SOFIA, Bulgaria (Apr. 20)
Renee Benjaminov of Terre Haute, Ind., begins each day with a prayer for the well-being of the Bulgarian people who saved her life — and the lives of thousands of other Bulgarian Jewish families during World War II — when she was a teen-ager in Bulgaria.
A member of an Anti-Defamation League delegation that recently visited the Bulgarian capital retold Benjaminov’s story to Bulgarian President Peter Stoyanov to highlight the appreciation felt by Bulgarian-born Jews around the world toward a country that, despite its wartime alliance with Germany, did not allow the Nazis to implement the Final Solution in this Balkan nation.
“So often we come to condemn, to rebuke others who have done wrong,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director. “But we are here to express our deep appreciation to the Bulgarian people for having said `no’ to Hitler’s plans.”
During the current conflict, Bulgaria again has become a refuge, this time for eight Jewish men from Macedonia.
The men, all of them college students, expressed fears that they may become involved in the conflict in neighboring Yugoslavia if the war spills over the Serbian-Macedonian border.
They are being cared for by local Jews near Sofia.
The ADL mission came as the group prepares to release a Bulgarian translation of a book that details how the country’s Jews were saved. It also came as Bulgaria’s Jewish community has dwindled to approximately 4,000 — and as Stoyanov’s government seems prepared to use the Jewish rescue as a salvo in its battle to earn membership in international organizations.
The wartime record of the Bulgarian government is far from perfect.
During the war, Bulgarian Jews were forced to wear Stars of David. Their slave labor was used to construct roads and bridges. Thousands of Jewish families were forced out of their homes in the capital and exiled to the countryside.
Bulgaria did not protect Jews living outside its borders. In 1943, its forces rounded up and deported over 12,000 Jews from Macedonia and the Greek province of Thrace. Fewer than 300 of the deportees survived Treblinka.
But the entire Jewish community of 50,000 living inside the country was spared from Nazi camps due to the firm stand of prominent lawmakers, the leadership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and ordinary citizens.
“If there had only been more individuals and communities throughout Europe who said `no’ to the Nazi plans, who knows how many other Jews like me and like the Bulgarian community would have survived,” said Foxman, who survived the Holocaust as a child in Lithuania.
During the Communist era, the Bulgarian authorities claimed that the combined efforts of Communist guerrillas and the anti-Nazi Resistance were solely responsible for saving the Jews.
Even now, nine years after the fall of Sofia’s pro-Moscow regime, most of the country’s 8.5 million residents do not know the complete story of the rescue. That’s where the ADL is stepping in. The group has funded a Bulgarian translation of the recently published “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews,” written by the Israeli author Michael Bar-Zohar, and it will distribute 30,000 free copies of the translation to the country’s educational institutions.
More than 80 percent of the Bulgarian Jewish community immigrated to Israel in the years following the war, and the postwar story of Bulgarian Jewry is one of a small community struggling to stay alive.
During the Communist era, Bulgarian Jews had it better than others living behind the Iron Curtain. Jewish residents were allowed to maintain contact with family that had moved to Israel — although anti-Semitism did increase after the Six-Day War.
Since the fall of communism, this mostly Sephardic community has enjoyed a mild renaissance.
Sofia’s Great Sephardic Synagogue, built in 1909, is one of the largest shuls in Europe — and last year the community restored the interior of the synagogue’s main hall, which for decades was closed to the public.
A variety of Jewish services are now based in the Beit Ha’am, or People’s House, a five-story community center in Sofia that houses several Jewish organizations. In addition, Jews took advantage seven years ago of a government decree allowing schools to teach in “minority languages” to open a Jewish day school.
The Sofia Dimcho Debelianov Hebrew and English Schools enroll 720 children from first to eighth grade, 400 of them Jewish.
“One hundred percent of Jewish first-graders in Sofia go to our schools,” says Gergana Bojanova, the school’s principal.
Much of the welfare and educational activities here are underwritten by such donors as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Lauder Foundation.
Yet despite the renaissance, few Jews here believe the community has a long- term future. Since an economic crisis broke out in early 1997, almost 900 Bulgarian Jews have made aliyah, mostly for economic reasons.
Ori Konforti, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Sofia office, predicts that in 1999 between 300 and 400 Bulgarian Jews will come to Israel.
Despite a recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents, including one in the western Bulgarian town where the first effort to rescue the Bulgarian Jewish population was made in 1943, Jews say the climate is generally tolerant, if only because the Jewish heritage of some in politically powerful positions is generally unknown, say Jewish activists.
“This government is not very successful in coping with economic problems. If these politicians’ Jewish ancestry becomes widely known, this will lead to a growth of anti-Jewish sentiment,” said one Jewish leader who did not want his name to be published.
Jews are only one of several minorities in Bulgaria. During the Communist era, the state sponsored discrimination against the Turks, the country’s largest ethnic group. While the post-Communist governments have done much to improve relations between ethnic Slavs and Turks, Bulgaria has a long way to go to improve the situation of its half-million Romani, or Gypsies.
With the shock of its 1997 deep economic crisis seemingly only a memory, Bulgaria, with an eye toward joining NATO and the European Union, has committed itself to increased respect for democracy, human rights and tolerance.
ADL leaders, who were invited by Stoyanov to visit the country after they met him in the United States last year, believe the book can help Bulgaria reach that goal. The delegation also urged Bulgaria to introduce diversity training and race-and-religion-sensitive curricula into the country’s classrooms.
As the ADL’s Foxman put it, “Bulgarians must learn of their country’s extraordinary bravery during the Holocaust, as well as the failure of most other countries to exhibit the same behavior. The consequences of remaining silent, of hating one’s neighbor, must be made clear to all.”