their designated place at the table. The tables there were heavy, massive, lacquered wooden tables and a few students in white aprons and bonnets stood by each of them – those were the students on scholarship, like my friends Zlatka and Tsetsa from the girls, and from the boys – my future husband Rufi, Evgeni Gubev, and Kuzman Bakrachev. As compensation for the work they did, they would get tuition fee reductions. Their parents were thankful their children had this kind of access to a better education than what they could afford. In the center of the dining hall, between the girls’ and boys’ sections, there was a big round table where President Black and his wife sat. They were accompanied by two seniors: a boy and a girl. They would discuss contemporary topics. It was very democratic. Behind the round table the choir stood, consisting of half a dozen singers: Zlatka, Tsetsa, and Rufi were in it. Before we could sit down and eat, they would sing a prayer-like anthem. While they were singing, the silence was absolute and, once they were through, we would sit down with immense hunger and devour the food. This is a memory I cherish. Most of the student waiters spoke better English than the rest of us. Once contacts between the girls’ and boys’ schools were established, the choir members would carry love letters in their pockets while they sang. A serious volume of two-way correspondence in the dining hall and the kitchen took place through them.
Which is your most vivid College memory?
My most vivid memories were of celebrating Christmas at the College; this was a real fête! The windows of the Assembly Hall would be adorned with pine branches and thick burning candles. Under the music teacher Mr. Goncharov’s conducting, the choir would sing religious music. Mrs. Stolzfus would play the harmonium, and it was so exciting; we would leave the hall inspired, as if we had been reborn. It was magnificent! On Christmas Eve the choir would walk around and stop under our windows to sing Christmas carols. I remember how only the candles would throw some light in the dusk, the smell of pine and the sweet sound of the choir. We had some grand singers, both male and female. They even performed at the Bulgaria Hall once. Some of the Jewish girls were very good singers, as unlike most of us they had had a musical education from an early age and could play the piano, too. Next to where the College flag-stone is today, there used to be a music room with 4 or 5 pianos, and those who played would practice there. Among them was my classmate Iveta Behar who, upon graduating the College, went to Tel Aviv to become a Music Professor (singing).
Another vivid memory I keep to this day is our horo dance. Usually, we would be free on Saturdays, and boys and girls would gather around the fountain for horo dancing. There was boza, lemonade and small pastries baked by Ms. Rumlena, the supervisor of the dining room and kitchens, and her helpers in the kitchen. The pastries were sold for a charitable cause, as the College financially supported a kitchen for the poor in Dragalevtsi. We had very good, although amateur, musicians play the trombone and drums. Everyone else would be dancing. It wasn’t easy for me to learn to dance horo, but I did. In the 1940 yearbook, under my photo it reads: ”Don’t say that miracles can’t happen! Lili learned how to dance!”
Who among your teachers impressed you the most? What was your favorite subject and extracurricular activity?
We had many excellent teachers, all of them unique; not only teachers, they were also professors. One exceptional history teacher I had was Laurence Moore. He had traveled the Middle East far and wide, lived in Egypt, worked on the pyramids and he instilled in us a love for Egyptology. Some Sundays there would be mass at the College, and on others – lectures on interesting historical, geographical, and other scientific subjects where he was often the lecturer. He had many movies he would play for us; whenever he spoke about something, he liked to be able to show it to us, too.
Another exceptional teacher and historian was Mr. Panayotov, who was an excellent speaker; his lectures were gripping. From another teacher, Ms. Lyon, I still keep some cooking recipes, but unfortunately my deteriorating vision prevents me from using them.
Mr. Shechner, an English teacher and a rather unpleasant type, who had the habit of sitting cross-legged on his desk, taught us how to do puppet theater.
I took part in all the drama competitions/auditions and many of the plays throughout the years, both those staged by Razvitie and those by the Dramatic Association, of which I was the secretary. I took up acting relatively early on, in second form. Miss Stewart, an English Language and Literature teacher and Dramatic Association coach, decided that we would stage Harlequin and Columbine, and chose Rufi and me to play the main characters in this romantic play.
One of the plays staged by Razvitie was Pencho Slaveykov’s narrative poem, Ralitsa, and I entered into my part (Ralitsa) with such passion that the Assembly Hall witnessed the loudest applause in its history. I was also the Chair of the Student Council, where I assumed the greatest responsibility. I was also in the Band of Mercy Club, the Rilski Shepot editorial staff, as well as in a club on home economics and housekeeping for girls called Good Companions. There was such a rich array of extracurricular activities to engage in, and I drew on it with thirst.
Rufi and I met on the first Mountain Day and have been together ever since. We went to (medical) university together, got married and stayed by each other’s side until his passing. He was a gorgeous, tall, well-built poet, writer, and singer with a heavenly voice. He could imitate Sinatra so well that people were stunned when they heard him first. At the College, he played in the operetta Geysha. We had a good life at the College. The years spent there were some the happiest of my life.
Tell us about other College classmates and friends that you still recall or have close relations with.
I recall Lili Vidinska ’39, also a member of the Dramatic Аssociation, whose aunt was a renowned seamstress in Sofia. Lili would sew the costumes for all the stage performances, and I would help her. To participate in an operetta you had to be a good singer, which wasn’t my case, so I helped out with stitching the costumes, instead.
Another girl from my class, Ellie Goinarova, was a natural-born artist. In the College museum you will find small plates, hand-drawn with embroidery-like patterns done by her. She was so talented, yet she did not go to university. She kept on drawing, but just out of love, for her friends.
Rufi was a close friend of Evgeni Gubev’s, who earned a PhD in Microbiology (tracing faces on the pages of the 1940 Yearbook with her finger). Seven of my classmates studied medicine: apart from Rufi and Evgeni, there were Nikola Alexiev, Drago Mushmov, Dobromir Dobrev and Ivan Petkov. Mushmov told the best jokes while faking a Greek accent; ah, we used to laugh so hard. Anna Dobreva became an accountant. Of the girls in my class, Tsetsa and I are the only two remaining here in Sofia. Every time I talk to her over the phone, she says she “hugs me to suffocation” over the phone.
What do you recall from 1942, the year of your graduation and the closing down of the school?
How we cried. I remember the bell summoning us all to the Assembly Hall, and Prof. Black saying “It is with deep regret that I inform you that we are now at war with America.” He added, “I love Bulgaria.” And we all started singing the Bulgarian anthem, ”Шуми Марица.” Black was crying. He was so attached to our country. His wife Serafinka was Bulgarian and a very interesting woman. When we were in first form, she invited us over to their house a couple of times. She was trying to teach us good manners; there were girls among us coming straight from villages, for instance Lyubka Vachova from Hayredin, Vratsa region. She later studied Chemistry at university, and became a Chemistry teacher. Her father had a roof-tile factory, and all his three daughters studied at the College and then went to university – one of them became an architect. See, he had realized that his kids had potential and would make good students, so he did his part in making it possible.
What profession did you pursue after graduating from the College? In Communist Bulgaria, anyone who was previously associated with a Western or American educational system faced extreme scrutiny. Did you experience that, as well?
As I mentioned, Rufi and I studied at the same university: my major was dentistry and his was medicine. We worked alongside one another at a village health center; it was the law back then that upon graduating university you were to work for 3 years in a village. So, once we got married, we were sent off to work as district doctor and dentist in a village.
The times were such that as American College graduates, we would have a hard life. Rufi was sent to a concentration camp for a year and a half: he was away for the greater part of 1948 and well into 1949 for his past as an American College graduate who was actively involved in the community (pointing to a black-and-white framed photograph on the wall). This picture of us with our first-born, Evelina, was taken on the day Rufi was freed, 13 September 1949, which was also Evelina’s first birthday. He said, “Let us take a photograph, we may never be together again like this.”
While Rufi was in the concentration camp, I stayed on in the village; I couldn’t get a job in Sofia, even though I was born there, so my mother came over to take care of our little one to allow me to work. While Rufi shared some of his experiences from the camp with me, we never told all of it to our kids, for their own sake. After returning, he did manage to get back on his feet again, mainly due to his love for his work. While we were working in the village, the Ministry of People’s Health initiated a “Chutnov brigade” there, after the example of a Soviet village named Chutnov. The district doctor (Rufi in this case) examined each and every one of the village inhabitants, created medical records for them, and started following who was suffering from what and keeping records to be able to refer to for interventions elsewhere within the health system. Аfter the brigade’s successful completion, Rufi received a special order of excellence from the Ministry.
I worked as dentist and assisted the doctor in everything he did: from immunizations through regular check-ups for children. Twice I acted as midwife while he was away on some business trip. I didn’t get a prize, though. I never got a job in Sofia once we moved back there, not until our younger ones, the twins Elisaveta and Antoni, were 2.5 years old. I stayed home with them and got work assignments from an artist, Ruska Popvasileva, the wife of my primary school’s principal. The assignments included stuffing the rag dolls she made and sold with cotton and shavings. Yes, I had to take all possible jobs, often as a replacement and always temporarily.
There was a manager within the municipality’s health department, Kondova was her name – a real monster! I would go to her office weekly, looking for a replacement spot. The moment she saw me peek in, she would not hesitate to shout, “For you there is no job here.” I never managed to find a job as dentist in Sofia.
One day, I ran into Prof. Vulchan Hadjivulchanov’s wife on the street. Vulchan was an American College graduate as well, from the class of 1940, and a good friend of Rufi. So, his wife Greti says to me, ”Why don’t you find a job with your fluent English? There is an English translator job opening at the Bulgarian Science Academy’s (BSA) Central Library as we speak. Why don’t you apply? In fact, come with me right now!” We went to the library’s secretary, to whom Greti said, “I know this girl, let her apply for the vacancy!” The secretary replied, “The deadline was yesterday.” Immediately, I thought I had been given a brush-off yet again. But the secretary turned out to be a very kind person and accepted my request. I took part in the competition and received the highest result. The director made a comment, though: “This is not enough. For this position, International Relations, you need to know German, as well.” Immediately, I was given an exam in German, too. I passed this test, also, since I had studied German at the College as a second foreign language. Sometimes I wonder how I kept my knowledge of the language through all those years. Before I applied for that job, I hadn’t practiced my English in 15 years. By the way, Petko Bocharov ’38 was on the examining committee and proudly said, “See, how well prepared our girl is.” And so I was appointed as the new English translator at the library of the BSA.
I never went back to dentistry. At the library I became the International Book Exchange Department Coordinator. I developed myself professionally there very well, and stayed at the library for 35 years. I created 380 book exchange channels with libraries abroad. This means a constant two-way exchange of books and other publications. And since the Academy did not have the means to purchase foreign books (we had a quota for foreign currencies that was enough to buy 10 books or so), I decided to get in touch with universities like those in Los Angeles and Berkeley – and offered them ethnic music instruments, if they should be interested in collecting those, in exchange for books. I sent them a wooden pipe (duduk), a shepherd’s pipe (kaval) and a bagpipe, a tambourine, etc., only so I could get English language books. And it worked – they subscribed us to a very important, world-famous scientific magazine, Index Medicus, publishing everything of importance in the world of medicine. I saved the Academy a lot of money – thousands and thousands of dollars. They gave me a medal for excellent service. I didn’t stop working after retiring: I taught English to half the Boyana district, 60 kids or so. They used to call me aunty Lili. Even now, it happens sometimes that they stop me on the street, as they recognize their former English tutor, and come up to me with open arms.
Sofia, January 2016
Edited by Sofia Kleinsasser