From Bulgaria to BYU
An Introduction to Stalin
In 1953, a kindergarten teacher stood in front of her class. She ordered the children to get on their knees and to pray. She explained to the children that if there is a God, that God will give them a piece of candy. Six-year-old Julia Kiriakov Caswell (BA ’69, MA ‘71, BA ‘96) knew candy was a rare treat and quickly knelt down with her classmates. Each child hoped that God would answer their prayers.
When the teacher commanded the children to stop praying, they opened their eyes to bare desks.
“[The teacher] said, ‘Either God doesn’t respond to your prayer and doesn’t care, or he doesn’t exist. Here is a huge portrait of our big god Stalin. Now pray to him,’” Caswell recounted. “We prayed to Stalin… and we opened our eyes, there were two pieces of candy on our desks.”
While God did not deliver any candy, Caswell would eventually see God’s hands work miracles much sweeter.
Caswell’s parents had trouble conforming to the Communist Party’s platform and looked for opportunities to leave Bulgaria. Caswell’s father, Kiril P. Kiriakov, found a dental technician job opening in Oran, Algeria. The Algerian government had only recently shifted toward communism and was more relaxed in its approach than Bulgaria. However, Kiril’s path to the new position was blocked by the competition of six older, and more experienced, dental technician colleagues.
The seven dental technicians got together to determine who would take the position. They decided that the best way would be to draw lots. Seven slips of paper were folded and placed in a box for the colleagues to draw from. Only one of the seven slips had the word ‘yes’ written on it.
Kiril drew the ‘yes’ slip from the box. Unsatisfied with the youngest getting the position, the dental technicians pronounced that they would try again. The box circled the room a second time and Kiril drew the ‘yes’ slip for a second time. A third round followed, then a fourth time with new slips, and a fifth time with Kiril blindfolded. The sixth time each technician drew before Kiril and the seventh time Kiril left the room and someone drew for him, but the result never changed. The six other technicians could no longer deny the miracle, or Kiril the job.
Escape to France
In 1963, Kiril and his family moved to Oran to start work. The family enjoyed life and had no desire to return to Bulgaria at the end of Kiril’s contract. Just before the family was to return to Bulgaria in 1965, they decided they would attempt to escape to France.
Kiril traveled to the Bulgarian embassy in Algiers to request the necessary travel documents. The embassy issued a document allowing Kiril to travel, but denied his family permission to leave and forced them to purchase tickets back to Bulgaria. Caswell’s father returned home with his hope of freedom crushed.
“My mom started crying. . . . We were prisoners of our own country,” Caswell said. “I said to my mom, ‘Let me see this piece of paper.’” Undeterred, Caswell carefully added, “Et sa familie,” which translates to, “And his family,” below her father’s name.
The Kiriakovs took the modified travel document to the Algerian government to have it verified. “[An Algerian authority] looks at the piece of paper and she says, ‘Interesting, usually, the Bulgarian embassy gives a To Whom It May Concern to each individual member of the family,’” Caswell recounted. “’I think maybe I need to call the Bulgarian embassy just to make sure.’”
As she picked up the phone to call the embassy, a man burst into the office. A protest had erupted outside and the building needed to be shut down. Gunshots suddenly pierced the air amid the sound of the protesting. The man told the woman to stamp everyone’s documents and close the building. After the close call, the Kiriakovs didn’t want to miss their chance and prepared for their escape.
The family left food on the table and clothes in their rooms to hide their intent to leave. They boarded a ship in Oran and traveled to Marseilles, France, where the realization of their freedom started to set in.
“We started singing out of happiness that we were finally free and we were going through the streets shouting, ‘We’re free! We’re free! We’re finally free!’” said Caswell.
Enter the Missionaries
With new freedom came new opportunities. One opportunity came when two Mormon missionaries, Elder Bendio and Elder Barclay, knocked on the door of the Kiriakov home in Rennes, France. “They told me they were from a church with a long name,” Caswell recounted. “I told them I wasn’t sure that I believed in God… but my mother was a very religious person. [I told them] if they wanted to come in a couple hours... then they could talk with my mom.”
Instead of leaving, the LDS missionaries sat on the front mat and decided to wait. A couple hours later Caswell’s parents returned and invited the missionaries in for dinner. A few months later on a Normandy shore the Kiriakovs were baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Shortly after the family’s baptism one of their worst nightmares came true. “My dad received two threatening letters from the Bulgarian communist leaders, telling him that he would be killed if he, his wife, and his children didn’t go back to Bulgaria,” Caswell recounted.
Off to BYU
The family decided that it was too dangerous for the family to stay in France and wanted to move to the United States. The missionaries recommended that Caswell should look at attending BYU. After being accepted, Caswell moved to Provo, Utah in 1967 to start classes. By 1969 her family had safely joined her and could finally settle without looking over their shoulders in fear.
Caswell took advantage of opportunities that were not available to her before. She helped translate The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and Church documents into “improved” Bulgarian. Caswell also recorded special features in Bulgarian at BYU and sent them to be broadcasted on the Voice of America radio. This eventually led her to a radio announcing career at the Voice of America in Washington, D.C. One of the highlights of Caswell’s life came announcing a free Bulgaria to fellow Bulgarians over the radio after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
She says, “For the first time in my radio career . . . my voice cracked when I announced to my people that they were free. It was very emotional.”