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70th anniversary of rescue of bulgarian jews

Eliane Sperling-Levin, ICJW Life Member and representative to the European Women's Lobby, represented ICJW at the solemn commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the rescue of the Jews of Bulgaria in the dark days of 1943. 
 

The historical background: during the Second  World War, Bulgaria sided with the German axis. Many in the Government were known for their fascist and pro-German tendencies. In January 1941 the infamous "Law for the Protection of the Nation" was voted in. Jews were bound to wear the yellow star, they were excluded from participation in civil life, in business, etc.. 
 
In 1943 the Germans demanded that a quota of 20.000 Jews be readied for deportation. And indeed, 11.384 Jews, from the "New Territories", were deported. Not enough to fulfill the quota: Jews from Bulgaria proper must also be rounded up. And this is where things changed. The Vice President of the Parliament, Dimiter Peschev, organized an action group on March 9, 1943, to prevent the deportation. Many Bulgarian joined the protest: Members of Parliament, the Bulgarian Orthodox church, ordinary citizens. And the Jews were saved. It is this event, unique in the annals of World War II, which was being remembered.
 
One must add that things are not quite so simple. One must recall that beginning March 1943 marked the end of the siege of Stalingrad. The German army's advance had been stopped. Victory is not so certain for the Third Reich. In Bulgaria there was a feeling that it would be wise to make some concessions to the Western Allies. Hence better not to accept the German demands concerning the deportation of Jews.
 
However that may be, the Jewish Community of Bulgaria, and its organization "Shalom", mobilized to see to it that this event was commemorated by a large scale, solemn, series of celebrations. In this they received the full and whole-hearted support of the President of Bulgaria, Rosen Plevniev and the government, and also of international Jewish organizations, including Israelis of Bulgarian origin. 
 
I felt particularly honoured to be invited to give greetings on behalf of ICJW.
 
On Sunday, a memorial plaque was unveiled by the Mayor of Sofia. A large crowd had gathered - Jews and non- Jews, many distinguished guests, members of Parliament, Ambassadors, officials, guests from abroad. Wreaths were laid. A young boy sang in Bulgarian and Hebrew. Very moving. Dr. Benvenisti, President of Shalom, spoke first, then the Ambassador and finally I addressed the gathering, in the name of ICJW. I could not but say that I should not have been there: as a Jewish child in WW II I had, like all others, been condemned to death by the Nazis. 
 
This was followed by a celebration in the magnificent synagogue, which has been beautifully restored. Lika Eshkenazi - who is also the President of our Bulgarian affiliate - led a choir of children.
 
The day ended with the "Shofar Awards" being presented to the mayors of Bulgarian towns whose citizens demonstrated against the deportation of their Jewish population. And finally a magnificent concert by the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra rounded off an incredible day.
 
I was invited by Becca Lazaroff to visit the Lauder/ORT Jewish school, which is truly an example of what a school can and should be. I listened in to a first grade Hebrew class; I visited the marvelous facilities they have for high tech, the video studio. Mostly I was impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication of Plamen Petrov who heads the Science Center. No wonder non-Jewish parents vie for the chance to have their children admitted to the school.
 
In the afternoon, I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of our Bulgarian friends. I spoke about the activities of ICJW, and they proudly told of their work, which is mostly hands-on, practical action. They showed me the kits, containing sleeping bags and pyjamas for the children of an orphanage. In a country where the average wage is €300 and pensions after a whole life of hard work may be no more than €180, economic considerations are paramount. And the day was not over: in the evening an Israeli brass band put on a lively concert, with the audience enthusiastically joining in, singing and clapping.
 
What shall I remember best from my trip to Sofia? The warmth and friendship, the hospitality of our women. Their courage and perseverance in difficult circumstances. They are truly working in the best Jewish tradition of keeping the flame burning, of transmitting our values to the next generation. The striving toward "Tikun Olam", improving the world.
 
Belgium and Bulgaria have had a twinning agreement for many years. Some of you may have seen the wonderful embroidered kipoth and matzah covers that the group "Manos Bendichas" produces. This combines Bulgarian folklore and Jewish tradition. We have always had a special soft spot for our Bulgarian sisters. 
 
                                                                                     Eliane Sperling-Levin.