Premier Khrushchev certainly took a long time getting here! We first had to stand and watch a grand parade of soldiers and sailors in their uniforms, and factory workers wearing Soviet overalls, followed by some clowns and circus acrobats, tumbling over each other and turning cartwheels in the street, while Soviet jet planes roared overhead.
Then some musicians: an army band, then a few violinists from the Bolshoi Ballet, with dancers leaping behind. And then a long line of negroes in bright red bandmaster tunics and shakos, playing accordions and glockenspiels and many banjos. They would play “Oh Dem Golden Slippers” and spin around in the street, just like the Mummers in Philadelphia do, only of course these were actual negroes, not just Pennsylvania Dutch people in blackface.
“Where did they get so many musicians of color?” asked one of my schoolmates.
“They bring them from around world,” Comrade Leader answered. “Give big scholarships to Moscow University so world sees Soviet Union loves people of black skin and fat lips. No race prejudice in Communist lands, unlike fascist Federal Republic of America!”
In Bulgaria, America was always referred to as “fascist Federal Republic.”
Strangely enough, the negro musicians now were playing and singing a religious song. It was about how saints would come marching into Heaven, and the musicians would be playing for them when that happened. The negroes played and sang in single file, breaking into a snake dance that wove this way and that as they paraded up the street.
“They are not atheists,” one of the girls remarked.
“They have different culture,” Comrade Leader replied. “But we Soviet Socialists of Bulgaria welcome this foreign culture of flat noses and kinky hair.”
Premier Khrushchev now arrived on a huge float shaped like the Sputnik satellite, waving to the crowds. What a surprise we had in store for him! We could hardly wait. But it seemed an eternity before he joined us at the entrance of the drill hall. Comrade Principal of the school made a little speech, something like, “Now I know you’re all excited to meet Comrade Khrushchev from our friendly neighbor the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but first we must take him indoors for some delightful refreshments. I’m sure we’re all very hungry!”
“So hungry I could eat horse!” said Khrushchev. “Whole horse pie!” He held out his arms in front of him, in a circle.
We did not have any horse pies to feed him, mainly just borscht and fried sweetmeats wrapped in puffy dumplings. But he did not seem disappointed. I saw him devour at least twenty dumplings in the space of a minute. I hoped there would be enough left for me!
We gave him a tour of the decorations, the banners and pennants, and pictures of tanks, and the Sputnik mobile that hung from the ceiling, made of silver-painted athletic balls and coat-hanger wire. But Comrade Khrushchev was most excited to see our papier-mâché sculpture of his head, there up on the stage of the drill hall. Someone had hung banners from the head to the sides of the stage, saying WELCOME COMRADE K! in Bulgarian.
Mounting the stage, he turned and made a little speech to us. “You do me flatter! This, this is the young Nikita, the tank commander in 1942! Young slim Nikita before he eat so many dumplings!”
“Please to climb inside,” said Comrade Principal, showing him how to enter through the widely grinning mouth.
“Back in Kursk Oblast, we have expression,” said Khrushchev. “We say I want to climb within myself. Do you have that expression?”
“I am not sure,” said Comrade Principal.
“It mean, ‘I am very ashamed. I want to climb within myself.’ Ha ha, and here I am. I am not ashamed!” And so Khrushchev climbed inside the giant papier-mâché head of himself. Comrade Leader sent our class’s head girl to join him and show him the sights. In a minute they were both looking out the eyes of our sculpture.
“I climb within myself!” shouted Khrushchev. “Ha ha! Oh looky here, there is some mysterious writing here!”
I don’t know how he did it, but he tore out my bit of newspaper and brought it out on stage. He squinted and tried to make it out. “It is Eng-lish writing. Who here know Eng-lish?”
“I do, Comrade Premier,” said Comrade Principal, waving. She took the slip and shook her head. “It is nonsense. It is a recipe. How to make holy chrism.”
“Ha ha!” said Khrushchev. “Superstition lives on! It is same back in Kursk Oblast. Old babushkas, they always cross themselves when I come to town!”
But Comrade Principal was not humored. She was angry. “Who in this school writes of such things. Ah, I know. It is little American girl. Where is she?”
“I think she went out,” said Comrade Leader. “I think she went out to the latrine.”
But actually I was hiding behind the wooden bleacher seats at the side of the drill hall.
“You must go find her and bring her to me,” said Khrushchev. “I give her friendly instructions in Scientific Atheism.”
A few girls ran out to fetch me from the latrine. While the door was still open, I dashed out, and ran as fast as I could, across the market square, and down to the cobblestoned street where lay the American Embassy. Policemen looked at me quizzically as I ran past. In a few minutes they’d be coming to get me, if I didn’t make it to the Embassy in time.
At the embassy they showed me to the same fellow I had met the other day. “I knew you’d come back, little girl,” he said. “They always do.”
He called himself Third Secretary and explained there are also a First Secretary and a Second Secretary. However, they were out at a lunch with diplomats from the Soviet Union. “Because Nikita Khrushchev is in town. Maybe you knew that. I expect it will be a very…long lunch.”
I sat down in a hard-backed chair by his desk. “We’ve had word of your parents,” he said. “They’re in a labor camp up by the Arctic Circle. It is very far away. Care for some cheese and crackers?” And he passed a large tray to me. I gobbled down three, for I was even hungrier than Nikita Khrushchev.
“Where are my brother and sister?” I asked.
“In a local orphanage, possibly,” said the Third Secretary. “My, you must be famished. Here, take the whole thing.” And he plopped the tray of cheese and crackers onto my lap.
“I must find my family,” I mumbled, my mouth full. “They are all I have in the world.”
“I wouldn’t recommend that,” the man replied. “You see, this is a Communist country. A few years ago there was this Quaker fellow, a dreamy-eyed do-gooder, who was helping war refugees. And heard that his brother had been arrested and sent to a labor camp in the Soviet Union. So this fellow goes to Prague to make inquiries, and next thing you know, Mister Quaker is put under arrest and taken away to a labor camp. It might have been the same one, I don’t know. Then the man’s wife gets worried, and asks around, and she goes to Prague to find her husband, so she gets arrested and packed off too. Finally their adopted daughter hears of their disappearance, and she’s living in Berlin, and she goes to the Soviet zone to ask what happened to them. And, well, you can see where this is going. Erica, her name was. Up by the Arctic Circle. Near Archangel, I think. Could be the same place they sent your parents!
“No, the best thing for you,” he continued, “is to get on the next airplane out of Sofia. There is one leaving for Vienna tonight. I’ll wire the embassy and have someone meet you.”
“But I want my brother and sister to come with me. How do I find them?”
“I don’t think you do. You see, there are so many orphanages here behind the Iron Curtain. There are thirty-six, thirty-seven in Sofia alone.” He picked up a telephone and spoke into it. “Consuelo! Can we book someone on that Balkan Air flight at seven this evening? It’s a little girl. Not that little, no. Yes, I remember. The twins. What an awful mess. Milk-vomit smell still all over the carpet in the corridor.”
And then he took me over to Consuelo, who sat with two other women in a bank of desks down the hall. Behind them, on the wall, were brightly colored travel posters advertising steamship cruises and airplane flights to Rio de Janiero, Melbourne, Tahiti, and other far-off places. Apparently these were the people who made travel arrangements.
Consuelo spoke to me for a minute or two, something about how to get to the airport and where to put my baggage. I didn’t really hear her. I just wanted to get out of there quickly and investigate all the local orphanages. I said goodbye politely and rushed outside, first pausing at the water fountain for a very large drink of water. Because indeed, I had eaten the entire tray of cheese and crackers.
I remembered seeing an orphanage near the local sports stadium. If my brother and sister weren’t there, then I’d ask for a list of other orphanages. Yes, that’s exactly what I’d do. With any luck, I’d find them in time to get us all to the airport. I had five hours.
I ran past a policeman who gave me a suspicious look. I slowed down to a trot and pulled my hat over my eyes.