ROME (May. 3)
In a emotional ceremony at the close of an anti-Semitism conference in Berlin last year, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy presented his German counterpart, Joschka Fischer, with the yellow star his grandfather, a Bulgarian Jew, had been forced to wear during the Holocaust. “My grandfather used to say that the time will come when we and the Germans will be allies again,” Passy told Fischer.
“My grandfather used to say, ‘Then we shall return the yellow star to the Germans.’ I am happy that now I can fulfill the legacy of my grandfather and return the yellow star which he wore,” Passy said.
Almost one year to the day later, Fischer flew to Sofia, where on April 27 he and Passy together opened an exhibition of text and photographs bearing witness to the rich tapestry of the Jewish experience in Bulgaria, a former Communist state that joined NATO last year and hopes to join the European Union in 2007.
The exhibition, “I Remember: Photographs of Jewish Families in Bulgaria,” contains scores of photographs donated by members of Bulgaria’s 5,000-member Jewish community, as well as excerpts from detailed interviews in which they speak about their lives and experiences before, during and after the Shoah.
“These images give us insight into the daily life of the Jewish citizens of Bulgaria between 1880 and 1970,” Fischer said. “Be it portraits, community life, weddings and other family celebrations — we as viewers practically join the people in the pictures.
“Some of the people featured — and their relatives — are here with us tonight,” he said. “Sincere thanks to them for allowing us to look into their lives.”
The exhibition was put together as a collaborative effort between the German Embassy in Sofia, the Bulgarian Jewish community and Centropa, a Vienna-based research institute that maintains an expanding online database of family photos and interviews from all over Central and Eastern Europe. Centropa’s Web site now includes 60 interviews with Bulgarian Jews and 1,600 family photographs from Bulgaria.
The idea for the show came from an official at the German Embassy who got on the Centropa Web site after reading about it in a German newspaper. He and a leader of the Bulgarian Photographers Association chose the photos and stories to include in the exhibit, and the embassy suggested to Fischer that he open it while on a two-day official visit to Sofia.
The opening ceremony was a preview of the full exhibit, which will run first in the city of Plovdiv before being shown in Sofia. About one-third of the total exhibition material was displayed — just for the ceremony — in a private room at a downtown hotel, where Passy described some of the photos to Fischer; the two foreign ministers also addressed diplomats, Bulgarian government ministers and members of the Jewish community.
About 30 of the interviewees whose stories and photos formed part of the exhibition attended the opening and were given seats of honor. Before the ceremony, they pulled each other from photo to photo, talking animatedly about their lives and their memories as television cameras hovered around them.
“There is clearly chemistry between Fischer and Passy, and Fischer seemed to relish the visit,” Centropa’s director, Edward Serotta, told JTA from Sofia. “As he spoke, he kept speaking directly to the frail elderly people before him. It was very touching.”
Fischer spoke eloquently about the centuries-old Jewish history in Bulgaria, and about Sephardic culture. He paid tribute to one of his favorite authors, Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti, a Jew from the northern Bulgarian town of Russe who wrote in German.
Canetti’s autobiography, he noted, bore similarities to the intensely personal stories on display in the exhibition. “He writes about houses and gardens, his grandfather’s store, the scrubbing of the house as they prepare for the Sabbath, and numerous family celebrations,” Fischer said.
Fischer also spoke of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and noted that only the resistance by Bulgarian politicians, religious leaders, intellectuals and ordinary people during World War II prevented the last-minute deportation of 50,000 Bulgarian to Nazi death camps.
“The brave Bulgarians who took them in and protected their Jewish fellow countrymen deserve our highest respect, admiration and thanks today,” he said.
“Their moral courage and sense of responsibility impart an obligation to us to this very day,” he said. “They obligate us even now to resolutely counter and fight against xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism everywhere.
“Everywhere, where intolerance and violence is directed against members of minorities or different-minded people, democracy itself is being harmed,” he said. “And that we have to counter, that we must prevent. And the best precaution for that is a Europe that is growing together.”
Fischer said that against the background of the Holocaust and the near-annihilation of European Jewry, “it borders on the miraculous that today in many European counties Jewish life is once more part of everyday experience. In Amsterdam, in Prague and more and more in Berlin. And even here in Sofia. That we are here today to open this exhibition together bears witness to this.”