COLUMN NINETY, MAY 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
A VISIT TO BULGARIA
My guide in Bulgaria,
Boriana Andreewa, must have been a bit confused about whether I really wanted to
go see Sofia's Central Synagogue. Early in the morning, she asked me if I
wanted to see the synagogue. Part of me did and another big part of me didn't.
So it seemed as if I were responding in the negative, when in fact I really did
want to see it. She didn't mention it again until we were walking in central
Sofia, and she said we were now just a few minutes from the Central Synagogue.
We would be there in a
Why was I playing so coy,
not so much with her but myself as well. Here I suddenly was, in Sofia, one of
the hubs of the Balkans, and for me, how I looked at such a place in the end
revolved around how they treated their Jews during the Holocaust.
I tried not to be obsessed
with the subject; after all, there are a lot of other ethnic issues going on in
the world right now other than Jews.
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 all the more important to
me just because of the fact I feel as if the likes of Sharon and Shamir were
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 the country's Jews 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 Bulgaria.
The synagogue was
beautiful, very much showing the effects of having been built under the
Ottomans. It is a Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi temple---the abundant marble,
brass and terra-cotta are completely out of the Spanish Moorish and Byzantine
modes---and this temple is one of Europe's largest and finest Sephardic
The caretaker reluctantly allowed us inside the century-old structure and allowed me to take
long ago went
pictures, which I was not
able to do inside any of the country's other religious facilities. The fact
that I had been 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 a Jew.
Another thing you have to
be prepared for in Bulgaria. Whatever the drawbacks of life under communism,
basic infrastructure---education, medicine and housing were taken care of first.
Thus there are a lot of well-educated Bulgarian, artists, doctors, engineers,
musicians and scientists, mostly unemployed.
It is no accident that
Bulgaria has produced some of the nastiest computer hackers---too many brains
getting angry that they are 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, stands. In the central mall
where the subway begins and where there's a small stone church built in the
first century. Boriana is proud of such things, for these are what gives
Bulgarians national meaning.
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 she
likes to go into her church. Her teenage daughter likes to go with her.
This is something she
wouldn't have done under socialism, and she admits that it's something she
"Perhaps it is because it
was so forbidden in my youth," she says.
When she was growing up,
Bulgaria was still under communist rule, and going into churches was pretty much
discouraged under communism. 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
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,
seems 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 OK, yes. It's not as emphatic as the term "dobre,?
which also means OK.
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.
and Internet clubs, are everywhere; so is 'the mafia," whose members often
drive around in blacked-out BMWs, and frequently shoot and kill one 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
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. Dimitriov was the
first prime minister when Bulgaria became communist after the war 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. It was built under
communism. One side of the giant sculpture with writing on it has been defaced.
No one around seems to know what it might have 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."
Yet the "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
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 a huge number of
patrons, but when they are there, they are very intensely involved in the folk
exhibits. They are sketching, communing, admiring. Most are young---these are
the young Bulgarians seeking their identity with an intensity I've rarely seen
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,
wood-carving, wrought copper, ritual art, icons, and musical instruments.
Often times you are alone.
Once done in one room, you push open a giant, old creaky door or maybe a small
one that looks like a closet---but since it's the only door, it's the one
you must go through. You might end up in a corridor, a grand stairway---unsure
which way to go. But as you do, suddenly someone steps out of the shadows and
shows you the way.
It's almost a clich?---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 enterprises 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
'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 then a metaphor for most
of the world's people today?
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. ##
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