PRAGUE, Sept. 28 (JTA) — The Jews of Bulgaria and Romania have something especially sweet to add to their New Year’s festivities: Approval of their countries’ applications for membership in the European Union. The European Jewish Congress welcomed Tuesday’s news. “We have witnessed positive improvements made by both countries in combating anti-Semitism and providing for improved Holocaust education.” EJC President Pierre Besnainou said in a prepared statement. On Jan. 1, 2007, Romania and Bulgaria will become the latest entrants to what will then be a 27-member European Union. The new states will be the furthest east in the European Union, and the poorest by far. The E.U. announcement came with threats of penalties if Romania and Bulgaria do not carry out further economic, legal and administrative reforms — but the many years of legal and economic transition in the two countries clearly have paid off. The push to join the European Union opens up new opportunities for exporters, provides grants for social and infrastructure projects and gives workers and companies the chance to ply their skills across a much larger region. On the downside, E.U. entry can mean price inflation, pressure to compete with an influx of foreign imports and brain drain as young, highly educated workers seek better salaries in the West. For Jews, the process of entering the European Union has meant pressure on the candidate governments to tighten or create legislation to fight xenophobia. “Joining the E.U. is in the best interest of all citizens, including all minorities,” said Erwin Simsensohn, a board member of Fedrom, Romania’s Jewish umbrella organization. “Thanks to E.U. negotiations, Romania created laws that banned racist parties.” Home to about 15,000 Jews, Romania has had some high profile anti-Semitic events in the past two years, such as repeated vandalism of the Jewish Theater in Bucharest. The country also was taken to task for denying the wartime government’s role in the Holocaust and for having no Holocaust education program. An international outcry forced Romania to address both issues intensively, but Simsensohn says joining the European Union can help keep such issues front and center. “There are still important Holocaust deniers in the public sphere,” he said. “There is a law against this, but it’s not properly enforced. This might change with E.U. entry.” Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said via e-mail that he was impressed with the progress Bulgaria and Romania had made in property restitution, anti-Semitism and coming to terms with Holocaust history, but noted that there was room for improvement. “Both countries have close relations with Israel and have been supportive of it in the U.N., where they have also served as members of the Security Council,” Baker said. “I think movement in these positive directions will continue, since I am certain that political leaders are mindful of the fact that” the AJCommittee and other U.S. Jewish groups “have been a supportive voice for their joining NATO and the E.U.” Private restitution issues have been addressed thoroughly in Bulgaria and Romania, though compensation seekers in Romania still face some legislative obstacles. In the area of communal restitution, however, at least seven cases are still pending in Bulgaria, including what is today the Hotel Rila, a property that has become a symbol of government reluctance to return Jewish property. Emil Kahlo, president of Shalom, the largest Jewish organization in Bulgaria, said he’s working closely with a government commission created to deal with communal restitution and expects the issue to be resolved over the next three months. The U.S. government and American Jewish groups have played a much larger role in pushing for the restitution of Jewish communal property in Central and Eastern Europe than has the European Union, he noted. When it comes to anti-Semitism, Bulgaria, home to roughly 7,000 Jews, has had few of the incendiary incidents that have plagued some of its neighbors, such as cemetery desecrations or a mass neo-Nazi movement. A bigger issue for Bulgarians of every faith is the economy. The average monthly wage of $200 is just a fraction of the average E.U. wage, according to Bulgarian media reports. But Kahlo has no worries that educated young Jews will flee westward. “We have negative aliyah — young people who were already in Israel are coming back to Bulgaria because the economic situation is improving,” he said. Simsensohn said young Romanians also no longer are leaving the country in droves, in contrast to five years ago. The Jewish community has “programs every day for the young people during the holiday period, which is a big change,” he said. The average monthly wage in Romania, though still only about $404 — far lower than in Western Europe — has been steadily rising. “Young graduates from university are getting much better jobs than they used to; multinational companies have opened many new offices in Bucharest,” Simsensohn said. Older people in both countries, however, have expressed a fear of rising prices. There’s a slight cushion for elderly Jews — in the case of Holocaust survivors, their payments from the Claims Conference likely will rise starting in 2008 from $167 to $219, but still will be much less than what’s paid in Western Europe, where the cost of living is higher. Still, Otto Adler, president of the Romanian Holocaust Survivors Association, said he was happy about what the European Union could offer his grandchildren. “I feel about this as a Romanian citizen, not as a Jew. For young people, it’s great they will have the chance to travel in a new way,” he said. Work possibilities might still be limited, however, by temporary employment restrictions that older members place on the newcomers. Asked about his own worries, Adler, 77, seemed surprised. “I am only afraid of God, not prices,” he said. “You know Yom Kippur is almost here.”
Dinah Spritzer is JTA's correspondent in Prague. She has been covering the former Eastern European bloc since 1990 and currently serves as the news editor of The Prague Post. The former Europe editor for Travel Weekly, she also contributes to several other publications, including The Independent on Sunday, Conde Nast Traveler and several guidebooks on the Czech Republic.