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Neither Todor Zhivkov, nor Tsar Boris III is the saviour of Bulgarian Jews

20 November 2014 / 14:11:31  GRReporter
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Polina Spartyanova
     Zelma Almaleh is a Bulgarian journalist and screenwriter; she worked at the Bulgarian National Television, the International Organization for Migration, and BGNES agency. Together with her husband, journalist and filmmaker Stefan Dzhambazov, they are the creators of website for art and culture www.въпреки.com (въпреки (vapreki) means despite in English) that makes analysis, tells about people who are engaged in art and culture "despite" the situation in Bulgaria and have an active position regarding what is happening in our society. The family of Zelma Almaleh’s father is one of the many families that were affected by the Law on Protection of the Nation during World War II. Being Jews, they lost their property, they were deported from the city of Stara Zagora, and her father found himself in one of the labour camps for Jews. Her grandmother Zelma, whose name she bears, could not live through all this and died in the summer of 1942.
    What is the situation of the Jewish minority today in Bulgaria and in the Balkans in general?
    The Jewish minority in Bulgaria has always been very integrated and in this respect, they have their own organization, "Shalom." As a community and upbringing, they have always put emphasis on education, healthcare, culture and art, being people of principles and conscientious citizens of Bulgaria. They have close ties with Israel and international Jewish organizations. They have exceptional social programmes, which unfortunately do not exist in Bulgaria and which are of the type developed in Israel with a particular concern for the elderly and children.
     I have always felt Jewish and I am really part of this society, although I am not so actively involved in what happens every day. Often I write mainly on issues of culture and art in the community newspaper "Jewish News", which is one of the oldest newspapers preserved to the present day.
    What are your observations about the attitude of Bulgarians to ethnic Jews today?
    Things are contradictory. Firstly, Bulgarian Jews are very integrated into society. The majority of them are occupying good professional positions. There is even a Jewish school, which is at a very high level as an educational system and many Bulgarian families are interested in having their children there, but they can attend it only after a competition, as is the case of all elite schools in Bulgaria. However, I have observed some new manifestations of anti-Semitism in recent years, and not only in Bulgaria but in the whole of Europe. One of the things that can be immediately seen is the various comments on forums. It has been several years since the so-called "Lukov march" named after general Lukov, who was one of the most vocal anti-Semites, was restored in Bulgaria, for example. It resembles even the events of the 1930s in Germany, with torches with swastikas. Even in the streets of Sofia one can see such young people, in such clothes, with badges of Hitlerjugend and other signs typical of Nazism in Germany, who have no idea what it is.
     There has been a very serious attempt in recent years, within the context of the major discussion on the salvation of Bulgarian Jews, to exculpate Bulgaria from what happened in the years of the Holocaust. Yes, over 48,000 people did not go to the death camps but that does not mean that they were not subject to the Law on Protection of the Nation, that they were not deported and deprived of their property; that they were not in the labour camps and that they did not experience humiliation and suffering. The attempt to exculpate the Bulgarian state and blur the facts is not good. It is believed that talking about these events is part of some anti-Bulgarian propaganda. The truth is that these 48,000 people were really saved but the worst thing is that this matter is always politicized. Before 10 November, Todor Zhivkov had saved them and after that date Boris III, Tsar of Bulgaria, but this is not true.

     In your opinion, who contributed then most towards the saving of Bulgarian Jews during World War II?
     In terms of institutions, this was the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in the first place, with the overall behaviour of former Exarch Stefan and Metropolitan Kirill of Plovdiv at the time, who later became Patriarch. The policy of the Bulgarian church was very consistent unlike now when it is dealing only with its own matters. My father, who studied at the French College in Plovdiv, was in the schoolyard, where all the Jews in the city had gathered to get on the trains that would take them to the German Nazi death camps. Then Metropolitan Kirill came and said, "I will not let anyone go, I will go with you." Exarch Stefan in turn many times appealed in writing to the Tsar to terminate those operations.
     There is also something associated with Dimitar Peshev. He was Vice-President of the National Assembly at that time, from the ruling party at that, and one of those who had signed the Law on Protection of the Nation. But at some point, when it was clear what would happen, his childhood friend from Kyustendil wrote to inform him of the developments. Then Peshev took a stand against the sending of Bulgarian Jews to Nazi camps. This cost him his post in Parliament but his act created an atmosphere in Bulgaria that prevented the deportation of Jews.

     Ordinary Bulgarian citizens did not allow this either, because Jews were their neighbours, friends, colleagues at that time. I will give an example again with my family, which was deported from Stara Zagora to Lukovit, where they stayed to live with a Bulgarian family, maintaining good relations to the end. Not to say that they helped them with money, the keeper of the public house and the grocer in the village gave them things on credit with the absolute knowledge that probably they would not be repaid the money. This attitude was not demonstrated towards my father's family alone. It was the same in many other cities in Bulgaria, where there were deported Jewish families.
     Therefore, in no case can the credit for the salvation of Bulgarian Jews be attributed to an individual, because many Bulgarian citizens contributed towards it. Another example is the signing of the first list of people from cities with larger Jewish communities, who had to be sent to the camps, by representative of Nazi Germany in Bulgaria Beckerle and Commissioner for Jewish Affairs Belev. My grandfather was on the list and he told me that many of the railwaymen had warned the people to take measures, because they had been ordered to put aside wagons to transport them. However, thanks to the demonstrations of the years 1942-43 these schemes were cancelled at the last minute.

     Why didn’t Jews from Thrace and Macedonia enjoy the same fate, although they were administered by Bulgaria at that time?
    There is hardly a precise answer to this question. One version is that Germany helped Bulgaria have Southern Dobrudzha returned and these people were somehow traded in exchange for this. The study by Ass. Prof. Rumen Avramov "Salvation and Fall" and the subsequent two-volume publication on the basis of documents "Deportation of Jews from Vardar Macedonia, Thrace and Pirot; Documents from the Bulgarian Archives" compiled by him and Prof. Nadia Danova describe things in great detail by documents. The documents indicate that at that time there was an arrangement with the Ministry of Transport, namely that the Bulgarian State Railways (BDZ) should transport Jews from those areas to the Treblinka camp against payment for the "service".
     Does Bulgarian society feel guilty today regarding this case in your opinion?
     The nationalist moment in Bulgaria has unfortunately intensified in recent years, not without the involvement of scientists or public figures, which I perceive as a compensation of our complex and difficult transition. Somehow, we, Bulgarians, are nihilists and this is a kind of artificial attempt to make us feel self-confident but it cannot happen that way. Another thing that can be noticed after the return of Simeon Saxe-Coburg is the desire to create the myth of the good tsar. There were some attempts to create a halo around the royal family and this trend is not over yet.

     Skopje has recently opened a memorial of Jews deported to camps. How does this monument fit in the new controversial centre of the Macedonian capital in your opinion?
     The memorial in memory of those Jews who perished in Nazi camps has nothing to do with the new centre of Skopje, which represents megalomania irrelevant to historical reality. However, after the war, especially after the changes following the collapse of former Yugoslavia, the possessions had been returned to the Jewish minority but these funds had nowhere to go because the people were gone. The few who are still living have decided to build this memorial with these funds, which is why it has nothing to do with the state and the mint of money that the Macedonian government has wasted for these monuments.
     The complex has only one exhibit, in addition to the historical chronicle, which is a restoration of a wagon with the following inscription: "BDZ Bulgaria". Do you think that this complex can be assigned to the anti-Bulgarian propaganda policy in Macedonia?
     Nothing is left of these people because they were transported by these wagons and this remains as a sign. This is the memory of the people and for me this is not an anti-Bulgarian propaganda, these are the facts. It is a different matter that someone else uses it that way. The Bulgarian state does not assume any responsibility for these events. Yes, the fact that nearly 50,000 Jews were saved in the old Bulgarian territories is remarkable, I am part of the first generation that was born after these events, and Bulgaria is my country and I have chosen to live and work here. Along with this, it is impossible not to assume responsibility for the nearly 11,000 Jews, including many children who perished in the death camps, this could have been prevented. What happened in the old Bulgarian territory proves that this was really possible.

     Do you think the Jewish issue has received enough attention on the part of the Bulgarian media after World War II?

     It has found a place during the annual celebration that is attended by representatives of Jewish organizations worldwide. However, I think that there is no significant focus on it from another point of view, namely that it happens at present. I do not mean Jews, you know that, over the past decades, neither wars have stopped nor the destruction of people in Africa, Asia and even here, very close to us, in Srebrenica and this is only because of a different religion or ethnicity. The world does not seem to have drawn a lesson.
     Which topics of this field must be present in the public and media debate in Bulgaria in your opinion?
     I think the issue of the Holocaust should be finally clarified and the awareness of things associated with the fate of the Jews of Vardar Macedonia, Thrace and Pirot should be finally raised. On the other hand, I do not understand how it is possible to sell anti-Semitic and xenophobic books, including Hitler’s "Mein Kampf" in "Slaveykov" square, about which I had asked former Prime Minister Oresharski. Yes, the book should be studied, but there are libraries and universities and this cannot happen in Germany today, for example. Most importantly, the Holocaust must never be repeated because somehow, the speech of hate is intensifying, not only in Bulgaria, and the next step is not very far off. We should not allow it, and we, in the Balkans, have suffered too much pain to let hate be stronger than humanity.

Tags: Salvation of Bulgarian JewsDeportation of Jews from Thrace and Macedoniathe Holocaustthe Holocaust Museum in SkopjeZelma Almaleh
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