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In Bulgaria and Romania, Delegation Talks Policy and Meets Local Jews

February 16, 2005
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American Jewish leaders who held substantive, wide-ranging talks with senior government officials in Bulgaria and Romania this week have been impressed by the revival of Jewish life in those countries. “The political agenda was a priority, and our meetings were very serious,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA by phone from Bucharest.

But it also was important for the delegation of more than 50 people to come face to face with the Jewish communities emerging now, 60 years after the Shoah and 15 years since the fall of communism. The group met hundreds of local Jews and attended a Bar Mitzvah in Sofia.

“There is no way that you can understand what is happening here until you see it,” Hoenlein said.

Officials in both countries expressed a desire for enhanced relations with the United States, Israel and the Jewish world, he said.

The five-day trip came in conjunction with the Conference of Presidents’ annual leadership mission to Israel, which was to begin Wednesday.

A conference statement said the visit provided an opportunity for American Jewry to show appreciation for Bulgarian and Romanian support for the United States and for those countries’ friendly relations with Israel. It also provides an opportunity to help strengthen those ties.

Bulgaria and Romania recently joined NATO and have sent soldiers to Iraq as part of the U.S.-led coalition. Both hope to join the European Union in 2007.

“We chose to come to this area because we hope that the ‘New Old Europe’ will help balance the policies of the ‘Old Europe,’ and that their voices will not be diluted,” Hoenlein said.

In Bucharest, the group was the first large foreign delegation to meet with top officials of the centrist government that came to power in December pledging to implement reforms and make a new democratic beginning in a country plagued by poverty and corruption. Many members of the new Cabinet are Western-educated academics.

At a meeting Tuesday, Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu said he placed great importance on teaching “exact knowledge” of the Holocaust. He praised the work of an international panel of experts that issued a 400-page report in November, which concluded that Romanian authorities were responsible for the deaths of 280,000 to 380,000 Jews and more than 11,000 Roma (Gypsies) during World War II.

Tariceanu also assured the Jewish delegation that he would encourage the implementation of legislation to enable restitution of Jewish communal property.

“When we raised the issue, he responded, ‘I will,’ ” Hoenlein said. “That’s a direct quote.”

In addition to Tariceanu, the group met with other senior Romanian officials who impressed them with their commitment to change.

The deputy speaker of Parliament told them that Romania — which has extensive links with Israel on many levels — would be “among the first” to move its embassy to Jerusalem when conditions permitted, Hoenlein said.

The delegation arrived in Bucharest on Monday evening from Sofia, where they had met with Bulgaria’s president, prime minister, foreign minister and other government officials, as well as the Orthodox patriarch.

Talks centered on issues including Bulgaria’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the war on terrorism, as well as the implementation of an international commitment to combat anti-Semitism approved last year by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe at a time when Bulgaria chaired the organization.

Bulgaria is still “wrestling” with its Holocaust history, Hoenlein said. Actions by World War II-era Bulgarian authorities, including King Boris III — father of Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg — prevented the deportation of 50,000 Bulgarian Jews. But Bulgarian occupiers deported some 14,000 Jews from territory they controlled in Macedonia and Greece.

Hoenlein said the Conference of Presidents pledged to help find a solution to a crisis between Bulgaria and Libya, centering on five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death last year by a Libyan court on charges of intentionally infecting 400 children with the AIDS virus.

“We may not know too much about this case in America, but this is a major issue in Bulgaria, and we came away committed to do what we could,” Hoenlein said.

About 5,000 Jews live in Bulgaria, and as many as 14,000 live in Romania. Jewish life in both places has changed dramatically since the fall of communism.

In both Sofia and Bucharest the delegation had what one participant called “electrifying” encounters with local Jews at synagogue and social events, festive meals and briefing sessions on post-communist communal development. Much of it was funded by U.S. donations through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In Bucharest, the delegation drove straight from the airport to the city’s main Choral Synagogue, which was filled to capacity by hundreds of local Jews. Romania’s chief rabbi, Menachem HaCohen, led a special prayer ceremony that included a Holocaust commemoration. As part of the ceremony, the conference’s chairman, James Tisch, and JDC President Gene Ribakoff carried Torah scrolls through the ornate synagogue and onto the bimah.

“Two nights earlier in Sofia, at the city’s Jewish Community Center, Beit Ha’am, we were swept away by an evening of singing, dancing and performance of Balkan and Sephardic music by local Jews of all ages,” one delegation member said. “The atmosphere was so electric that the whole mission got up and danced with the local Jews.”

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