Bulgaria


Bulgaria 1878 Independence to 1948 Departure

Bulgaria Jewish Casualties in the Balkan Wars and WWI
Surname Given Name Birth Place Death Year
Varsano Jaco Mordehay Sofia 1916
Varsano Leon Heskiya Sofia 1916

“Evlag” – Memoirs written by Albert Varsano regarding the Somovit detention camp for Jews
Memoirs written in Haskovo and Tel Aviv, 1944-1956 regarding the experiences of the Jews in Bulgaria during World War II, and the Somovit camp to which the Jews were deported from Bulgaria.

a few Jews including some Varsano remained after Israel Independence

On December 2, 1946 – my father’s 14th birthday – the Bulgarian government’s gift to him was a declaration by Prime Minister Georgi Dimitrov confirming that all Jews of Bulgaria were free to immigrate to Palestine.  However, there was still significant resistance on the British end, so mass immigration did not occur until the UN officially partitioned Palestine about a year later.

Throughout 1946 and 1947, European Jews — some with Bulgarian citizenship — continued to trickle into Palestine despite tight British immigration regulations.  In response, Britain changed its policy of sending the Jews caught in the blockade to Cypress and instead sent them back to Europe.  This was done to further discourage illegal immigration and humiliate the offending nations, namely France.  Land and sea routes became increasingly cut off.  American planes did manage to make some airlifts successfully, but it was becoming more difficult and costly to enter Palestine.

Meanwhile, the Varsano family was on the move, but not to Israel. My grandfather purchased an apartment at Carnigratzka 6 in the center of Sofia for his sister Vicki who lived in the new apartment with her family. Their neighbor was a family physician who had to perform a life-saving appendectomy for my father when he was only thirteen years old. Lacking modern surgical procedures, a nasty scar remained on his belly for the rest of his life. When I was a little boy, I thought the scar was a war wound because it was rather large and grotesque, but it was it was just a caused by old medical techniques where appearance wasn’t that important. My dad could have easily conjured up a grand tale about a glorious war wound but he did not exaggerate or lie. He was the type of person that would just give you the cold hard facts if you bothered to ask him. He also had some gold fillings in his teeth that were a relic of Old World dental work.  With a golden smile and healed scar tissue on his ample belly, my father received a good dose of inspiration from the Zionist leadership. One of the founding fathers of Israel brightened the Jews of Bulgaria’s spirits with a motivational address in the heart of Sofia.

David Ben Gurion’s speech in the fall of 1947 was an important moment for the Zionist movement of Bulgaria. Although most Bulgarians and Ben Gurion spoke Russia, he refused to speak the Slavic tongue despite their pleas, and spoke in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish state and the Bible.  On another occasion, Ben Gurion stated that “we’re ready to be killed and to die, but not to give up fighting for three things: freedom of Jewish Immigration, the right to build our homeland, and the political independence of our people in its own land.” My family was invigorated and would begin to make arrangements for their Aliyah shortly thereafter.

On October 13, 1947, the USSR and her satellite nations on the UN Palestine Committee voted in favor of the UNSCOP Partition Plan.  The Soviet Union was not historically an advocate for the Jewish people, but creating a Jewish state in the Middle East had strategic implications that the communist bloc believed favored them.  The Jews were more likely to be an independent and sovereign nation than were the Arabs.  The Arab nations would never accept a Jewish state neighboring them and wars would result.  The unstable environment would eventually give the communists’ opportunities to set a foothold in the region. Throughout my father’s life, he never trusted or particularity liked Russians for a variety of reasons including their misleading support for the creation of Israel.

The USSR and Bulgaria wanted to politically embarrass Great Britain and their imperialistic policies.  Bulgaria also had economic and nationalistic reasons for voting for the formation of Israel.  Jews that left Bulgaria had to renounce claims for confiscated property.  Many years later in 1997, the Bulgarian Ministry of Justice announced that Israelis of Bulgarian origin will be able to reclaim their Bulgarian citizenship which the communist authorities had taken away from them. One of the BKP’s original objectives was to crush dissent by creating a more homogeneous society which was further reinforced when it coerced the minority Turks leave the country in 1950.  Greeks and Armenians were also actively encouraged to leave.

Prior to the UN vote, only a few countries openly favored partition namely the US, USSR, Norway, Canada, and Guatemala.  Any country with a high Arab or Moslem population was against partition including countries such as India, Yugoslavia, and Greece.  The French were undecided because of the Arab influence from their North African colonies.

The General Assembly resolution vote was thirty-three for and thirteen against, constituting more than the two thirds majority necessary to pass.  France, in the end, did vote in favor of partition.  With the exception of Cuba and Greece, all the nations that voted against the resolution were Moslem or Asian.  These same nations continue to stymie Israel’s international legitimacy to this day under the rules of the multilateral UN. Most Latin American countries voted in favor of the partition which became the deciding factor.  It was widely speculated that many Western nations had a sense of guilt regarding their lack of intervention in the Holocaust and voted with that in mind. Although intent has been debated for decades, the Jewish people finally had a UN sanctioned homeland. Unfortunately, the limited ability of the UN lacked the strength and resolve to make peace between all of people of Palestine.

When the legal restrictions on immigration to Palestine were lifted, a tidal wave of Jewish families from around the globe swept onto the shores of Israel. Concerned with the welfare of the next generation, some children arrived ahead of their families, accompanied by the members of the Zionist youth organizations. Seeco and Seli remained with their family in Bulgaria, because they realized everyone would be going together within months not years. Boatloads arrived daily at the ports of Haifa and Jaffa.  My family had been preparing to depart for some time, but it was not as simple as buying a ticket and flying into Tel Aviv like it is today.

Israeli and Jewish philanthropic organizations – mainly from the US – paid hard currency for the exit visas of Eastern European Jews. Every Jewish individual leaving Bulgaria cost fifty to one hundred dollars. Bulgarian businesses made a profit from Israeli “nation building” while the politicians earned points by sticking it to the British. The Varsano family had to secure enough money to pay for their transport then make a reservation on an overbooked ship.  Secret routes were drawn up to bypass the volatile military situations that still existed around Bulgaria. Greece had reacquired the territory Thrace on the Aegean Sea, so Bulgaria had no direct water route to the ports of Israel. Greece did not have good relations with Bulgaria and was in the midst of civil unrest, so my family needed to find a less direct route. A long and circuitous path up through Yugoslavia then down the Mediterranean Sea to Israel was determined to have the greatest likelihood of success.

Shortly after the UN vote, the camps in Cypress were shut down, which symbolized the true end of WWII and barbed wire captivity for many of the Jewish detainees.  It also marked the beginning of their future life in Israel for many imprisoned Jews.  The tenacity of the illegal immigrants exemplified the spirit of the Zionists and was an inspiration to all those captive souls that were still stranded in the “cursed lands.”

Even though they felt lucky to survive in Bulgaria while six million other European Jews perished, they were not willing to take another chance with an experimental form of government that possessed authoritarian leanings. What had been a fringe movement in Judaism for several years became the overriding concern of millions of Diaspora Jews. The will of the Jewish people with the crucial help of sympathetic Gentiles propelled a political, cultural, and economic movement that was just able to pass a UN vote in favor of establishing Israel. Although much work lay ahead, the nomadic Diaspora Jews were finally coming home after several hundred years and were willing to make whatever sacrifices that were necessary to build a future in Israel. Continue in Israel

Post-1948

Once immigration became legal, 45,000 of Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews relocated to Israel within two years.  The 5,000 that remained were mostly high-ranking communists or persons married to non-Jews.

For the first time we open these particular files from the archives of Communist State Security. There is a video tape enclosed. In 1989 Simon Varsano was interrogated before the camera. Shot in the legs, he is lying on a bed in a guarded police hospital, answering the questions of a State Security officer. The accusation was that the young photographer Varsano has written on the walls slogans against the communist totalitarian leader – with a shoe polish. It was on the eve of the big political transition. The communist regime in Bulgaria fell in a coup “inside” in the party. The only person shed blood was Simon Varsano…
Simon wouldn’t tell about his wounding, arrest and interrogation. And he would never watch the video film with his questioning. Never until today.

A personal view on the life story of the Bulgarian photographer Simon Varsano who became a victim of political regime.

He is a medical photographer, a water polo competitor, a romantic, a favorite of women. Overnight, he becomes a prisoner with his legs shot, an enemy of the regime, a victim of political police. This nightmare remained in the 1980’s before the Berlin Wall’s collapse. Now for Simon Varsano everything will re-erupt, along with a video from the Communist State Security archives. A meeting with the past and a clash again: Simon versus Fear. The clash of one person, photographer Simon Varsano, with the communist State Security system, told in a very personal way by director Georgi Tenev.