These are the autobiographical writings of my grandfather, Demeter G. Colchagoff. He originally started his writings in his late 70s or early 80s. He was unable to do much of the writing himself due to the affliction of "familial tremors". His hands shook so much that his writing was anywhere from difficult to read to illegible. To get around this difficulty he tape-recorded the stories and had a transcriptionist-typist put the stories to print. Unfortunately, he began this endeavor too late in life. He died in December 1981 at the age of 89 with his autobiography unfinished.
For the last twenty years Demeter's papers have been shuffled from one place to another. Finally my brother Mark and I got together and decided to put all of our grandfather's stories together to make one manuscript. That is exactly what I have been working on for the last month.
Demeter didn't make it easy to put all his stories together. There were several versions of many of the stories and it was difficult to determine which version should be used. In the end a compilation of all the versions was made, utilizing something from each version.
I have made some changes in these stories for clarity, such as punctuation, spelling, and rearranging sentences. In the case of "My Girl, My Wife", I added material that wasn't in Demeter's papers but had been told to me by both grandparents since childhood. Also, I have added titles to the stories or subjects that originally had none.
NOTE: I have done everything I could think of to insure proper spelling and punctuation. I am unable to confirm much of the information given here. Please notify me if an error of any sort is found in these stories.
I'm not absolutely positive Demeter already had a title for his book
picked out. From what I've been reading for the past month and information
I have gleaned from family members, I think it would be "Through Thick
Stories from the Life of Demeter G. Colchagoff
The First Depilatory - 19--
Five hundred years of life under the cruel, wicked and tyrannical Ottoman Empire, the Bulgarian people decided to rebel and gain their freedom as Greece and Serbia had early in the century. The Bulgarian history was preserved and saved from extinction in the churches and monasteries, where it was brought out and read clandestinely. Soon groups were formed to remind the people that they were a nation and that they also had a great kingdom before the Turks came. People soon began to talk of uprising; of revolution to overthrow the Sultan. In the last half of the 19th century many Bulgarians took to the mountains to fight and harass the Turks. Embittered by these guerrilla tactics, the Turks struck back most viciously and cruelly. They committed atrocities that went largely unnoticed by the outside world until the massacre of a town, Batak, located in southwestern present day Bulgaria. Here several thousand men, women and children were mercilessly slaughtered in April of 1876. The most graphic report of this horrible deed was brought out three months later by an American by the name of MacGahan who at the time was correspondent for the London Daily News. This report shook Europe of its lethargy so far as the Bulgarians were concerned. However, of all the European powers, Russia felt the most sympathetic to the suffering of the Bulgarian people. Russia promptly sent an army of 300,000 across the Danube and drove the Turks out of the Balkans. The war was ended by the treaty of San Stefano, a town near the Bosporus. Great rejoicing reigned throughout the land of the Bulgars; south of the Danube, east of Montenegro and Albania, north of Greece, and west of Constantinople with coastline on the Black Sea and Aegean Sea. However, this great joy of freedom was to be short-lived. The European powers, fearing that this Russo-Turkish war was simply a move by Russia as an expansion to get to the Mediterranean warm water, promptly called a conference in Berlin. As a result of the Berlin Pact, most of the area liberated was returned to Turkey. Among the areas reoccupied by the Turks was that part of Macedonia known as Pirin Macedonia.
So, in the town of Bansko, in the county of Razlog, on September 17, 1892, a male child was born to George and Milana Colchagoff. I was that boy, the seventh child of the family. Being the seventh child played an important part later in my life. In ancient legend, particularly in Jewish beliefs, the seventh child in the family is considered lucky.
My sister Raina, five years older than I, told me that I was born in a room on the ground floor of our house. The room had no wooden floor, but the ground was covered with a room-size reed rug on top of which was a homemade large rug. I don't know exactly how old I was, a day or two or a week, but suddenly out from the side of the large fireplace came a large black snake. Mother screamed, scooped me up and ran out of the house calling for help. A neighbor came and disposed of the creature. The family and the neighbors decided it was some kind of omen for the new child. Something else of very unusual character happened at that time that also had an ominous portend. Father tells me that when I was a baby, a meteor exploded over the town, temporarily bathing the area with a blinding brilliance.
My mother told me that in early childhood I began to show intense interest in musical sounds. My father made frequent trips to Salonika, a day or two by horse from Bansko to buy merchandise for his store. On this trip he brought me a small harmonica, a cheap music box made in Italy. Soon I began to play small easy tunes. As I grew and learned to play better, my father would buy me a bigger harmonica.
Our family went to the Protestant church that was commonly used for secular meetings, entertainment, as well as church services on Sunday morning.
The American Missionaries that came to preach the gospel in the Balkan Peninsula were good, educated, well-intentioned and self-sacrificing people. I've heard that when the Americans first came to Bansko they held religious meetings in private homes. The local Orthodox people were suspicious of the new Protestant religion. Some reported to the head priest of the town's Orthodox church, St. Trinity, suggesting that the foreigners were heretics and should be stoned and run out of town.
* It might be helpful to American readers to point out that the word
"harmonica" refers to "accordian". This happens in many languages, but
can be confusing to Americans who think of a small "mouth organ"
instrument and wonder how the harmonica could be too big to hold!
The American Missionaries - 1895
When the first missionaries came to the Balkans, they somehow selected our town of Bansko as the place to start their work.
They brought pencils, slates and a lot of scrap paper. They brought primers in the Bulgarian language. I still don't know where these primers were printed, Bulgaria or the United States.
My mother was very glad to get her hands on some of these primers. Until then, she was leveling the sand in a box and was with a stick drawing the alphabet to teach the children. This was a very primitive way of teaching.
The missionaries also taught my mother how to take care of babies after they are born, including proper sanitation, and first aid. As a result my mother became a very well known midwife. The townspeople liked her very much because she knew so much about babies.
When the missionaries came, many of the people liked the way they preached the word of God. Many of them began to attend the meetings regularly.
The priests of the local Orthodox Church received a delegation one day from the town who told them that there were people from another country who were preaching something different than what he was. They promised to run the missionaries out of town if the priest so desired.
The priest said, "Don't you touch these people until I have had a chance to talk with them."
So the following Sunday, right in his own church, he said, "It has come to me that there are people here who are preaching the Gospel in a different way. Now I don't want anybody to touch these people. They are doing a very good job. They are preaching the same thing I've been preaching for years, and they are doing a good job. Don't touch them."
This incident sort of opened the way and doors wide for the missionaries
in our town. My mother and father and many of my aunts and uncles joined
the new church. In 1867 they built a church in the town, and it's still
standing there today.
Playing the Harmonica - 1897
While we were still living with the Turks, way back before any rebellion started, I was just a young boy about five. My father had a store--a general store. He sold everything in it. Every time he went down to the big city, Salonica, to buy something from the wholesalers for his store he would always bring me a harmonica. Every time he'd go back he'd bring me another harmonica, always a little but bigger, until he brought me one I couldn't lift myself.
So one day our church was giving an entertainment program, and among the numbers in that program was myself playing some tunes with my harmonica. When it was my turn to perform, I sat on a chair and my brother would lift the harmonica and put it in my lap.
Somehow, one of the reeds got stuck, and as I tried to play I could hear that stuck reed going wang, wang, wang. Then I started to cry. I got very humiliated in front of all those people.
The more I cried, the more they laughed. The more they laughed the more I cried. While the program was continued a group of Turkish soldiers came in and filled up the back of the church. At the end of the program the captain of that detachment came up and ask my brother whose boy that was who played the harmonica.
He said, "That's my kid brother."
The captain said, "Look, we have a lot of new recruits from Asia Minor so we would like to have that boy come down there and play for them because they are getting homesick."
Of course he couldn't say no. The soldiers walked away and about three days later around midnight my mother thought she heard pebbles falling on the windowpane over the store where we lived. We looked out and saw the street filled with Turkish soldiers. My mother was so scared she called my brother. He came to the window and raised it wide asking them what they wanted.
Somebody yelled back, "We want that little boy with the music box."
My brother said, "How can you ask for the boy now? It's twelve o'clock, it's midnight. He's asleep."
The soldier said, "That's all right he can sleep tomorrow."
We couldn't do anything else. We couldn't really antagonize them very much, so we told them we were coming down. He yelled back and said, "Don't forget the music box."
My mother put on the dress that I'd been wearing--I didn't have pants, just a dress; and my brother carried the music box, the harmonica, and we went down to the barracks.
They had a great big table, a long table, full of sweet things. Turkish Delights, cookies, all kinds of pastries just piled up there. They were jumping around music or not music. They put me up on a table, and put a chair up on the top of the table. So I sat down on the chair and I played.
I had learned some Arabic Tunes and, whether they danced or not, it didn't make any difference. They were jumping around and we made them happy. When I got through playing for the soldiers, they said, "Hold your apron up."
Well, I didn't have an apron but I grabbed a hold of my dress and made an apron out of it. They started to throw in it Turkish delights, even money, until it was full. They threw quarters and other money about the size of a silver dollar.
We finally got back home. As I said before, we were still on talking terms and living with the Turks. That lasted until the rebellion began.
So we got home, and my father said, "Look at that kid. He makes more money than I do."
It was really something to remember, a five-year-old boy playing for
all these Turkish soldiers.
My Brother Lazar - 1899
My brother, Lazar, was a very inventive, mechanical minded man. When the American missionaries came to our town, Bansko, in northern Macedonia, they brought with them an organ, which they used in leading their hymns in the services.
Well, we had never seen an organ. My brother with his inventive mind kept looking at it and looking at it. Finally, he asked the missionaries if they would let him look inside it by removing the backboard. They did.
He kept looking at it for a long time. When he got home later, he got some boxes that were very common around the place because we used to get our kerosene from Russia in these boxes.
These boxes were made of very soft wood that was easy to work with. It didn't take my brother long to build another organ just like the one the missionaries had. He made it out of some metal and wood that we had. He not only made the organ, (at least a skeleton of one) but he made the scale so that the right tones were at the right places and the right distances apart. It was remarkable.
I have been here in America and seen the sprouting technology to the left and to the right. I have always thought that if my brother, Lazar, could have come to the United States when I did, he probably would have become a great executive of some firm that uses technology. That's the story of my brother and the homemade organ in the town of Bansko.
This brother of mine showed his knowledge of things in other ways, too.
We learned from the American missionaries how to make a kite. It was something we had never seen before. After the demonstration by one of the Americans, my brother one day went I about it and built an oversize kite. It was probably four or five feet in height. He had a long tail on it in order to balance the flight of the kite. On the end of the tail he tied a small lantern with a lighted candle in it. The kite was large enough to be in the air.
One evening, about six or seven o'clock when it was still light but getting dark, he raised it up into the air. Well, a regular pandemonium broke out. It all happened when they saw this light. They couldn't see the kite very well because it was getting dark. That lantern showed up very well, though. It was that light that scared the people, especially the women.
They all fell on their knees and crossed themselves and prayed that nothing would happen to them. They could not figure out what that moving light was, and it scared the daylights out of them. It was my brother, Lazar, again.
One day I was visiting Bulgaria, in 1929, and I showed him a little
toy with a couple of lead balls in it. He duplicated that toy and made
about 100,000 of them. He sold them all over the country. He is very mechanical
minded not only in making his own things, but also in copying somebody
else's inventions very quickly.
Mountain Climbing - 1900
Our hometown, Bansko, is at the foot of the beautiful Pirin Mountains. This range of rather high mountains is as much as 3000 meters high and has peaks where snow at the top never melts. In the summertime many groups of young boys and girls go to the lower ranges of the mountain to gather wild strawberries, filberts or walnuts. We have no particular sport to talk about except for one, and that is mountain climbing.
The villagers, especially the younger men, get together and go up to the top and then come back down. This is always a very enjoyable outing.
Well one day, my brother, Sandre and eleven other men started out to climb the highest point of that mountain. The Turks had named it "El Tepeh" meaning highest point. The top of this particular mountain has no snow. Usually the snow only accumulates on the sides because the wind keeps the snow away from the top.
All of these men carried knapsacks with food in them because it is an all day climb. Usually they carried a chunk of a loaf of bread and some cheese. On the way up they stopped to rest and eat their lunch when they noticed that one of the men, Yonko, carried something very big in his knapsack. Another man in the group asked him what he had in the knapsack.
"None of your business," Yonko replied.
The man who asked him then said, "Let me tell you something. You are going to travel with us along some very narrow, dangerous paths, and that big thing in your knapsack is liable to pull you down the slope and into the rocks."
Yonko said, "Never you mind, I know what I'm doing."
These men were very curious as to what he had in this knapsack and when Yonko wasn't looking they took his knapsack away from him and looked inside.
When they opened it up, they found a section of a wheel from a wagon. This was a real massive wheel. Usually these wheels were very heavy because these wagons carried big loads. There was just one section of this wheel with part of the spokes still sticking out of it. That man had carried that thing all the way up there.
The others looked at him and said, "You're crazy. What's the idea of loading yourself with that wheel. Why that will pull you down for sure."
Yonko replied, "That's all right, I know what I'm doing." So the others let him go.
When they got to the very top of the mountain, Yonko pulled out the section of that massive wheel, threw it down on the ground, kicked it, and partly buried it in the ground. Then he said, "I wish I could be here when the next gang comes up here. They will see this part of a wheel and wonder how that wagon got up here and how the wagon broke down."
There is much humor in the town of Bansko. This man had risked his neck
to make a joke for somebody he didn't even know.
The Earthquake - 1902
If you're in an airplane, and one of the motors begins to sputter out, you say to yourself, "If I could only get down on the ground, I'd be all right."
If you're in a boat, out in the lake, and the boat begins to leak, you say to yourself, "If I could only get to shore, I'd be all right."
When terra firma begins to play tricks on you, then where do you go? You go mad. This is the feeling one gets in an earthquake.
This is about an experience that I had back in 1903 while I was still in my hometown of Bansko, northern Macedonia. We were right in the midst of a rebellion against the Turks, trying to overthrow the mighty Ottoman Empire, and set up a free Bulgaria, Macedonia. The men folk in my family were away. Some of them were in Bulgaria across the border, and others were in the mountains fighting a guerrilla war against the Turks. The children and the women folk were at home. My two sisters-in-laws and my two oldest brothers and their children were home.
The two women went down to the river, a couple of blocks away. They were there bleaching clothes. They left me to look after the children. There were five of them, all of various ages.
We were up on a high balcony or structure where we dried our food or clothes. It was enclosed so that nobody could fall off, but it was level with the second story. All of a sudden, about one o'clock in the afternoon, I could hear a dull but very strong sound coming from all around me. Then I noticed that the chimney across the street from us began to move around, but it didn't fall. It was the most interesting thing that I've seen in my life, a chimney all by itself moving around. Then all of a sudden the earthquake struck
It struck so hard, that the children could not stand up on their feet. They were rolling around; so was I. They were screaming. Well, now their mothers were at the river, as I said before. When the earthquake struck, they told me later, the water in the river where they were bleaching clothes all of a sudden disappeared. They could see crabs and small fish flopping in the bottom of the disappeared river. Where the water went, they didn't know.
They left clothes and everything there and started running toward home to make sure that the children were safe. They finally got home. I had taken the children halfway down the stairs and everybody was safe. The women grabbed the children and started leading them out toward the out-of-town. Many other people joined us. People were so scared they were crossing themselves as they were running toward out-of-torn to get away from the buildings. The buildings all had tile roofs making them easy to fall down and they were heavy tile that could kill anybody down in the street.
So we kept running, dragging the children. We came to a place where another street joined going toward to outside, and it was something like a "Y" and the two sides joined into one exit. As we joined the other group, one woman came to my oldest sister-in-law and said, "Magdalena, would you please stop for a minute and pray? Perhaps you seem closer to God than us Orthodox."
Of course, my sister-in-law was just as scared as anybody else. She stopped and she offered a prayer, trembling from fear. As friends continued pushing for the outside away from the buildings, a most frightful thing happened. The street we were running on, all of a sudden, opened a crack probably three or four inches wide and very irregular shaped. Yellow water began to rise in the crack. Just like a curtain it went as high as six feet from the ground or as I would have said then, a couple of meters.
Everybody was sacred. There were screaming women and children. Everyone panicked, but we kept pushing on.
On the way out, the crack ended in the ground but there was a woman in a building working on a loom making cloth. Sitting at a loom, your hands are busy working the machine and throwing the shuttle back and forth. The feet control part of the work, too. The woman was working in that loom and she never felt the building shaking. She continued working with the loom until the wall that was facing the street all of a sudden collapsed. Daylight came into the room and she gave one big scream. She jumped down over the rubble and down she came, joining the crowd running out.
As we approached the end of the town, and there were no buildings around, people began clustering behind fences and fence posts. They were sitting down on the ground and bending this way and that to avoid the tremors. The thing I remember as I looked out towards the fields was a straight street with rows of poplar trees on each side bending toward each other in and out. Evidently, the action of the earthquake was moving the earth in a row, like.
We stayed there all day. Toward evening the shocks began to subside and became farther apart. We were still afraid to come in town. The fears of falling buildings or more tremors were still felt. Finally, some of the men folk got in and then slowly people began to get back to their homes.
There was an event told to me afterward. A couple of Turks went into shoe repair shop just before this happened. They helped themselves to a pair of shoes for each. The poor fellow pleaded with them but they threatened him with the butts of their rifles so he couldn't do anything but decease.
Now the walls of the building of this shoe repair shop were probably two feet thick stone. The door was of the same thickness. In order to get out you have to open the door quite a bit in order to get out, because of the thickness. The first man started out and as he does, the earthquake struck and the door pinned him and he couldn't move. The man inside was running around because the door was blocked by his friend and he didn't know what to do. As the shocks continued, the door was jarred loose and they got out. They left the shoes behind and left the building.
Then we came back but we were afraid to sleep in the building in the house. So we got blankets and comforters and we slept out in the garden away from the buildings. As we lie down on the ground during the night, we could hear a booming noise coming from below and then another couple of hours they got rarer and fewer.
Evidently, earthquakes happen in the Balkan Peninsula, perhaps not too
often but they reoccur because of the two mountains located in Italy. Perhaps
the area is honeycombed underground by the action of volcanoes. We have
outside of my hometown a big hole probably four or five meters in diameter.
The villagers built a fence around it so no cattle would fall down in it.
We have tried to reach the bottom of it, but we have never had enough rope
to reach the bottom with a rock tied on the end of it. Sometimes in the
wintertime there is a small bit of smoke coming from out of the hole. We
wonder if may be it will someday erupt.
My Mother - 1903
The story of my mother's life is the most fantastic story that I have ever heard, and I've been a part of it as a child.
During the rebellion, everybody had to do something to help the cause of fighting the Turks; my mother was appointed to bake bread for the rebels. We usually baked an oven full of bread. The oven under our house was probably ten feet in diameter. You can really bake many, many loaves of bread all at one time.
She was to furnish the rebels with bread, so she baked bread every day. One day a neighbor of ours was caught doing something, and he was brought before the magistrate in the county seat. They tried to force him to say Milana Colchagoff, my mother, was making bread for the rebels. Of course, being our neighbor he certainly wouldn't say anything like that. The soldiers beat him most mercilessly until the poor fellow was bleeding all over, and then they said they were going to kill him. Finally he told them, "Yes, Milana Colchagoff is making bread for the rebels." There was a friend of ours who happened witness the beating. He found out what they extracted from this poor fellow and ran straight to our home. When the friend arrived he said, "Mrs. Colchagoff, your neighbor was compelled to tell the Turks that you're making bread for the rebels. So lock the doors and go away."
Well, she did. We locked all the doors and fence gates and wouldn't let anybody in. The Turks threatened to break the door so we opened the door. Of course, mother had run away. The Turks went through the house and went through the barn. They took forks and they poked into the straw and the hay thinking that she was in there hiding. They couldn't find her. From that moment on, for six months, she never showed her face on the street--at least not where there were Turks.
The authorities instituted a search for her. In fact, the Turks searched the town 17 times trying to catch my mother because she was a well-known woman and to make an example of her. She was a schoolteacher. She also was a very popular midwife. Most of the babies born there were handled by her, and everybody loved her. The Turks wanted to make an example of her. All the neighbors were anxious to protect her that whenever they searched the town everybody was so apprehensive, and they were all ready to do whatever was necessary to protect her.
The town is so constructed that you can go from one part of the town to another either over above balconies or in tunnels under the street. This is a typical roman idea, and she was able to hide away when they came to search the house--she could run away from the house.
One day she was visiting the people next door across the street from us when all of a sudden the came and they put sentries on all the streets; a whole cordon of soldiers all around the town so nobody could get in or out. The streets were filled up with Turkish sentries probably 20, 30, or 40 feet apart. Then they would start block after block going through the houses, going through the closets, the barns, trying to catch her.
She was across the street talking to the neighbor when all of a sudden the street was filled with Turks, and she couldn't cross the street to get home. There was no overhead balcony to run across. There was no tunnel under the street. The only way was to run across the street. Everybody was apprehensive wondering what to do to help.
My mother was a cool headed woman. She said to the lady of the house, "Mary, I bet you're scared."
Mary said, "You bet I'm scared, I'm scared to death, and I don't know what to do to help."
She said to Mary, "You are going to help. to have a baby today."
This woman's eyes opened wide and she said, "A baby! Why mother Colchagoff I'm not even pregnant."
"Oh that is all right, you're going to have a baby anyway. You boil some water and bring a great big bowl of steaming, hot water and put it next to your bed. Then you lie down and let one of your legs show, and don't worry about anything."
So the party that was searching lead by a captain burst into the bedroom. My mother had a great big kerchief over her head so that they wouldn't see her face, and she was dipping down a towel into that hot, steaming water. It was quite evident to the Turk that he was in a woman's room where she was in labor and delivering, and he had no business in this room. So he left instantly and there outside so they rest of the soldiers, wouldn't make the same mistake.
The soldiers all went away, and it just never entered the captain's mind that this was the very woman he was looking for. She got home after the Turks went away.
Another time it was wintertime this time, and it was very, very cold. The sentries stood close to each other blocking the street. It was in another part of the town where mother happened to be. When they found out that she was caught in a block where she had to cross the street, the neighbors got busy right away.
They said, "We've got to do something for Mrs. Colchagoff. The Turks have got her in a block where she will have to cross the street."
So right away they boiled potatoes, a lot of potatoes; great big kettle of potatoes. They passed the word to the sentries that there were hot potatoes over there. These poor boys were shivering holding onto their guns in this very cold weather. When they heard of hot potatoes they forgot about Mrs. Colchagoff and went to get their fingers warmed. Mother shot across the street and was saved again.
Eventually, she couldn't stand this sort of existence and four of the rebels came down into town. Among the four were my two brothers. They came and picked her up and started out on foot. They headed toward the Bulgarian border. It was wintertime and it was very cold, and she wasn't a young woman any more; she was tired and had to rest every once in a while. She came upon a stump of a tree.
So my mother sat down there and rested against that tree stump--at least she thought it was a tree stump. After she had been there a few minutes, she noticed the shape of the stump was very unusual. When she took a better look, she discovered that it was a woman holding a baby and that both of them were frozen to death. They had tried to escape from their burning village below and that was as far as they had gotten.
My mother felt so bad that she said to my brother, Lazar, "I can't go on. I want to go back and die like these people have."
Of course, they couldn't let her go back so they made a sled out of a branch of a tree and the four men held the branch as she sat down on it. They pulled her on this sled until they reached the border. They had to be real quiet and they had to practically crawl on their bellies between Turkish frontier posts to get over on the Bulgarian side. Once they got to the other side the Bulgarian frontier soldiers would give them food, warm clothing, warm them up and send them in.
That was the way my mother was saved from sure death. The Turks didn't forget her; they held court and they convicted her of aiding and abetting the revolution. They gave her 101 years at hard labor but, of course, they never caught her. She was over the border.
In 1908 the young Turks changed the government in Turkey and many people went back to see their hometown but she didn't go. She said, "I don't trust these Turks. Young Turks or old Turks, they're still Turks." So she never went back. She stayed in Bulgaria. Even the children had to be stealthily taken to free Bulgaria. I was taken by a man who had a trade between Bulgaria and Turkey. The officers at the border, they would say, "Who's is this boy?"
When we were stopped by the Turkish boarder guards the man said, "This boy is a nephew of mine. He is going just for the ride to Bulgaria. I am bringing him back with me. He will be right back."
So that is how I got out of the country.
Recently, the new government issued publications of the lives of these
Macedonians and Bulgarians. My mother had her story and picture in it,
and we are really proud to be associated with her as a hero, so to speak.
Carrying Bread to the Rebels - 1903
During the rebellion, around 1903, we furnished bread to the rebels. During this time, the town was being searched many times for my mother.
During one of these searches, word came to us that a certain band of rebels needed bread very badly. The troops asked if we would please try to smuggle some bread through the Turkish cordon of soldiers, to their location on the outskirts of the town. The Turks near here were almost man-to-man. These Turks were refusing to let anyone out, especially any adults.
So the people of the town decided that the only way to get bread to the rebels was to send it with a young boy. They ordered a horse and filled the saddlebags with bread. Next, they loaded the horse with hoes, shovels, rakes, and other tools used for working in the fields. This would give the impression that whoever was riding the horse would be going out to work in the fields. Of course, last but not least they put me up in the saddle.
So I rode through the cordon of Turkish soldiers. They didn't stop me or say anything to me.
When I got to the big hill where the rebels were, among them my oldest brother, they took me down off the horse and unloaded the bread. They were just sitting down to eat the bread when there was shooting from down below. The Turks had suspected that I was carrying something to the rebels, and they had followed me up the mountain. They planned to locate and kill the rebels. So they started shooting from below. I don't know how many there were; there must have been hundreds.
However, they had a very bad disadvantage. They were shooting up and climbing up the side of the hill. The rebels were hiding behind the trees and shooting downward. They rolled rocks down the hill at the Turks. Those rebels managed to hold the Turks off until it got dark.
When it got dark, the rebels vanished into the trees and mountains.
The next morning there were three or four wagons on the hill loaded with
something. They were covered with the branches from fir trees so that you
couldn't tell what was in the wagons. Actually, the load was dead soldiers.
The Turks had hidden their dead because they didn't want the local population
to know their troops had suffered such a great loss.
Our New Home - 1904
We settled in the town of Ladjene in the Chepino Valley after we escaped out of Turkey. My father rented a little cottage that was more like a shed than a house. This cottage was in the back yard that was owned by a Turk, or rather a "Pomak". Pomak is the name we gave to Bulgarians converted to Mohammed or Islam. He had three wives which was common among the Turks and among the Mohammadans. He went about his business and never bothered us, and we didn't butt in on his life. So there we were in the same large yard of that Pomak, and we could observe the peculiar life of that family. I don't remember if there were any children in that Turkish family. We observed that one of these three wives stayed in the house while the other two were out in the garden, potato patch or what have you, working in dirty clothes and not prettied up. The one that stays in the house is all rouged up in clean clothes and she was nice and clean for a week. Then the following week she goes to the potato patch and another one stays in the house, and so on.
Sometime during the 17th century the Turkish authorities decided to forcefully convert Bulgarians in this area to the Mohammedan religion. Many of them had to either accept Mohammed or die. Hundreds and thousands did die rather than change their religion. This was a very dramatic chapter in the life of Bulgarians in that area.
The Bulgarians, not only from this area, but also all over Bulgaria have a peculiarity of their own. I have been told that during the forced conversion of these Bulgarians a Turk would grab a Bulgarian by the neck and put a knife on his throat. The attacker would say, "You are going to become a Turk." The poor man wouldn't want to change his religion, but if he said "no" by shaking his head side to side, like saying no in your American way, he would cut his own throat. So, he keeps shaking his head up and down saying, "no, no," so that he wouldn't get cut.
The town of Ladjene had a lot of Mohammedans who a hundred years before had been forced to accept Islam. These followers of Islam had their own mosque. Of course, we Bulgarians didn't respect their mosque; and there were a lot of shootings at the top of that minaret. Of course, the Turks remonstrated with the authorities, but you couldn't catch anybody, and on New Year's Eve there is a lot of shooting. Not particularly paper bombs, but actually shooting with their revolvers or rifles, and a good target was the top of the minaret of the local Mohammedans. It wasn't a very nice thing, but since our brothers on the other side of the borders were still under Turkey, we somehow justified our behavior against these Turks.
I always wanted to know how it looks from the minaret where the horjer makes his prayers. One day two of us kids broke through a window of the mosque and we climbed up there. Somehow the horjer spotted us and came up. When we saw him coming we tried to run down but he beat us to it. So we went back up again. He walked around to the place where he prayed, to the left, to the right, to the left, to the right. Then we shot down real fast, down those spiral steps of the minaret, and got away.
Another thing that I remember while living in Ladjene with a lot of Mohammedans still living there, and how they bury a Turk. They wrapped the corpse and they take it out on a stretcher to the place it is to be buried. The grave is dug vertical instead of horizontal, and the body is placed feet down. The pile of dirt that is all around is scooped up and put in there, and the body is covered. On the top of the grave there is a sort of pinnacle with the dirt that is dug out. All of the people that came were standing probably 30 or 40 feet away in a circle facing the grave. After the horjer, the Mohammedan priest, reads something from the Koran, he raises a big wooden mallet and strikes the high point over the grave. All of the people turn around and start going whichever way they are facing. All the people disappear that way and the horjer and his two helpers who brought the corpse go away.
There isn't very much literature from Bulgaria in the American libraries.
Sometime after 1950 or 1955 a book came into the American library called,
"Parting Time" or "Time of Parting" by Anton Punchev. The librarian here
in Toledo, Ohio, told me that this is the only book that has been accepted
from an author in a communist country. The reason given is that this book
has a historical value. It describes in detail the action of the Turkish
authorities forcing Mohammedanism or Islam on the poor eastern Orthodox
Bulgarians. When the book arrived the librarian asked me to come in and
explain things about the area where this Mohammedanizing took place. What
sort of topography, what kind of people lived there, and something about
the customs. So it is a very important period of history, and not considered
Valley Waters - 1904
The whole area known as the Chepino Valley includes Ladjene, Kamenitza, and Banja Chepino. Also, there were a few other villages like Korva, Dorkovo, Kostandovo, and Rakitovo. All these villages have natural hot water.
Ladjene has many mineral baths. There must be over 400 baths in this area. A few of them are harnessed as bath houses or washing buildings. The rest of them, most of them, run out on the ground and are lost in the river. The bathhouses were very, very popular. The town was a small town, but people came from all over the world or all over Europe and the neighboring countries to bathe at these houses in the mineral water. In the wintertime there were only so many people living in the town. In the summertime the population doubled, tripled, and quadrupled because of these mineral baths. Eventually, it became a well-known spa in the region. The baths usually let out much of that hot water to just run out and had a sulfur smell on the outside, and it wasn't very pleasant, but we didn't pay attention to it.
There was hot water coming up many places. The school that I went to, junior high, was in the village of Kamenitza. It was probably three or four miles from my town to Kamenitza to go to school. We discovered that there was hot water coming up in a small river or creek. There were hot jets coming through, right through the cold water to be mixed up and disappear. We would bring raw eggs in a handkerchief, go under the bridge and walk around in that creek until we found a jet of real hot water that would make you jump. We would put that handkerchief with the eggs right over the jet and keep it there for several minutes, and we got boiled eggs. Now that sounds fantastic, but we would do that, and nobody thought it was anything special because these little jets were all over.
When we would go fishing in the river that flowed through the town,
and we would have a light in our hands. The river wasn't really deep, just
a little above the knees. Every once in a while someone would step on a
hot jet from the bottom of the river, and would have to jump. It was a
lot of fun.
The Family Bishop - 1906
I was attending the American School in Samokov, Bulgaria. Actually, the school was an upper class educational institution; and as I said earlier in this discussion of my stay in Samokov, I quickly adjusted to the happy life of this American school. I was puzzled how my father could afford to send not only me to this school but also my two sisters, Raina and Mara. My father was a simple storekeeper in Bansko and later in Ladjene, in Bulgaria, after we ran away from Bansko, still in Turkish territory. The truth of the matter, as it came out later, was that a relative of ours was paying our tuition. He was some kind of official in a match factory in Kostanetz Banya, a town on the road from Sofia to Istanbul. This official of the match factory was a relative of my mother. He came annually to the American school in Samokov to pay our tuition. Now, we never saw him. We didn't even know him, but it came out later that he came to the school, paid our tuition, my own and the two sisters, and went back home. He never spoke to us. Later on, much later, we found out this money that paid our education actually came from a man by the name of Lazar Mladenov. As it turned out Lazar Mladenov was the brother of my mother, Milana, and at that time, the bishop of the realm. So the bishop gave the money to the official of the match factory who gave the money to the school for the education of the children of the bishop's sister, Milana Kolchagov, my mother.
Lazar Mladenov got his education while in Salonica, Turkey then, in Greece now. He was educated under the schooling of the French Order of St. Benora and that's how he became the Bishop of Rome. He became very influential and was appointed assistant librarian of the great Vatican library. The librarian he assisted later became Pope Paul. He spent much of his time in Turkey helping the poorer Bulgarians and Macedonians who were badly enslaved by the Turks. He died in 1918 while still in position as Bishop of Rome.
While on the subject of the activities of the Bishop of Rome, I should mention that this man had a great influence in Turkey. He was able to approach the prime minister of Turkey, the grand vizier, and plead for the release of hundreds of schoolteachers in Bulgarian schools inside Turkish boarders who were in prisons. He had the teachers and hundreds of citizens released who, for one reason or another, were sent to the city of D'Arbicia in Asia Minor. They were incarcerated under horrible conditions, for many years or perhaps for life in prison.
Only recently the Bulgarian press is coming out with stories of the doings of this man and the wonderful help that he was to the Bulgarian population in European Turkey. The reason probably for not noticing him before was that he was a Roman Catholic. Even early in school the Catholic Church gave him education, and he stayed with the church until he got to be Bishop of Rome. Now, the Bulgarians in Macedonia and Bulgaria were in the Eastern Orthodox Church often referred to as the Greek Catholic. Naturally, no particular note was taken of the activities of a Roman Catholic in an Orthodox country until now.
In Italy, the man for whom he was assisted in the Vatican library later
became Pope Paul VI. The whole family is very proud of the achievements
of my uncle, Lazar Mladenov. It is quite clear to our family that the tuition
in the American school was paid in a round about way by the Bishop of Rome.
Raina Moves to America - 1907
Raina, the older of my two sisters, was teaching in the city of Plovdiv
after graduating from the American school. One day she received word that
someone in America was looking for a girl to marry, a Bulgarian girl and
a Protestant girl. She took the idea seriously, came to the United States
and married the man. His name was Kooman Boycheff, and they raised a family.
It is to their home that I arrived with my younger sister Mara; and it
was here where I got my first taste of American life.
First Death - 1908
I think that I will never forget one summer I was back from the American
school in Samokov. A neighbor of mine fell in his barn on the sharp prongs
of a pitchfork and died. He was taken from the barn to his house and some
of us kids would look through the window. I will never forget the expression
on the face of that poor man. He was dying. He was expiring right in front
of our eyes. The way he rolled his eyes I imagined his soul was coming
out of his mouth or his nose and his soul was going up to heaven, or wherever
it was supposed to go. I have seen a lot of sick people later in my life,
but that poor man died right in front of my eyes.
My Brother Alexander - 1908
The Sultan Comes to Salonica
Sandre, which is short for Alexander, is another brother next to Lazar. These two brothers were working one year down in the town of Salonica. They were making and selling cheap jewelry. In 1908, there was the young Turks revolution and the Sultan had never left Constantinople.
At this time, to show that they had changed and that things had changed, they reported that the Sultan would visit the port of Salonica where my two brothers were working.
The Sultan came with a great big Turkish warship but he didn't go into the town. He stayed in the port, and the big shots were permitted to come to see him on the ship.
This second brother of mine, Sandre is a very brave man to the point of being foolish. He said, "I'm going to see the Sultan."
Lazar reminded him that he was a Bulgarian not a Turk. Only big governors or some other important men were allowed to see him. Sandre said, "I'm going to see him."
My brother could not stop him, so this younger brother of mine hired
a fayton, a horse drawn taxi, and a friend of mine to go with him. He rented
a parshal, a uniform, and dressed the horse with ribbons and tassels. He
did the same with the cab.
He then got in and drove to the wharf.
When the soldiers who were guarding the Sultan saw this bright brilliance coming toward them, they didn't think that maybe the person coming was a phony. They promptly let him into a boat. His friend stayed back at the wharf waiting. Sandre was taken by this boat to the warship. He climbed up and was ushered into the room where the Sultan was waiting on a fancy ornamented chair with two guards on each side of him holding Roman axes. As he entered the room, he fell down on his face and he stayed there until he was motioned to get up. When he approached the Sultan, he spoke very good Turkish and he wished him well. The Sultan asked him where he was from. He told him he was from the region of Razlog, which was the county my hometown was in.
So the Sultan told him to go back and to tell the people that there would be no more killings, no more slavery, and from now on everything would be like a brotherhood. Then, promptly he was dismissed. My brother didn't turn around and walk out. Instead, he backed out so that he didn't expose his rear to the Sultan. To do that would have been, perhaps, fatal. He backed out and down the ladder into the boat that was waiting.
He was taken back to the wharf where his friend with the horses and cab were waiting for him. He got into the cab and away they went.
So, this was something unheard of. This man, my brother, put his head in the bag, so to speak. If the soldiers had had the slightest idea that he was a phony governor of the county, he would have promptly been executed; his head cut off and thrown into the bay.
That is the story of my brother, Sandre, visiting the Sultan, Mohammed the Fifth, who succeeded the removed Sultan Abdul Hamin, known as the "Sick Man of Europe".
Life at the American School - 1910
The years I spent at the American School were the happiest in my life. Often we went for long treks to some interesting place in the area. Usually when we went on these outings the group was made up of boys and girls. On one of these trips we went to a place called "cham-koria", later renamed Borovetz, both names meaning "fir tree area". Like many places in Bulgaria, this was an extraordinarily beautiful region. Here was situated the summer palace of King Ferdinand, later known as King Boris III. That day as we came upon the palace gate, we noticed armed soldiers standing guard at the door. One of our teachers asked one of the soldiers if we could enter and see the interior of the yard.
"Wait here," he said and disappeared behind the door. Soon he reappeared and motioned to us to follow him.
We filed in, staying close to the wall. Inside there was some kind of ball game in progress. On the farther side of the yard was King Boris, or rather Tzar Boris. All the Bulgarian Kings, like the Russians, carry the title of Tzar instead of King. We stood there watching the ball traveling between his majesty and his adjutant who was standing near us.
Suddenly the Tzar tossed the ball in our crowd. Whoever of the students caught the ball, it was thrown right back to the Tzar. This royal gesture was repeated several times. I was lucky to catch one of those tosses. So I can say I played ball with a king.
On another occasion we started on a pilgrimage to the famous and holy Rila Monastery. A pilgrimage to this holy place is second only to a pilgrimage to the holy tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem.
To go to Rila Monastery from Samokov, where the American Schools were located, one has to travel afoot over goat paths and peaks over 12,000 feet high. On this occasion we started in good weather. When we got into the mountains, the rains came and continued until we descended into the valley where the 12th century monastery was. For some reason or other, 500 years of Turkish occupation did not harm this holy place.
The church is situated in the middle of the yard. Inside the church a visitor is struck with mosaics and murals dating back to the 12th century. People come from all over the world to look at the most outstanding wood carving in the world. Down in the basement of the church there is a deep shelf all around the room. The shelf was loaded with sculls of all the monks that lived and died in the monastery.
Back at the school in Samokov, life was full of interest and excitement. Some wealthy man had donated a full size, fire fighting, hand drawn pump. The ringing of the school bell during the night was the signal for the upperclassmen to scramble into their clothes and run to man the pump.
We had a good church choir that could do justice to Handle's "Alleluia Chorus". We also had a good mandolin and guitar orchestra. In the winter time we would romp around bare legged in the two-foot snow.
Once we were honored by a visit to the school from Queen Eleanor, the
second wife of King Ferdinand. I had the privilege to shake hands with
the great lady.
Healing Waters - 1911
In the early part of my life in this town of Ladjene, I got a tumor under my left knee, and we just didn't know what to do. Often we would go to some Turkish woman who had the reputation of knowing how to do this and that. She would get a large leaf like a pumpkin leaf and she would put honey on the leaf and slap it over the tumor under my knee. Well, it didn't do any good. One day my father went to the city of Plovdiv where he usually bought his stock from the wholesalers. It was considered the second largest city in Bulgaria. So we went to a doctor about this tumor.
The doctor looked at it and said, "I'm awfully sorry, but this leg has got to be cut off. There is no other way."
Of course, my father wouldn't think of having my leg cut off. So he said to me, "Come on, Son. Let's get out of here. We'll find a way."
When we got home, there was a friendly woman in the neighborhood who had been reading the book of Louis Kuhn, a German naturalist doctor who claims to cure many things by water. My father told her we had been down to see the doctor. She said, "Oh, I wouldn't worry about it so much. He likes to play around the river in the summertime. Let him stay there from morning until almost dark. He would enjoy playing in the river."
So I played and played in the river and believe it or not the tumor
went away. Where it went, what happened there, what was the action of the
water on that tumor I can't explain. I only know it went away and it never
came back again.
The Caves - 1911
When I was attending school in the village of Kamenitza one of the interesting things we did was take a trip to a cave in an area called Lepinitza. The cave was probably ten miles up in the mountains. To enter that cave you have to bend down and only have about two feet above the water of the river that is coming out of the cave. You must keep your body above the water and keep moving. After going about 25 or 30 feet into the cave the ceiling rises and you can stand up straight. At the side there is a little bit of a room where somebody in the past got in and I guess they lost their light and they died there. The bones are still there, and it is a sort of scary thing especially for youngsters like us. The way we kept from getting lost was by making a net out of wire with a handle and filling up that net with pieces of gummy pine tree pieces. We carried a considerable amount of these pine chips in a bag on our backs. That is the way we lighted the way in front of us when we would climb up the passageway. There were holes in the narrow passage, and anybody who doesn't have good light would drop down someplace who knows how far. You would hear a river running. Then we entered a large hole lined with the stalagmites and stalactites above. Somebody named it "the temple", and it looked like a temple. We had pictures taken in that temple lighted up by a powder of phosphorus that acts very much like the flash bulbs we have in America. However, it's a little brownish and so is the picture.
Further down the group travels, and then the floor begins to rise. Then
we see there is another story above. The two stories are connected by stalagmites
and stalactites, and at the top of the stone passageway there is a lake.
We had no way of getting a boat or anything like that so we never went
beyond that point. There are all sorts of rumors that on the other side
of the lake there is a road to Salonica. I believe it was just rumors.
When we reached the lake we had used half of our supply of gummed wood
chips. Now the other half would be used to get us out of there. There are
other caves in the neighborhood that I haven't visited because people have
said they are poisonous. If you stand up you probably wouldn't get poisoned.
If you lie down or get your head down in an area about three feet from
the floor of the cave, then you would inhale poisonous gases. That is another
thing that everybody talked about, but I never went into those caves.
The First Depilatory - 19--
One interesting thing that I remember is the women, especially women
that want to look beautiful and to look clean. So they get the substance,
rosin, that you put on your bow if you play the violin. You get that and
you heat it over a flame or any other stove or something, and it melts,
but it freezes again right back. So they would heat it over a candle or
something like that and they would put it on their faces, hold it there
a few seconds, and the thing naturally freezes including any hair under
it. When they pull it off, it is very discomforting, but for beauty you
have to take it. So this way they go all over the face or wherever they
have bad hair, fuzz or anything like that and it usually would take it
Humor - 19--
There is a story of a certain Bulgarian city in the middle of the country
where people are very miserly. The city of Gabrovo is supposedly very committed
to saving energy. These people of Gabrovo, so the story goes, cut off the
tails of any new kittens. They do this so that when you let the cat in
or out during the wintertime, you won't have to keep the door open so long
because there is no tail. Well, I am not so sure about the authenticity
of this story.
My Girl, My Wife - 1912
During my education at the American School in Samokov, Bulgaria, I met a girl. Her name was Evanka Evanova. She was attending the same school as I but since the school was segregated I only saw her outside of classes. Since the students were separated by their gender the two halves of the school were known as the Girls School and the Boys School.
When Evanka left Bulgaria I thought the world was collapsing around me. I would lie down and bury my face in the grass on the bank of the creek that ran along the schoolyard and cry my heart out.
Nedka Bagrianova Evanova had been a widow for fourteen years and cared for her two daughters Evanka and Rositsa who were now sixteen and fourteen. Life was not easy for a widow at the turn of the century and Nedka was looking for the best manner in which to raise her daughters.
A woman known to Nedka had been contacted by Dr. John Kellogg at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. She was promised an expense paid trip and employment at the sanitarium if she would bring the doctor a live culture of Bulgarian yogurt (bacillus bulgarus). Dr. Kellogg believed the yogurt to have health rejuvenating properties.
One day the friend told Nedka that due to some circumstance she was not able to make the trip to America. She was offering Nedka this chance to change her lifestyle, and Nedka quickly took it. In April 1912, with yogurt in one hand and Evanka in the other they started for America. I do not remember the reason but Rositsa was left in Bulgaria, I suppose with family, and was to join her mother and sister in Battle Creek a year later.
They traveled by train from Bulgaria to France, crossed the English Channel, then back to a train in England to the port of Southampton. The tickets that had been purchased for them to cross the Atlantic Ocean were for third class or steerage passage with the White Star Line of steamships. When they arrived at the ticket office to check-in, they were told the ship had been overbooked and they would have to take the next available ship. They did take the next boat and arrived in America. The ship they were bumped off of was the TITANIC, which struck an iceberg on April 15th and sank with over 1500 passengers.
Nedka and Evanka arrived in Battle Creek, Michigan and presented the yogurt and the letter from Dr. Kellogg for the promised employment. Nedka continued to work at the Battle Creek Sanitarium for quite a few years. She died July 3, 1936 at the age of 63.
Evanka and I stayed in contact by writing until my sister Mara and I came to America in September 1912. We continued our courtship until 1915 when we were married in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Early in 1970 a great tragedy struck my family. My wife, Evanka passed
away while visiting our daughter, Mary Ellen, in Florida. We were married
for 55 years. She was buried here in Toledo in the grave of her mother,
Escaping Bulgaria - 1912
As the school year ended in the beginning of July in 1912, I returned to our home in Ladjene, Chepino (now known as Velingrad). After I had been home a couple of weeks mother said to Father "George, take this boy out of here. Get him out of the country."
"I can't do that," said my father, "I need him in the store." "Never mind the store," she said, "just get him out of here, I smell powder." She meant gunpowder. The Balkan war of 1912 was imminent.
I was approaching twenty years old and it appeared certain that I'd be drafted and thrown into the front lines without any training.
Reluctantly, Father took me to Sofia. At the passport bureau he told them we wanted a passport to go to America. The official roared back at us saying, "What! Passport to America? We'll need you in a couple of weeks to fight the Turks."
If my father had been reluctant to let me go, now he was anxious to get me out of the country. Living in a frontier town like Ladjene, you see much traffic going to and from Turkey. Having to go to the city of Plovdiv for stock for his store, my father often carried many passports to be approved for visa by the Turkish consul in the city. So after the Bulgarian authorities had turned down our petition for a passport, we went to the Turkish consul and told him our troubles. The consul laughed and said, "Don't worry, I'll give your son a valid Turkish passport in the name of Sultan Mohammed V." My sister Mara, 22, who was planning to join our older sister, Raina, in America already had her passport. The Bulgarian government did not object to women leaving the country. We made reservations for passage to America on the White Star Liner "Olympic".
On the train to the Serbian border we were joined by an older woman and seven boys my age. I had my Turkish passport, my sister, Mara, and the lady had their Bulgarian passports; but the seven boys had no passports. They were simply running away from the coming war with Turkey. At the frontier town of Pirot (or Tzaribrod), the train was stopped for inspection. An elderly army officer came to our compartment. "Where are you people going," he said. I did not show my passport because it would have meant the boys would have to produce passports. One of the boys said, "We are not going any place. We are just going to Belgrade where there is a student conference. We are coming back in a couple of days." Then the miracle happened. The officer looked around a little and said, "OK, keep going."
In Belgrade we were joined by more people, all heading for America. There were many others without passports. I don't know how or why, but the agent handed a passport belonging to someone else to each of the seven boys. We crossed a footbridge over the Danube River north of Belgrade and entered Austro-Hungary. The frontier officer asked us if we had passports. We all held the passports high in our hands. He did not even look in the passports to see if the name matched the person. When we passed 'inspection' the officer picked up all the accommodation passports to be used again.
We reached Laibach (Ljubljana) and were told that we had to change trains. The train was more for cattle than people. There were no toilet facilities, the doors for each compartment were on the outside and the doors on the inside had a long beam across them.
While waiting to change trains, we all piled into the railroad station. A waiter with a long apron came to us and said something in German. None of us spoke German but we understood the word "beer". Coming from a Protestant school, none of us wanted beer but we couldn't tell him that. So we shook our heads up and down, which is the Bulgarian way of saying "no". We didn't know that this meant "yes" to the waiter. Soon a small barrel was brought to our table. We were afraid they would charge us for the beer so we all picked up our suitcases and waited for the train outside the station. The train came and we were on our way again.
We stopped again in Basle, Switzerland. They gave us a good dinner there but many of us suspected we were eating horsemeat. Again, we got back on the train. This time we headed northward across France.
At Le Havre, France, on the Seine River, we boarded a channel boat, crossed the English Channel and arrived at Southampton, England. This is where we boarded the White Star liner "Olympic". We had started across the Atlantic Ocean and on our way to America.
The crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was uneventful. When we arrived at Ellis Island, just off of New York, we were shuttled through the corridors, marked with chalk and tagged so we didn't get lost or be put on the train for the wrong city. In a large building each one of us was given a paper box containing one ham sandwich, one piece of apple pie and an apple.
I remember walking through the corridors four abreast, with a doctor on both sides of the marching column, looking at our eyes. One young man from Macedonia was seasick during the ocean voyage and he looked bad. The doctor put a "cross" chalk mark on his coat. His friends called to him, "Brush go bre!" Here happened the most unusual thing that I have ever seen. Out of millions of words in both English and Bulgarian languages the word "brush" meant the same in both languages. Naturally, the doctor heard the word "brush" and turned around to see the boy brushing away the chalk mark. He was immediately pulled out of the group. What happened to him, I don't know. I heard someone say that he will be sent back.
Having negotiated the turnstile of Ellis Island we were put on trains,
heading to our final destinations. We were on the last leg of the journey.
There was no one to meet us when we got to station in Toledo but that is
Arriving in America, First Labor in America - 1912
On September 3, 1912, Labor Day, my sister, Mary [Mara, age 22], and I arrived at Union Station in Toledo, Ohio. We were going to the home of another one of my sisters, Raina, and her husband, Kooman Boycheff, they had been living there for five years. We hailed a horse-drawn cab to go to their address, 126 Worthington Street, on the ethnic east side of Toledo.
At home at my sister's, I was learning fast the way of life in America. One-day sister asked me to stepped out on the front porch and call Mrs. De Sana to come over. I stepped out, but not knowing how to say "come over" in English; I called her by name and extended my right arm toward her (palm down) opening and closing my hand. Mrs. De Sana looked at me and said, "Hello," but didn't come. I realized later that if you are calling somebody in America by using your hand you have to have your palm up. Otherwise, it means just, "Hello."
My sister had a roomer by the name of John Stoyanoff, also Bulgarian, but oh boy was he dumb. I don't believe he had one day schooling back in his village. Often my sister had pancakes for breakfast, and John would point to the window and say, "Did you see that thing in the window?" Naturally, I'd turn long enough for him to spear a pancake out of my plate. In that respect he wasn't so dumb.
John was tall and handsome. He wore flashy clothes, and in the evening he would stroll downtown, Bulgarian fashion, and if someone would ask him what was his nationality he would say Belgian. Bulgarian was just too lowbrow. If he had to tell where he lived, he would say, "Vurratigatone," if one could pronounce it phonetically. He never could say Worthington. He always wore a shiny gold pen in the outside pocket of his coat to make an "X" when asked to sign his name.
One of my first jobs was cutting cornstalks for a farmer in McClure, Ohio. I thought it was a terrible job; and after earning 60 cents, I came home.
My brother-in-law, with whom I was living at that time, got me a job at the shipyards down on Front Street. I was given a set of tools, and we were building a brand-new ship. We were rimming the plates so that the holes would fit plate over plate. All around me were a bunch of roughnecks, mostly Irish. These workers delighted in teasing and tickling me and saying nasty things to me.
One day I just up and went home. I had been working about four or five days. I didn't think of returning the tools to the tool shed; I simply went home.
A few days later, my brother-in-law said, "Did you get your money for the few days you worked in the shipyard?"
I said, "No, I don't want no money from them."
He said, "That's not the way to do it. You have got money coming, you need the money, go down there and get it. Go to the office, and tell them who you are."
I did that. I went there, and talked to the man. He said, "Yes, we have a check for you. Where is your release for your tools?"
I couldn't give it to him because I didn't get a release. I had just left them in the bottom of the boat, when I had left to come home that day.
He said "I can't give you your check until I get your release. Go and get your tools first."
Well, it was noon when I went to get my tools, and the men were all sitting around eating lunch. I sneaked in there where I had been working. I grabbed a set of tools and took them to the tool shed. The man there gave me a release slip. I took the slip back to the first man and got my check at the office.
Then I left to go home. In the meantime, back at the office they got wise that I had turned in someone else's tools. Several men came after me to get me, and probably beat me up. I was younger than they were and lighter on my feet. I outran them down on Front Street. Finally they gave up.
Soon after that, I got a job with the Nicholas Building as a freight elevator operator and cleaning the toilet rooms. I had worked there three months when the superintendent of the building, Mr. Mortimore, came to me one day and said, "You are a bright boy and you seem to have a considerable education. This is not the job for you. You should be able to pick up a nicer job with your fine education."
Well, that was very true, except that I didn't know where to find that job. My lack of English would have terminated it anyhow.
One day he said, "Come on. I'll take you down to the bank. I have a friend there who is a cashier."
We went down there, and he said to the cashier, "Mr. Wisher, here's a nice, clean, young fellow. He speaks other languages. I am sure your bank could make use of this young man."
The cashier said, "Well, we would like to have a fellow like him here, but right now we just don't have a place for him. However, I'm going to give him a little slip of paper to take to Art Minch at the Autolite. He can work there until we're ready for him to work here for us."
I went to the Electric Autolite Corporation on Champlain Street and got a job as an inspector of the cores of the starters.
There was a long counter by the windows on the second floor of the plant. The fellow next to me was operating a gage to establish the axles perfectly straight.
One day this man was sick. The superintendent came in and said to me, "Hey you, do you think you can work this man's job?"
I said "I don't know, but I'll try."
So I started to do the same thing this other man had been doing with that little gage. After working there for a couple of hours, I thought that there was too much time wasted. I went outside into the yard and picked up a one by four board. With my knife I made slots where that little gage would fit. You wouldn't have to jiggle it too long. You would throw it against that slot, and it would fall into the center of the axle.
I was getting along fine. I was working three times as fast as the other fellow was working.
All of a sudden, I felt people behind me. I turned around, and there was the general manager, the superintendent, the general foreman, and the bosses. They were all looking at me. One of them said, "Where did you get that board?"
I said, "I made it."
I was scared because I thought I had done something wrong. He said, "Don't be scared. We're not going to hurt you. Go ahead and work."
I went back to work, but I was still shaking. He said, "You know, that is a good idea."
So I received a 100 percent raise. I was getting 22 1/2 cents an hour in those days. They made it 45 cents, which was a pretty big thing for me. All because I made that board that speeded up that particular phase of production.
While I was there working, there was another man, an English man, who daily went to the first-aid room when Dr. Homer Heat came to look over and redress the patients. This man went in there, and he'd wash himself and put on a white jacket and white pants. He looked like somebody clean and neat. I was jealous of that job.
One day I intercepted Dr. Heat as he was leaving the plant. I said, "Mr. Doctor, I know something about medicine. Maybe this man will quit and go home. Will you need a man? Would you give me a job? Could I be that man who works with you, should this other man ever quit his job?"
He smiled at me and said, "Yes, sure. "
Sure enough, two weeks later this Englishman quit. Then the doctor poked his head out of the door and said, "Hey you, come here."
I went in there and he said, "Wash your hands."
I did. The doctor then told me he was going to see just how much I knew about medicine.
He said, "If somebody came in to you and couldn't go to the bathroom, what would you do?"
"I'd give him some Epson salts or maybe castor oil."
"Good," said the doctor. "Now if somebody came in and had a stomach ache, what would you do?"
"I'd give him a pain killer."
He said, "How would you do that?"
"You could get a glass of water or maybe a lump of sugar to put it in. If you put the medicine in that, you could give it to the patient."
The doctor told me that information was very interesting. He hadn't heard of that.
Then he stuck out his finger at me.
He said, "I've got a cut on the end of my finger, dress it. Put a bandage on it."
Now when I was still back in Bulgaria, in my hometown, the government built a hospital. My two brothers got the contract to put all the windows in the hospital. I spent considerable time with my brothers in that hospital doing nothing in particular.
The doctor there was a very nice man, and I would go to his room. He would teach me first aid. I learned quite a bit from him. Now when the doctor told me to bandage his finger, I did it. I had bandaged quite a few fingers, and I knew how to do it. After I put it on, I pulled it, and it didn't come off.
The doctor said, "You're hired. Go change your clothes and get to work."
So I got the job of coming down to the doctor's office every afternoon and helping take care of the patients. This went on for a while until the war--the First World War, of course. The war took most of the men out of the factory. They were replaced by women.
Women didn't relish being touched by a first-aid man, so they brought in a nurse to do the work. I was sent to a different plant, where Dr. Herbert Smide was in charge. For one year I was in the main hospital, where Dr. Smide would come in every day to look over the various injured cases.
One day he said to me, "Demeter, you are good. We are building another hospital back on the Boulevard, and you have proved to be a pretty good man. I want you to take charge of the new building. I will give you a nurse and a secretary. You receive the patients, you diagnose them, you treat them, and I'll be responsible for your work." So I spent four years malpracticing medicine. Of course, everything is fair in love and war, and this was war.
The plant was making eight-inch shells for the war department. I stayed there until the strike was called in 1921, and I left the plant. I wasn't really laid off, but I could see that the plant was going to be closed tight. I left there, and with the help of a lawyer friend I got in the Commercial Savings Bank and Trust Company.
The exchanges were beginning to move and there was money to be made in these exchanges. The bank picked me up and sent me to New York for three months to study overseas banking. When I came back, I was put in charge of the Savings Department in the east side branch, probably because that is where the Bulgarians were. They figured being a Bulgarian, I would bring some business to the bank; and I did. They began to send money to the other countries through our bank. I was there ten years.
At the end of the ten years, the banks failed and closed up. I was retained by the Banking Department to help liquidate the closed bank. I stayed there nine years.
At the end of the nine years they sold the balance of the assets, and we were all laid off.
In the meantime, while I was working for the Banking Department, my friend said to me one day, "Demeter, we are lucky that we are working here. People are hungry out there. (There was no social security in those days.) Why don't you go to the University and take some accounting courses? It would come in handy for you after we get out of working in here."
That was the best advice anybody had ever given me. I went to T. U. [University of Toledo] taking night courses in accounting. I didn't graduate, but I got enough to do accounting for Bulgarian businesses here in Toledo. Later on, I was certified by the state of Ohio the right to do accounting. I was registered as such, and I still am a public accountant. That brought me a little [money] on the side.
A little later after the liquidation, I got a job with the Treasurer
of Lucas County in the courthouse. I worked there for 23 years. In 1965,
I retired from there, and right then and there was the end of my regular
Going to School, "Through Thick and Thin" - 1913
I had been in the country a short time when I began to realize that I had to learn the English language or there would be no decent job for me.
Even though I had gone to an American school in Bulgaria, I was not pressured to learn the English language. I was no more pressured than I was to learn French. I went to classes for both languages.
On the advice of my brother-in-law, Kooman Boycheff, with whom I was living at the time, I went to register in the old Toledo High School. It stood where the Toledo Public Library is now.
Kooman said to me, "don't go to night school. Learning the language at the YMCA would be too slow. You need English, and you need it fast. Go to high school in the daytime." He said, "You have had enough education before you came to America, so take subjects that would be of benefit to you. Remember, any subject you take will be taught in English anyway."
When I told one of the teachers that I had come to register as a student, and when she found out I was Bulgarian she snickered a little. Later on, I found out that their idea of a Bulgarian was a man dressed in overhauls, blocking the sidewalk on Front Street, on the east side. They registered me just the same.
I took subjects that I hadn't had back in the old country such as: American history, American government, Civics, French, and American Literature. I didn't take English as advised by Kooman.
The man who was the teacher in my American history class was a very fine man named Ward. Mr. Ward would assign 20 pages of reading for the next day. This of course, was a monumental task for me to read. He never asked me questions beyond the first page. He figured if I could finish reading the first page, I had done good enough. I never answered a question beyond the first page of the assignment.
That was in the fall of 1913. I could not continue after the first of the year. I got the chicken pox, and I had to leave the school. I went back to school the following fall of 1914.
In March 1914 a tragedy befell our family. My sister Mara, who traveled with me from Bulgaria, passed away from tuberculosis and was buried in Willow Cemetery. We all felt the loss, but I felt it most. I thought I would die from the grief. This was the first death in our family. I thought I would never get over it. I cried and cried.
I was learning English fairly well, but I still had a long way to go. One day my sister sent me to the grocery store to get some "blue tomatoes" (literal translation of the words). In the store I told the man "blue tomatoes". He looked at me kind of funny trying to figure out what I want. Suddenly I spotted them on the counter and said, "This."
"Oh," he said, "You want egg plant!" A Bulgarian friend was telling me one day that he went the store to get eggs, and they gave him an axe.
In order to help with the expenses in the house, or at least to pay for my school expenses, I got a job with Lamson Brothers Department Store in Toledo after school and Saturday. I was a stock boy on the fifth floor. It was only $3.50 a week. Not very much, but that $3.50 in 1914 was like $75.00 in 1974. Everybody in the stockroom liked me.
The freight elevator was run by a tall, elderly German. Charlie was his name. One day Charlie said to me, "Hey, Demeter, how do you say good morning in Bulgarian?" I replied, "Good morning in Bulgarian is 'Az sum magareh'." He remembered it.
Every Saturday morning he would say, "Az sum magareh, Demeter," and I would say, "Yeah, tee si magare." Everything was OK until Charlie met another Bulgarian on the street.
Charlie said to him, "Az sum magareh, Joe."
Joe burst out laughing. "What is the matter with you? Do you know what you said to me Charlie?"
"Sure I know. I said good morning in your language," replied Charlie.
Joe said, "Like fun you did. You said to me, I am a donkey."
Later when Charlie saw me at Lamson's he chased me all over the stock room.
Waite High School was now opened, and since I was living on the east side, that is where I went for my education.
When I signed up at Waite High School in the fall of 1914, I had one semester to go to graduate. As I signed up in the office, the principal of the school, Mr. Gayman, noticed my name, Dimiter Kolchagov, and said to me, "Young man, you haven't written your name correctly. You should write it Demeter Colchagoff." I felt that this was wrong. You don't translate proper names. But who am I, an immigrant who came yesterday to this country to tell a principal of a high school that he was wrong. So from then on I was Demeter Colchagoff.
When I went into my English Literature class, I discovered it was taught by a Scottish lady named Mary Dunlap. When I went into the class, she said to me, "Demeter, when you come to this class, you should never say hello, how do you do, or how are you. When you come, you should come to my desk and say "through thick and thin". After you have said that, go sit down." For a moment I was stunned but eventually I understood what she was doing. For six months I'd walk up to her desk and say "through thick and thin". She would then answer back, "through thick and thin". Then I would sit down.
This seemed to be a humorous episode, but it was very, very smart of her to do this. She realized that I was a Slav (Bulgarians as you know, are Slavs). The Slav people don't have the "th" sound. They have to be taught. They have to teach their tongues to lift in order to make the "th" sound. The Greeks have that sound, naturally, but the Slavs don't. The Russians, Polish, and Cheks don't have it.
Having realized this she made me practice "through thick and thin" for six months. While I may not have mastered the English language, I'm still a little conscious of the "th" sound when I talk.
It just goes to show you how well meaning this lady was to recognize
my needs. At first, nobody in the class noticed this practicing. One day
one of the boys in the front row noticed this "through thick and thin",
and he began to snicker. The teacher bawled him out something terrible.
She said, "You should be ashamed of yourself. Here is a young man who has
just come to this country. He is trying so hard to learn the language,
and you are making fun of him. You should be ashamed of yourself."
After she told them this, they never made fun at all of my practicing "through thick and thin".
I'll never forget that little Scottish lady, Mary Dunlap. I learned so much from her. She even gave me Elizabeth Browning's Sonnets for Christmas one year. This book I treasured for a long time.
When I came to this country, I was carrying a violin case with a good Italian violin inside. There has been considerable music in my life as far back as 1897 when at the age of five I played to a large gathering at our church in Bansko. Music was natural to me especially during the few years at the American School in Samokov, Bulgaria. I often hid in a closet in a room where there was a good cabinet organ with fifteen or twenty stops for effective organ music. Students who could afford to take organ lessons furnished me an opportunity to listen to the instructions given. I kept the closet door ajar and hoping they would forget to lock the organ when they left the room. When everybody was gone, I'd come out of the closet and practice what I had overheard.
Now at Waite High School I made it known that I could read music and that I had a violin. Miss Werrum was the director of music for both Scott High and Waite High. Since Waite High had just opened and the school orchestra had not been organized yet, Miss Werrum sent me to play with the Scott High orchestra.
I was at the school for just one term and graduated in January 1915.
Having my name starting with a "C", I was ahead of everybody else in the
January graduating class. I was the first graduate of the school, and I
got the first diploma ever given by the school. The fact that I was the
first graduate of Waite High School has been treasured by me for a long
time. I have always been proud of being a graduate of a school named after
Morrison R. Waite, Chief Justice of the United States. Whenever I have
been asked to talk to schools, clubs, churches and lodges, having been
named the first graduate has made people think of me as being somebody
special. This, of course, was just an incidental thing. Nevertheless, it
brought me honors I would not otherwise have.
More Family Deaths - 1918
Now in 1918, after the First World War, mail began to come from the old country and vice versa. We found out that our father had died in 1917 and our third brother, Yoshko, had died in 1920. Now you would think that I should feel the same with the loss of my brother and my father as I felt when I lost my sister, but it didn't happen. Somehow, the war, the distance of 10,000 miles and the years that had elapsed were between these happenings, so I didn't even cry when we heard the news from Bulgaria.
At present, 1977, the only ones left are my older sister and a younger
brother. Raina is living here at a nursing home in Upper Sandusky, Ohio.
My younger brother is living in the city of Velingrad, Bulgaria. The city
was bombed and named after the three villages built up in between. They
were named Velingrad after a woman who was well known in partisan circles,
fighting the broad Hitler government in Bulgaria.
The Importance of Education - 1918
The Bulgarians had gone through several wars within the life span of a man. So when the war was over in 1918 they began to pour out of Bulgaria and go any place there was work. Many came to America.
In the 65 years since I came to America, I have enjoyed a good social position among the Bulgarians in Toledo. Actually, other Bulgarians did well here in Toledo; and as a whole, we Bulgarians did better than some of the other ethnic groups like the Polish or the Hungarians. We have a judge on the Common Pleas Court; a Bulgarian boy by the name of George Kiroff. The City Probation Officer is a Bulgarian boy, Chris Christoff. Also, for several years the city solicitor of Toledo was a Bulgarian boy by the name of Demno Nestroff. Another Bulgarian boy from the Macedonian region became the chief accountant for La Salle's, a very large department store in Toledo.
Personally, as a Bulgarian with an education, I was called upon many times to read letters from the old country for illiterate Bulgarians. Many times a Bulgarian would ask me to write to his family in Bulgaria because he couldn't write.
You see, many that came to America and to Toledo were illiterate. They had no trade and no knowledge of anything, but they were good to work on the railroad. They came to Toledo in particular because Toledo was the third largest transportation center of the United States. This is where road gangs were formed to do work on the tracks of the railroads all over; Washington State, Kansas or any place where they were needed. When they finished the job they came back to Toledo to become part of another road gang working someplace else on the railroad. There were up to 12,000 Bulgarians gathered here in Toledo after the First World War.
That is why when I first applied for schooling in the Toledo High School and they found out that I was a Bulgarian there was snickering going on by the teachers. Later on I found out that their idea of a Bulgarian was a man dressed in dirty overalls blocking the sidewalks of Front Street on the east side of Toledo.
When the war was over and communications resumed and traveling was possible,
many of them left the United States. They hadn't seen their families for
a good many years, and they started out in big numbers traveling back home.
Many of them hadn't saved any money, and they remained here probably for
the rest of their lives. They had no money; they hadn't saved any. They
may have gambled it away if they did have any.
The International Institute - 1925
As a sideline, I joined the International Institute that was still part of the YWCA [Young Women's Christian Association]. There the club met every Sunday evening, and we would have somebody lecture to us or show us pictures, slides or anything. Afterward, we would have refreshments. This went on for years, and we learned to dance, nationality dances. There were some Greek people in there that brought music, and a girl used to play the music, and we would dance with her playing the piano. There was Chris Minch and his wife, a Dane. He knew a lot of Danish dances, and he taught us.
I picked up a Bulgarian dance at the Bulgarian doings on the East Side.
The little orchestra was playing a tune, a dance, very nice and easy. I
thought that our club would be glad to learn to do this particular dance.
So I picked up a white napkin and I climbed a platform where the orchestra
was, and I kneeled down where the clarinet player was. He was carrying
the tune of this particular Bulgarian dance, and I took it down. When I
went home I sat down by the piano and began to harmonize it so that it
could be played with two hands. I brought it out to the International Club
the next Sunday, and they liked it. I showed them the steps and they did
it. Everybody was happy. I was afraid that the piece was so short that
the brevity would kill it eventually, too repetitious. So I sat down one
day, and I wrote twice as much as the old eight measures. I put the new
music in the minor key retaining the rhythm. I showed it to a very well
known music teacher by the name of Linda C. Keith. She had a music school
on Ashland Avenue. She looked it over and she said, "It is done very well,
So I happened to be in New York one day visiting my daughter, and I went to visit the folk dancing class down in Manhattan. I was looking through the door up on the 10th floor and the girl by the door finally spotted me. She said, "Why don't you go in?"
"Oh," I said, "I am from out of town, and I just thought I would take a look at the class."
She said, "What nationality are you?"
I said, "I am Bulgarian."
"Oh," she said, "don't go away." So she called the teacher that was
teaching the class inside, and she said, "Mary Ann, here's a Bulgarian."
So the teacher got hold of me by the hand, and we walked in, and she pointed
to a blackboard up on the stage, and she said, "Look. Look. There are Swedish,
Norwegian, Russian, Danish, German, French, Italian dances. No Bulgarian.
Teach us one Bulgarian dance."
What I had written about this dance in Toledo was still fresh in my mind, so I sat down and I rewrote it right there that evening. We went to another room, we went through the steps, and she liked it. Her husband came a little later and she played the music while her husband and I went through the steps. He said to me, "Let me make a record of this. This would be a nice little dance." So I let him.
He made a record, and the record is all over the United States. Every
school has that dance. It is called "Tropanka" which means stamping dance.
Trip to Bulgaria - 1929
In 1929 after the Stock Market crashed, in October, business went down. I was working in the Steamship Department of the Commercial Savings Bank and Trust Company and got a lot of business with the various Steamship companies. Of course, times were so dark after the Stock Market crashed that they were all begging for business.
They would come in and say, "For every 25 tickets you buy, we'll give you one free."
When business started getting really bad, they began to compete with each other. One company would say, "For every 20 tickets you buy, we'll give you one free."
The next company would say, "For every 15 tickets you buy, we'll give you one free one."
Finally, a company said, "For every ten tickets you buy, we'll give you one free ticket."
Now I decided that this would be a good chance to visit my mother. She was getting old, and I had not been home in 18 years.
So I decided to find ten people who wanted to return to Bulgaria. I advertised myself in a Bulgarian newspaper out of Granite City, Illinois. I said I was going to Bulgaria and that if anybody wanted to travel with me we'd travel with ease. Nobody would have to worry about anything. Six people from Toledo came up, and six people from Detroit signified that they would travel with me. So we started out, and, of course; we didn't have time to get our passports.
When we got to New York, we went to the Bulgarian Consulate. I told him that I had twelve men who needed Bulgarian passports, one-way passports. These men were going home and staying home.
We were at his office at ten o'clock in the morning. He said, "I don't have time to take care of all these passports. I cannot do it."
I talked back to the man because I went to school with him in Bulgaria many years before. I offered to write out the passports. If he would write out one, I promised to write out the other eleven. This way he could finish doing whatever work he had been doing before we came. So he did. I wrote out the other eleven passports. I did that, and he signed them, stamped them, and acknowledged them. So we were all set.
We then had to pick up each visa for the countries that we were planning to go through. We got all the visas except the one for Serbia, and the agent said we could get that in Paris while we were there on our trip. So we took the Majestic, and we got to Paris. We were all set to get on a train that evening when I found out that the train was a "local" only. It stopped at every station.
I told the agent that we did not want to go on the train. He said, "You have to. Unless you want to wait until tomorrow for a train, you have to take this one. If you stay, we cannot house you."
I said, "You don't have to house us. We will find a hotel and stay there. Then we will take the morning train, which is a limited train straight through."
So we stayed in Paris overnight. While we were waiting, we got taxies in Paris, and I showed them around the town. I wanted to see it myself too.
So we told the drivers that we wanted them to take us around the town and then stop at a big department store some place.
So the drivers did. We stopped at the Bon Marché and bought some things. Of course, the taxi waited outside with the meter running. Only the meters weren't ticking dimes as they would be if they were here in America.
The next morning we took the limited express train to the Serbia-Bulgaria border where they searched us. They found that one man who was handed a coat in Toledo didn't know that the person who had given him the coat had sewed six pairs of silk hose inside the coat. This poor man thought that all he was doing was taking a plain coat to this man's sister. The silk hose is band in Bulgaria.
When they found the hose in the lining of the coat they searched his baggage. This man was arrested and fined $50. The officers confiscated his baggage. This man felt so bad, and I felt bad for him. I tried to comfort him and promised him that when I went to the capital, Sofia, I would see that he was released.
When I did get to Sofia, the agent of the line took the necessary steps right away. The man was released, his $50 fine was remitted, and the only thing he didn't get back was the silk hose. The officers kept that. They gave him back his baggage, and he came home.
The next morning, I was supposed to go to my hometown. I was told that I had to go to the Police Station and get an identification card, which I did. I went to the station, and I stepped up to the counter where there were about a half dozen men working at desks and tables.
A man took my name and address and looked at my passport. Then he said, "Now you just sit down, and we'll have your identification card ready."
I sat back in the waiting room. There were three other men there waiting for something. When I didn't get called in an hour, I spoke to them. I asked these fellows what they were waiting for.
They said, "Identification cards."
Then I asked them how long they had been waiting for their cards.
They said, "This is the third day."
Oh boy did I jump. I went over to the man who took my application and I said: "Look, these men have been waiting three days for their identification cards. How long will I have to wait?"
The officer said, "Oh no. You're not going to wait that long. By five o'clock tonight we'll have your identification card ready."
I said, "Five o'clock! It's only 10:30 in the morning now. I have to catch a train at 11:00."
He said, "Don't get heated."
I said, "What do you mean don't get heated? What's the matter with you guys? If my American passport cannot establish my identity, your identification card wouldn't add anything. I see a sign there that forbids smoking by the public. But all of you have big cigars in your mouth. Aren't you serving your people?"
He said, "No. We aren't serving our people. We are ruling them."
I said, "That's why you're in the shape you are in now."
That was in 1929 and they were under a bad dictatorship.
So he said, "Keep your shirt on. We'll get it out."
Anyway, they finally decided to give it to me. I took the little application that I had made with the first man, and I had to go to another man. He put a check mark on it. I went to a third man who put a rubber stamp on it. The fourth man did something else to it. They finally gave me the identification card, a matter of 30 seconds.
I hurried to the train station to take the train to my hometown, which is in the southwestern part of Bulgaria. My mother was living there, and our house was there. I got to the station and there was a crowd of people around the ticket office. I couldn't get to the ticket window. I couldn't even see it. I went this way and that really trying to find a way to get to the ticket window.
Somebody spotted me. An elderly man came up to me and said, "Son, are you looking for a ticket?"
I said, "Yes. But I can't get up to the ticket window."
He said, "You'll never get to the ticket window. You don't have enough time. When they ring the bell, they close the ticket office. You have to hurry. I'll get the ticket for you."
So I gave him the money. It was a good sum, 20 leva, probably about 75 cents or something like that. He took the money from me and went into the crowd of people. He came right out with the ticket.
I said, "You keep the change." I don't know how much it was; I don't remember now. Most of it he kept, which was all right with me.
I finally got on the train and I sat down in a compartment that had nine other people in it. I was not paying attention to anyone; I was not interested in anyone. I was thinking about my mother, whom I hadn't seen for 18 years.
One man sitting across from me said, "Say young man, you aren't local are you?"
I said, "Yes, I'm Bulgarian."
He said, "You may be Bulgarian but your clothes are different."
I said, "I've just come from America. I'm coming to visit my mother and my brothers."
Everybody perked up their ears. They all heard me and started asking about this, about that, about the ways of life, about the housing, about wages, about work, about everything.
All the while, my index finger and my thumb were in my vest pocket. That is a handy place for the hand to be when you don't know what to do with it. I felt a little toy I had bought at a drugstore previously. It was a little toy with two little lead balls.
One ball goes in a hole on this end, and the other ball goes in a hole on the other end. Except that when one ball is in the hole on this end, the other ball jumps out. When you try to put that one ball back in, the other ball pops out. You never win. That's what you're supposed to do; you're supposed to do something to get both of these balls in the holes on the end of that little toy, which was covered with a plastic window. I said, "Now, you are asking me about America; here's a sample of America. this thing is a sample. See if you can put the little lead balls in their proper places."
The man next to me got hold of it, and tried, and tried. Of course, it is impossible to do it anyway. Finally he had to give up.
Another man tried and tried, and he could not do it. The fellow across from me, he was some kind of military man, said; "Come on. Let me have it. It must have some military significance. I'll get it." He couldn't do it.
So I said, "Let me have it. I'll show you what America is."
So I put it down on the floor of the compartment, and spun it around. Of course, the centrifugal force put these little balls right where they belonged. They all looked at each other and said, "By golly, these Americans."
I finally got off the train. It was Christmas, and it was snowing. When I got to the capital, I sent a telegram to my mother telling her I was coming. I came to a station named after a wealthy Turk. He, together with a German, owned that part of the railroad.
I got off the train, and it had been snowing for two days; so there was 18 inches of snow on the ground. I didn't know where the connection was to go to my hometown. I went into the station and asked a man there. He pointed to the train and said, "You better hurry. It's about ready to leave."
As I started crossing the tracks, a man hurrying to get to the same train brushed past me. He got to the train first. This man was my oldest brother. He didn't know, of course, that I was in the country. Therefore, he didn't recognize me. He had been in the capital visiting his son and buying some things.
It happened that my younger brother was also on the train and some of my neighbors. The whole car was full of my town's people. I finally got on it.
There was hardly any room, but there was a seat near the door. The place was full of crates and bundles. The people had been in the town buying some things, and now they were going home. I sat down; and of course, my thoughts were with my mother.
This was the last change I would be making. When I got off the train, I would see my mother. It had been a train from Toledo to New York, then a boat from New York to Cherbourg. Then back to a train from Cherbourg to Paris, Belgrade, Sofia, Samokov to my hometown, Ladjene. I figured when I get off this train I'll see my mother. That was the purpose of my trip. So I wasn't looking at anybody. I didn't think I would know anybody.
There was a big hubbub in the back of the car. The car was constructed with double seats on one side of the isle and single seats on the other side of the isle.
It happened that my oldest brother was sitting in a single seat facing me. My younger brother together with some of my neighbors was sitting on the other side of the isle.
The train was going through a very narrow pass with very high rocks on both sides and a river down on the bottom. The train had to cross the river. I don't know how many times maybe 40 times, from one side to the other in order to make its way going up. I really didn't listen to the noise all these people were making. My older brother looked at me and decided that I was somebody he ought to know. Of course, he had had no word that I was coming. It had been 18 years since I left the country, and certainly I would have let him know if I was coming home.
So he kept looking at me. Then he nudged my younger brother across the isle and said; "Look at the man back by the door. Don't he look like somebody we ought to know?"
My younger brother turned around partly and looked at me. "No," he said, "I don't know that guy. I don't know who he is, probably some traveling salesman."
Something kept telling my oldest brother that he knew this man. He kept looking at me; and, of course, he was looking at my profile because I was sitting in the side seat.
Again he turned to my younger brother and said, "This man looks like our brother. (my shortened name for Demeter)
My younger brother again turned around and looked, "Oh no," he said, "It could not be Mitko. Mitko already told us that he is not coming back any more. That could not be him."
At that moment, I turned around thinking that since these people were all going to the same town, maybe I would know someone. As I turned around, my full face was exposed to my brother. He cried out, "That is Mitko!"
We all jumped up, and we all hugged each other. Of course, we cried. Nobody could talk. Even now as I tell this story on the tape I get a little choked because it was a great moment. We had not seen each other in 18 years.
Of course, this all came so quickly upon the people in the car that they all quieted down. You could not hear anyone talking. The only noise was the "clickety clack" of the wheels. Finally we sat down, and we came into the town.
My brother had bought some merchandise. He said "You wait here for a minute while I get my merchandise checked out. Then we'll go home together."
We waited a little while. In the meantime, one of the people in the car in which we came was an old classmate of mine. The minute we got to the town he jumped out of the car and made a beeline to the store where my mother was working.
He ran in there, and he said, "Grandma Colchagoff, what will you give me if I give you some good news?"
She said, "Oh, I'll bake you a pie."
"Fine," he said, "your boy, Mitko, just arrived from America."
Oh boy! She got all staring and serious. She clutched the counter, and she almost collapsed. She finally said, "Aren't you ashamed of yourself pulling tricks on an old woman like me?"
"Oh no," he said, "I'm not playing any tricks on you. I came with him. He's coming in here shortly."
My uncle, who was also in the car, my father's brother, came in with a cane and he told my mother the same thing. These two people probably saved her live because the telegram I sent from the capital never got there. The snow was so deep that it broke down communications. It came three days after I was there.
It took about 15 or 20 minutes for my brother to get his stock out of
the checkroom. In that half hour, or whatever it was, there were hundreds
of people who came to the store. There is no telephone in the town. How
they all found out that Mrs. Kolchagov's boy was back from America, I will
never understand. There were so many people were in the store that they
were standing on the steps of the stepladder that used to get things down
off the upper shelves. They were all waiting for us to come in.
When we walked in the store, my mother and I were both crying so hard neither one of us could talk. She finally said, "Son, why didn't you send us a telegram telling us you were coming?"
"I did," I said, "I guess the weather was so bad that it never came."
She said, "We don't have anything special cooked. You will have to eat beans."
I said, "Well Mom, that's all right, I have not eaten your nice beans in 18 years, and I'll be glad to eat them."
I stayed there two months. I was there for Christmas. When I left, the whole town came to give me a sendoff. "This is great!" I said.
The station and the tracks were filled with the people of the town. They had come to say good-bye and good luck.
One elderly woman said, "Mitko, have you seen our Evancho (Johnny)?"
I said, "Where is he?"
She said, "Oh, he's in America."
"Well, America is a very big place," I said. "Have you got a letter or something from him?"
She pulled out a letter and I looked at it. It was from Minnesota. I said, "This is very far away from where we live. It is probably a thousand kilometers from us. I haven't seen your Johnny, and I don't know anything about him."
The women brought a certain flower, zaravetz (geranium macrorrhizum), which stays green in the wintertime and pinned it on my sleeves and my lapel on both sides. They call it "healthy flower". I looked like a corpse with all these flowers all over me. That was their way of expressing good-bye and good luck.
My friends and neighbors brought photographers and a gypsy band to play music. My brother said, "You know, we have had two kings here; and neither of them got a send off like you are getting."
So I left and came home.
I forgot to tell something that is interesting. While we were on the boat going over, the whole crowd was going to Europe for Christmas. There were Polish people, Italian people, and German people. We all were going over there for Christmas. I believe we took the boat on the sixth of December.
They had given me in New York not just the twelve people that I was taking with me, but twenty other people to look after. They were Bulgarians who bought their tickets by one or two all over the country. When we were aboard I discovered that they were scattered all over the boat I asked the purser to change the people's cabins so that my group would be all together in one area. This way we could play cards and visit each other.
Also in the dining room they had them scattered all over. I asked to have them put together so that if I swiped something out of the galley, no other passengers would notice it. It would be just our group of people.
We had very nice weather. The ocean was calm and serene. The Italians were singing up on the deck. They had a regular show up there. The Polish had instruments up there, too. One of the officers said to me, "Haven't you Bulgarians got something to offer? Don't you have a national song or dance, or something?"
I said, "Yes, we do. Let's find out if I can get something together."
So I got my bunch together, and we did come up with something.
One man had a violin, and another had a clarinet. Well, that was enough. We got them together, and we took over the deck one day and played some Bulgarian music.
I was leading the dance. At one time we got a little over enthused, and I pulled out my handkerchief and was waving it in the air. I gave the usual Bulgarian yell for such an occasion, which is, "YEEEEE--HOOOOO!"
When I did that these fellows got so mixed up and ashamed they busted up the whole dance and away they went. We had fun anyway.
Someone said to me afterward, "That was a good show, even if it was broken up. But I don't understand that 'YEEEEE--HOOOOO'."
I said, "That's enthusiasm. It indicates great enthusiasm when you yell
this. The leader of the dance does it."
Banks Closed - 1931
Here is something that has stuck with me as being a very extraordinary feature of the Americans.
I had been working for the Commercial Savings Bank and Trust Company in Toledo, Ohio. I had been there ten years. The banks failed.
So my wife and I went down there when the notice of the banking department was posted in the door where I worked. When we got there, there was a group of people already there.
One man was reading the notice from the superintendent of banks. When he finished reading it, he said; "That's that."
After all the people had walked away, I looked at my wife. I said, "Now what do you think of that? Their money is gone, and these Americans simply say that's that."
I said. "If that had happened in Bulgaria the people would have at least broke the windows--even though they wouldn't have gotten their money back. They would have at least shown some anger for the loss of their money."
But all these Americans said was, "That's that."
Wonderful people these Americans.
Going Back Home - 1932
The depression came in 1929 when the stock market crashed, and in 1931
Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president. The depression was in full
swing. Several of our Bulgarians had to live on next to nothing, begging,
and being helped by the Social Services Federation of Toledo. They had
made some little shacks along the river in front of Waite High School,
and they were living there miserably.
One day I wrote a letter to President Roosevelt asking them to provide transportation to some foreigners who were willing to go back to their native country. My argument was that spending a little money on each man to be sent back, the country would benefit because they wouldn't have to pay for social services for that man. These men were anxious to go home anyhow. Three weeks after I wrote that letter Harry Hopkins, who was Roosevelt's right hand man, sent me a telegram. He said the idea is feasible and it would be incorporated in some new legislation to provide funds to send foreigners back to their country. Six of them came out of Toledo, and it was the same program all over the country. Not only was transportation expense provided to their country, but also a suit of clothes, two shirts, some underwear, socks, and a pair of shoes, and when they got to their country $10 in cash. So a good many of them left the United States and went to Poland, Bulgaria, or Yugoslavia, or Greece.
Attacking Hitler through the Underbelly of Europe - 1943
The following story has nothing to do with my hometown. Actually, the substance of this story took place here in the United States; in fact, right here in Toledo.
During the war, my oldest son [George] joined the Air Force [U. S. Army
Air Corps] and was quickly made a pilot; a bomber pilot.
He was stationed at Little Bitter Lake in Egypt. From there they would fly over the Mediterranean Sea and over the Adriatic Sea and cross over into Rumania to bomb the oil fields in Rumania.
Now at this time, there was talk between Mr. Churchill, Mr. Eisenhower, and other leaders in the war effort of how to attack Hitler.
General Eisenhower wanted to attack him through the Normandy beaches. Churchill wanted to attack him through the soft underbelly of Europe. This was the Balkans.
So they had to know whether there were either airfields or level ground in Bulgaria when they attacked the Germans through Greece and Bulgaria.
The commanding officer of the flyers where my boy, George, was one day approached him. He said, "George, you're a Bulgarian aren't you?"
George said, "No. I'm not Bulgarian. I was born right here in the United States."
So the officer said, "You speak Bulgarian don't you?"
"No, no I don't" George replied. "My father and mother never taught me the language. Some times I wish they had, but my mother didn't want my English to be broken English so she never taught me."
You know the officer didn't believe him. He had somebody who knew how to speak Bulgarian very well work with George, and every once in a while he would try to say something in Bulgarian to him. This was to see if George would make a mistake and answer him, proving that he knew the language. It never happened. Finally the commanding officer was satisfied that George didn't understand the language. He told George that the purpose of that stunt was because he needed somebody who not only could speak Bulgarian but someone who knew the country as well.
George said, "I know somebody."
The commanding officer asked whom he knew.
George said, "My father in Toledo."
So one day while I was working for the Lucas County Treasurer as a Deputy Treasurer I got a letter from the War Department. In that letter Colonel Sullivan told me to go to Chicago to see somebody in a certain hotel. I can't remember the name of the hotel. Anyhow, I was supposed to go down there and see somebody in that room. So I took the letter to my boss and I asked him what I should do.
He said, "What are we going to do? We are at war. Get a bus and go to Chicago. Don't worry about your job. "
So I went to Chicago and saw this man. He gave me a test on my ability to understand Bulgarian speaking--fast and slow. Then he gave me a test on my ability to write Bulgarian--fast and slow. Finally he told me that I was all set to go on a very important mission.
So I came back to Toledo and went back to my job. I didn't hear anything more for six months. All of a sudden I got another letter from this Colonel Sullivan. He told me that a British officer in Washington was to come here to see me in a certain room at the Commodore Perry Hotel. I was to meet with him when he came.
So on the appointed date and hour I waited in the lobby of the hotel. Soon, in came a very tall fellow with a British military uniform; I recognized him instantly. We got together, and he asked me to have lunch with him because he had not eaten yet. We planned to talk later.
When we got upstairs, he said to me, "You know sir, are you ready to go on some kind of a mission?"
I said, "Yes, I am."
He said, "Well, I wish you would change your mind."
I said, "Why?"
"Because this is a very, very dangerous mission."
I said, "Dangerous? Isn't it dangerous for the boys in the fox holes?"
He said: "Yes, but they are drafted. They have to go. You are old; you don't have to go if you don't want to."
"But I want to go. I want to help the war effort."
He said, "Well, I'll tell you. I wish you would really change your mind because we found out something about you that would make it impossible for you to accomplish this mission. We found out that both Germany and Turkey have a dossier on you. They know your whole history so if we were to send you to Bulgaria, you would be spotted, and the whole plan would collapse. There is no way to do this now."
I was to be dropped by parachute in Yugoslavia where a rebel guerrilla leader would pick me up and take me to Bulgaria to search the area for possible airfields or level ground.
So I said, "Why do you think that I deserve to have a dossier in two countries?"
He said: "Because you were in the banks, you handle the Bulgarians here, they came to you, they did business with you, you sent many of them back to the old country. they bought steamship tickets from you, and you did all that for years. If we were to drop you in Bulgaria now, somebody is bound to see you and recognize you. Someone out of the hundreds of people you sent back and did business with would know. So, that is the reason we ask you to change your mind."
I said, "Well, all right. But is there something I can do to help the war effort?"
He said: "Yes! That is why I am here. We want you to give us one hundred names and addresses of people in Bulgaria. We want you to catalog them as to A, B, and C. The A's will be people who are very faithful to their life cause; the B's will be faithful but not as much; the C's will be doubtful and so on. I'll give you a couple of weeks to see what you can do."
Eventually, I sent them something like 225 names and addresses. Some of these people were later contacted by proper authorities.
So, this is the end of a story that would have been a terrible end for
me. I would have been dropped by a parachute in Yugoslavia, conducted by
guerrilla leaders into Bulgaria and left there on my own to look for airfields
or level ground. A bizarre situation, if anything.
Saving a Life - 19--
While I was the elected treasurer for Lucas County, I was also made
interpreter for the Bulgarian language in the Common Pleas and Federal
courts. I will never forget being instrumental in saving a Bulgarian from
the electric chair. This man committed murder here on the East Side. He
killed another Bulgarian. There he was before Judge Milroy, and there was
hardly any defense organized for him. I knew the prosecutor, and I got
a chance to talk to him and the judge. I told them that these scraps among
the Bulgarians take place quite often, and most of them don't result in
harm. This wasn't premeditated, just two hot heads. So they decided to
give him life instead of the chair. Well, good behavior commuted this man's
life to nine years. After he came out, he lived about four years and died.
So I feel that while I saved a man from the electric chair, it doesn't
mean anything special. Nevertheless, he was a Bulgarian and so was I, and
I was satisfied that the man didn't commit or plan this murder. It was
just an argument that developed that way.
Somebody Among the Bulgarians - 1971
Having been in the bank for ten years, nine years again in the bank under the Banking Department, and twenty-three years at the courthouse, sort of placed me in the special category among the Bulgarians.
They came to me for almost anything from addressing a letter or envelope to getting out of jail.
Even to this day they look up to me as being somebody they can trust.
Sad but True - 1977
Since this writing, the number of Bulgarians has gone down to probably
1500, including children born here of Bulgarian parents. The old Bulgarians
who emigrated here from Bulgaria can almost be counted on two hands. There
are many in their 80's or 90's, so we will be lost because the new Bulgarians
are more conscious of their United States allegiance than Bulgaria. So
time for us is running out.