AMERICAN DREAM UNDER WATER

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Tiny village of Gumoshtnik remembers its men who went down with the Titanic

titanic victims monument bulgaria.jpg

The meadow opposite the church in Gumoshtnik, the village whose name is unpronounceable for either locals or foreigners, resembles churchyards in many other Bulgarian villages. Two monuments stand there, honouring soldiers killed in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and the First World War. Again, as in most Bulgarian villages, the meadow is usually deserted. When the wars began, this particular hamlet near Troyan, in the Balkan Mountains, had eight lively neighbourhoods. Urbanisation after 1944 reduced that number to six. Now, according to the last census, about 240 people live there.

Sometimes, however, tourists arrive at the grassy field in front of the St Nikolay Letni Church. They show polite interest in the restored kiliyno uchilishte, or Revival Period cell school, from 1829, and the inevitable wooden iconostasis from 1838. Then they go ahead to the other side of the church, where the reason for their visit lies.

"Titanic's last night II," a drawing by local artist Doycho Boyadzhiev

The memorial to Marin Markov, Lazar Markov, Stoycho Minkov, Nidyalko Mihov, Penko Petrov, Iliya Stoychev and I. Naydenov is an obelisk. Above the names an inscription reads: "In memory of those who sank in the Atlantic Ocean with the Titanic in 1912."

When Lloyd's, the insurance agency, made a list of the 1,570 people who drowned on 15 April 1912, it included the names of 38 Bulgarians. In recent years, the names of more victims have resurfaced, bringing the number to 50. Most of the Bulgarians who perished were from the Troyan and Pleven regions. The biggest death toll was in Gumoshtnik. The villagers tried not to forget the tragedy. When Lloyd's paid out compensation for the victims, part of the money went towards the monument.

Today, there is a small museum in their memory, set up by an artist in the village. The collection's highlights include the death certificates of the lost men from Gumoshtnik and the list of victims sent by Lloyd's. The Bulgarians' names were added in pencil.

Reader rails from the makeshift museum to Titanic and the local victims

If the Titanic had not sunk, the fate of the eight men from Gumoshtnik most likely would not have been so extraordinary. If they had arrived safe and sound at Ellis Island, they would have been just the latest bunch of Bulgarian would-be immigrants in pursuit of the American dream.

Bulgarians are no exception to the Roman rule Ubi bene ibi patria, or the homeland is wherever things are good. During the Revival Period they looked for better lives in Central Europe and in the 19th and early 20th centuries joined the massive waves of emigration to the United States.

Decoration above the entrance of St Nikolay Letni Church

At that time poor Bulgarians from the mountain regions had little chance of getting ahead at home. Cheap mass-produced products dealt a crushing blow to artisans working in century-old ways that were now becoming redundant. The rocky fields could hardly feed the large families. Many placed their hopes in fast-talking agents who dazzled them with visions of the golden future that awaited them in America.

"America is a land of unlimited opportunity!" the agents gushed. "Come work in the mines or on the railway lines! Work for two or three years, save up your cash, then return home to buy more fields and build fine houses!"

Men from Gumoshtnik in the early 20th century

For many villagers, this was an offer they couldn't refuse. They sold off what they could and took out loans to scrape together the tickets for the passage. Their families were left behind to wait in Bulgaria.

The eight men from Gumoshtnik who boarded the Titanic on 10 April 1912 with third-class tickets had similar histories – and hopes.

Their shared American dream, however, ended in the North Atlantic.

Strangely, no one from Gumoshtnik pays attention to the fact that the eight villagers who went down with the Titanic, weren't actually eight. On the memorial, which enthusiasts have decorated with a length of anchor chain dredged from the Black Sea, there are only seven names.

Death certificate of Marin Markov, one of the local men who perished with the Titanic

Where is the eight? According to local lore, one of the group failed to embark the Titanic because of a... love affair. The man fell in love with a French woman and made a last-minute decision to stay in Southampton instead, forfeiting both his comrades and his fare. It is not very clear what happened to the couple or whether indeed the Bulgarian had not already been married back home. But the story of the eloping guy adds a bit of additional Balkan spice to the otherwise tragic tale of the Gumoshtnik emigrants.

Stranger still, no one tells the stories of local men who died the very same year in the First Balkan War, which Bulgaria fought against the Ottoman Empire in a bid to free territories with Bulgarians still living under the Sultan. Nor do they recall the killed in the First World War. The names of the fallen soldiers outnumber those of the Titanic's victims. Collective consciousness and tourists, however, ignore them. This amnesia can be explained by the fact that the war dead from Gumoshtnik were only a small drop in the ocean of men killed on the front. The Balkan wars ended with 84,000 dead and wounded Bulgarian soldiers, whilst in the First World War 105,000 were killed and 150,000 injured.

Hand-written notes have recorded important events, such as a disastrous earthquake in 1928, on the walls of the St Nikolay Letni village church

Perhaps the real reason for this selective remembrance lies elsewhere. Bulgarian historians love to describe the enthusiasm with which ordinary Bulgarians fought for national unity between 1912-1918. The tragedy of their defeat is nevertheless overshadowed by the tragedy of the seven men from Gumoshtnik who died chasing their peaceful village dreams.

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