Just before the European Day of Remembrance last week for victims of the Nazis and the Stalinists, someone vandalized and spray-painted a Holocaust memorial centered in a Bulgarian coastal town along the Danube. The mayor called the act despicable and sent crews out to clean the Thanksgiving Monument right away.
The Jewish community had erected the Thanksgiving Monument to honor those who in 1943 refused to transport over 45,000 Bulgarian Jews to Nazi concentration camps. Instead, the property of these Bulgarian Jews was confiscated, and they were forced into labor in the countryside, but they survived. The more than 11,400 Jews who were shipped out of Bulgarian territories before 1943 all died.
In my country, we are trying to reconcile the many parts of our history and make sense of our own wars. Historians claiming the American Civil War is primarily about economics make me angry. Of course that war and the Confederacy was about slavery. Careful reading of my own family history shows its fortunes rose and fell with the handful who owned slaves. They ran out of money when they ran out of forced labor. I have to see these ancestors for who they were: slavery is an evil that passes horrors down through generations. Like a lot of people in Kentucky, I descend from people who fought on both sides of the Civil War. These ancestors had one thing in common: they all died.
In a state of historical perplexity, I took my daughters to the re-enactment of the 1862 Battle of Richmond, Kentucky. Marie could get a homework pass from school for attending, and so off we went. Yes, there was the expected Southern Pride paraphernalia for sale, some of it bordering even now on the treasonous, along with both Union and Confederate uniforms complete with hand-carved buttons. One shopkeeper described the event as a cross between a family reunion and a camping trip. We steered clear of the Sons of Confederate Veterans booth and its giant sign, “Protect our Confederate Monuments.” Instead, we sipped root beer brewed on site and got a battle history lesson with a sanctioned guide who led us to the Union camp.
It was hot. Not as hot as the drought-ridden summer of 1862, but hot nonetheless. Marie took off with the other middle schoolers leaving Kaili, our friend Kathy, and I to wander the battlefield. A cannon battalion of African Americans instructed a small white child on mechanics of gun powder. They let him pull the firing rope and commissioned him as an honorary Union cannoneer. His chin jutted out with pride as he was pinned.
We stumbled on a Union tent and met a reenactor playing Belle Boyd, the Confederate spy. True to character, she slipped notes to the children asking them to take messages over to a man in a gray uniform. In real life, Belle got her slave to transport the messages in a hallowed out watch case. She also managed to convince not just one, but two former Union officers to marry her. Some called her the Siren of the Shenandoah and others the Cleopatra of Secession. Once, Belle found the remains of bullets shot through her hoopskirt after making a mad dash across enemy lines. The eight layers of clothing served a purpose, even on a hot day.
We left the tent when it was time for the battle reenactment to begin. Lines of soldiers in blue and gray shot blanks at each other. Cannons boomed. Calvary officers charged on horseback and clashed with sabers. For 30 minutes, infantrymen (and some women dressed as men) pushed their way back and forth across the field in front of us.
Kaili looked utterly bewildered and said, “This is what the Civil War was like: two sides standing across a field and shooting at each other?” I replied, “I told you everybody died.” And on cue, one soldier and then another fell. Well, not everybody, but a few. The rest engaged in hand-to-hand combat, then the Union surrendered. The Confederacy actually won the Battle of Richmond. Nobody made a big deal of that, though. The announcer had all the soldiers take a bow, then wept for all the boys who did not make it home. They all died for something they believed in, he said.
Kathy, the girls, and I started walking to our car. “Well, we can mark that off our bucket list,” Kathy said. Then we walked faster, shaking the gunpowder from our hair. The whole thing was just … surreal.
All the way home I tried to figure out how I was going to explain this to the Bulgarians, how we as Americans are still reenacting battles and fighting about monuments. Some are still fighting the Civil War. Then, I wondered: Do Bulgarians have reenactments, too? It turns out they do. I have found an unexpected commonality between Kentucky and Bulgaria, and it, too, is surreal.