Survivors reminisce about Bulgarian aid

Mati Pinski, left, and her sister were children in 1942 during the war in Dupnitza.

Iana Vladimirova

Mati Pinski, left, and her sister were children in 1942 during the war in Dupnitza.

Iana Vladimirova

I spoke with survivors from the entire country. Highlights of conversations with four of them, Valentina Aizenshtein, Stella Erera, Mati and Avraam Pinski, are included in this article.

Stella Erera was 15 years old when the Bulgarian Jews had to be deported. She is from Dupnitza, the town where the Jews from Thrace and Macedonia waited for a whole month to be deported. Dupnitza had a Jewish population of 5,000. Mati is also from Dupnitza. She says that at home they always talked to each other in Bulgarian.

“The older people,” she said, “knew ladino, which is like Spanish. My grandparents even had an accent.”

Avraam Pinski is a film producer. He was born in north Bulgaria on the Danube River, where another big part of the Jewish population was concentrated. Valentina Aizenshtein was born in Russia in 1917. For a while her family moved to Berlin. Her father, who was a merchandiser, was offered a project in Bulgaria.

“Bulgaria is the heaven on earth,” his friends told Valentina.

Her teacher, though, did not share the same opinion. She told Valentina: “What, the Balkans! Only thieves live over there. Completely wild country.”

Q: How would you describe the Bulgarians? What was the Bulgarians’ attitude toward the Jews?

Valentina: There were a lot of refugees to Bulgaria because Bulgaria was famous with its nice attitude toward the Jews. You cannot see this in any other country. Bulgarians trust the foreigners more than their own people. In France, for example, the foreigner was considered dirty and receives no tolerance.

Q: Did this attitude change after the Law for the Defense of the Nation was accepted?

Valentina: When Hitler came to power, in school they started paying a lot of attention to the sports. I was going to the German school in Sofia; it had a lot of Jewish children at that time. The teachers in our school were against Hitler and we all knew it. After the Law of Defense was accepted, special teachers came in the school but their attitude wasn’t different. One day they told us that we could not go to school anymore.

Stella: On most of the shops it was written that Jews were forbidden to go in. But there was one sweet shop I liked to go to, because there were so many different kinds of cakes. So I would take my badge off and the seller would give me anything I wanted. Of course, he knew I was Jewish. But he never made a fuss about it.

Mati: I had a lot of non-Jewish Bulgarian girlfriends. When the Law for the Defense of the Nation was accepted, they started to go with me to the demonstrations and even wore the yellow star.

Q: What about the rest of the people? Did they try to help you?

Stella: They were always helping us. Bulgarian friends of my father would come to our house early in the morning and give us flour, eggs…they would leave them in front of the house. There was a teacher, who was also coming to tell us if he had gotten some information or news from Russia. He was also coming early in the morning and leaving a piece of paper in front of the door.

Q: Did they want any money?

Stella: Never! Every year my father bought honey from a man, Bay Iordan. But in 1942 when they closed my father’s shop, my father had nowhere else to earn money. That is why he told Bay Iordan to stop giving us honey because we could not give him money.

Bay Iordan replied, “Even if you offered me money, I wouldn’t have taken it.” And he never stopped giving us honey.

Mati: They sent my brother to a work camp. He was always telling us that all the people from the village, which was near their camp, would give the bread, eggs, watermelons…whatever they had. Bulgarians are good people, tolerant…maybe that is why they didn’t send us to the death camps.

Q: What about the soldiers from the anti-Semitic organizations “Bratnik” and “Ratnik?”

Mati: We were living with my parents on a small street. When they forced us to stay at home, on the same street they were selling watermelons. Me and my sister started crying, “Daddy, daddy, please buy us a watermelon.”

My father said: “OK. You both go. It is very close.”

So we went with my sister and we bought a watermelon. But on the way back, we saw a Bratnik soldier standing just in front of our house. He started twisting our arms, swearing at us…We were so frightened…We started screaming, “Daddy, daddy…” but he couldn’t help us. We never thought of eating watermelons after that.

Stella: There were Bratnik soldiers in the village, but all of them were going to my school. When they would see me at the street, they said: “Stella, is that you? Why did you take off your star? Go home!” And I would answer, “I want to buy bread.”

“Give me your money. You wait here, I will go to buy you bread.”

Some of them were not very nice, but they were mostly from the neighborhood and we knew each other.

Q: Do you remember the Jews from Trace and Macedonia?

Mati: They arrived one night and they didn’t stop screaming the whole night. Everybody was helping them, but mainly the Bulgarians, because the Jews were very poor and they were not allowed to buy a lot of food. We had special tickets for food.

Stella: Of course, I do. I didn’t go, but my father went to see them. They were held in the factory. Every time my father would come back crying. He said that they didn’t have anything to eat, there were pregnant women, and the children were all naked. Some people died there. Everybody from the village was bringing them food and clothes. It was February; it was very cold.

There was a woman who was living next to the factory. She would boil enormous pots full of potatoes and throw the food through the fence.

Q: For how long did they keep you closed at your houses?

Stella: For 20 days. They told us to prepare a small sack with the most important things and to wait to be deported. But nobody told us where we were going.

Q: Did you suspect where you were going?

Mati: To a camp, that is what they were telling us. We were kids; we thought we were going on a vacation, you know, a camping vacation. Classmates and I even said, “It will be great. We are going to play all day long.”

We were happy that we wouldn’t need to go to school.

Stella: I was crying all the time because my mum didn’t want to take my roller-skates.

Avraam Pinski: Even my father didn’t know where we were going. They told us that we were going to Sofia, so my father bought the most expensive tickets, first class. They had everybody prepare a small sack and wait at the port at 9 o’clock. All of a sudden, German soldiers surrounded us all.

Q: Was there anti-Semitism in Bulgaria?

Avraam: There never was anti-Semitism in Bulgaria; 1905 is the only case. In Lom, a child was killed, and they accused the Jews of killing sacrifice. It is true that there were some small anti-Semitic newspapers, but nobody paid them any attention.

Mati: We were very close to the Bulgarians. We went to their holidays, and they come to ours. My neighborhood was called the Jewish neighborhood, but there were a lot of Bulgarians who were living there.

Avraam Pinski says he saw Eichmann when he was a child. A ship full of Jews from another country waited at the Bulgarian port to depart to the death camps. Avraam’s father quickly took from his store a couple of cartons of cigarettes and told Avraam to run and give them to the Jews on the ship. Avraam did what his father told him but he couldn’t see anybody on the ship to give the cigarettes to. Finally, he saw a man eating his meal in one of the cabins. He gave him the cigarettes and asked him to give them to the Jews on the ship. Years later, Avraam saw the picture of the same man in the newspaper and under the photo was written “Adolf Eichmann.”