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American Friends of Bulgaria: Interview with Roy and Anne Freed

April 20, 2008


In this detailed interview, director Christopher Deliso gets a contemporary view on Bulgaria from a unique perspective- Americans Roy and Anne Freed, at 91 years young undoubtedly among the most senior of American lovers of this Balkan country.

Roy and Anne had long and distinguished careers in the legal and psychology/social work fields, respectively. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1940, working thereafter for the Department of Justice and private law firms; then, from 1960 onwards, Roy pioneered the nascent subject of computer law. For her part, Anne graduated from Smith College in 1941 with an M.S.W. in clinical social work. She thereafter worked as a practitioner, supervisor, administrator, teacher, and researcher in this field, and set up a mental health clinic at Family Service of Greater Boston. During the Second World War, Anne worked as a community analyst at the War Relocation Authority in Washington, DC; in addition, she was the specialist on Jewish culture for a refugee camp in Oswego, NY, which took in approximately 1,000 European Jewish refugees from a displaced-persons camp at Bari, Italy.

Despite completing a full and long lifetime of professional service and help to others, the Freeds were not finished: at the age of 71, they ventured to the Balkans to interact with the locals at a time of historic change. At an age when most Americans relax to enjoy their golden years in tranquility, this dynamic couple embarked on even greater challenges. After visiting Bulgaria for the first time in 1987, the Freeds returned two years later as Fulbright scholars. They have kept up their relationship with the country and its people ever since.

Most recently, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the US Department of State, which administers the Fulbright Program, named Roy and Anne Freed as the March 2008 Fulbright Alumni of the Month for their engagement with Bulgaria. Their memoir, Fulbrighters in Retirement: Networking With Bulgarians Keeps Us Engaged, is now available. They are probably among the few nonagenarians to maintain their own official website.

Christopher Deliso: I understand you are descendents of eastern European Jews. When did your ancestors move to America, and which ones?

Roy & Anne Freed: Our mothers came from Lithuania shortly before WWI, when Anne’s father came from Belarus. Roy’s father’s father came from Belarus in 1888, because of the notorious Kishniev pogroms.

CD: Previous to your initial Bulgarian trip, was there anything in your lives to suggest such a future encounter as a possibility? Had you wished to make trips to Bulgaria or other former Soviet states earlier in the Cold War, if so, why didn’t that happen at the time?

R&AF: Before our 1987 Bulgarian trip, we had no idea to visit any of the former Soviet states or their affiliates. Even though we knew our first Bulgarian friend Nevena Geliazkova through Anne’s meeting her at the international school in Geneva in 1937, we never had the desire to visit her until we happened to reestablish contact with her in 1986 and were about to go to Zurich.

CD: How did you happen to choose Bulgaria specifically during Communism for your Fulbright Teaching Fellowships?

R&AF: We chose Bulgaria for our Fulbrights because the person on the Bulgaria desk at the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars mentioned that possibility, out of the blue. By our futile contact with him on behalf of a Bulgarian student taking place during the Cold War, we suspect that it had a dearth of applicants for that country.

CD: Did you wonder if you would be eligible for Fulbrights at age 72?

R&AF: Anne certainly did. But when she inquired about our eligibility, we were told not to worry because there was a 75-year old male Fulbrighter in Taiwan.

CD: How were you received in Bulgaria as Americans during the Cold War?

R&AF: The Bulgarians completely ignored the ostensible Cold War antipathy between our two countries. They received us very warmly, with their traditional gracious hospitality. They welcomed us into their homes. They shared their experiences with us both during and after Communism. They eagerly sought the professional knowledge they thought that we could impart from our respective fields. Even Communist bureaucrats were hospitable.

CD: Was there any controversy with Anne’s discussion of psychology from an American perspective, compared to the Communist-inspired study then still practiced?

R&AF: Anne actually played an important in bringing psychodynamic psychology to Bulgaria. Although psychiatrists in the Soviet Union, during its early period, enthusiastically embraced Freud’s innovative, if not radical, teaching about the major role the unconscious plays through the mind and the usefulness of talking therapy, and actually almost pre-empted Vienna as the center of that learning, Stalin later squelched that and it became anathema there and in the affiliated countries, including Bulgaria.

Nevertheless, through the initiative of the late Dr. George Kamen, a Bulgarian psychiatrist, a very small group of psychiatrists, including Dr. Toma Tomov, and others started to become interested in it through psychodrama, which entails play-acting psychological situations and discussing them in that context. Nevertheless, the general population did not yet have that interest until Anne introduced it.

CD: That’s interesting! What was the reaction when she did?

R&AF: Many students at Sofia University and outside professionals enthusiastically grasped the opportunity to attend her lectures, which were opened to the public. Anne’s lectures unexpectedly planted a basic seed that matured three years later when Dr. Toma Tomov, one of the pioneers at the time and whom she met by chance when he was on a study tour in the USA right after Bulgaria abandoned Communism for a democratic market economy, enlisted her help to found the School of Clinical Social Work at the New Bulgarian University in 1992, with its curriculum based substantially on that of the Smith College School for Social Work, from which Anne graduated and at which she taught.

CD: As for Roy, how was his teaching about American law received then?

R&AF: Roy’s teaching about American law, which, as common law, was conceptually very different from the Bulgarian civil law, was enthusiastically received by both undergraduate students in the law faculty of Sofia University and professionals working in the computer industry. The latter especially were eager to learn about the American legal protection of computer programs. The students took the opportunity to express their cynicism about ostensibly positive Bulgarian laws. For example, one stated that, in Bulgaria, they adopted “dead” laws, meaning apparently socially positive ones that were not enforced.

CD: In Anne’s opinion, how is the issue of gender equality in Bulgaria progressing? Has she witnessed or experienced specific changes in the fortunes of Bulgarian women in society, and to what does she attribute them?

R&AF: Even though Bulgaria is a traditional patriarchal society, at least during Communism women achieved considerable equality, at least to do hard work. Children were raised by their grandparents, a practice which continues to date, to free up their mothers to work outside the home. Many women became professionals in what in the West had been considered men’s fields, especially in engineering. While more progress can be made, Bulgaria has achieved an impressive level.

CD: Have you ever had any dangerous experiences in Bulgaria? If so, what happened?

R&AF: We did feel as if we had a dangerous experience in Bulgaria. During our Fulbrights, we were fortunate to befriend a group of social scientists in a think tank supporting the Central Committee of the Communist Party. On a few occasions, they arranged for us to be driven by Party chauffeurs in the traditional official black Volga automobiles. We felt as if those drivers operated their cars like kamakazi pilots of the Japanese air force, as they sped heedlessly on the streets of Sofia.

CD: You witnessed a period of incredible and very rapid change in Bulgaria. What surprised you most about it? Was there ever a time when you felt that perhaps the country would not have a solid future, or that it was in danger of collapse?
R&AF: We were surprised by the lack of advance notice that the Communist Party would cease to control Bulgaria and the speed with which it occurred. We did not get a clue from our friends in the official think-tank.

While we didn’t anticipate that the country would collapse, it was obvious that it was not functioning efficiently during Communism because the people lacked the necessary incentives. As we look back, it collapsed out of inefficiency. Goods were of poor quality and services were bad. Waiters were probably the worst in the world. However, the performing arts were thriving, especially the theatre and music. As the economic reforms occurred, we often feared for the people because the efforts were weak and the people were rightfully impatient for rapid real progress. It was amazing how, promptly after the changes, the waiters reformed and performed at truly fine standards.

CD: In your memoir you state that you were able to serve as €šÃ„òcitizen diplomats’s during the Cold War, to bring together Bulgarians working with the Politburo and the American ambassador. How were you able to accomplish that, and what came of it?

R&AF: We were fortunate to become citizen diplomats entirely by chance. Avram Agov, a young student whom we had met as the roommate of Zlatko Enev, another young student who introduced himself to us during our social first visit to Bulgaria, happened to cause members of the think-tank of the Central Committee to want to meet us on the possibility that we might be able to help them start to make contact with American scholars. During the late stage of Communism, they got the desire for that interaction. He told them that he knew us when he applied to work with them with respect to North Korea. We had no idea how we might help them but we agreed to try.

All we could think of was our knowing the American ambassador. But, because we were able to introduce them to the receptive American ambassador only very shortly before the political and economic changes, nothing materializeddirectly. There was no need to. Nevertheless, right after the changes, the Ambassador enabled one of them, a friend of ours, to lead a tour to the US. When in Boston, he visited us unexpectedly and introduced us to Dr. Toma Tomov.

CD: You have said that €šÃ„òrepeated coincidences’s were frequently involved in your Bulgaria experiences. How do you explain them?

R&AF: Practically all of our countless Bulgarian experiences arose as coincidences, starting with the finding of Nevena Geliazkova, Anne’s friend from the Geneva school, in 1985 by two fellow students at the Geneva school in 1937, after losing her through Communism and our McCarthyism. In 1985, those two fellow students happened to find an old issue of Life Magazine containing a letter from her to the editor and got her address that way.

They arranged for her to meet them at the Sofia railroad station on their way back to the US from Saudi Arabia, where she gave them an unaddressed letter to Anne, which they sent to us the next year. That led to our first visit to Bulgaria.

During that visit, we met Zlatko Enev when we were arbitrarily barred from the national library. That led to our unexpectedly getting Fulbrights, which led to the start of our networking with Bulgarians. Anne’s teaching prison social workers in 1991 through the invitation of Dr. Tomov, whom we met by chance in Boston during his study visit after the changes in Bulgaria, led to the establishment of School of Clinical Social Work and our meeting Dr. Galina Markova, who attended it and became its outstanding director, and ad infinitum. We account for the coincidences only by our being active and exposing ourselves to their chance happening and then disposed to take advantage of them. We do that because we are open to meeting new people and looking for opportunities to help them.

CD: How would you rate the value of your Fulbright activities in comparison with other international activities sponsored by the American government? Can you give us some examples of your actions?

R&AF: If our Fulbright activities were more socially beneficial than many other international activities, as we think that they were, that probably was because we were mature; had professional skills, especially social work; and enjoyed meeting people to help them and establish close continuing relationships with them.

CD: Of the many Americans who have studied, done research or taught in Bulgaria, have you met any who you would single out as having done a particularly good job of being ‘cultural ambassadors,’ if so in what respect?

R&AF: We do know a number of Americans who have been very effective “cultural ambassadors.” They include the late Nancy Cook, a clinical social worker from San Francisco, who secured a Fulbright and set up a trauma center in Sofia as a placement site for students at the new School of Clinical Social Work; Prof. Joan Berzoff of Smith College School for Social Work, who taught at the School for Clinical Social Work on a number of occasions; Dr. William Deveney of Boston, who secured a number of Fulbrights to consult in Bulgaria on social work practice and taught at the School there; Prof. Jean Anastas of the N.Y.U. School of Social Work, who taught at the School there; former Ambassador Sol Polansky, who has served on the boards of trustees of both the American University in Bulgaria in Blagoevgrad and the American College in Simeonovo in Sofia; and Kay Lamer of Boston, a clinical social worker whom we inspired to go there to teach a number of times at the School.

CD: Your activities reflect constant effort to help people. What moves you
to do that?

R&AF: For all our lives, we have been motivated to foster a decent and concerned society. Specifically, both us feel that helping people is the most rewarding experience one can have. We enjoy the success of socially positive activities in which we participate.

CD: How have your Bulgarian activities affected your own lives? Did they change any of your basic beliefs or assumptions about the world, or merely provide enhanced details?

R&AF: Our Bulgarian activities have enriched our lives immeasurably during our long retirement, at a time when many of our contemporaries merely coast. In general, they have enhanced our knowledge of history, culture, psychology, and the like in many respects, confirming our basic beliefs and assumptions, but adding the important dimension in Bulgaria that people as a group can be basically civil. We observed that in the traditional Bulgarian acceptance of ethnic and religious differences in their genuinely multi-ethnic society, as exemplifed by their freedom from significant anti-Semitism, specifically manifested by their saving their entire 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from deportation to Treblinka against the goal of their Nazi ally during WWII.

CD: How do you think your activities have affected the lives of Bulgarians?

R&AF: While we know from experience countless miscellaneous ways our activities have affected positively the lives of Bulgarians, we especially are proud of them for fostering modern social work there that helps families and children in a variety of ways. Specifically, we helped our friends make their incipient travel business relatively successful economically for both themselves and the people they hired. We helped a number of Bulgarians change their careers by acquainting them with their scopes. We assembled and transported a large library of English-language social work books for the School.

CD: Bulgarians sometimes seem to be a withdrawn, even depressed people. Do you agree? If so, is this a matter of nature, or specific economic/political/whatever local factors?

R&AF: We have observed that many Bulgarians in Bulgaria have an apparent inferiority complex and some of them overcompensate by acting superior, especially those in the Sobranie [Parliament] and the government! Many also are afflicted by envy or jealousy in that they don’t want what others have but don’t others to have more than they do. That could be part of their deep egalitarian streak that moved them to favor the humanitarian aspects of Marxism. We have no idea about the source of those emotions.

CD: Since your time in Bulgaria, how have you been able to continue your cooperation from America?

R&AF: We conducted our activities with Bulgarians in Bulgaria by making fourteen trips between 1987 and 2002. Now, we continue our Bulgarian activities through the Internet, with the help of many Bulgarians who have immigrated here, and by encouraging other Americans to go there to teach and consult.

CD: I understand that you helped organize a Jewish-themed tour for your Bulgarian travel agent friends. Was there sufficient demand among American Jews to go? And do you think this is a concept that could be successful for tourism providers in other Southeast European countries?

R&AF: From the very beginning of our visits to Bulgaria, we identified it as ideal for tourism for its scenery, history, and culture. When we learned of the unique Bulgarian civility, with their freedom from anti-Semitism and saving of their Jews, we particularly thought that it should attract American Jews. We suggested this to our friends who operate a tour company there and helped them design an itinerary, drawing on our American perspective. While our repeated effort to find an American marketer for such tours was not successful, our friends finally have been able to find one to start to offer those tours. We do not know yet about the interest in those tours. Jewish tours are offered by others to Eastern Europe and Spain.

CD: You have mentioned the gratitude that Jews feel to the Bulgarians for protecting the country’s Jewish minority during World War II. However, at the same time the Bulgarian army deported the Jews under their control in occupied Macedonia and Thrace. Considering the depth of nationalistic feeling in Bulgaria especially with regards to Macedonia, have you had any encounters with any Bulgarians on this topic? If so, what is their perception of the tragic contradictory role? Is this something American Jews are aware of?

R&AF: We are aware of the unfortunate deportation of about 12,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia while under the administration of the Bulgarian Army during WWII. Many people who are aware of it, Jews and others, hold that against the Bulgarians, which we believe that they shouldn’t. That was solely the responsibility of wily young Tsar Boris III, who was walking a tightrope fending off Hitler from occupying Bulgaria. He, at least, was moved to call off the impending deportation of Bulgarian Jews within Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian people and Church leaders were not in a position to stymie the external action as they did in Bulgaria after word leaked out through the secretary of Alexander Belev, the person in charge of the effort. Moreover, the Nazi Army was present when that was carried out. We interviewed a Macedonian former newspaper reporter from Skopje, who witnessed the event and tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the Bulgarian Army general from carrying it out.

CD: What is your assessment of the Bulgarians through the many you have known? And can you say that this is a people that the outsider can easily understand, or does it take much more time and effort to really know them?

R&AF: We continue to have a unique opportunity to know a wide variety of Bulgarians and have a very positive feeling toward practically all of them. They were all Bulgarian Slavs except for one unusually well educated Roma. They are no more difficult to understand than most people. We find those we meet to be predominantly warm and family oriented, which they manifest to outsiders they get to know. They are generous to a fault, highly intelligent, very literate, loyal, humanitarian, and socially responsible. We found it interesting that, despite their forebears being under the Ottoman Empire for 500 years, they reflect the social and intellectual values of the Western Enlightenment.

CD: What current problems do you see confronting the Bulgarians in Bulgaria?

R&AF: A major problem we are aware of is persisting corruption and gang criminality. We hear that education, formerly highly valued, is suffering. Also, the health care system apparently needs substantial improvement. We suspect that the government pension is inadequate and many retirement-aged people are dependent upon remittances from family abroad.

CD: One problem is the zero population growth amongst Bulgarians, and the decline of marriage as an institution, amidst strong competition from an opposing popular culture and a poor economy. Do you see this as a problem that will change in the future, if so, how and when?

R&AF: We see the zero population growth as a great problem, but it is not limited to Bulgaria. We cannot see that people will be eager to have children so long as the economy is weak and lacking in the types of career opportunities many find abroad. We have no idea if and when that will be corrected.

CD: Speaking from the point of view of elder visitors to Bulgaria, are there specific things the country could do to increase the ease of travel and comfort for older guests, in terms of infrastructure or organization?

R&AF: We haven’t been in Bulgaria since 2002 and, hence, are unaware of current conditions. When we were there, conditions were not favorable for frail or disabled people. There were too many stairs and too few elevators of adequate size. We are aware, from a friend in Boston, that serious efforts are underway to improve facilities and service in the tourism sector.

CD: If you were to say any words to American potential travelers young or old, about why they should visit Bulgaria, what would they be?

R&AF: We view Bulgaria still in political and economic transition as a living laboratory for the intellectually curious. It is refreshing to get to know the type of Bulgarians we have been privileged to meet, for their warmth, civility, and intellect. People like us who like to help others well could find countless opportunities. Bulgaria is unusually rich in history, going back to the Thracians as much as 7,000 B.C.E., with succeeding Greek and Roman vestiges. For outdoors people, the countryside is very attractive. There are wonderful opportunities to enjoy classical opera and music.

CD: How do you compare the experiences of Bulgarians in America with those in Bulgaria?

R&AF: We are impressed by how rapidly and well Bulgarian immigrants take advantage of the resources and opportunities in America. The vast majority of them we know do well for themselves and make a significant contribution to our society. This shows that they simply need the appropriate environment to use their innate skills to benefit themselves and the society in which they live.

While many Bulgarians do come into their own here in America, many in Bulgaria, often against great odds, do shine for their accomplishments. We are particularly aware of those in the field of social work. Our friends are contributing to the type of positive social environment they identify as desirable and they deserve.

CD: Now, almost 20 years after your Fulbrights in Bulgaria and sixteen years after the School of Clinical Social Work was started at the New Bulgarian University, how do you see the legacy of your activities there?

R&AF: We are delighted that you asked. We recently received a very positive report from Dr. Galina Markova, the first student at that School at Anne’s suggestion, its impressive director for many years, and the holder of a doctorate from the Smith College School for Social Work.

She just completed her major assignment- to de-institutionalize the notorious Moglino orphanage, which is the subject of a recent and very critical film. This effort has been spurred by the EU to reduce orphanages in Bulgaria and move to foster care for abused and neglected children, most of who were abandoned rather than true orphans. A major challenge was to trace the developmental history of the children, many of whom lost contact with their parents.

Now, she is initiating a bachelor’s degree program at the School to complement its master’s degree program since its establishment in 1992. Also, she inaugurated an entrepreneurial culture at the University to foster a closer relationship between it and the community. Similarly, she has developed a casework approach for an orphanage in Sofia for young children. Finally, she reported that a Roma female student supported by a fund we established there won support for a Roma community program for parents and children.

CD: Roy and Anne Freed, thanks so much for speaking with us today and good luck with your future Bulgarian endeavors.

R&AF: And thank you.

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