July 5, 2016 by American College of Sofia
Interview by Petia Ivanova ’97
I was surprised to find out from one of my most moving interviewees among the College’s pre-war alumni that in the past, the school had a whole primary and junior high school in place for the children of its employees. Many of those young people later studied at the College. Dobrin Georgiev’s parents both taught math: his father at the College and his mother to the children of the employees. Dobrin and his older brother Georgi, Class of 1939, see the College literally as a home. At first, they lived with their parents in an apartment in what is today the Science Building, and after the changes in 1942, they moved to one of the faculty villas, the construction of which they had earlier witnessed. They took part in planting fruit trees on campus; before swimming in the pool, they helped dig it; as students in junior high, they walked freely between the girls-only (“Turkish”) and boys-only (“Apprentice”) parts of the campus; during summers, they spent their leisure days on a campus all their own. Gradually, I learned that not only the years separate us. At 15, he dreamed of dying for his country, unlike me with the hope that my romantic infatuation would against all odds turn out to be requited. I can’t say I understand him, not really, but I took in each and every word he said. I am deeply moved and so happy to have met him.
From Samokov to Sofia
Before the Balkan War, the College was situated in the very center of Samokov. The Bistritsa River ran through the campus and the buildings were beautiful. My mom graduated from the College in 1915 and had a perfect command of English. She attended some math courses in Kyustendil and met my father there. After he graduated from the universities of Sofia and Zagreb with degrees in math, my father was sent to Kystendil as an intern. So they met, got married and moved to Samokov, my mother’s home town. My brother was born in 1919 and I was born in 1923. A year before I was born, my father, math teacher at the local high school, was offered a job at the College and he took it. The College administration carefully selected its faculty; they were looking for good mathematicians and did not mind spending money. My mother joined the junior high school, teaching math to the children of the College employees.
Years later, I took my family to Samokov to see our old house. It was in the center of the town, right next to the Babite church. We had a big iconostasis on the east side of the house, my grandfather having been part of the clergy. Levski hid in that church; I was baptized there and so was my younger son. There’s a monument in honor of the College in downtown Samokov, and across from it is where the evangelical church used to be. It burned down. The American faculty used to go there for their Sunday mass.
My father was the first to move to Sofia, accompanying his students in 1927. The rest of us moved in 1929. I started school in 1930, attending the primary school for children of College employees.
First Day of School
School started in full force on September 20, as if it were any given day in the semester, not the first day after a long holiday. We received textbooks on the same day or the day before, as well as a post card, just this big, but it would fit the full schedule of classes.
The bell would toll in the morning to announce the beginning of classes, and the pupils were incredibly disciplined from period 1.
The whole school gathered in Assembly Hall and the Orthodox bishop (Stefan at the time) announced the beginning of the school year in front of the central building. The Americans were flawless in their respect of the local official religion. For instance, in the cafeteria there were tables set especially for students who were fasting. So, the bishop led the opening ceremony and classes began. He had a total of 25 minutes for his speech and was not allowed to speak longer – that’s how long our break was.
The most interesting event was Mountain Day; there are plenty of photos of it in the yearbooks. My father used to sweat a lot on that day, a tall man at 192 cm. Prof. Floyd Black would choose the date, always during the second week of the semester and before October 1 because we needed the weather to be nice. It was always in a meadow somewhere in the open space around Simeonovo village. We spent the whole day on the mountain, girls and boys together for once. That’s how we met each other. A truck would bring us food. In the evening, on the hill behind which Bistritsa lies, the first form boys would write ‘American College of Sofia’ with torches.
The Children of the College Staff
The Americans went out of their way to make sure that the children of teachers and servants at the College got to study. You can see in the photos that there were so many of us! The head cook, for instance, had 4 children: 2 girls and 2 boys. The second oldest was a boy, Kosta Radev, two years older than me. Later, during the war, the U.S. legation recruited him and he stayed with them for many years. Sokerov, another graduate of the College, a prominent specialist and teacher of the English language, also worked there.
Us children of the College staff could go anywhere on campus because we were small, what a perk! At the same time, the College boys were not allowed to go to “Turkish” and the girls to “Apprentice.” Two security guards were there at all times; one was at the gate to “Turkish,”, and another was up near Simeonovo. In the evening, the two guards along with a third one made campus rounds, just in case; parents were very concerned about their daughters’ reputations. Bringing a bra into “Apprentice” was quite an occasion at the College! Typical for that age, you know. So, in the evenings they would guard us equipped with trained dogs and clocks. You can’t imagine how well organized it was! One night the dog wouldn’t stop barking; it was chasing a student who had been to “Turkish” and the dog caught him by our building. The next day a car drove him to Sofia and he was kicked out. And all of this over a bra!
My parents were strict, math teachers, no leniency. My father was responsible for the discipline of the boys’ dorm. Every night he turned off the lights at the same time. He once slapped a boy for having almost broken the door of Assembly Hall – many boys were trying to be the first to enter the hall, and my father had to discipline them. Maybe now it’s different, but back then it was extremely strict.
In the first years following the relocation of the College to a new campus, our family lived in an apartment in the south quarter of the boys’ dorm (now the Science Building), with a different entrance. My parents planted 48 fruit trees and 20 poplars in the meadow behind that building (pointing to the yearbook), and we, the kids, helped them by watering the trees every evening. 48 trees, 2 buckets of water for each one, and all that while we were on our vacation!
There’s the pine forest behind Black house, the pines have surely grown huge by now. This is the water tower where our water reserves were kept. All this was planted by students, myself included.
When the Americans were forced to leave the country in 1942 and the operations at the College were run mainly by the Bulgarian staff, we got moved to the Dean’s house, the most southern of the faculty villas. We lived well there, with a swimming pool in the summer right next to the house.
Here is a photo of my father, my brother and me in front of the house. It was in 1943- my brother had just returned from Vienna for Easter, and I was an officer at the Military Academy on vacation. Just look at my pose! This is a poplar planted by my father, with a terrace over it. Then my brother went to the famous fountain to pose for another photo. I also had my photo taken there. Imagine how much we must have loved the College, to use every opportunity to return there every time we had a vacation.
Somewhere I must have a photo of us College kids on our way to Piperovi, a homestead with a swimming pool near Simeonovo. One time Stolzfus organized a trip to Vitosha, in the Rezniove area, and rented a donkey from the village of Darvenitsa to carry our baggage.
Probably my brightest memory is from the lakes north of the College. The meadows of Darventisa village, after it rained, turned into a lake. When the lake froze in winter, I went there with Velko Petlyanov, the older son of the guy maintaining the heating at ACS, to go skating. The Petlyanovi were very poor people. Sadly, Velko fell in the first battle near Koumanovo in the war against Germany. There, in Koumanovo, I accidentally found his grave.
Serjozha Bezak was another child of the College and a friend of mine. His father, Nikola Bezak, was a teacher at the Military School in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg). In 1919, the whole family fled Russia, taking with them an original portrait of the Crown Prince of Russia. It was well-known that the Crown Prince suffered from hemophilia. How much they treasured that portrait! At the College, Nikola Bezak taught physics and math in English. They lived in “Turkish.”
Prof. Black was a great leader. The project of moving the College to Simeonovo, with all the construction work, surely cost millions. He chose a place in the empty field between Darventisa and Simeonovo, installed heating pipes everywhere, and all the villas had heating.
He was very strict, too. If they caught you smoking, you had to do 50 hours of running. This was a waste of the precious time we needed to prepare for school. The smokers still smoked, you couldn’t stop them.
In the cafeteria, Black always sat at a round table in the center, while all other tables were rectangular. The waiters were students and two of them served Black’s table. For about 40 days each year, two girls and two boys would sit at the table with him. Black wanted to speak with them, to see how they ate, everything, to see if they had manners.
Dr. Black and his wife Serafinka had big hearts, too. They took a girl named Slavka under their wing when she was left an orphan at the age of 12 in 1928, after the big earthquakes in Papazlii (today Popovica, Sadovo municipality). Serafinka was a Bulgarain protestant from the region. Slavka lived with the Blacks until she graduated. They schooled her and supported her. When they left in 1942, Slavka stayed here and became a nurse at Alexandrovska hospital.
The College Experience: Classes, Extracurricular Activities, and Teachers
I wasn’t a very good student, so I never had a perfect GPA. It was because I was into sports and that took up a lot of my time. Math, however, was my favorite subject and I was impeccable at it, to the joy of my father and mother. They knew everything. Teachers were close with one another, and the bar was set higher for me. There was a Bulletin Board where, if your GPA was over 5, they put your name on it. I felt obliged to be there as the son of Metodi Georgiev. My father even taught my brother. Fortunately, Georgi was a good mathematician, too.
Out of all my teachers, I respected Mr. Stefanov, the Bulgarian language teacher, the most. He came to the College upon retirement, and before that he had taught at high schools in Sofia.
Besides math, I loved sports. My best teacher was Krum Konstantinov, a graduate of the College from the Class of 1931. Besides teaching us, he was the goalkeeper on a Sofia soccer team. He married Fey Tobias, a gymnastics teacher and the daughter of a Native American chief. In 1937, they left the College and moved to Chicago. Two years later, he became the number one gymnastics teacher in Chicago – in high schools, at universities… Can you imagine what it’s like there, with their swimming pools and amazing sports facilities?
At the College, if you pushed an opponent in PE class while playing soccer and scored, you got a “fail.” “Don’t score!” they taught us. “Go back and help the one who fell down because of you.” What high moral values!
Like I said, out of all my extracurricular activities I was most into sports. Basketball was my main sport. The basketball court at the College was the most modern basketball court in Bulgaria. Basketball in general was great at the College. You should’ve seen our uniforms – purple t-shirts, white shorts with red trim and SAC branding!
We participated in the race around the Palace, and we wore our basketball jerseys then, too. We won every time. Ivan “Krapeto” Krapchanski, Bobi Serafimov, Vlado Palankov and Lyubcho Popovski were superfast. The race was a huge event. It took place in October or at the beginning of November and attracted high school students, club members, and military men. We competed against other high schools and always ranked first. The route was fantastic: it started in front of the National Assembly, then from the National Assembly to Alexander Nevsky cathedral, and from there to the Russian embassy on Rakovski St., then along the western side of the Palace where there was a fence and a big square, and finally, to the west gate of the Palace. By the way, the big square was where the water consecrating ceremony of the Epiphany took place; the bishop would raise his hand and hit the king with the geranium bouquet, and we would see ice fall onto him.
There were traditions for every single thing at the College, and we preserved them – from the beginning of the school year, through exams, to celebrations, everything at the College was done at the highest level. There were Olympiads and sport tournaments, for instance against St. Augustine, the French College in Plovdiv.
I skied, too, of course. We College students, used to go to Aleko to ski. Being from Samokov, I was born on skis, as they say. In 1942, I took part in a ski competition for youths in Garmischpartenkirchen. The last time I skied was in 1983 in Borovets. I remained active in sports until late in life, so maybe I owe my longevity to it.
The funniest thing I remember was the performance of The Beautiful Helen. The entire College had gathered in the Assembly Hall. The student actors came out carrying the beautiful Helen in a wooden tub full of water… and in it lay Parker Mishkov, a senior with the hairiest chest – and everybody was laughing themselves senseless.
There was terrific entertainment – there was the pool, basketball, a sports night of jumps, everything. No one stopped me from doing anything. Life was full, Saturday and Sunday included. On Sunday mornings, at ten, we would go to prayer in the Assembly Hall, with everybody dressed in their Sunday best. It was over by 10:20, and afterwards we would go to lunch in our Sunday outfits, the girls in their blue dresses with collars. The traditions were really fantastic.
We had famous people in our Class. Dancho Malinovski, for example, became Head of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
Our most excellent student was Lyubomir Merdjanov. But perhaps out of ambition to receive a medal of valor, he rushed first into battle and was killed on the frontlines. Georgi Mihaylov became a doctor. Nikolay “Kondeto” Kondov was bodyguard for one of the prime ministers. Petar Gornev’s brother graduated with my brother’s Class of 1939 and worked for the U.S. Department of State. Zografov was ambitious. And Penka Lukova, the general’s daughter, was in my Class. They weren’t ordinary people; their fathers were all hot shots.
There were poorer ones, too. They worked as waiters while studying at the College. And one of them rang the bell. Avram Avramov sat next to me, and later became the head of the largest children’s hospital in Jerusalem. Blaga Batouleva left for England.
I had two girlfriends in the College. Slavka Kraleva was my first. Her family was able to pay the tuition, as they had great stands in the Hali market hall. The second one, Lilly Furnadjieva, was a big ship captain’s daughter. She’s changed a bit here, these photos are from 1940 when I was already in the Military Academy. Her mother had died and she lived with her father. Maria Kaneva was another interesting woman.
The most accomplished student in the College was Hazurbasanov from the Class of 1937, remember that name. He was a smoker and in order to smoke he had to hide somewhere in the woods, and that meant he had to spend at least an hour of his free time hiding. And so he did, and nevertheless he received the highest marks across the board. The best student the College ever had, I believe.
Another excellent student was Karlo Ognyanov. He became a famous doctor, director of the natology hospital on Sheynovo Street. His father was the brother of the great actor Sava Ognyanov.
We had terrific basketball players at the College, like Ivan Krapchanski. And the oldest player was Kosta Shamandourov from the Class of 1933, a magician of basketball. Later he won a great distinction in Canada, where he studied engineering after the College.
The Military Academy and the War
I entered the Military Academy in 1939 after I finished first and second forms at the College. The juniors from the Military Academy were considered to have completed their military service and were granted the rank of private. The entry exam was intense: mathematics, Bulgarian, history and an entire day of physical examinations to test the eyes, nose, chest. Out of 1800 candidates only 170 made it in, with 600 failing just the physical exam. Then came the math. The math exam at the Military Academy was frightful. The head of the math department was called Ivancho the Evil. You must know that mathematics is the basis of artillery. An artillerist is nothing without math. To hit over the hills, you need mathematics. I was number one in math, 11.75 out of 12. Why 11.75, you might ask? Well, I got fed up with the last problem, and I just put down the answer – and how I got there, none of your business. And they shaved off 0.25. And mathematics carried the greatest weight.
With that exam they were selecting the elite of the Class. It builds character. A Bulgarian officer. Have you been to the Military Academy? You know what an edifice that is, what the Tsar’s halls in there are like! Nobody could just walk in there. They turned on the heating after we got out of bed. How we toughened ourselves up… and got everything done on the clock. When we went out on home leave we walked through a door that said, “Guard the traditions of this home, carry them with passion and pride.” That was the Bulgarian officer. In the early days when I was there I wrote in my journal that I was ready to go die in the frontline for my homeland. I was 15. Who do you think won those wars? The Bulgarian officer and soldier. We were true patriots. There is no such thing nowadays, nobody values that. I can’t figure you people out, these days. But that is how things are, unfortunately.
I was very badly wounded. I have three bullets in my chest; they went in the one side and out the other. I go to the German lines when, during the last exchange on the Drava, we get sent out at 4 in the morning to get a prisoner. Out of 12 people, just us two return. And when I get shot the last time, a soldier of mine throws himself on top of me and saves my life. (his voice has been shaking for some time now) The German soldier not only fires and wounds me, but also throws a bomb which tears apart my soldier who saved me. (trying to dry his eyes)
We’ve got our prisoner. The date is February 18, Thursday. The shore is 70 cm above the Drava. The river is 60-70 meters wide, carrying ice blocks as big as half this room, and there’s a terrible chill. They took our boats, and for two kilometers another soldier of mine is pushing me and the prisoner we caught, and that is how we reach the Bulgarian shore, in that cold. Over a liter and a half of my blood pours into the river. And when we get to the Bulgarian shore the patrol doesn’t know about the raid because we are too far from where we started from. We had left our wallets and everything there, just those who smoked had taken their cigarettes along. As he steps onto the Bulgarian shore, dragging me and the German prisoner, who is tied up, knocked out by a blow to the head, my comrade steps on one of our mines, and half his leg is gone. It throws dirt on me, and I pass out. I wake up in the hospital in Vajszló, a Hungarian village. There, this Serbian partisan is a sister of “mercy.” They tell her, “You will open his eyes at sunset in the eastern room, and in the morning you will put him in the western room to open his eyes.” She does exactly the opposite of what she’s been told, and I get a cataract in the eyes. It turns out that she has done this for a second or third time to Bulgarian officers, because she hates Bulgaria. And we went there to liberate them. They shot her. War is a horrific thing. I have many albums from the war. I led 128 soldiers. They would die for me. The one who threw himself on top of me to save me used to live behind the Military Academy, at 45 Cherkovna St. His mother was a widow, and he was her only son. A horrific thing.
Another time, they send me to Koumanovo, and they tell me to save the bridges. How am I supposed to save the bridges – I’m an armor-fighter artillerist, not a pioneer! And the bridges blow up behind me. I remain in Koumanovo. We are three bikers, we enter the town and one truck full of Germans does escape us, but we capture the second one: thirty Germans and two officers, all tied up by us, ready in the truck just waiting to be captured. For that I was awarded the first medal of valor. I have two medals for the highest rank, officer’s, and a Russian, very great medal, but it doesn’t matter at all. What does it matter?
Life after the war
After the changes of 1944, I was shortly an adjutant in the Military Academy. My commander took me on because of my English, but he got fired on January 31, and I followed on February 2. They threw us directly in the street. Why, we are His Majesty’s Military School and the regime is communist! There is a big difference.
And I became supervisor of sports at the Central Cooperative Union (CCU) with the lowest possible salary. And gradually, one thing after another, I got involved in sports, this and that. With the support of a Party Secretary whose husband was a big shot at the State Insurance Institute I got pulled, with the approval of the Central Committee, so eventually I became one of the people of highest regard in the Bulstrad insurance agency. And I went all over the world – Trieste, Greece – because I was the only one who spoke English. And insurance, especially reinsurance, is nothing without English – all the reinsurance business goes through London. We insured the whole air fleet, the ships and the shipyards. Little by little I started to move up, just five months into my marriage.
I met my wife through a cousin of mine. She is from Pleven, but she attended some courses in Sofia and that’s how we met. I was the only officer allowed home from the front then, on account of my injuries. So they arranged for me 12 days leave from the day I left Belgrade to the day I got back there, and that is when our relationship started.
When I returned here an officer, we got married. And my wife started to carry the burden along with me. The first five months after the wedding I had no job, we literally starved, we lived in the attic, one room with a bed in it – and that was it, we had no right to anything else. Later, I called some friends from CCU to help me put up a cardboard partition, – you see, it’s that wall over there – because my aunt lived in the next room, so that she could go in from a separate entrance.
After the war the fact that I had studied at the College was a negative, but the people in our neighborhood had very deep respect for our family. As you can see, out of all the private houses only ours is still there. My father’s yard reached to the end of the Chinese embassy. It was full of trees that my father, my brother and I had planted once again. Our lot extended over 1500 square meters.
Keeping in Touch with the College and Fellow Alumni
A few years after the end of the war, in 1948-49, Americans came to stay on the College grounds, soldiers and officers, and I got in touch with them. And since I was captain of the Omurtag basketball team, I got to play basketball on the same court where I played as a student and as a child of the College. Maybe you don’t know that the Americans had asked Switzerland to maintain the interests of the American College after the war on behalf of America – that’s millions right there. And so, those soldiers came, I immediately got in touch with them, and we had basketball dates. They lived there, but didn’t know who we were, or what we were. I kept it to myself because it wasn’t something to talk about.
We continued to get together with the other students after we graduated, too. I remember the 1988 reunion on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of our graduation, just our Class of 1943. (pointing at a photo) Here we are with College people who came from Israel, South America and all over, in a Bulgarian restaurant. Look how united we are. This here is Habel, one of the largest oil tycoons in Venezuela.
I care for the College. I keep following its developments to this day. Look, your Christmas card is over there. But I can’t get to you. I have no strength; I can barely go get a paper, and my wife is bed-bound, so I have plenty of chores to help her with. Our two sons, both university graduates, are busy. They get home late from work. The little one speaks excellent English – he also works in insurance and often travels to London.
I’m an invalid with these wounds of mine, the pleura – torn back there on the shoulder blade, and in spite of it all I’m in my ninety-second year. The College, the College – all of those sports, the work. We worked at the College, there were no slackers. We’d say, “Let’s make ourselves a pool,” and we all went to dig it, and then we swam and competed in it. And what a place to go in the summer – Samokov, yes, nothing beats the Iskar.
Sofia, February 2016