Seeking Her Roots, an American Makes a Surprising Discovery in Bulgaria

John P. Anderson and granddaughter Gita Ghei. Photo courtesy of Gita Ghei.

We all make that journey sooner or later in life—the journey in search of our roots.

The trip from Saint Paul, Minnesota, to Bulgaria this summer was just such a quest for Gita Ghei. The American visual artist and educator and her two daughters traveled the more than 5,000 miles to Europe’s southeastern corner to find out more about the place where Gita’s maternal grandparents had lived 60 years ago and that her grandfather had meticulously captured on film.

Gita and her companions started out in Sofia and made a large loop around the country. In the space of a week, they visited the Rila Monastery and nearby mountains; Bulgaria’s second city—Plovdiv; the ancient port of Sozopol on the Black Sea coast; and Veliko Tarnovo, the country’s medieval capital. They spent a couple of days touring Sofia and the surrounding area, specifically Vitosha Mountain, as well. Each place holds a special significance for Gita’s family—either because an important event in her grandparents’ lives happened there, or because the couple had loved visiting.

Gita and daughter Arunata in front of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria

“I was inspired to get a car because my grandpa and grandma had traveled so much by car. For seeing the actual landscape, I figured it was the best thing to do. We went to a few smaller places this way,” Gita says.

Gita was close to her grandparents, Eugenie and John Anderson, all her life and cared for them at the end of theirs. A favorite memory of hers from that time is her grandfather’s recollections of life in Bulgaria, where his wife headed the US legation in Sofia from 1962 to 1964. John, who was an artist, had hung up his painter’s smock to be by Eugenie’s side in her important role as US emissary. Moreover, a camera was easier to travel with than canvases, easels, brushes, and paints.

“They supported each other in their own unique paths. Eugenie’s was a very public-facing persona, John was behind the scenes,” Gita says of her grandparents, who passed away in the late 1990s.

John P. Anderson and Eugenie M. Anderson, early 1950s. Gita credits her grandparents’ artistic beginnings with her own decision to pursue art as a career. John studied art at the Yale School of Art, and Eugenie was trained as a concert pianist at Julliard. Eugenie became active politically in the 1930s in response to the rise of totalitarian regimes worldwide and the tumult of politics back home. Photo courtesy of Gita Ghei.

In both thought and action, her grandparents were way ahead of their time, with John’s staunch support of his wife’s career in politics being particularly moving. “Most men in his time would never allow or support their wives in this way. He was a creative, open-minded, and big-hearted person to the very end,” Gita says.

Bulgaria wasn’t Eugenie’s first diplomatic posting, but it was historic in several ways. It marked the first time a woman held the post of US ambassador to an Eastern Bloc country.

Eugenie was also the first woman ever to be appointed a United States ambassador: President Harry S. Truman had named her US ambassador to Denmark thirteen years earlier, in 1949.

Eugenie M. Anderson (middle) and friends at a Ninth of September parade in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1963. On September 9 every year, the communist regime celebrated the 1944 Bulgarian coup d’état that overthrew the government of the Kingdom of Bulgaria and established a dictatorship, which lasted until 1989. Photo by John P. Anderson.


Ninth of September parade in Sofia, Bulgaria. 1963. Photo by John P. Anderson.

The Bulgaria appointment also made family history: it cemented the Anderson family tradition of chronicling, in photographs and meticulous diary entries, the couple’s travels around the world.

Eugenie, somewhere near the village of Krupnik, in southwestern Bulgaria. Photo by John P. Anderson.

Although John left behind around 450 rolls of film, or nearly 14,000 photographs, the Bulgaria set is particularly special to the family. Numbering more than 100 rolls, or about 3,000 photos, it is the largest archive of photographs from a single place that John took abroad. Although the Bulgarian communist regime did not make the couple’s lives easy, the two made some genuine friendships in Bulgaria, several lasting a lifetime.

Last but not least, Bulgaria reminded the Andersons of the Minnesota landscape they had made their home and where they raised their two children. Gita is the youngest child of John and Eugenie’s daughter, Johanna Ghei.

One of the Andersons’ favorite pastimes in 1960s Bulgaria was picnicking with friends and the legation’s staff in Vitosha Mountain. Photo by John P. Anderson.

Eugenie’s posting to Bulgaria coincided with a watershed Cold War moment—the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to nuclear conflict. Then in 1963, the Bulgarian authorities were angered when ordinary Bulgarians left condolence notes and objects in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Later in the year, the regime organized a rock-throwing demonstration against the US legation.

The broken windows of the US legation in Sofia, 1963. Photo by John P. Anderson.

Gita, who is an art conservator and studied ancient history and archeology in college, thinks it is important to preserve the memory of a bygone era and the people who infused it with meaning.

“Preservation is something that I care about. I love the idea of preserving history. Our culture is so focused on the future and what’s new and what’s next. That’s wonderful, but it only goes so far, [it] only goes in one direction. There is so much joy in the study of the past. I like to take time to focus on that,” Gita says.

Gita in front of the Ministry of Tourism in Sofia. Her grandmother’s office in the 1960s was nearby. “When I stood at the doorway to Eugenie’s original office, that gave me shivers! I felt that when I saw that doorway and thought of how hard she worked, and how important it was for her to connect to people, it made my entire trip worthwhile,” Gita says.
Kindergartners in Bansko, early 1960s. Photo by John P. Anderson.


Rila Monastery, early 1960s. Gita and her daughters made the trip to Rila Monastery in the summer of 2023 because the place had been a favorite spot to visit for her grandparents and to photograph for John. Photo by John P. Anderson.


Fall in Borovets, early 1960s. Photo by John P. Anderson.

Although Gita and her companions covered a lot of ground during their summer 2023 trip, Gita plans to come back to retrace more of her grandparents’ steps. She also hopes to publish a photo book of John and Eugenie’s Bulgaria years.

Gita has also been working on setting up a digital catalog making her grandfather’s photography accessible for posterity. John captured not only incredible vignettes of ordinary people’s lives in 1960s Bulgaria but also several historic moments in both Bulgarian-American and East-West relations.

“No one was traveling around with cameras in those days. It’s a pretty unique degree of history that’s shown in the photos,” Gita says.

Women shucking corn near the village of Gorna Studena, in Svishtov Municipality. “The connection with the rural was something special for them,” Gita says of her grandparents. Photo by John P. Anderson.


Workers cleaning a central Sofia junction, near Eagles Bridge, after a particularly heavy snowfall. Photo by John P. Anderson, early 1960s.
En route to school in Lovech, early 1960s. Photo by John P. Anderson.

Gita hopes to be able to find some of the photo subjects’ relatives, particularly family members of the US legation’s Bulgarian staff, who were close to her grandparents and are featured in many of John’s photos.

Ambassador Anderson with her Bulgarian-language teacher and the teacher’s son. Photo by John P. Anderson.
Members of the US ambassador’s residence staff, early 1960s. Photo by John P. Anderson.


Gita has not been successful in tracking down family members of the US legation’s Bulgarian staff yet, but life did surprise her with an unexpected connection: an America for Bulgaria Foundation staff member and the author of this article identified her aunt! John had snapped a few shots of the then-three-year-old en route to Lovech, a district town in northern Bulgaria.


John and Eugenie at their fiftieth wedding anniversary, 1979


Gita doing conservation on a statue of Floyd B. Olson, Minnesota’s “greatest governor”

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