It has been a little while ago since I made these pictures and my second trip to Sofia on this project already takes place in three weeks. So, not quite chronological, but I still want them in my report. It’s a personal view on the city with scenes that caught my attention.
They met each other in Spain.
My grandmother was from Graz, Austria. In the mid-Thirties she was involved with a group that practiced illegal sterilisation of men. Some of them got arrested and Sophie choose to hide for a while in San Sebastian, Spain.
On his way to Barcelona in 1936/1937 my grandfather Panayot passed Graz where he met Sophie’s sister, Grete Paunovic (later Zahrastnik), my great-aunt. She gave Panayot her sisters contact details.
By then Sophie already had a daughter, born in 1929. Selmy Eckhart was her name. During this time she entrusted her to her sister Grete where Selmy stayed when Sophie followed Panayot to Bulgaria in 1941. They planned to let Selmy come over shortly afterwards, but because of the war it all turned differently.
Selmy tragically died in a bombing of the family house in Graz in 1945. At that time Grete was kept in concentration camp Ravensbrück because of her participation in the resistance and she survived. In these circumstances mail wasn’t yet working properly and it took years before Sophie received the tragic news.
So there she was, an Austrian in a strange country, not speaking the language, a second baby (my father) on his way in 1945 and a teenage daughter left in her home country. Idealist Panayot seemed not to know how to handle this nearby grief and didn’t, so it seems, gave it much attention.
With the support of Stroom Den Haag and The Mondriaan Fund, I’m working on an art project with my grandfather, who lived most of his turbulent life in Bulgaria, as a starting point. I didn’t know him well because I grew up in The Netherlands and I never even learnt the Bulgarian language.
My grandfather was an anarchistic poet and in conflict with the communists which often brought him to prison. In the Twenties, before the communist regime was leading, he fought against and got chased by the upcoming fascism in Bulgaria. In 1936 my grandfather was convicted of publishing a “seditious” article about police violence in Sofia to two years in prison. To avoid his sentence he fled to Barcelona where he took part in the Spanish civil war against Franco. These times show many similarities with what is going on now in a greater part of Western society and I’m looking for a way to involve these parallels with the present in my work. On this blog you can follow the developments of my work and research in Bulgaria.
My grandfather has put a lot on paper himself, but given his past, there is much ‘information’ stored about him in the archives of the former Bulgarian secret services, which is now publicly available to those affected.
Not only about my grandfather many folders are filled, but also my father was an object that was closely monitored. Even after his arrival in the Netherlands in 1975, the Bulgarian Communists managed to observe him until the end of the Eighties. Part of this project is to eventually make an exhibition in Sofia of the results which consist of paintings and very likely photographs and maybe video works. This partly depends on the kind of documentary archive material I will find, completed with the stories my father has to tell about his father. For now I have in mind to present the whole as an installation of a homelike setting with objects that once could have been in my grandfather’s living room.
December 2016 I paid a first exploratory visit to Sofia. It was a short but intensive journey. My father was with me for the sometimes necessary translations. In Bankya, a small town just outside the city, we were guided through the centralized archive of Bulgaria’s Files Commission where they, since 2011, keep and protect the complete Bulgarian archive of the communist-era secret service (Darzhavna Sigurnost). We had a warm welcome and got the tour by Maria Boneva herself, the head of the department. Here the files are collected on request by people who are directly involved and brought to the reading room of the commission which is located in the city center of Sofia. We also visited this part and we got the opportunity to take a look in some of the files of him and my grandfather. Although my father thought he already had read everything somewhere mid-nineties, he discovered there were several additions since then. A confronting one was a family picture of him together with his mother and my twin brother and me in our living room around 1985. This was probably token from intercepted mail from my father, then already living in the Netherlands, to his parents in Bulgaria. Also pictures of his old typing machine, the pamphlet he’d written that caused him almost three years in prison and reports of his rebellious behavior in it were added.