September 20, 2016 by American College of Sofia
By Petia Ivanova ’97
On a sunny morning in early June, a curious group of nine visitors came to the College. Their white hair and slow walk made the guests stand out amidst a sea of hurried teenagers. Slowly making her way up to the library, one of the visitors bragged to the others about her new pacemaker (exactly, not an iPod). Their eyes sparkled no differently than those of ACS seniors on their last day of school – with overwhelming joy mixed with sadness. American College alumna Hilda Dormont ’46 and her husband came from Israel, Golub Golubov ’42, his wife Violeta and their daughter Lydia – all the way from Canada, Golub’s sister Ceca Bachvarov ’46 – from the United States, while Veska Fikova ’46 and Hristina Dobreva ’46 assisted with organizing the reunion here in Sofia. They sighed, talked and joked endlessly, and most of all they laughed. And we laughed with them. Below is a small part of what we managed to transfer onto paper from the happy emotions we experienced taking part in this moving reunion.
At the library, while looking at the Bor Yearbook from the distant year of 1940, the following short conversations could be overheard:
“Well if that isn’t the bell!”
“The bell, indeed, it was placed next to the boy’s dorms. What was his name, Gogo Bakardjiev ’44, he used to ring it. The first one rang at 5:50 a.m. in order to wake us up. By the time the second one rang, 15 minutes later, we had to be ready – combed, dressed, and all… Can you imagine?”
“Well, some people didn’t bother to wake up anyway.” Hilda winks at another lady visitor we chose to leave nameless, even if her sense of humor wouldn’t possibly allow any offence to be taken, “I, on the other hand, did so every single time.”
“Oh, look at those beautiful girls!”
“That’s Elena, she lives in Plovdiv now.”
“She was in love with Mrs. Leech’s brother, wasn’t she? (To my colleague Natalia and myself) You see, girls, we were once in love, too!”
They continue to flip through the 1940 yearbook pages, taking their time making sure they aren’t missing anyone while impatiently awaiting Golub’s picture.
“Here is my brother, finally!” Ceca exclaims and sparks loud cheering and laughter from the rest of the visitors.
“That’s me indeed – such a young man! The most handsome of all, aren’t I! Just look at my tie!”
“God, how beautiful everyone was!”
“Well, actually some of us still are!” Everyone looks at Hristina and indeed they’re not exaggerating: I bet Catherine Deneuve would give anything to look like Hristina when in her 90’s.
“Ms. Moskovska. God, was she strict!”
“Tell me about it! She was switching off the lights so early! At 10 p.m.!”
“Shall we tell them how the boys sneaked in at night in our dorms afterwards though?”
“Wait a minute, wasn’t that forbidden?” I ask naïvely.
“Oh, come on, don’t you know that there aren’t forbidden things in love?”
“What about me, I carried your secret love letters around and then I got caught and had a penalty instead!”
“But oh, what great times we shared here at ACS. A wonderful beginning of lovely friendships.”
Our stroll through the campus gradually brings us to the Auditorium. Entering, Hilda is reminded of something:
“Here’s an embarrassing story for you that took place at this exact place – the ‘Assembly Hall’ is what we called it back in the days! One of our teachers – the strictest one actually – was standing on stage talking to us and all of a sudden her panties fell off
– panties used to be tied with an elastic band and apparently hers broke in the middle of her speech. Do you think that anyone laughed or dared make a comment? No, not one. She pretended that nothing happened and so did all of us. That’s how much we feared, and respected her.”
While we are at the museum, Veska speaks to me of the difficulties Hilda had due to her Jewish origin: “You know how Jews were forced to wear stars? Well, that rule didn’t apply here at ACS. Still, Prof. Black always told our Jewish students to wear it when they leave the campus to avoid trouble. The strange times and those rules didn’t stop us from being best friends and staying this way for so many years. And you know, when times were hard for us here in Bulgaria, during the so called “Lukanov” Winter, Hilda sent us packages with food and presents via various Jewish organizations. Actually, she still sends us those every Christmas and Easter.”
Later on, I get goose bumps when Hristina tells me what Mr. Floyd Black did for Hilda and her boyfriend Aaron, also an American College student. When it became clear that Jews were being forced to leave the country, and Hilda knew that she would have to leave the College, as well, Prof. Black not only allowed her to meet her boyfriend against the basic school rules, he actually arranged their last date. Hilda and Aaron met in the canteen, where they took their tearful farewell just days before they left Bulgaria.
We are still at the museum, when Golub tells me about fleeing west. Apparently, he took the Orient Express train to the Yugoslavian border. A friend of his family helped him with tips on where and when exactly to cross the border to avoid running into border guards. From Yugolsavia he and his family got to Trieste and intended to go to the USA from there. Unfortunately, his father died then and the procedure for getting a visa which was under the father’s name had to be started anew. It was going to take up to two more years, so they decided to change their trip’s destination to Canada instead, and that’s where he and his family have lived ever since. We also found out that, in a way, Golub and I come from consecutive classes even if 55 years stand between our graduations; Golub comes from the Class of 1942, the last one to actually have the chance to graduate from the American College before all American teachers had to leave, and I come from the first one after the school was reopened, the Class of 1997.
We continue with a small lunch in the canteen with the College President Mr. Cangiano. Hilda tells him the story of how she won a masquerade contest dressed up as a butterfly and how Prof. Black continued to refer to her as a “butterfly” from that moment on. We are deeply impressed when we learn how after losing touch with each other during the war, best friends Hilda, Hristina, Veska and Ceca found one another again 50 years later, when Hilda’s blast-from-the-past phone call almost gave Hristina a heart attack. Those ladies have now known each other for nearly 70 years, and in Hilda and Hristina’s case – 76 years! It is kind of incredible that spending just a couple of years together, here at ACS, they managed to grow so fond of each other. Or as Hristina’s husband had jokingly put it: “This American College of yours! I really don’t understand how you can talk for more than 50 years about something that only lasted less than 5!”
During lunch Golub is encouraged by the ladies to make a speech, so he tells us the story of how he ended up at ACS: “I come from Dragoman, you see, and when the time came for my parents to choose a high school for me, a friend of my father’s advised him to send me to this school in Sofia which had its own dormitory and was known for its strict rules, so even if a child was away from home and family, the parents could be sure their child was safe and taken care of, a little like prison, you know. That’s how my parents sent me to this charming prison, the American College of Sofia. Here I spent probably the best six years of my life, and I grew so close to those people; we were like a family, really.”
Next, Ceca, Golub’s sister, currently living in the United States, shares how terrible her first days were here at ACS: “You know, I came from a small town, so I didn’t know any of the girls, and I was crying every evening. I met my brother before going to the girl’s dorm in the evening, it’s true, but I cried in front of him, as well, and he had only one thing to tell me, “Sis, whether you cry or not, you’re still staying here till you graduate in 6 years, so you better stop crying and start making friends instead. And so I did.”
At parting Mr. Cangiano turns to the alumni: “I would just like to thank all of you for coming to the College today. I know I’ve met some of you before, but some of you I am meeting for the first time. I am a person who believes in schools having long storied histories. And ACS is one of those schools. I’ve worked at a few schools like that and I know how special this place is to you. To talk to you and to hear your stories about what it was like here when you were students really means very much to me. I appreciate you sharing your stories with us, so thank you and please feel free to visit any time.”
Afterwards, our walk around the campus brings us under the windows of Abbott Hall, once the girls’ dormitory. All four women point and exclaim: “Up there on the second floor, you see, these are the windows to our dorm room. Here on those very stairs, we had a picture taken about hundred years ago. Reception was on the first floor; visitors and guests came here for meetings.”
While seating themselves around the sculptures of Mr. Floyd Black and Ms. Inez Abbott for a picture, the girls can’t help taking up the subject of their school master: “He was very strict but very good-hearted. In our last year, he invited everybody from the senior class to come and have dinner in small groups with him and his wife.”
Towards the end of their visit, while taking pictures in front of Ostrander Hall, Golub remembers fleeing school to go to the cinema in Sofia. 50 hours community work was his punishment when the dean found out about his misconduct. Golub was supposed to clean some campus area, but a good friend of his father (that same one who advised his parents to send him to the College), worked at the school, and offered to help out by secretly doing the work for him. While he is telling me the story, we spot some kids cutting the one mile loop by running in the shade close to the buildings instead of running by the road. I can’t help thinking that some things haven’t changed in the nearly seventy years that separate Golub and the current ACS students. And once again I laugh.
*Three weeks after the visit, we received a package by Hilda Dormont, who is an artist, with three of her beautiful works, a painting and two drawings that she chose to give to the school she so fondly remembers. Thank you!
**Sadly, Golub, his sister Ceca, and Hilda have all passed away. We’ll remember them fondly.
This material was first published in June, 2009 as part of the ACS Alumni Magazine.