- This summer, Tana Ganeva traveled to Belene, Bulgaria’s most notorious prison camp, where her grandfather was held in the 1950s.
- Bulgaria has effectively buried the history of its Communist-era gulags, where thousands were starved, tortured, and killed.
- Ganeva’s grandfather attempted to escape Bulgaria four times, before making it to California.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The island of Persin is a bird-watcher’s paradise. Set on the Danube River, which divides Bulgaria and Romania, it’s a nature park covered in wetlands and home to hundreds of rare bird species: the spoonbill, the pygmy cormorant, the corncrake, as well as herons, eagles, storks, and pelicans.
Amid the natural beauty, it’s jarring to consider that this was the location of a concentration camp where thousands of Bulgarian political prisoners were brutalized and killed from 1949 to 1953 – and in some cases for years after that. Though it’s officially known as Belene after the quiet Bulgarian village that sits 750 feet (228.60m) away on the mainland, old-timers here call it by another name: the Island of Death.
My stepgrandfather, Georgi Tutunjiev, was sent here at age 24 and spent four years and three months interred at Belene after someone (he suspected his ex-wife) told the authorities of his plan to escape the country. In his notebooks – he had planned to write a memoir about Belene but never did before he died in 2011 at 87 – he remembered the place as “brutal facilities for re-education,” where he’d endured “indescribable physical and psychological abuse.” He finally managed to escape Bulgaria in 1966 and settle with my grandma in California.
In 1989, my parents and I left Bulgaria and joined my grandparents in California, thanks to the family-reunification policy. While many survivors of trauma shut down, my grandfather never stopped talking about the gulag. He seemed to have an unending loop of stories about Belene. For my immediate family, it could be exhausting, and we were alarmed to discover his extensive gun collection, which my grandmother gamely dismissed as a coping mechanism. But guests who came to the house were often riveted by his dark tales, which he mixed with his sense of humor. “Jeko! The Communistie shot you!” he’d shout at his terrier mix, and the dog would sprawl on his back, playing dead.
I’ve come to the town of Belene on a brutally hot day in August for a tour of the Island of Death. I meet Nedyalka Toncheva, who works for the Belene Island Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes tours of the island, close to the bank of the Danube.
We cross a rickety water bridge on foot and then jump aboard a Jeep driven by a 24-year-old Belene native named Peter. Toncheva, who is 35, is passionate and knowledgeable about the island’s flora and fauna. Every few minutes, she tells Peter to stop the car to point out a roosting stork or a water eagle. She talks about her plans to make Persin a tourist destination comparable to Borovets, a ski resort with luxury hotels in the Rila mountains; or Koprivchitsa, a living museum honoring the Bulgarian rebels who mounted an uprising in 1876 against the Ottoman Empire.
In the three decades since the fall of communism, Bulgaria has effectively buried the history of its many gulags, which operated mostly in the 1950s during the early, and most violent, days of Communist rule in the country. In Belene itself, many lower-level guards came from the village and a former mayor was also the gulag’s first superintendent. It’s not surprising that the village doesn’t advertise its history.
After 1989, survivors who had been forced to sign documents promising to never talk about the camps started speaking out. For a brief time, they became the subjects of documentaries and newspaper profiles. But soon, the consensus was that it was better to move on. An interior minister tasked with investigating the camps instead secretly ordered a purge of thousands of pages of documents – 40% of the government record.
While Bulgaria’s defeat of the Ottomans is central to the national identity, and much is made of the fact that Bulgaria saved its Jews during the Holocaust, the memory of the Communist era is more fraught.
Peculiar for a tour, most of our stops lead us to what’s not left of the camp. The shacks where prisoners slept have been razed – there’s no trace of them.
At the entrance, in what is now an open field, an inscription says, “To be human is to have dignity.” From inside the camp – what would have been visible to the internees – the engraving says, “If the enemy doesn’t surrender, he is destroyed.” But no one I’ve talked to knows whether it’s the original or has been recreated.
There are a few abandoned, falling-apart buildings, but those were built in 1959, six years after the camp’s official (but not real) closing, when it was converted into a prison, in part to kill rumors that it had operated as a secret gulag. Todor Zhivkov, the Communist premier who took power in 1954 and stayed on until 1989, reopened it in the 1980s to detain Muslims who refused to take on Slavic names in place of their own – a disastrous bid to assimilate them.
I ask Toncheva whether there’s a list of everyone who was held in the camp. I’m thinking of my grandfather and wondering whether there’s any documentation. She tells me everyone who comes here for the camp asks the same question.
“There’s no way to know, no list,” Toncheva says, apologetic. “There’s almost no proof the camp even existed.”
‘Perfectly calculated by Satan himself’
The first contingent of 300 men arrived at the Belene camp in the summer of 1949, five years after the 1944 Communist coup. My grandfather, then 24, arrived that first winter. A camp for women was founded on an adjacent island soon after.
It was modeled after Josef Stalin’s gulags in Siberia. Most of the prisoners had been dragged from their homes by the military police and sent here without trial. (Estimates vary, but 20,000 to 40,000 people were thought to be murdered by the Bulgarian Communist Party.) Even Stalin eventually warned them to scale down the killing of prominent oppositional figures or risk creating martyrs.
The first wave of prisoners had to hack through the unpopulated island and build small shacks that were so crowded the prisoners didn’t have room to lie down. In his history of the camp, Borislav Skotchev wrote that the island was dotted with towers manned by guards with machine guns.
The men held here included the former leader of the Social Democrats, Orthodox priests (many in their 70s), and the mayor of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia. Tsveti Ivanov, the editor of the newspaper Svoboden Narod, or Free People, was sent to Belene after serving 10 months in prison. He was beaten so brutally that he got tetanus from his wounds and died in the compound.
Much of what we know about the place comes from survivors’ memoirs. They were fed a thin soup, sometimes with a handful of beans thrown in. Their bread ration – moldy or stale when it made its way to them – was small, and could be withheld by the guards as punishment. Sometimes they got tea. My grandfather told me that, in the winter, both the soup and the tea were given to them already frozen.
When Toncheva takes us on a brief walk to go look at storks, the ground gives off wet heat, and brambles and thorns claw at us, as if the island is alive and doesn’t want us there. I think of the people who had to work days and nights, in sweltering summers, devoured by mosquitoes. It’s unbelievable that anyone survived.
An internal CIA document described the grim situation of starving prisoners. “A frequent sight is that of a prisoner eating raw green leaves and roots,” it said. “To be caught doing this, however, would result in 10 days in detention in a dungeon for such an offense.” The lucky ones got packages from family, though those were often taken by guards. Many had little choice but to choke down the rotting carcasses of wild cats, killed and skinned for their fur by the villagers, or pick through horse dung for undigested barley. According to a CIA information report from March 13, 1952, during one brutal winter 30 prisoners died of cold or starvation.
“It was an Inferno circle, perfectly calculated by Satan himself,” Liliana Pirinchiva, one of the female survivors of Belene, wrote in her memoir. “We were reduced to skeletons.”
Then there were the guards, who brought an especially sadistic approach to their work. Some would chase packs of prisoners on horseback, letting their rifles off “as if we were a flock of sheep,” wrote Stefan Botchev, a survivor. When he got a severe case of scabies, the mites burrowing into his skin, he was locked up in a shed alone because the guards didn’t want him to infect the cows. He recalled seeing a beating so severe that a prisoner’s spine was broken, turning him into a “reptile crawling on the ground.”
Kouni Genchev Kounev, the chairman of the Bulgarian Youth Agrarian Union who also survived Belene, recalled one especially brutal punishment, in which the guards would pull back a prisoner’s head and strike him in the trachea. They called it the “sword stroke.”
Years later, Krum Horozov, a survivor, would draw water colors of the camp from memory – it’s virtually the only visual documentation that exists. In 2011, six years before his death, Horozov wrote: “And when we die, which will be soon, who will remember what happened on that island in the 1950s, and will they know that people were sent there without a trial and sentence?”
Lilia Topouzova, a historian in Toronto who writes about the history and the memory of the camps, recalls meeting Horozov at an academic conference; he was trying to give away copies of his drawings of Belene to university students, but they avoided him as if he were a pesky street vendor.
At 93, Tsvetana Dzhermanova is the last known survivor of the women’s camp, which was known as Shturets, or Cricket. We’re sitting outside her home in the mountain village of Leskovets, and she’s talking so fast I wonder how she manages to breathe.
She smiles and laughs a lot, and she reminds me of my grandfather, who also spoke with the speed of a motorboat, frantic to tell his story.
“I promised to outlive the Communistie, and here I am!” she boasts. (My grandfather also took an understandable delight at outliving the Communistie. “I survived the Communistie, but I won’t survive old age,” he once told me, when I was 25 and had no idea about either.)
Dzhermanova was an anarchist in the 1950s, and still is today. “That’s my personal ideology,” she says. “I’m not sure humans are evolved enough to make either anarchism or socialism work the way they should, but for me, anarchism is it. Because I value freedom, family, friendship, and love.”
When she first heard about anarchism as a teenager, she asked her mother what it meant. “Anarchists are the people all regimes persecute,” her mother had replied. That sold her. Dzhermanova joined a village group. She had no designs on power (detesting it) and mostly spent her time reading anarchist literature and working on a community vegetable garden. She estimates that 800 anarchists from the town were swept up in a night and sent to the gulags.
“We sang songs while we worked,” Dzhermanova tells me. “That helped.”
Last spring the sprightly nonagenarian made the three-hour trip to Belene to speak with a group of students about the camps. “They had no idea about this. They were really surprised,” she says. “No one had ever talked to them about it, and they don’t learn about it in school.”
‘Out of Fashion’
Toncheva and our driver, Peter, walk through a falling-down building that was constructed in 1959, in part to hide evidence of the camp. It’s covered in bird shit. Plant life is taking over its rotted remnants, and old decayed furniture has been abandoned here and there. We talk about how nobody talks about the camp.
Peter tells us that despite having spent almost his entire life roughly 750 feet (228.60m) from Persin, in Belene village, he learned about the camp only two weeks earlier, when Toncheva hired him as a driver for her tours.
“To think they only gave them bread and water, and made them work so hard,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief.
As far as Toncheva knows, no one from her family was held here, but she remembers asking her grandmother about the island when she was a teenager and again after reading the memoirs of survivors. “Shhh. Don’t talk so much about this,” her grandmother would say. “You don’t want to bring trouble.”
There are rumors of a mass grave near Persin. Mikhail Mikailev, the head of the Belene Island Foundation, wants to find it. But money for the equipment required to find and dig up the remains eludes this two-person staff.
Unlike Peter and Toncheva, my parents, who were born in the mid-1950s and grew up in Bulgaria, tell me that in the 1970s and 1980s, all their friends in Sofia knew about Belene. “We all heard the stories,” my mother says.
But for the authorities, maintaining official denial was worth murder.
In 1969, the celebrated Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov defected to the West, where he wrote about the regime’s abuses. In one essay, Markov described traveling on a boat down the Danube and approaching Belene. “I remembered how, feet dangling over the edge of the boat, a youth with a guitar once sang a strange song: Danube, white river, how quiet you flow / Danube, black river, what anguish you know.”
On a rainy afternoon in London, a man jabbed the tip of his umbrella into Markov’s leg. Later, Markov noticed what looked like a small bug bite but didn’t think much of it. A few days later he was dead, most likely poisoned by the Bulgarian secret service.
Before my visit to Belene, I met Topouzova, the historian, over Zoom to talk about the erasure of the camps in Bulgaria’s consciousness. While former generals wrote best-sellers, the owner of a prominent bookstore dismissed any interest in survivors’ memoirs – they were “out of fashion,” he had told her.
It was gaslighting in its purest form. And it showed how we’re all so prone to the “just world” fallacy, a phenomenon where if something is too horribly unjust, the human brain just kind of moves on. It’s not all that hard to bury inconvenient truths.
“It turned out that aging men and women with fragmented memories of bygone violence did not make for the faces of change,” Topouzova wrote in a recent paper titled “On Silence and History” for the American Historical Association. “The interned were rendered nonexistent – their experiences and memories fated to vanish along with the files.”
A pile of stones
Nations define themselves by their monuments. The memorial in downtown Manhattan demands that we never forget the victims of 9/11. In the past few years, American activists have torn Confederate statues from their perches, signaling a break with the passive acceptance of the history of slavery.
Yet grappling with unpleasant history isn’t easy. It was only in 2018 when a museum honoring the Black victims of lynching opened in Alabama. The 1619 Project, which posits that the history of the United States is rooted in slavery, has spurred a massive backlash. School districts have banned children’s books about Rosa Parks. Vaunted democracies are as likely to try to bury inconvenient truths as former communist states.
In Bulgaria, there are monuments everywhere. From the smallest village to Sofia, the heroes of Bulgaria’s uprising against the Ottoman Empire are eternalized in stone. In Plovdiv, a giant sculpture overlooks Bulgaria’s second-largest city that honors “Alyosha,” an everyman Soviet soldier who helped “liberate” Bulgaria in the 1940s – even though many Bulgarians see that period as Soviet imperialism, much like the Ottoman Empire’s 500 years of occupation.
The victims of Belene and the other camps have no such honor. The Belene foundation does the best it can. They helped organize an art exhibit, where Korozov’s pencil drawings were tacked onto the walls of the decaying structures that had been erected to mask evidence of the gulag.
There is one modest monument on the island. It’s an abstract stone structure, and you’d have no idea what it was if you didn’t already know the history. The original idea was to build a monument that listed the names of all the known internees, something like the Vietnam wall on the Mall in Washington. But the survivors and their families who pooled their resources to build it ran out of money, and no one, including the Bulgarian government, stepped in to help. (The survivors also hoped to open a museum and to recreate the shacks where they were held, but that hasn’t happened either.)
My grandfather’s escape
Dzhermanova, the 93-year-old anarchist – and eternal optimist, apparently – has hope that younger people will dig up the buried history.
As for my grandfather, his ex-wife (or whoever it was who betrayed him to the authorities) was right that he wanted to escape Bulgaria.
After his release from Belene in 1953, that resolve was so much stronger. “After 4 years and three months in the Island of Death, I became determined to go to my real home: America,” he explained in his notebooks.
As he detailed it, it would take four harrowing attempts. Soon after his release from Belene, he managed to make it into Yugoslavia during a “sabor” – a temporary loosening of borders so family and friends in the two countries could see each other. But he got caught and was thrown into a Yugoslavian jail.
From there, he organized an inmate breakout after bribing the guard dog, Jeko, with his dinner. But he and the other prisoners were caught in the woods, and the Yugoslavian authorities gave them up to the Bulgarian authorities in exchange for 10 cows. “They weren’t even very good cows – scrawny,” he wrote.
Several years later, he tried to cross Bulgaria’s mountainous border into Greece, but he was caught once again.
Finally, he made it into Austria and then Germany by clinging to the underside of a freight train. And then on to California, where he gave his new dog a familiar name: Jeko.
Tana Ganeva writes about policing, prisons and criminal justice. She’s currently working on a book about escapees from the Soviet bloc.