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History > Testimonies
  The Bulgarian Gulag. Witnesses


Kolio Kolev from the Slunchev Briag concentration camp

On Camps and Memory

Еdvin Sugarev

TVO [Bulgarian communist abbreviation for “concentration camp”] means “Correction through Labor Facility”. In this book, you are going to read about correction methods. I bet this will be no easy time for you. Not only because of the horrors awaiting you on each page. But also because of the fearful question: “Why was that?” And the even more fearful one: “In what kind of world did all we live till now?”

The response: “In the camp. In the soc.-conc.-camp.” The barbed wires encircling the People’s Republic of Bulgaria were the same as the ones that ringed human lunacy at Lovech, the island of Persin, in the camps at Kutsiyan, Bogdanov Dol, Nozharevo, Skravena, and quite a few other places. The concentration camps were just the concentrate of all that was characteristic of being in our ever more former socialist camp.

Today, the camps are slowly unveiling the curtain of thirty-year long silence. Some are still trying to mask what happened there as “deformations”. The real name is “genocide”. For far too long it was a taboo theme that no one, nowhere could write anything on. We all knew something about Belene and Lovech. But we spoke just now. And just now some felt guilty and erected memorial boards. Interesting enough – did they wash their hands thereafter?

The camps were born just four months after the great people’s victory. More precisely, in January 1945. By decree issued “in the name of His Royal Majesty” and signed by the Regents. Well, not the original, but the newly appointed ones. Among them was Stalin’s eminent champion Todor Pavlov. The decree was issued on a motion by Interior Minister Anton Yugov. According to it, the TVOs are designed for incorrigible vagrants and recidivists. No one should be detained there for more than six months without a second sentence.

This decree disrupted the link between the camps and the law. From then on, only valid was the formula of a Bulgarian State Security officer, voiced only five years ago [in 1985] on the island of Persin: “Here, I am the biggest frog in the pond”. But shooting the smaller frogs was just an outcome, just the tiniest wheel of the transmission that energized the camp system in Bulgaria.

Was the writer Dimiter Talev a recidivist? Was Dr. Dertliev a vagrant? Or the poet Yosif Petrov? Or the pianist Trifon Silyanovski? Or the violinist Candy Sandy? Or the communist guerilla commander Slavcho Trnski?

In fact, the camp system (created through active consultations with highly qualified Soviet “experts”) had entirely different functions than indicated in the decree. It serves to purge dissidents, harmful for socialism. Its victims’ blood is the ideal lubricant for the “screws” in the totalitarian machinery. The camp’s role is twofold: to destroy the disobedient and to intimidate the obedient. Facing the possibility to go “there” the dignified member of our society fell into ecstatic optimism about the bright communist future. The more easily, the more indiscriminately, with more impunity one could be sent there, the more one’s fear grew – until only self-preservation instinct remained from human will. It is precisely that transformation of man into slave that the real “corrective” role of the TVO consisted of.

Candidates for there were never in short supply. But times change, and so do camps, and their social composition. Initially, their campmates were “former” people who somehow survived the ninth-of-September nights of St. Bartholomew. Former members of parliament, colonels and generals, former proprietors, former journalists and intellectuals. In a camp no one is “present”, although it was only present that made difference for campmates. Unlike them, for the executors it was the past that mattered: the forged or real past of a campmate. That was precisely what turned her into an enemy to be destroyed, a roach to be smashed.

I do not mean the physical torturers – the club-waving recidivists or the lowbrow beast-like sergeants, nor the perfidious sadists like Gazdov and Goranov. I mean those, whose names today burn the archives, I mean the hundreds and thousands of prosecutors, investigators, DS (security police) officers with or without ranks, the local militia and village cops, the party secretaries and eavesdropping neighbors, the vigilantes and the intriguing Fatherland Front activists – all those who – by virtue of a signature or a report changed human lives irreversibly.

Designed on the Soviet model, the camps initially followed it closely, which meant investigation, weeks and months of torture in the DS chambers until the victim admits the sins invented by someone, then some imitation of trial and conviction…

Very quickly, however, those procedures were changed, shortened and outright disappeared and incarceration acquired openly Balkan characteristics. For one, Georgi Dimitrov’s death drew hundreds randomly collected innocent people to Bogdanov Dol and the just then opened camps on the islands at Belene. An entire wedding was arrested because people were shouting, “Good luck!” – no matter that none of them knew about the demise of the great leader of the people.

Investigations and convictions either vanished or seized to be customary. Instead, the usual routine was as follows: early in the morning, they pick you up for a “small formality”, you stay on in the DC basement until enough other fellows like you gather there. Then you are loaded like cattle on horse railroad cars and shipped to an unknown destination, where you will stay for no one knows how long: until you are buried in the sand of Magarets island, near the infamous pig farm, or until the camp authorities decide that you have already been reeducated enough. Bot nobody, to be sure, tell you anything.

There were people who never understood why were they in the camp. The six months mentioned in the decree remained a mirage. Probably out of courtesy, the camp administration wrote its lists like that: Ivanov – 6+6+6+6…”

The camp system escalated, or, more precisely, degraded in many ways. Compared to the Lovech inferno, the first camps were outright gardens of Eden. One can explain (although this doesn’t change the criminal character of the situation) why did the “former” people of “bourgeois” Bulgaria make it to the camps, also the next wave of thousands of opposition supporters – agrarians, social democrats, anarchists… From then on follows the chaos. The system periodically holds “purges” using as pretext both important and absurdly haphazard events. The crackdown on the opposition, the trial of Traicho Kostov, the death of Georgi Dimitrov and the Hungarian revolution are among the important pretexts. But in 1958, a worker was stabbed to death on a streetcar in a drunken quarrel. The term “hooligans” entered into use; Todor Zhivkov delivered a special report on “hooliganism”. Naturally, supported by a mass journalistic campaign, in which participated the present-day editor-in-chief of the “Duma” daily. His column ended with: “Yesterday, we buried our tolerance. Tomorrow, let us bury hooliganism.” I don’t know if Mr. Prodev had an idea how literal this burial would be. Because, under the blessing of such columns, thousands ended up in Belene and Lovech and a large part died.

“People’s enemy” and “hooligan” were the two chief labels bringing one to the camp. The real pretext could be different. You might have refused to join the TKZS cooperative farm. You might have told a joke to friends. Your neighbor might be cross with you. The party secretary might have a liking for your wife or apartment. You might have slapped your wife, forgetting that her uncle was a cop. You might… literally, everything might happen. Once, for instance, some drunk militiamen from the Lovech camp guard picked up for a joke a quiet madman they met by chance at the station. They put him in the camp. In the morning, Shakho the Gypsy laid hands on him with the club. And the little man died. Surely, the Lovech camp remembers much more horrifying stories. But this one, it seems to me, shows the naked truth of the camp system, its core purpose – the absolute annihilation of human identity in a world of violence, where human life is of no value. The torturers do not hold the patent as the camp world extends far beyond the barbed wire. The camp was required to brand souls with fear for the sake of building socialism. But the camp is in a way a symbol of socialism itself. A boy wears narrow pants and plays twist – that is enough to embark on the road to death. A girl wears a skirt above the knee and paints her nails – that is enough to get her under the paws of Yulka or Totka who will turn her into a half-naked, half-dead “female cattle”. What better proof of the all-powerfulness of the system, of the complete powerlessness of all “screws” of the machine? The campmate, picked from her normal life without trial and conviction, imprisoned for no one knows why and for how long, is no longer human in the proper sense. Lovech TVO campmates are unanimous that one can survive only thanks to one’s self-preservance instinct and if one has strength do work as a dog 18 hours a day without looking at whoever gets beaten to death, without talking to one’s mates – the torturer’s ears are everywhere.

There is hardly anything more moving that a campmate’s confession that he spoke only if by any chance he was left alone, just to check if he had not forgotten the human language. The survival principle is to be unnoticeable, to mingle with the gray mass – stumbling from exhaustion, crushing rocks under the club blows. In the camp, to single you out form the rest meant death. The singled out are stigmatized – they are given a pocket mirror to look at themselves for the last time, for them the gnarled club draws a circle that they will never leave, for them are the hemp bags, in which they will be dumped at the back of the lavatory while enough of them are collected to justify spending 7 gallons of gasoline to Magarets island…

The camp was most literally the shock therapy of socialism. Its impact was shocking on both those who managed to survive and those who knew that they could get there for the most minuscule pretext. All that now seems to us striking sadism had its deep significance within the design and logic of the machinery for crushing civic dignity and deleting without track any awareness of individuality and freedom.

The camp was necessary for totalitarian society precisely the way it was. It was no sick minds’ fantasy but a tangible proof of the lack of choice: either with us, or in the camp. Everything was well thought of – for instance, the repetitive scenario of welcoming of new campmates to Belene indicates an experienced director. Every time they were warned to tie their shoe laces well. For a good reason: the command “Don’t walk on the poplars!” followed with a six-mile run across a swampy area under the club blows. The torturers had taken good care of themselves: along the road there were spare clubs left, horse carts followed the running crowd to pick up the beaten up; in the middle the tired guard was replaced by a new one that carried on the beating with fresh forces. The purpose? That the “marzipans” (as they called the newcomers) memorize forever that they were but a herd whose destiny depended on the shepherd’s club.

The camps were a necessity, not a caprice, for the Bulgarian communist party (BKP) and the totalitarian system it was building. They were the club in its hand, ready to come down on the heads of the disobedient any moment. Not for nothing the newborn socialism did not find the strength to do away with them even when the international situation did not allow for their existence. As early as 1957, Anton Yugov, the originator of the camp system in this country, declared that there were no camps left. At the same time, thousands of wrecks were rotting in Belene. In 1959, the Persin island camp was officially closed: it was necessary to be known that Bulgaria abided by the international human rights instruments. Thousands of campmates were freed except 200 from the most disobedient. They were the Lovech camp pioneers. Before long, they were 1,500, and the camp itself – a public secret.

Today, it is easy to say: we did not know! At that time, investigators from all over the country went there. Campmates fanaticized their “crimes” and “admitted” them with the hope of getting a trial and the safety of a prison (some even managed). Often, people visited form the district Department of the Interior, often – much more often that he would like to admit – General Mircho Spasov came with a visit. One of his instructions: “Gazda [Major Gazdov], beating for everyone, and work, work, work!”

Indeed, following his visits “beating for everyone” followed, and the Molotovka [truck] frequented its courses to Magarets Island. There is a version (also told by campmates) that the location of this camp was a gesture by the General to his somewhat impoverished native region. No wonder, given the unbelievable targets that the campmates hit while being rented out as cattle to cooperative farms, building the communist party district headquarters in Lovech, a villa for the Interior, a stadium, and other useful sites. It was not by chance that Todor Zhivkov spoke in a report in 1962 about “developments in the Lovech district”, “the energy and persistence” of the Lovech comrades.

The same 1962 the Lovech camp was officially closed. When the commission lead by Boris Velchev arrived, the innocent campmates were freed, Gogov, Gazdov, and Goranov were removed, the rooms were whitened, the wounds, well – wounds, full of pus and worms don’t heal that quickly. Even so, the view was stunning, and how about before? General Mircho Spasov was disciplined too. By a party reprobation and reappointment to another responsible position. More precisely – he was promoted to member of the Central Committee and Member of Parliament – in the same 1962.

That seemed the closing of the last page of the Bulgarian concentration camps black book. Is it really? Alas, no. For a party for which conspiracy was world outlook it was pretty easy to open underground camps. And Belene was resurrected. The events call them to life. In 1968, inconvenient people were “relocated” there. In 1981, again, people without trial and conviction were sent there. In 1985, several hundred compatriots with “blurred ethnic self-consciousness” [ethnic Turks] not willing to change their names are dispatched there. Yes, this time the camp was called “prison”. But this term should be doubted. The difference of principle is that one goes to prison by due process of law and for a fixed term, while one goes to camp without due process of law and for an open-ended term – in the case of the Turks that was exactly the case. It was left to us to wander who were to be the next inhabitants of Persin Island.

Remember Gazdov’s pocket mirror, in which a condemned to death had to look at herself for the last time. Today, the truth about the camps is the mirror, in which our past should reflect itself. We would be blind if we failed to see in it the ideal, purified from demagoguery, image of the totalitarian system. We would be blind if we failed to see the projections of the camp in all that surrounded us till today. Because the camp reflected only a part of totalitarian socialism’s violence – the most visible but not the most comprehensive.

The youth brigades of the past who traced roads or dug absurd canals with chisels and spades had the same structure: unit and platoon commanders, evening roll-calls and search for the “enemy” in their own ranks, but the fear wan different – not fear of the club but rather fear of the possible future club disguised as fanatical optimism. Labor companies, Saturday workdays, duties, People’s Courts, revolutionary vigilance materialized in reports on one’s family, friends or colleagues, trembling in front of bosses and meaningless toil – everywhere, the traces of a barrack life just a step away from the camp.

Yet in the endless chronicle of Bulgarian camps there is something that comes on top of what we are used to. It is the absolute dehumanization, the complete break from all moral norms and humanity, all that defines us as rational and emotional beings. In the camp (a repressive body created by the government with the “consent” of the public) they kill not only with or without pretext – they kill for sport as well.

It is just the torturer’s life that is valuable, the victim’s life has no value. When a boat sank in the Danube and everybody on board drowned the only question asked by the guards was: “Was there a militiaman on the boat?” In Lovech by the wire fence the torturers had a table where they feasted at night under the sound of a special Gypsy band. Often, in the course of the feast, they decided to “get some motion”, got into the camp, picked up someone and beat him up. Then they went back to the table to finish up their drinks.

Obviously, these people felt like gods. One of them beat campmates up before his wife and children to show off what hero he was. The feeling of complete impunity little by little penetrated their psyche. For them, campmates were just valueless human material subject to liquidation. The self-esteem of these princes of death was pumped up by the fact that they not only felt themselves in their right to kill, but to create new killers as well. Precisely such people for whom violence was their way of survival – Shakho the Gypsy, Levordashki, Blago the Donkey, and Dimiter Tsvetkov, perpetrated the greatest atrocities in the Lovech camp. Torturers without status of untouchability, they were also victims of sorts. Was it not according to the socialist moral code that any relative security was achieved at the price of compromise with one’s conscience? And how about the conscience of those who were above all that and pulled the strings: for instance, with the Politburo members who voted for the opening of the Lovech camp?

Let us leave the torturers and their moral instigators alone. In these texts, you will see, on many occasions, initials – disguising the names of so far unknown guards, militiamen, etc. We spare them to the public not out of pity for them – let their children at least be spared the burden of their guilt. It is not the point to cross anybody’s guilt but to have the truth about our own past told. Maybe, when it is known to the end, some of them will be convicted. But this should not interest us. (For people like Gazdov, Goranov and their superiors it would be a greater punishment to leave them at large than hide them behind prison’s walls.) To tell the truth about the camps is a moral obligation, not a cheap political trick. Every story in this book features a turbulent life story that does not end, but starts with the camp. Follow displacements, periodic interviews by the militia, social isolation, impossibility to exercise one’s profession, various harassment on one’s relatives, children. A smashing apology of human suffering that no repentance could redeem. Even now, after so many years, many of these people are scared. Some asked us not to publish their names. I understand them and I think their fear is not baseless. That is why it is our duty to remember their past, to inscribe their pain in the history of these shameful decades. Because it is an old truth that whoever does not remember their past will be damned to live it again.

We must be ashamed of these stories but we must feel proud of them as well. True, torturers have no faces, spurred by an openly fascist credo, they left with but the beastly in themselves. But it is also true that the camp system lost its war against the human. Even under the most horrific conditions it failed to extinct human solidarity, dignity, even the impulse to civil disobedience as it were. In the camp chronicles it was precisely the campmates who saved their faces. They could be smashed and destroyed but feel them alive. In the chronicles, we will encounter the rebellion against violence, shared human warmth in spite of fear and resignation. Violence destroyed its bearers but did not overcome them nor did it delete their traces in the memory of their people. Violence never overcomes to the end – and it is not only violence that we have to remember. The memory of all innocent set to rest amidst camp dust call on us not to forget that human spirit survives in spite of violence, in spite of suffering. They were rounded up without guild, meaninglessly sacrificed. Our destiny allotted us to live in other time and possibly thanks to them to survive. Let us not forget their shadows, built in the foundations of totalitarian socialism. And let us not allow that their doom ever be repeated again.

Foreword, “The Bulgarian Gulag. Eye-witnesses”, a collection of documentary stories about concentration camps in Bulgaria, Editors: Ekaterina Boncheva, Edvin Sugarev, Svilen Pytov, Jean Solomon, Sofia, 1991

Translation from Bulgarian by Dr. Neli Hadjiyska and Dr. Valentin Hadjiyski

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