Having put together a framework of chapters to provide structure to my family history, I am finding parts of the skeleton rather bare, with little meat to hang onto the bones. One such gaping hole is the actual, physical journey my father took from his little village in eastern Bulgaria all the way to the suburbs of Gary, Indiana in the USA back in 1947.
What I have are actual recollections from an interview with my father shortly before he passed away. There is nothing like a first-hand account of course but as all stories go they are filtered and told from one point of view. Fascinating as the account was, I nevertheless feel the need to find actual records of the journey made to find out more detail and thus add more meat to the bones. One thing is for sure, it will be a journey of my own as I take on this task since the means by which he and my grandmother travelled were varied.
Beginning in their home village of Mominsbor, Bulgaria, my father and his mother were sent off by their fellow villagers with huge fanfare. A traditionally-decorated horse-drawn carriage drove them over 240km (150 miles) from the outskirts of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria’s old capital, to Sofia. Making this entire first part of their journey by carriage seems appropriate for a rural existence, especially in post-war Europe but to me, nevertheless, it seemed an arduous beginning. I have made this same journey (back and forth) many times since but by car and know that it takes approximately four hours on a good day. The road linking the old and new capital of Bulgaria was built to a decent standard decades after my father left, so the journey was most likely quite uncomfortable as well as long. My father didn’t recall this fact however, focusing instead on the gifts they were given as they left and letting me know that “the most important thing was that we weren’t stopped”. The Iron Curtain was descending and while emigration restrictions were still an unknown event to happen a few years later, countries were already doing what they could to stop the outflow of citizens fleeing war-torn Europe.
Once in Sofia, since their papers were already arranged by my grandfather from the US, my father and grandmother went to the American Embassy for a final check before boarding a train to Belgrade, Serbia. While it wasn’t the first time they travelled by train, it was the first time they travelled internationally. From Belgrade, they then boarded another train, this time headed for Rome, Italy. In Rome, finally, they took an airplane to New York City. My Dad recounted this part of his journey with particular enthusiasm, remembering the excitement of travelling by such a new mode of transportation back then, “not many people had experienced this!” He was quick to add that while air travel was a relative luxury back then, my grandfather was by no means “rich” as he was considered to be back in his home village, but simply wanted his wife and son to be comfortable on the long journey over and thought that the Atlantic crossing was the part of the journey worth spending a bit more on. Consistent with the story, once Stateside, my father and grandmother boarded another train to take them from New York City to Chicago rather than another airplane. This last train finally deposited them at a station in Chicago, Illinois from where, with their broken English, they managed to get a cab to take them the remainder of the distance to Gary, Indiana and what would become their new home.
I can only imagine the logistics of this plan nearly 70 years ago now, without the internet, telephones and everything else we today take for granted in booking any travel instantaneously. Of course, as well, the documentation on such a journey is far from directly accessible and will require much research to fill out their travels and make the story really come alive.