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Around the Jewish World: Aging, Poor Jews in Bulgaria Struggle for Daily Subsistence

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Mordo Ishak Almoznino has survived three wars and four decades of communism.

Now, the 90-year old Bulgarian Jew is enduring an economic crisis that is hurtling his country toward chaos.

Inflation, which soared to 311 percent last year, is climbing at a clip of nearly 1 percent per day.

Average salaries have plummeted to $25 per month, while retirees receive paltry monthly pensions ranging from $8 to $12. That is equal to mere 30 loaves of bread — or eight Big Macs at the McDonald’s here in the country’s capital.

The deteriorating situation has caused scores of the elderly to resort to scavenging through trash bins for food.

Almoznino might have been among them, if not for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The JDC, working with Shalom, the organization of Jews in Bulgaria, has responded to the nation’s worsening economic crisis by contributing about $20 per month for food and heating for some 1,400 elderly Jews.

“I would die without it,” said Almoznino, a longtime bookkeeper whose great- grandfather was Bulgaria’s first chief rabbi. “Man’s greatest enemies are the cold and hunger.”

While Almoznino and others tough it out and vent their frustrations — tens of thousands continued for a third week demonstrating against the socialist government — a growing portion of younger Bulgarian Jews are jumping ship.

Their lifeboat: Israel.

Bulgaria reportedly has the highest rate of Jewish emigration in the world. Roughly 1,000 Bulgarian Jews — of a community previously estimated at only 7,000 — have left for Israel since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.

And the pace has picked up since July, mirroring the country’s rapid economic decline.

Some 20 to 35 Bulgarian Jews depart each month, with a total of 300 to 400 predicted to make aliyah this year, said Ori Konforti, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel office in Sofia.

In Great Britain, by comparison, about 500 of its 500,000-strong community emigrate to Israel annually, said Konforti.

“It used to be that the Bulgarian Jews left for work opportunities or Zionism,” he said. “But now it’s purely for economic reasons.”

He added that he had rejected non-Jewish applicants who have claimed Jewish roots in order to make Israel the answer to their economic woes — a situation reminiscent of the behavior of some non-Jews in the former Soviet Union.

Unlike elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe, there is little anti-Semitism here.

This Balkan nation, where Jews trace their roots back to the 2nd century, has been relatively good to the mostly Sephardi community.

Although Bulgaria was allied with the Nazis and imposed several anti-Jewish laws during the war, it ultimately protected its 50,000 Jews from the Holocaust.

Bulgarian forces outside the country were another story, however.

Bulgarian gendarmes, operating in territory newly recovered from Macedonia and Greece, rounded up and deported more than 11,000 Jews to Polish extermination camps.

When the Communists took power in 1948, the Bulgarian government allowed nearly 45,000 Jews to emigrate to Israel over a two-year period.

The remaining Bulgarian Jews, like other citizens, saw their private and communal property nationalized — roughly half has since been returned — and were discouraged by the Communist regime from practicing religion.

Sofia’s main synagogue stayed open, however, and the Jewish newspaper continued publication, albeit under state control.

Today, somewhat of a revival of the Jewish community is under way, despite the dwindling population.

Thanks to such donors as the JDC, the London-based World Jewish Relief and the Jewish Community of Salonika, Greece, Bulgarian Jews operate their own elementary school, Sunday school and camp.

They also have restored Sofia’s 88-year old Sephardi synagogue.

Last year, in addition to its efforts on behalf of the country’s 6,000 remaining Jews, the JDC attempted to help the general population of 8.4 million Bulgarians, donating nearly $300,000 worth of medicine, baby formula and powdered milk to old-age homes and orphanages.

Aside from helping bulgaria’s cash-strapped government, the JDC’s aid to the general population is also an investment of sorts.

History has shown that where there is economic despair, Jews are traditionally fingered for blame, said Becca Lazarova, vice president of the organization of Jews in Bulgaria.

“If help only comes for Bulgarian Jews, and it becomes publicly known to other Bulgarians, there could be a wave of anti-Semitism,” Lazarova said.

Indeed, there are already several causes for concern.

Within the political opposition, there is a small right-wing faction that declares itself to be the ideological heir to the fascist, World War II-era Bulgarian Legionnaires.

And a recent article in a labor union newspaper claimed that Israeli scientists had hatched HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to decimate the globe’s population so Jews could one day rule the world.

Fortunately, note Jewish community leaders, Jews are practically invisible in Bulgaria’s economic and political life.

On the other hand, they have a presence in science, academia and the arts. Isak Passi, a Jewish philosopher, has been nominated for a 1997 Nobel Prize.

But with the economic tailspin only getting worse, Jewish leaders also expect the “brain drain” and graying of its population to continue.

Eighty-five percent of those making aliyah are highly educated Jews between the ages of 17 and 45, Konforti said.

Some Bulgarian Jews ignore the bleak forecasts.

Martin Cohen, 25, made aliyah to Israel six years ago. But when he returned to Bulgaria in 1994, his thinking underwent a change.

“In Israel, there is no need to preserve your Jewishness because there are Jews all around you. Here, we need to save our identity,” said Cohen, who recently translated the Sabbath prayer book into Bulgarian and serves as coordinator for the country’s B’nai B’rith youth organization.

“So whereas in Israel I was an Israeli, in Bulgaria I became a Jew.”

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