Nevenka Leonid Kiriakov
The journey to freedom.
War came to Sofia, Bulgaria in 1943 with the Allied bombings of the capital and other industrial centres. When Nevenka’s neighbours told her family that Radio London had announced a bombing of the city that night, they didn’t believe them. At 22:30, the sirens rang. As their family rushed to the shelter, Nevenka remembered the sky was “filled with lights like chandeliers which illuminated the city entirely. The sight was beautiful and at the same time frightening.”
After a restless night filled with prayers, Nevenka’s family was evacuated, boarding a crowded train to Northeastern Bulgaria. They arrived safely in Novosel, a beautiful small village, where there was peace, an abundance of food and where it “never felt [as if] it was wartime”.
Nevenka was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1926, where her family lived in a one-story, two-bedroom, dirt floor house. She was the fourth child in her family and was consigned to share a bed with her paternal grandmother. Like the other homes in the area, her bathroom was an outside hole. But in 1935, her father had saved enough money to run electricity and water to the home.
Communism came to Bulgaria in 1947 and drastically changed many aspects of society. While they had not suffered from the food shortages during the war, the advent of communism brought massive limitations on food and supplies, including vegetables, fruits and medicines. Long food lines and intense restrictions became the norm. Freedom of speech did not exist and Nevenka’s family was very careful in what they said and to whom. Despite the propaganda promoted by the communist regime, many members of the older generation continued to believe in God, if only privately.
After finishing school, Nevenka worked as a nursery school teacher and was sent to a small village near Sofia to teach. She loved working with children and enjoyed her job. In May of 1946, Nevenka married Kiril Kiriakov, who worked at a dental laboratory. Their first child, Julia, was born the next year. Peter was the second child to join their family in 1950.
When Julia was chosen from thousands of applicants for a prestigious English Language school, she asked Nevenka to start studying English words with her. Nevenka responded with confusion, “Why should I study them, do you think that one day I can go to England or America?’
Julia responded, “Mother, you don’t know what could happen?” Nevenka laughed.
Many years later, the country of Algeria asked Bulgaria for assistance after gaining its independence from France in 1962. Bulgaria responded by sending thousands of specialists, including dental technicians. It was announced that one of the seven technicians at Kiril's dental laboratory would be able to go to Algeria. Kiril knew the possibility of his being chosen was very slim and asked Nevenka what he could do to gain the desired position. She responded by telling him to pray. To cry fervently to God, and if it were God’s will, he would go.
The technicians decided they would choose who would go by drawing pieces of paper out of a hat, six had the word “No” written on them, and one had “Yes”. When Kiril, the least experienced technician, drew the “Yes” paper, the others requested a redraw. Again he drew the “Yes”. He redrew again until his colleagues accepted the miracle and wished him well on his foreign posting.
When they landed in Algeria, Nevenka felt she was in paradise. ‘“The sky was blue silk and there was not a cloud.” Bulgarian officials organised adult classes for French language learning. The children went to French schools. They became confident in their new language as a family.
With the end of Kiril’s two-year contract, they requested an extension but were denied. Instead, they decided to ask permission as a family to visit France. To do so they needed to apply to the Bulgarian embassy. They sold all their belongings in the hopes that they could escape communism and be able to move to France. The limited freedom they had experienced in Algeria under French rule was like paradise.
When they asked the Bulgarian embassy for permission to visit France, the family was denied but Kiril and their son, Peter, were granted permission. While Kiril and Nevenka were discussing what they could do, Julia, who was always very curious, was listening to their conversation. She knocked on the door and proposed that she forge the document. “We can just add ‘and family’ in French. It is written in purple ink and I know how to mix ink and make this colour. If I practice enough, I can replicate the handwriting exactly.”
The forgery worked perfectly and the family was able to travel to France, receive political asylum and begin a new life. One where they could learn different histories and ideas and pray as they liked.
After landing in Marseille, they wanted to get as far away from the Bulgarian Embassy as possible. They bought a map of France and chose the town of Rennes. The family applied for and was granted political asylum. Kiril was able to find a job in a dental lab but life in France was much more expensive than they had expected. Nevenka searched for a job but there were not a lot of options in the small city of Rennes. She finally found work in the alternations department of a department store.
About a year after settling in France, two missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to their home. Julia answered the door and wondered why they looked like they were dressed for a wedding. She told them she went to a different church and they asked her if she wanted to learn more and that they could come back the next day when her parents were home.
Nevenka grew up in the Orthodox Catholic Church. When she had asked her mother about the personality of God, she responded, “Please, let’s not talk about the Lord. He is a Holy Man, and we are not supposed to know much about Him.’”This did not satisfy Nevenka.
When the missionaries returned, Nevenka gladly invited them in, excited to speak to Americans. They taught about the restoration of the gospel and as soon as she heard it, Nevenka felt it was true. It answered some of her deepest questions, ‘“here did we come from?”Why are we here on earth?” and “Where are we going after this life?’” The missionaries invited them to go to church and as soon as Nevenka walked in, she felt the Spirit testify this was the true church of Christ.
Nevenka and Kiril would go on to immigrate to the United States following their daughter, Julia. The English came in handy, after all. Julia would become responsible for translating the Book of Mormon and other church materials into Bulgarian. She also received a unique honour when she, on 10th November 1989, was called to announce the fall of the Berlin Wall over the radio to Bulgaria. Several years later, Nevenka and Kiril would return to Bulgaria to serve as mission presidents.
To read a story from the life of Julia, see here [add hyperlink to Julia’s story].
Research: Sarah Smart
Writing: Sarah Smart
Editing: Amy Epps & Louise Paulsen
Photos courtesy of Michelle Caswell Forstrom
Caswell, Julia, Nevenka Kiriakov, and Michelle Forstrom interview: Lindon, Utah, 2019 June 28. https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=5bebe0d7-ca49-420d-9241-eee589d4d752&crate=0&index=0
Kiriakov, Nevena. “My Life Story”, December 2003. https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/memories/LFGD-6TN.
Mehr, Kahlile. Mormon Missionaries Enter Eastern Europe, (Provo: 2002, digital edition) pp. 340-344.