Israeli ambassador to Bulgaria on Holocaust remembrance: ‘Just another milestone in the long journey’

This is the message from the State of Israel’s ambassador to Bulgaria, Irit Lilian, in relation to International Holocaust Remembrance Day

On January 27 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp. Sixty years later the international community decided that this date would be marked throughout the world as an official memorial day. The UN resolution urges every member nation of the UN to honour the memory of Holocaust victims, and encourages the development of educational programs about Holocaust history to help prevent future acts of genocide. It rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an event and condemns all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief. It also calls for actively preserving the Holocaust sites that served as Nazi death camps, concentration camps, forced labor camps and prisons. Bulgaria was one of the states that voted for resolution 60/07.

In November 2018 the general assembly of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) unanimously decided to accept Bulgaria as a full member of the organization, only two years after Bulgaria submitted its request to upgrade its position. In view of our common history and the special merit of Bulgaria, Israel became the mentoring country and accompanied Bulgaria on this process.

These informative facts hide a tedious and demanding journey not only to be accepted as a member of this organization but rather a journey into national memory and into the future historical and social narrative of Bulgaria. By Joining IHRA, a member state commits itself for an ongoing and challenging process of an “over-all” partnership, a national project aiming to change perceptions, to commemorate, to educate and to ensure that values like tolerance will be preserved.

If we look back at the previous year, we can honestly say that some important steps were taken to materialize this global commitment: The Bulgarian government was one of the first in Europe to adopt the working definition of antisemitism. It nominated Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Georg Georgiev as a national coordinator for combating Antisemitism and hate speech. The President of the Republic of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, was a guest of honour in the Global forum of combating Antisemitism. Prime Minister Boiko Borissov made a special journey to Skopje on March 10 and later to Israel to inaugurate the monument commemorating the salvation of the Jewish community of Bulgaria and the Deportation of the Jews of Macedonia, Thrace and Pirot. Last year was dedicated to commemorating 75 years of the rescue of the Jewish community as well as fostering Holocaust education, remembrance and research trying to adhere to the complete and accurate historical narrative. Some of the acts were symbolic, some were practical, but the road is still long and tough. Reality shows that it will become tougher in the coming future.

It will become tougher as the political environment in Europe becomes more populist. It will become tougher as every day a few Holocaust survivors die, leaving behind only their families as “second hand” witnesses. Personally, being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, I have my doubts about how much should we tell and at the same time how can the world forget or even deny the destiny of an eight-year-old boy whose safe world was shattered to pieces by the Nazi regime. How can we say “Never Again” when the entire international community has seen genocides in the recent years and sees an evident increase in racist and antisemitic incidents on a daily basis, even here in Bulgaria.

Last week a stone was thrown breaking the window of the synagogue of Sofia, the one that was built 110 years ago next to the mosque and to the Orthodox and Catholic Church in the famous one square kilometre of tolerance. The Religions Council, some politicians and state authorities, condemned indeed the act; an immediate effort was done to catch the vandal as that was an obvious act of hatred. Sadly, the stone throwing was just one act among many. Only in the past year we observed hate graffiti in the center of cities, desecration of graveyards, statements and posts online in the social media of antisemitic materials. Unfortunately, we cannot speak any more about individual acts but rather on a phenomenon that raises old times fears.

Dreadful scenes, that resemble too much those of the 30s in Europe, will return in a few week time, as the so-called “Lukov March” will parade in the streets of Sofia. They will march holding torches and flags and under fake patriotism, they will shout hateful messages towards all those who are seen by them as “the others”. Taking advantage of the court decision in favour of the principle of freedom of speech, they will probably speak against national minorities, against LGBT community and they might not be reluctant to speak against Jews. Actually, the website of the organizers that has more than 12 000 followers, hosts on a regular basis antisemitic comments mainly as reactions of this crowd to opponents of the march.

Hate speech, xenophobia and intolerance are on the rise across Europe and elsewhere in the world, Bulgaria is not exempt. Unlike many of these countries, Bulgaria has a legacy to preserve.

Unfortunately, tolerance is not part of the human DNA nor of a national DNA, it has to be cultivated. In the age of greater connectivity on one hand and of fake news on the other – it is a challenge that calls for immediate action. Legislation and education are magic words on this aspect. The legal system should be equipped with the best tools to combat acts of hatred; it is the responsibility of the political players on all levels to make sure that such tools are provided and that the law is enforced.

Bulgaria is a unique example to a country that managed to save the Jewish community during the Second World War, the story of Bulgaria should be told all over the world as a message to future generations: “Yes, you can”! Civil society can make a change, can be committed to preserve the fundamental values of solidarity and social cohesion, it is a matter of education.

More should be taught about the role of the individual in making a change for another person, for the one who is “the other”. The noble deeds of the Bulgarian real heroes, the Righteous Among Nations who were ready to risk their lives for their Jewish neighbours, friends or even total strangers.

School curriculum should be adapted to open a window of knowledge about the holocaust in the Balkans, teach a complete narrative in which the bright side of salvation does not overshadow the complicated reality at the time. The glory of salvation will be fully acknowledged only if the entire historical background during the Second World War is discussed, without hiding behind nice statements or avoiding the facts that are harder to accept.

Over 100 teachers from Bulgaria graduated the educator’s seminar in Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum. They are change agents, spreading their knowledge and know-how to students and colleagues, more are yet to come. Some cities in Bulgaria initiated a meaningful attempt to research in depth the history of the holocaust in the Balkan. In other cities, such as Breznik, a monument was erected marking the place of a work camp at the outskirts of town, more cities are about to follow- although in some cases they should overcome local public and political resentment.

Only by overcoming hurdles, by a persistent, ongoing action of devotion to the cause, the national and international body can immune itself against the maladies that are threatening it: intolerance, xenophobia and hatred but most of all – indifference.

As the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel said: “Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. Therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten”.

# WeRemember, but the journey towards remembrance is never over. In Joining IHRA, Bulgaria committed itself for a long road that never ends, to the vital journey that will shed light on the past and enlighten our future.



The Sofia Globe staff

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