by Lionel Rolfe
American Report6er Correspondent
Los Angeles, Calif.
March 22, 2003
BULGARIA, LONELY U.S. ALLY IN IRAQ FIGHT, SHARED CONCERN FOR JEWS
SOFIA, Bulgaria -- My guide here, Boriana Andreewa, must have been a bit confused about whether I really wanted to see Sofia's Central Synagogue. In the morning, she asked if I wanted to; I did and didn't, I said, sounding negative when I really did want to go. She didn't mention it again until we were walking in central Sofia; it was nearby and we would be there in a moment.
Why was I playing so coy, with her and myself? Here I was in Sofia, a hub of the Balkans, and how I looked at such a place in the end revolved around how they treated their Jews during the Holocaust.
I try not to be obsessed with the subject; after all, there's a lot of other ethnic issues in the world right now.
Still, I had edited the B'nai Brith Messenger in Los Angeles - it was one of the town's pioneer papers - for about a decade. My Jewish identity became more important to me because I feel as if Sharon and Shamir are absconding with that identity and turning it into something I could not accept.
I was quite incredulous when Boriana told me that unlike other Balkan countries, such as Croatia and Rumania which enthusiastically joined Hitler in slaughtering Jews, Bulgaria had a good history with its Jews.
She said despite Hitler's insistence, no Bulgarian Jews were ever shipped to his crematoriums. There was no Jewish blood on the hands of either King Boris III or Dimitar Peshev, head of the Bulgarian National Assembly at the time, who stood up to Hitler when he demanded be sent to him. The Metropolitan of the Bulgarian church, similarly, said that trains with Jews from Bulgaria would get through to Germany only over his dead body. And, in fact, Hitler got none of Bulgaria's Jews - although the same could not be said of Jews in Macedonia, a country where the people are Bulgarian and speak Bulgarian but since World War I have not been a part of this country.
The Central Synagogue is beautiful, very much showing a monument to the Ottoman past. It is a Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi temple - the abundant marble, brass and terra cotta are purely Spanish Moorish and Byzantine - and one of Europe's largest and finest examples of the style.
The caretaker reluctantly allowed us inside the century-old structure and allowed me to take pictures, which I was not able to do inside any of the country's other religious facilities. The fact that I am a "Jewish journalist" seemed to help.
The synagogue appeared to have only a small staff and no congregants, and seemed awfully quiet, but the caretaker insisted that about 1,000 families were involved. Most Bulgarian Jews long ago went to Israel, unhappy because religion was not encouraged during the long period the country was ruled by communists.
You do see a few swastikas and far more hammer and sickles on walls and structures in Bulgaria today - but if there is hatred between Bulgaria's ethnic groups today, the victims appear to be the Gypsies, and maybe to a lesser extent, the 15 percent of the population who under the Turkish yoke became Moslem. Jews do not appear to be directly involved in this mix, although the foreign minister is Jewish.
Another thing you have to be prepared for in Bulgaria: Whatever the drawbacks of life under communism, basic infrastructure - education, medicine and housing - was taken care of first. Thus there are lots of well-educated Bulgarian - artists, doctors, engineers, musicians and scientists - but most are unemployed.
It is no accident that Bulgaria has produced some of the nastiest computer hackers - it's a case of too many fine minds getting angry at being ignored.
After the synagogue, we walked a few short blocks back to the historic center of town, marked by a Turkish mosque and a bathhouse dating back to the beginning of the "Turkish yoke," about 500 years ago. A few blocks away is the more modern center of Sofia, where the subway begins and Party House, a giant governmental office building from which a red flag used to wave, still stands. In the central mall, where the subway begins, there's a small stone church built in the 1st Century. Boriana is proud of such things, for these are what gives Bulgarians a national identity.
Boriana is not terribly political, and likes some aspects of "the new society" but not other aspects. She is not particularly religious either, but about once a year likes to go to her church. Her teenage daughter usually goes with her. That is something she wouldn't have done under socialism, and she admits that it's something she really likes.
"Perhaps it is because it was so forbidden in my youth," she says.
When she was growing up, it was still under communist rule, and going into churches was pretty much discouraged. Still, even the communists made a national landmark and museum out of the great Monastery high in the Rila Mountains, roughly one hundred miles from Sofia.
"This is where the soul of Bulgaria is," Boriana said. For it was in that monastery the spirit of Christianity was kept alive against the onslaught of the Moslems under the Ottoman Empire.
Most of the Rila Monastery goes back two or three centuries, but it is built around a great tower from the third century and other parts from the 15th and 16th Centuries. The monastery worked out a close relationship with the Greek and Russian Orthodox early on, with whom they shared many beliefs. As early as the 1500s, monks were gathering donations for the Rila Monastery from Greece to Russia, getting not only money but vestment books, plates and even gold.
Even the communist appreciated the fact that the monastery proved a tough center of opposition to Turkish rule, and was responsible for a national renaissance, culturally, economically and spiritually in the 1800s.
Early the next morning in Sofia after a day trip to the cold and icy Rila mountains, Boriana proudly showed me the Nevksy Cathedral and the Russian Cathedral, two magnificent structures that testify to the close and friendly connection over the centuries between the Bulgarian and Russian churches.
All of these facilities are decorated inside with icons - some as stand-alone art works, others done right on the wall. Every available inch, from the cold marble floors of the great domes seemingly hundreds of feet tall, are covered with the rich icons.
Icons are part of the Bulgarian soul - the other part is in the music, which whether classical or pop, seem to be based on the extensive folk music of the country.
All the things you first notice on arrival in Bulgaria - the peeling plate and plaster, the crowded, rusting trolleys and buses, the dreary housing blocs, the subway, the cultural center, all from the socialist era, create a certain impression. The stylish but fading buildings from the teens and '20s lining Sofia's main streets, create other feelings. The stylish and often handsome people scurrying along the streets yet another.
Things have changed in the "new society," and not all for the better. The factories and even farms of socialism are gone. McDonalds, Subway, and American clothing stores, have moved in and make themselves at home like grinning cheshire cats side-by-side with the more traditional and interesting individualistic eating places, meeting places, and clothing stores.
One of the coffeehouses was called "da,da," which you hear everywhere you turn. Loosely translated, "da, da" means okay, yes. It's not as emphatic as the term "dobre," which also means okay.
One thing that takes some getting used to is that when people say "da, da," and shake their head, that shaking means "yes" and not "no." Similarly, an up-and-down head movement that would mean "yes" in America means "no" in Bulgaria.
That takes getting used to - but "da, da" is ubiquitous, and it can be said lackadaisically, as if the person saying it is just going through the motions, or it can be said with feeling and sincerity.
Coffeehouses, restaurants and Internet clubs, are everywhere; so is "the mafia," whose members often drive around in blacked-out BMWs, and frequently shoot and kill each other. The mafia arose as communism collapsed in Bulgaria in the late '80s.
Bulgaria lost its market for steel, and other industrial products her factories produced, and for agriculture, when the former Soviet bloc fell; Europe and America, meanwhile, turned their back on her products - yet Bulgarian tomatoes and peaches are like nothing Europe or America produces.
It is a desperate country, fighting for its survival. Now schools in the "new society" have big drug problems - drug smuggling which didn't exist is big time. A lot more people live in poverty as well - although some are doing quite well, particularly the mafia.
If communist Bulgaria wanted to wipe out the past - as in the way it treated the memory of its religions and its king, so Bulgaria today has done some of the same rewriting of history.
After the big red flag was pulled off the top of "Party House" in the city center, Georgi Dimitriov's memorial was leveled - and it stands strewn only with pieces of the memorial, which are just across the street from Bulgaria's pentagon. when Bulgaria went communist after the war, Dimitriov was the first prime minister, and he also was a hero of communist resistance to Nazism in Germany in the '30s.
In another part of town, in front of the cultural center, there's a giant sculpture built under communism. One side has been defaced. No one seemed to know what it once said.
Bulgaria is now bucking to join NATO, and get all the goodies from America that membership entitles them to. Bulgaria is part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "New Europe," and initially one of only three allies whose vote the United States could count on as it fought for a second resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Yet Bulgaria's "pentagon" is an unprepossessing building with little foot traffic in and out of it. We walked right up against it, and a guard came out and kindly asked us to walk on the other side of the building - so we wouldn't be hit by falling ice.
It takes a while to start seeing these things.
Boriana had taken me to the Ethnographic Institute and Museum, relatively early in my visit. Perhaps I was still suffering from jet lag with my trip from Los Angeles, so it all became more surrealistic. The Institute and Museum, which is part of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, recently moved to the King's old palace. The palace is quite dilapidated. The current king does not live there; he is not a newly reinstituted monarch; he is a former king elected to the post of prime minister.
So far he does not seem to have curbed the excesses of "the mafia" or gotten the economy going - which was one of the hopes that propelled people into making him their Prime Minister.
The museum has a kind of discarded feeling, but not really. Once you leave the museum shop, which is quite fantastic, you go from room to room. There are not many patrons, but when there is, they are very involved in sketching, communing with and admiring the folk exhibits. Most are young Bulgarians. who seem to seek seek their identity with an intensity I've rarely seen before.
The museum focuses on research of traditional culture, from the calendar, family customs, mythology, traditional medicine, housing and architecture and traditional arts and crafts. It also focuses on the relations between Christians and Moslems, Turks, Gypsies, Karakachans, Wallachians, and Gagaouzes.
It has magnificent collections of fabrics, embroideries, carpets, costumes, jewels, earthenware, wooden carvings, wrought copper, ritual art, icons, and musical instruments.
Often you are alone. You push open a giant, old creaky door or a small one that looks like a closet - but since it's the only door, you must go through. You end up in a corridor, or a grand stairway - unsure which way to go. But suddenly someone steps out of the shadows and shows you the way.
It's almost a cliche - Bulgarians are standing at a crossroads, unsure how to keep their own heart and soul but also to join the larger world.
Boriana herself knows what a lot of people are facing, as former state-owned enterprise are being privatized and many people will end up on the street. Still, Boriana says she likes being "in some dynamic stage ... not nervous ... just enough to have a sense that it is life."
She apologizes for her English, but hopes I get the idea.
She explains that even as a youngster growing up under communism she missed being able to express her opinion. Her outspokenness kept her from becoming a member of the Young Pioneers, for instance. She also didn't like how the Iron Curtain cut people off from other lands and she also doubts that humans "are good enough" for socialism.
"The evidence is when property is in common, it isn't possible to manage it correctly because people aren't interested enough to do so," she says.
But she thought that the guaranteed medicine and education were good. She liked the idea that people mostly made about the same wage, so that "what distinguishes people from each other should be their knowledge, intellect and culture."
She also does not like the drugs, crime and poverty that has come with "the new society."
So today she sees Bulgarians and Bulgaria on the edge - but isn't that how most of the world's people live today?
Editors: Good pictures available to illustrate this article are available from firstname.lastname@example.org. Lionel Rolfe is the author of Literary L.A. and Fat Man on the Left. A new paperback edition of Death And Redemption in London & L.A. will soon be released as well.