Jewish world mourns passing of ex-Polish PM Tadeusz Mazowiecki


Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first post-Communist prime minister, was being remembered by the Jewish world for fighting anti-Semitism and as a friend of Israel.

Mazowiecki, a former journalist, died Monday in Warsaw. He was 86.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of a great statesman and friend,” Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, said in a statement issued Monday.

The Jewish community, Kadlcik said, “will remember him as a symbol of dialogue and extraordinary wisdom and goodness in difficult and rebellious times.”

He noted that Mazowiecki had long been an activist for human rights and against discrimination. As early as 1960, Kadlcik said, Mazowiecki had written that “the fight against anti-Semitism is not any merit or any humanitarian gesture of mercy, it is not only a struggle for the dignity of the Jews, but as much a struggle for our own dignity. It is a struggle for the dignity of all.”

The World Jewish Congress also paid tribute to Mazowiecki as “one of the architects of the modern, democratic Poland and as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people.”

It was under the Mazowiecki government that Poland re-established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1990 and opened Polish airports for Jews leaving the then-Soviet Union.

In a statement, WJC President Ronald Lauder said, “The Jews are grateful to Tadeusz Mazowiecki for his staunch defense of their rights as Poland emerged from Communism, and for his help in resolving the crisis of the Carmelite convent on the grounds of Auschwitz in the early 1990s. He will also be remembered for speaking out against anti-Semitism clearly and unequivocally and exposing war crimes as special rapporteur for human rights in the former Yugoslavia. May his memory be for a blessing.”

Berlin Cantata: Distinct voices


A cantata is a musical composition typically composed of solos, duets, and other forms for voice, sung with instrumental accompaniment. Thus framed, the title of Jeffrey Lewis’s latest novel, “Berlin Cantata” (Haus, $15, ISBN 978-1-907822-43-8), aligns nicely with the book’s structure, since nearly every chapter is presented as a monologue voiced by one of 13 characters.

The book’s narrative present takes place in the early 1990s, in the city and environs of Berlin, with a considerable focus on a certain house in the country. But if the city’s Third Reich history continues to influence the lives of Lewis’s characters many decades later, so does the postwar and recent Cold War past, with an emphasis on the legacy of East German communism.

Again, the chief linking element is the country house, whose ownership shifted from Jews to Nazis to Communists, who utilized it as an East German Writers Union retreat. The tale that Lewis spins therefore involves layers of possession and reclamation, with a chain of events set in motion by Holly Anholt, the American daughter of the house’s pre-Holocaust Jewish owners. This plot raises a mix of moral questions. Whose claims and rights trump those of others? Which compromises and tactics are acceptable, and to whom? And what is owed the people who play bit parts in the drama of others’ lives? As one German character, whom we meet fairly late in the book, notes of Holly: “I understand that she wants the whole story. But why? At whose expense?”

Among Berlin Cantata’s most interesting aspects is its inclusion of an oft-neglected population: Jews who continued to live in Europe—and Germany—after the Holocaust. We are reminded, too, of the presence and influence of Jews of Russian/Soviet origin in Berlin. We come face-to-face with the expansion of Jewish life in the city after communism’s collapse. All of this is encapsulated in Holly’s thoughts when she arrives in the city at the conclusion of Yom Kippur: “I was bewildered. A city without Jews that had all these Jews in it, or this many anyway, enough to make a party of plastic cups and wine out of jugs in an apartment that if you squinted might have been on the West Side of Manhattan up by Columbia. Remnant Jews, secret GDR Jews, a few Soviet Jews. Jews who’d fled and come back with the victors, Jews who were lost mandarins now, Jews who’d believed in the universality of man and maybe still did.”

Lewis also impresses with his ability to create distinct voices for each of first-person “soloists,” although some readers may find it challenging to track each character’s identity and history in this intricate matrix, especially with the quick and frequent shifts from one character’s voice to another.  One can’t help wishing to hear even more from some of them, even when, as in the case of Dorothea Anholt, the very first character we meet, the plot turns demand certain silences. And who can fail but be caught by the frankness of David Fürst, a Jewish character who doesn’t quite espouse klal yisrael:

“My rough reaction to all the Jews arriving from Russia was, get out of here, this is my turf. Go home, go to Israel, to to New York, what’s wrong with you? Of course, I knew the many reasons why they came here. In Israel you’d have to serve in the army and there were many other inconveniences, including the possibility of being bombed on a bus. America had more restrictive immigration laws and less socialistic political arrangements….To go by our [German] government, it actually wanted its Jews back. Well, it couldn’t have its Jews back, of course, but it could have substitute Jews….My objection was entirely personal. For years I had made a nice living, thank you, being the lonesome Jew in the land of the murderers, describing the hills and valleys, making my accommodations, being ironic like crazy, fitting in, doing well or well enough. These new immigrants were turning me into a commonplace. If things went on like this for ten more years, Berlin would be a normal city, Jew-wise and otherwise.”

In the end, the extent to which the Berlin of Lewis’s novel has become a “normal city” may be one of the most tantalizing questions of all. Certainly, it is a question likely to elicit an array of responses.


Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, which is a 2012 American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding Jewish literature. Web: www.erikadreifus.com

Romney/Ryan and the lullaby of lying


It shouldn’t have taken Todd Akin’s ” target=”_hplink”>method of conception.” 

If the news media hadn’t grown blasé about the Republican war on women, plenty of pre-Akin Americans would have already known that GOP majorities in Congress and state legislatures have repeatedly voted to narrow the definition of “legitimate rape” to “” target=”_hplink”>personhood” to fertilized eggs, which would criminalize birth control pills, IUDs and in vitro fertility procedures.  If cynicism weren’t the default mode of political reporting, we’d now be seeing Mitt Romney’s feet held to the fire of his party’s ” target=”_hplink”>Reince Preibus’ attempt to dissociate the candidate from his platform would be worth more than a chuckle and a yawn from the press corps.

“The Big Lie” is a propaganda technique that kids hear about in school.  If you learn what Nazis and Communists did, if you read Orwell’s “1984,” you’re supposed to be inoculated against pervasive, outrageous falsehoods.  That’s why Jefferson and Franklin counted on public education and public libraries.  It’s also why the First Amendment protects the fourth estate; it shields muckrakers, investigative journalists, critics and gadflies from censorship.

But today the biggest threat to democracy isn’t government intimidation of the press.  It’s boredom – a consequence of the domination of political communication by paid media, the subordination of news to entertainment, the imperative to monetize audience attention, the fear that information and amusement are locked in a zero sum game. 

Mitt Romney and deep pockets like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson have flooded the airwaves with ads claiming that Barack Obama has eliminated the ” target=”_hplink”>Medicare recipients to fund a ” target=”_hplink”>lazy blacks, there’s no news left in the narrative.  Networks fear that audiences will get bored, so they move on.  And yes, there may be some truth to their understanding of their customers.  We’re hooked on novelty, suckers for speed, addled by ADD.  But billionaires don’t get bored.  They keep paying to pound those ads into our heads, whether we like it or not.  Repetition is the demagogue’s best friend. 

No member of Congress is farther to the right than Paul Ryan.  He’s an acolyte of the ideologue ” target=”_hplink”>safety net that has defined the American social contract since the 1930s, but explaining this takes time, which risks audience share, and in the face of a barrage of ads portraying him as the savior of seniors, it takes the kind of persistence that news executives fear hurts ratings.  He is a ” target=”_hplink”>fraudulent, but hey, how ‘bout the six-pack on that dreamboat?

If the media were doing its job in this election, the story it would be telling over and over is that Mitt Romney’s qualification for the presidency consists of a career at Bain Capital about which we know essentially nothing; that his economic plan is the most massive ” target=”_hplink”>financial disclosure rules that have applied to presidential candidates since his father ran; that his ” target=”_hplink”>identical to the Affordable Care Act he promises to repeal; that he has ” target=”_hplink”>suppress voter turnout may well send him to the White House.

But that’s old news.  Been there, done that.  I’ll leave it to others to make the case that the press is giving Obama a free ride.  If that’s true, then there’s been a double dereliction of duty.  News producers are afraid that indefatigable fact checking of either party will bore the pants off people.  But I don’t smell any fear of ennui emanating from station owners making billions off broadcasting the Big Lie.

Marty Kaplan is the ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

An Artistic Homage to Big Brother


Not many artists begin an ambitious new series at 76, but Arnold Mesches did just that after receiving a large box stuffed with FBI documents in 1999. It had taken the Jewish American painter three years and dozens of letters to obtain the 760-page dossier, his FBI file from 1945 to 1972. The papers — obtained under the Freedom of Information Act — chronicle his left-wing activities from the Communist red scare of the 1950s to the Vietnam War era.

Bronx-born Mesches, now 80, wasn’t surprised to learn that FBI agents had tailed him. “The usual variety of cropped hair, suit and tie shadowers, the clichéd kind seen on TV,” he said in a statement. He remembered how “they’d phone, on the pretext of selling car insurance … or snap your picture at a protest march.”

What shocked him were the “special informants” — friends, colleagues, lovers — who had apparently been recruited to spy on him. “[There was] a student who joined us for beer and pizza after class, a close neighbor whose children played with ours, a fledgling artist [I] helped get into an exhibition, a comrade in a meeting, an as– — buddy you trusted with your heart and being, a confidant whose life’s torments were deeply intertwined with your own,” he said.

Their reports not only revealed that Mesches had applied for membership in the Communist Party in 1948, but also the kinds of cars he drove and the hospital where his children were born.

“They knew what papers and magazines I subscribed to…. That I earned my living as a commercial artist, an art teacher, a film-strip artist, as the art editor for frontier, a magazine unfavorable to the FBI, as a lunch truck driver, an exhibiting artist, the director of an art school that — horrors! — showed a Czech film,” Mesches said.

One statement theorized he was a Communist because he “dressed like a Communist” in “rolled up blue jeans with paint spatters, a T-shirt and an old jeans jacket.”

Mesches, who said he was wearing a similar outfit during an interview from his Gainesville, Fla., studio, found the documents dismaying and “creepy.” Nevertheless, he was intrigued by the blacked-out sections that reminded him of color sketches by the late abstract expressionist Franz Kline.

His response was what one might expect of a contemporary artist known for turning personal history into art. He created 57 collages and paintings combining pages of his file with news clippings, photographs from his personal archives, 1950s-era commercial art, magazine illustrations, elements from his own paintings, drawings and handwritten texts. Files reporting that mesches had picketed during a Hollywood strike or the postcard he wrote to president Dwight D. Eisenhower protesting atomic weapons are juxtaposed with media and pop culture images: Sputnick, Batman, Nikita Kruschev, Marilyn Monroe, motorcycle gangs, the Hollywood sign, moviegoers wearing 3D glasses and an ad for Winston cigarettes.

His composition was inspired by a medieval art form: “Just as monks preserved cultural information through illuminated manuscripts, I was trying to preserve a segment of history, albeit my own,” he said.

“Arnold Mesches: FBI Files,” which opens today at the Skirball Cultural Center, is part of growing body of work that explores fears about the misuse of surveillance. The trend includes films such as 1998’s “Enemy of the State” and exhibits like “CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother,” which opened in Germany soon after Sept. 11.

While “Files” resonates after that tragedy, the show’s curator, Daniel Marzona, said he was drawn to the series for a different reason.

“I didn’t respond to it so much because of its connection to the Patriot Act or what the Bush administration is trying to do,” he said. “For me, what was fascinating was how Arnold had aesthetically dealt with his own past and the shocking discoveries in his FBI file. At first glance, his collages are well-composed and visually pleasing, but if you look closer, you see they depict very frightening events.”

Many of the pieces mirror the strange, surreal feelings the artist — whose work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum — felt upon perusing his dossier. One diptych juxtaposes an image of sculptor George Segal enshrouding a model’s head in a cast with a fuzzy 1959 photo of Mesches, taken from a camera that had been hidden in a student’s tie.

“I remember that guy,” said Mesches, who lived in Los Angeles from 1943 to 1984. “I couldn’t stand him coming to my private drawing class in mid-August, when it’s hotter than hell in L.A., wearing a white shirt and a tie. I remember saying to him, ‘Hey, take that tie off, relax,'” and he said ‘no, no, no.'”

Other collages recount the years of the Communist witch hunts, when Mesches marched for clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and did a series of paintings inspired by their case. He said the paintings were stolen from his Melrose Avenue studio in Los Angeles on Aug. 6, 1956.

As for “Files,” he hopes the exhibit warns against the government’s recent call for citizen informants — lest America become what he considers “a nation of spies.” If that happens, “The times I’ve lived through will seem like a Zen garden,” he said.

On Jan. 31, 2 p.m., there will be a discussion at the Skirball with Arnold Mesches and experts on, “Censorship and Civil Liberties.” For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.

The Skirball will also be holding a class on “The Art of Social Protest: Mesches and Beyond” on Feb. 7 and Feb. 14, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. $80 (general), $60 (members) $40 (students). For more information, call (310) 440-4651.

Comic Book Icon Battles Everyday Life


In the biopic "American Splendor," cranky comic book icon Harvey Pekar frets in the supermarket. "This may be the shortest line, but I’m taking a risk because it’s an old Jewish lady," he says. When the woman argues with the manager, he storms out of the store.

The banal but frustrating scenario is typical of Pekar’s autobiographical comics, the source for the well-received film. The movie chronicles his miserable life as a working-class intellectual in Cleveland, his dead-end job as a file clerk, his prickly third marriage, his weird friends, his cancer scare, his unplanned parenthood and his struggle to turn his life into a comic, although he can’t draw. An edgy hybrid of cartoon, drama and documentary, the film — by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman — won this year’s top prize at Sundance.

While previous comic book superheroes counterbalance their Jewish creators’ fear of anti-Semitism, Pekar empowers people in a different way. "By recording the average person’s mundane struggles, he elevates the ‘little guy,’" Pulcini, 38, said.

Pekar’s wry observations about these unsung heroes make him "the ultimate mensch of the comic world," Tikkun magazine wrote in 1992. In the tradition of Yiddishist-socialist authors of the early 20th century, he is "the self-educated, militantly egalitarian Jew in a world of pedigreed deceivers."

Not that Pekar, 63, has escaped his own case of Jewish paranoia. "His pessimism feels like Jewish immigrant angst," said Paul Giamatti, who plays the artist in the film. "That was crucial for me in approaching the role: his family’s Holocaust legacy and the financial instability of his childhood home."

At the Four Seasons Hotel recently, Pekar — looking incongruously cheerful in a Hawaiian shirt — described growing up with Polish parents who lost relatives in the Shoah. His mother, the daughter of a schochet (kosher slaughterer), was a communist who read the Daily Worker and refused to attend synagogue. His father, an Orthodox talmudic scholar, agonized over having to work Saturdays to eke out a living in the family grocery store.

"Every night he would play cantorial records, the last thing before he went to bed," Pekar said, quietly. "A lot of it was so mournful … I wouldn’t be able to sleep."

His 1992 comic, "Sheiboneh Beis Hamikdosh" ("That the Temple Will Be Rebuilt"), describes how he tried to like the music, but couldn’t until he was asked to review a cantorial record as a freelance critic in the 1970s. "Then I could see the beauty of it," said Pekar, who by then had lost his father. He named the ’92 comic after the most famous song of his father’s favorite cantor, Moshe Koussevitzky.

While Pekar now considers himself a champion of Jewish music, he preferred jazz albums in his youth. It was while scouring a 1962 garage sale for LPs that he met underground comic book artist Robert Crumb: "His work got me thinking that comics didn’t have to be just about superheros, but about wage slaves like me," Pekar said. When Pekar showed him the storylines he had created, Crumb agreed to illustrate them.

The result, in 1976, was "American Splendor," which made Pekar a godfather of autobiographical comics. Recurring characters included his nerdy co-worker, Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander in the film), and an elderly pal who recalls pushcart peddlers in 1987’s "Pa-aypr Reggs!"

Other comics describe Pekar’s complex relationship with his wife, Joyce Brabner, who alternately praised and grumbled about her husband during an interview.

"I’m supposed to be the balabusta while the house is falling down around us," she said, wryly. "And there’s Harvey … with his elbows sticking through his sleeves, reading and reading because Jews are supposed to be the ‘People of the Book.’ It’s like ‘Knowledge is golden but money, well, that will take care of itself.’"

In fact, financial concerns were a reason Pekar sought to turn "Splendor" into a film starting in 1980. Two decades later, he finally enlisted producer Ted Hope and filmmakers Pulcini and Berman, known for lively documentaries such as "Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s."

"Our first point of bonding with Harvey was that we come from ethnic backgrounds he can relate to: Jewish and Italian," said Berman, 39. "The second point was that we were not going to turn him into some fake, Hollywood hero."

The writer-directors cast Giamatti ("Big Fat Liar"), known for precise portrayals of losers, to play the gloomy Jew. One of Giamatti’s techniques: "I found a CD of cantorial music and listened to it to evoke a melancholy mood."

Pekar, in person, transitions from melancholy to fretful — the kind of guy who’d agonize over the supermarket checkout line.

"I’m obsessive compulsive and unhealthily pessimistic, and the success of the film hasn’t changed that," he said.

"American Splendor" opens today.

Lighten Up


With the demise of the former Soviet Union and the fall of communism in the early ’90s, the story of Soviet Jewry’s battle for survival appears to be ancient history. Yet one of the truly remarkable books of our time is the autobiography of one of the famous refuseniks, Yosef Mendelevitch, who struggled valiantly for his right to be Jewish in Communist Russia. Mendelevitch titled his autobiography "Mevzah Hatunah," which translates from Hebrew as "Operation Wedding."

Mendelevitch, together with a group of refusenik friends, tried to escape from the USSR in the early ’70s on a plane they had hoped to fly to Israel. But the KGB uncovered their plan, and they were arrested. At the trial they said that they were planning to go to a wedding. That story served as the basis for the book’s title.

Mendelevitch records how, during his prison sentence, he was often sent to solitary confinement in a 3-foot by 5-foot room with no heat or blanket, with a light that never turned off and a slop pail that was only emptied every 10 days. One stint in solitary lasted 90 days, but he sneaked in a Bible. He was caught reading his Bible a few days later, and the interrogator offered him the following deal: "If you give up the Bible, I will reduce your solitary confinement by 30 days. But if you keep it, I will add 30 days." He answered, "With my Bible there is no solitary confinement; without it, solitary confinement is unbearable."

This very thought is found in this week’s Torah portion. At the very start of the reading, the Torah records the commandment about which oil should be used for the lighting of the menorah in the tabernacle. After telling us that pure olive oil was needed, the Torah states that it was used "to lift the perpetual light." This expression is most unusual, for we would have expected the word to be "to kindle." The rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 45b) suggest that "to lift" teaches us that the fire for the menorah came from an already existing fire that was continually burning. The Talmud remarks, "A fire about which continually has been stated: It is the one with which they light the lamps of the menorah … from the fire which is on the altar." It was, if you will, lifted from that source and transferred to the menorah, in order to ignite the flames of the candelabrum.

In this piece of ritual information lies a great insight that has profound moral value. Light, in all literature, is a metaphor for gladness, which uplifts the heart of man. Indeed, in all universal languages, every form of fulfillment is compared to light. What the Torah teaches us via this law of the menorah’s lighting is that the source of our happiness is crucial. If there is to be light-happiness in our lives, then it must come from a source of holiness. When this occurs and one’s light-happiness is grounded in the correct source, that person then is "uplifted," and the fire burns eternally.

Mendelevitch found his source of light-happiness in the Bible, and it illuminated the darkness of his prison cell. Our challenge is to find our holy source of light and illuminate our lives accordingly.

Unintended Consequences


“I tell you, there was never a trip like this before. The motives are terribly sad, but we are going to have a lot of fun. This is another dimension of history.” With these words, Arnost Lustig and Jan Wiener, both Jewish survivors of the Shoah, embark on a trip to the Europe of their childhoods, documented in the film “Fighter.” Premiering at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, “Fighter” is a unique exploration of both the Holocaust and the Communist era of Eastern Europe.

The documentary is distinctive, in part, because Wiener and Lustig choose to focus on stories that tend to get soft-pedaled in favor of episodes portraying stoicism, heroic sacrifice and fighting spirit. While “Fighter” was originally envisioned as a historical biography, the focus turns more toward the relationship between Wiener and Lustig, whose friendship deteriorates during their trip as their conflicting personalities and divergent stories of survival give rise to one confrontation after another.

Director Amir Bar-Lev’s first feature-length film, “Fighter” makes intriguing use of the two survivors’ narratives, along with war footage, Nazi and Communist propaganda, and beautiful images of the European countryside to take the viewer on a journey through history and the human mind. It’s an unorthodox treatment of the Holocaust that gives the viewer a unique perspective on the damage exacted by not only by victimization but by heroism.

“Fighter” will have its world premiere on Fri., April 14, 11 a.m., with another screening Sun., April 16, 11 a.m. at the Directors Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $8.50 at the box office, over the phone at (888) ETM-TIXS or on the Internet at www.etm.com. The “Fighter” Web site is at www.fighterfilm.com.

Bulgarian Rhapsody


The exterior of the 1909 Central Synagogue inSofia. Below, Robert Djerassi, a Bulgarian official of the “JewishJoint” agency on a stairway of the Jewish Community Center with astar of David as part of the rail design

Photos by Larry Gordon

When I was asked to teach at a Bulgarianuniversity, my only clear images of the Balkan nation included itsinfamous Communist-era spy system, its great Olympic weight lifters,and its national women’s choir, whose haunting harmonies were popularin the West.

Quickly, however, I learned something else as Iresearched whether to accept the Fulbright grant to lecture injournalism at the American University in Bulgaria. “You know,” therefrain came to me suddenly from various sources, “that Bulgariasaved its Jews.”

No, I didn’t know. And, of course, as with allthings in history, the reality of Bulgarian Jewry turned out to muchmore complicated than that simple declaration. But this wasindisputable: The number of Bulgarian Jews actually increased duringthe Holocaust, even though the country was an ally of Hitler. Andafter the war, the new socialist government allowed 45,000 — thevast majority of Bulgarian Jews — to emigrate en masse toIsrael.

I was intrigued by the idea of an Eastern Europeancountry even marginally friendly to Jews during and just after WorldWar II. Partly as a result of that (and, I admit, a midlife desirefor an adventure), I moved with my wife and our then-5-year-olddaughter from our Los Angeles home to spend six interesting andchallenging months in a mountainside city close to the Greek border.When I wasn’t teaching, we often traveled two hours north to Sofia,Bulgaria’s capital, cultural center and focus of Jewish life. Thatwas two years ago. I recently returned by myself to Bulgaria for afew weeks to do more research about, among other topics, its Jewishcommunity and the entire country’s troubled efforts to create amarket economy from its post-communist shambles. Clearly, my initialinterest has turned into a deep emotional attachment to thisadmittedly obscure and small country (population 8.5 million) on theBlack Sea, just south of Romania. I like the yogurt and red winethere too.

During our first visit to Sofia, we attended RoshHashanah services at the Central Synagogue, an imposing Moorish-stylebuilding located a few blocks from the Sheraton Hotel and Sofia’smain department store. At the time, the crumbling main sanctuary wasin early stages of a restoration that continues today, its archwaysand domes being replastered and painted in vibrant colors, and itslovely chandeliers being repaired.

Services were held in a small side chapel, withTurkish-style rugs lining the walls and two rows of wooden seatssurrounding the bimah on three sides. I had never attended aSephardic service before and was fascinated at the differentmelodies. My daughter, accustomed to American Reform style, had neversat separate from me in a synagogue and was not happy aboutit.

At the synagogue, we were able to communicate withsome Bulgarians through a mixture of my Russian, which is closeenough to Bulgarian, and my wife’s Spanish, which is close enough tothe traditional Ladino that Bulgarian Jewish senior citizens stillspeak. The Ladino is a reminder of how far Jews settled after their15th-century expulsion from Iberia. In fact, Sofia’s rabbi, anIsraeli who arrived in 1994 and the first rabbi in Bulgaria in 30years, also can converse in Spanish. And young Bulgariansincreasingly study English. We also met young American social workersfrom the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who laterinvited us to holiday meals and helped us a lot.

After services, a lively crowd gathered in thecobblestoned courtyard for the kiddush. That open-air plaza behind ahigh metal gate was most evocative to me. It was here that many ofSofia’s Jews had gathered in May 1943 to plan protests against whatalmost became their deportation to German death camps. And it washere that many learned the deportations were canceled. If stonescould speak.

Unlike most of its neighbors, Bulgaria had littletradition of anti-Semitism. That remained so during centuries ofOttoman rule and after Bulgaria won its independence in 1878. Forexample, Bulgaria’s King Ferdinand even attended the dedication ofthe Central Synagogue in 1909, something unthinkable for the rulersof nearby nations at the time. Ferdinand’s son and successor, Boris,had Jewish friends but became an ally of Hitler in hopes of regainingterritory lost in previous Balkan wars. That bargain with the devilhad its price, to be paid in part with a policy against the Jews.Starting in late 1940, Bulgarian Jews were expelled from majorcities, put on work crews, and stripped of professional status andproperty as an appeasement to Hitler. Bulgarian occupying troopshanded over 11,000 Greek and Macedonian Jews to the Germans. TheNazis kept pressing for the deportation of Bulgaria’s own Jews.However, many aristocrats, intellectuals and, perhaps most important,leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church publicly protested. The Jewsthemselves lobbied like mad. King Boris’ role in all this remains amatter of historians’ debate. Some think that he was crucial incanceling the deportations and should be considered among theRighteous Gentiles. Others maintain that the king decided to stallHitler only because the war had turned against the Germans and Borisdidn’t want Bulgaria to face even greater censure from the Allies.(The most complete source for this is Frederick B. Chary’s “TheBulgarian Jews and the Final Solution” [University of PittsburghPress].) Whatever the motives, the outcome was Jewishsurvival.

For the Bulgarian Jews who did not emigrate toIsrael by 1951, the next 40 years of Marxism brought religioussuppression and a high rate of intermarriage.

Between 5,000 and 8,000 remain, and they now arebenefiting from the new freedoms brought by the fall of communism.The old synagogue and the 1930s-era Jewish community center abouthalf a mile away are coming back to life. In fact, an entire newfloor is being added to the center for youth classrooms. Youngpeople, who come from highly assimilated families, gather to studyHebrew and Jewish customs that many of their parents never learned.The “Siddur” has been transliterated for the first time intoBulgarian. Pesach seders are big public affairs. And a new public dayschool, with government support, teaches Hebrew as part of itsrecognized curriculum, attracting many Jewish children.

Robert Djerassi, a 49-year-old Bulgarian who has beenworking for the Joint for several years, took me on a tour of thecommunity center. He showed me the new construction, the library, thewrought-iron Stars of David and the menorahs that have remained fornearly 70 years on stairway banisters.

Djerassi recalled the thrill of Jewish revivalstarting in 1989. Some of that emotion cooled as everyday life undercapitalism took hold, said the former engineer. “Still, Jewish lifeis very active, sometimes hyperactive,” he said. “Sometimes I jokethat we have almost too much in activities for the number of peoplehere. Sometimes I joke that we have to import Jews.”

All that is encouraging to an outsider from LosAngeles. But one can also see a very different side of BulgarianJewry in the community center. In the office of the Jewish Agency, anincreasing number of people have been applying for aliyah to Israel,often to escape the brutal economic troubles that have roiledBulgaria in the past few years. A corrupt government ruinedBulgaria’s banking system last year and caused hyper-inflation.Without outside Jewish aid for heating bills and food, some Bu
lgarianJewish elderly might not have made it through the winter. Finally,last spring, a reformist pro-Western government was elected, and theeconomic situation is improving.

Beyond economics, many of the young people whoseJewish consciousness is newly raised are torn between moving toIsrael and trying to keep things going in Sofia. With assimilationand emigration, some people wonder if there will be any Jewish lifeleft in Bulgaria in a generation.

“There is a tension. We develop young leaders,help make them become more and more interested, and they often makealiyah,” said Simone Shaltiel of Chicago, a 24-year-old Joint workerin Sofia. She spoke as she was getting ready to take a group ofJewish teens on a weekend retreat.

Joseph Levi, the 71-year-old president of theJewish community, has a philosophical view. I interviewed him in thedusty office of the synagogue, often interrupted as senior citizenspeppered him with all kinds of requests for help. I asked him: “Willthere be a Bulgarian Jewish community in 20 years?”

Levi chuckled a bit. “Look, 50 years ago, we werethinking this community would disappear in five or 10 years. And weare still here,” he said. “We hope in 50 years to still be here.”

Larry Gordon also writes for the Los AngelesTimes.

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