Bombings, spas and mosquitoes lurk in a forgotten diary
"Sofia Central Station disappointed me: it is small, untidy, the waiting halls are lacking any kind of standard." No, this isn't an online travel forum posting in which a Western tourist vents his exasperation that, despite Bulgaria's being part of the EU, travelling on its railways is not on a par with that in Germany. Instead, this is a diary entry by a frozen and exhausted woman about her arrival in Bulgaria for the first time in January 1924. For the next year and a half she chronicled her experiences which included political drama, the life of the Bulgarian middle class and the inevitable cultural clashes. The result is a touching and informative picture of Bulgaria through the eyes of a foreigner.
Bavarian Marie Eichhorn set out for Sofia by train from Munich on 2 January and spent the next four and a half days passing through Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade. She was on her way to the Vazov family to teach music and foreign languages to their three daughters. The Vazovs were part of Sofia's establishment at the time. The mother, Elisaveta Konsulova-Vazova, was one of the first female artists in Bulgaria. Her husband, Boris Vazov, was a lawyer and deputy speaker of parliament. He was also the brother of Ivan Vazov, Bulgaria's People's Poet.
On the day Marie Eichhorn arrived in Bulgaria, locals were celebrating Koleda, or Christmas. In 1916 the Bulgarians had traded the Julian calendar for the Gregorian, but until 1967 church holidays were still celebrated according to the old calendar. Unfortunately, Eichhorn arrived so late in the day that she missed out on most of the Eastern Orthodox Christmas festivities.
As a consolation, however, she was just in time for the year's longest streak of name day celebrations. The enthusiasm with which nowadays Bulgarians celebrate the feast day of the saint they are named after seems astonishing, but in the 1920s they took name days even more seriously. For centuries, Bulgarians had paid far greater attention to name days and to feting their patron saints than to birthdays. At the beginning of the 20th Century this tradition fused with the European fashion of having a winter ball season. Marie was soon caught up in the whirlwind of celebrations. Through the Vazovs she received invitations to balls and other festivities, dutifully setting them down in her diary. On 17 January, for example, she went to the university's annual ball at the Military Club. Built at the end of the 19th Century, it was, and has remained, a prime venue for concerts and other entertainment: "At the entrance ladies received small bouquets tied with ribbons in the national colours. The festively decorated hall was as exquisite as were the elegantly dressed ladies. Indeed, Bulgaria has beautiful women and if they would only use a bit less makeup and perfume I would find them even more charming. Two dance bands took turns playing the appropriate tunes, and the ladies and gentlemen from the university danced the cotillion. Hours passed by like seconds."
In the summer of 1924 Marie and her sister Sabine went to the seaside at Nesebar. The long journey to Burgas — again by train! — was too exhausting, so the two ladies broke up their trip. They stopped over at Kostenets, where the Vazovs were spending their vacation. Located in the Rila Mountains, the town is close to Borovets, the popular winter resort which was then called Chamkoriya, and was famous for its mineral springs. During Communism the spa was renamed Georgi Dimitrov, in honour of Bulgaria's first Communist dictator, but now the mineral baths are known as Vili Kostenets or Banya Kostenets.
The family of General Vazov
"I can compare the place to our best resorts. Green mountains, narrow valleys, beautiful villages dotting the slopes, and a wide-open landscape that is nevertheless ringed with mountains," Marie wrote of the place. She spent a few days with the Vazovs at Villa O'Mahony. The story of the villa's name is unusual. The Irish philanthropist Pierce O'Mahony built the villa which, according to Marie, is "nice and comfortable, better than other resort villas." O'Mahony arrived in Bulgaria at the beginning of the 20th Century to take care of Bulgarian orphans from the Edirne region and Vardar Macedonia whose parents died during the Ilindensko-Preobrazhensko vastanie, or St Elijah's Day-Transfiguration Uprising, against the Ottoman Empire in 1903. He built the St Patrick's Orphanage in Sofia, as well as the villa in Kostenets. O'Mahony left Bulgaria in 1915 when the country entered the First World War. He continued to take care of the orphans, but the villa passed into other hands.
When the sisters continued their train journey to Burgas, they discovered that this unpleasant mode of transport had one major advantage in its bringing them closer to Bulgarians. Back then, Bulgarians from the countryside rarely met foreigners. They were happy to practise their German and to help the two ladies. Marie wrote: "Sabine and I were pleasantly surprised by the common people's politeness. Germany has a long way to go in that respect. In Stara Zagora a gentleman sat in our compartment who knew German and who was also going to Nesebar. After the endless journey (Bulgarian express trains are like German passenger trains) we arrived in Burgas at 11:30 at night."
The sisters didn't know that their trip to the Black Sea coast coincided with the beginning of the mass summer tourist season. In Bulgaria "sunbathing" had become the rage. Unlike nowadays, however, when hotel supply near Burgas far outstrips demand, the Bavarians found themselves in an unexpected predicament: The first hotel was full. The next hotel offered the two ladies and their train acquaintance the only available room — one with three beds. "We had to accept this arrangement and spend the night with our companion, who was a pleasant and educated family man."
The mosquitoes in Burgas have always been exceptionally irritating, but in the early 1920s the marshes around the city were not yet drained, and were the perfect breeding ground for thousands of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. "We didn't sleep much, as the infamous mosquitoes bit us continually," wrote Marie. Early the next morning the sisters left for Nesebar. Then as now, it was the centre of Bulgarian summer tourism. The nearby beaches, however, were still relatively empty and much more enjoyable than today. "Most bathers were in their birthday suits, but there were separate ladies', men's and family sections."
Located on an island and connected to the mainland by a thin sandy strip, in ancient times Mesembria, Nesebar's old name, was one of the liveliest Greek colonies on the western Black Sea coast. During the Byzantine period, dozens of churches with walls made of alternating layers of stone and brick sprung up, and during the Ottoman rule picturesque wooden houses were built. (In 1983 Nesebar was added to the UNESCO list of world cultural heritage sites.) "The houses are old and in need of renovation. Their interiors are primitive. But despite that, there are currently some 700 families here on vacation," noted Marie, adding, "The local population still speaks Greek in part." In the following year, 1925, that changed for good: Nesebar's Greeks left their homes after Bulgaria and Greece signed a population exchange agreement which resettled them in the Greek region of Aegean Macedonia. They named their village there not Mesembria, but Nov Nesebar, or New Nesebar.
Marie was curious about all aspects of contemporary Bulgarian life. One day Elisaveta took her to a parliamentary session chaired by her husband. On that day the MPs held a heated debate initiated by representatives from the BZNS, or the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union. Just one year earlier the party had ruled Bulgaria, imposing an almost authoritarian regime which favoured party members and peasant-farmers at the expense of the intelligentsia and "citizens" as a whole. Their charismatic leader Aleksandar Stamboliyski ruled with an iron fist, and his administration ended in a similarly violent fashion — with a coup on 9 June 1923. For several days the agrarians found themselves the object of a bloody purge. By 1924, however, they again had representatives in parliament. Political instability and assassinations occurred so frequently in Bulgaria that parliament nstituted security measures that shocked the German observer. "When we entered the antechamber we were searched for weapons," Marie wrote in her diary in March. As she notes, calm and cool discussion has never been the Bulgarians' strong suit: "One MP was speaking. He gradually raised his voice and got so worked up that from the right excited comments could be heard, and the speaker's bell rang several times before the riled-up parties calmed down and the speaker was able to continue."
In the following year, Marie herself almost fell victim to Bulgarian political turmoil. In September the Comintern ordered the Bulgarian Communists to begin a poorly organised uprising against the government. The authorities retaliated with brutality, and the Communists responded with a wave of political assassinations and attacks.
The violence reached its peak when the Communists killed Gen. Georgiev, a close associate of King Boris III. Banking on the fact that the king would attend his funeral, which, like that of all high-ranking figures, was held in St Nedelya Church, on 16 April 1925 they blew up the church's dome. They sought to kill the king and as many ministers as possible. On that day Marie went to give a private lesson, but her student was not at home. She decided to take a walk and reached St Nedelya, where the general's funeral was in progress. On the square she saw a crowd of people who had not managed to get into the church. "I considered going in myself, but decided against it. Instead I went to a creamery on Vitosha street and ordered yoghurt. Before I could lift the first spoonful to my lips, I heard a terrible explosion, the shop's window panes shattered into thousands of pieces and the lamps fell. Everyone ran out into the street, only I sat there frozen. I heard someone yell, 'Oh my God, oh my God! Dynamite! A bomb!' I understood and rushed outside. What sight met my eyes? St Nedelya was half ruined, a crowd of people were on the street, panic was all around, cars were covered with blood. Oh, there will be many dead!"
The terrorists did not hit their target, as the king had not attended the funeral. Also no ministers were injured. The total number of victims reached 213, making this the bloodiest bombing in Bulgaria's history. Marie was shocked and decided to leave "this country, where such terrible things happen."
On 10 July 1925 Marie Eichhorn left Sofia. All her friends came with flowers and candy, and best wishes mixed with tears and embraces. "How different is my farewell from my arrival!" she commented in her diary. Marie Eichhorn never forgot her time in Bulgaria. Her home in Fürth always remained open to Bulgarian guests, and many came to visit until the beginning of the Second World War. The sisters decorated their home with paintings by Konsulova-Vazova, rugs, hand-embroidered cloth, pillows and other Bulgarian handicrafts. And they focused much of their social life around Bulgarian customs. Marie Eichhorn never returned to Bulgaria.
Her diary languished in obscurity long after her death in 1972. In 1985 her nephew asked me to publish it. However, since this was still the Cold War era, a book about Bulgaria in the 1920s through the eyes of a German bourgeois would not have been such a hit. Its publication was put off — until now.