Paola Husein’s interview with Yakov Djerasi for 24chasa.bg (06.11.2021)
Our country can definitely teach the “enlightened” European society what human behavior and tolerance mean, says the chairman of the International Foundation “Bulgaria”.
While the whole of Europe during the Second World War handed over its Jews for quick extermination, we Bulgarians managed to stop both of our forced deportations to the death camps
The best choice I have made in my life is to come to Bulgaria
A few days ago, Yakov Djerassi sent a letter to Katarina von Schnurbein, the new EU coordinator for efforts to combat anti-Semitism, in which he proposed that the European Commission declare Bulgaria Day for saving the Jews.
– Mr. Djerassi, you suggest that the European Commission declare Bulgaria Day to honor the merits of our country for the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews. You made your proposal in a letter to Katharina von Schnurbein, the new EU coordinator for efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Why should there be such a day?
– I know that ultranationalists and devoted communists will hardly agree with me, as well as all other people who believe that Bulgaria is responsible for the evil fate of the Macedonian (Yugoslav) and Thracian (Greek) Jews, but nevertheless we as Bulgarians must let’s be honest with ourselves because it’s time for Cheshbon hanefesh. This biblical term literally means “reckoning of the soul.” In the Jewish calendar, Cheshbon hanefesh is done every year because if one doesn’t take stock, how can one know what needs to be changed.
In this line of thinking, we must admit that apart from the unique Bulgarian folklore, the savory and the historical “moment” of saving our entire Jewish community
during World War II, we as a nation did not give Europe great philosophers, scientists, sculptors or athletes. We had some, but they didn’t want to be associated with their homeland. Take the late laureate Elias Canetti for example. Fleeing his Bulgarian roots, he preferred his British citizenship, although he was born in Ruse, Bulgaria. Or the world-famous artist Hristo Yavashev – shortly after his death, his long-awaited wish to pack the Arc de Triomphe in Paris came true. And when years ago he was politely asked to join world names in support of Sofia University, he refused with the sharp statement that he did not want any association with his homeland.
While the whole of Europe during the Second World War handed over its Jews for quick extermination, we Bulgarians managed to stop both of our forced deportations to the death camps. In the second attempt, the king hid in the mountains so that he would not be available in case he was forced to sign deportation papers. Where in Europe would a head of state flee the capital just to avoid betraying his Jews? They were the cheapest and most insignificant human resource in those years. Their lives were worth nothing except in Bulgaria.
Take Hungary – 12,000 Jews a day were sent to the Nazi extermination machine. Or the largest death camp in the Balkans, just hours away from Sofia – Jasenovac, Croatia, where almost 400,000 Gypsies were brutally murdered.
I remember attending a seminar about the Holocaust in Athens some time ago. There I witnessed a Greek Jewish survivor of the Holocaust state bluntly, “I was betrayed by my own Greek neighbors,” he did not even mention the Germans.
– How did Bulgaria manage to save its Jews?
– Bulgaria has acted differently. I base my statement on the personal experience of my own family living in the country during those years. But you can hear similar experiences from the families of all 45,000 Bulgarian Jews who preferred Israel to living in communist Bulgaria.
Let me make some clarifications about this historical period.
Yes, there was a curfew. Yes, the Jews wore the yellow star to set them apart from everyone else. The Jews of Sofia, for example, were asked to move to the countryside.
Yes, there was a Law for the Protection of the Nation and mass mobilization of Bulgarian Jewish men to build unnecessary roads in labor camps, but these formations were not of a strict regime. Do you know where during World War II Jews organized and participated in camp operas and operettas? Zico Graziani, probably the most famous Israeli-Bulgarian of all time with a street named after him in Sofia, could answer this question for you with: “Here in Bulgaria”. Jews could come and go. On weekends, they were even allowed to visit their families. In what other European camps did something like this happen? Indeed, it was no “picnic”, but nevertheless every Polish Jew would like to be in the place of the Bulgarians
And this is understandable, because where during World War II in Europe were Jews allowed to attend universities for example? The Law for the Protection of the Nation forbade their access to higher education institutions!
– In your letter to Katarina von Schnurbein, you convince her that declaring Bulgaria Day has an educational and moral value. Why?
– Do we realize that after World War II, the Bulgarian Jews who immigrated to Israel in 1949 laid the foundation of the medical corps there?! During those years, 60% of the medics in the newly formed country were of Bulgarian origin. Do we realize what a great contribution Bulgaria has made to the creation of the new Jewish state?! This was hardly consistent with the Defense of the Nation Act.
Also, I should mention that my parents, their peers, and me as the second generation were decidedly unaffected by the Holocaust complex.
Who else in Europe during World War II, except perhaps Monsignor Roncalli, the Vatican’s representative in Turkey, stood up for the Jews as did the entire Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church?
In which other European country did pro-German MPs sign a petition against the deportation of the Jews? Where in Europe has the entire society, from the simple farmer who could not even write his name to the head of state, stood so boldly behind its Jewish citizens?
Did you know that fleeing Jews from other European countries, reaching the borders of Bulgaria, were welcomed and escorted by the Bulgarian Red Cross? Tell me in which other country something like this has happened.
It’s a shame because after all these years, we haven’t learned to recognize the good. Or as they say in Israel – Le’hakir et Hatov (“Recognize the good”). We weep and commemorate the evil, but we must also remember and repeat the good.
Everything has its time: “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to rejoice,” Ecclesiastes.
Bulgaria represents this WELL
and it can definitely teach the “enlightened” European society what human behavior and tolerance mean. That is why I think that the EU owes us Bulgaria Day!
– How did the idea of proposing the creation of Bulgaria Day come about?
– My whole life has been spent in support and defense of this historical truth. So such an idea should not surprise anyone.
People by nature have the innate handicap of judging each other, especially in difficult times, and we Bulgarians have proven to the world that we are a different “breed”. I am proud to be Bulgarian. My friends in Israel even formed an association “I am Bulgarian first”. Imagine, Israeli Jews – the soldiers of the Israeli army, who cannot even read and write in Bulgarian, are proud of their heritage, brought by their grandmothers with Bulgarian roots. Check out their Facebook page if you don’t believe me.
– Do you already have an answer from Mrs. Schnurbein, how did she take your proposal?
– In truth, I don’t expect an answer. I think I “excited” her more than necessary.
But here is the moment to say that it is time for our MEPs to show unity and attitude at least on this topic. I will not hide the fact that I hope that the Bulgarian Commissioner Mrs. Maria Gabriel will also show interest. It also depends on the way our head of state looks at the subject, and I believe he can do wonders.
– There is already an International Day of Remembrance to honor the memory of the Jews who died in the Holocaust. Why will the Day of Bulgaria be different?
– I mentioned the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. There is time for everything. There is time for the world to understand that we are different. I’m sure the EU will want to honor Denmark if such a day is created. But I don’t believe that she deserves it as much as Bulgaria. See, we have not sent our Jews to another country, as the Danes did, nor have we required them to pay with their most valuable possessions to be taken away in fishing boats quietly in the dark of night. The Danes have simply transferred the “problem” elsewhere, away from their country, so that their king will not feel either the sense of responsibility or the discomfort of a burgeoning conflict of interest in making a firm decision in defense of his Jews, as ours did Tsar. And let’s also not forget that they “turned” over to the Gestapo every Jew who tried to cross into Denmark. There was no Danish Red Cross at the borders.
– Just a month ago – on October 5, the European Commission adopted the first ever EU strategy to combat anti-Semitism and promote Jewish life. The reasons are that anti-Semitism is on the disturbing rise in Europe and beyond. Do you see manifestations of anti-Semitism in our country?
– Although some Bulgarian Jews loyal to the communist system of the past would use the term “monarcho-fascism”, my parents spoke only of the deep love and respect they received from their Bulgarian neighbors and ordinary citizens, especially after the introduction of the yellow star.
I will return again to Zico Graziani, the famous Israeli-Bulgarian musician, born in Ruse and a graduate of the Music Academy “Pancho Vladigerov” in Sofia. He said that when he showed up to his class with the yellow star, all his classmates put yellow stars on their coats in solidarity
I don’t believe that filling out surveys about the degree of anti-Semitism in Bulgaria, containing ridiculous questions like: “Are Jews more loyal to Israel than the country they live in?” or “Do Jews have influence on the world’s financial institutions?” can to give accurate statistics on the rate of anti-Semitism today. It’s just frivolous. Such type of questions are not only misleading and meaningless, but are the main reason for the creation of conspiracy theories with a very negative and quite dangerous flavor in the first place.
Not every swastika is a sign of anti-Semitism. Some of “my people” fuel this type of incident which only widens the gap in understanding.
Yes, there is a rise in anti-Semitism in many European countries. In my opinion, its percentage increase is directly related to the uneasy and unpredictable relations between Israel and Palestine, as well as the rest of the Arab world.
I am a member of a closed society, the Jewish people are by nature a closed group of people in which others have no place. I think the Jewish communities need to open up more and become the “light of the nations” again. Invite others to share in our success and traditions.
And yes, I have been in Bulgaria for almost thirty years. Just imagine – I came supposedly for only six months. In my entire life I have never experienced any form of anti-Semitism exercised upon me.
Exactly the opposite. I admit that probably because of my Jewish background I even received more attention and love. That’s how six months turned into 30 years and it was the best choice I’ve made in my life – to come to Bulgaria.
– Israel is one of the first countries in the world to successfully fight the coronavirus. How far did they go, did they take off their masks? What can we learn from their experience?
– Israel was probably among the first countries whose citizens were thoroughly “educated” on the importance of the vaccine. It’s really not hard to explain to Israelis how essential it is to their health.
The reality in Bulgaria is radically different. Even the doctors here are against the vaccine. In my opinion, mainly because of all the rumors and half-truths that roam the media and public space. And our doctors very often like to play the role of God. Time to take action against this type of medical staff.
Photo by Paraskeva Georgieva: At the reception of His Majesty Tsar Simeon II at Vrana Palace – Sofia for the winners of the annual essay competition on the topic of tolerance, organized by the Israeli-Bulgarian Institute of Yakov Djerassi. The young people write their essays inspired by Michael Bar-Zohar’s book “Beyond Hitler’s Grip”, which tells about the rescue of Bulgarian Jews during the Second World War.