Amid the rolling lush green hills of Bulgaria’s Rhodope mountains and the soaring majesty of the pines that cluster closely to shade their slopes, there are roads that connect the southern Bulgarian town of Nedelino to the outside world.
To paraphrase the words of another writer, there is a road that runs from Nedelino to Byal Izvor, and a road that runs to Zlatograd, and they are lovely beyond all singing of it. The glittering rivers and streams, the houses in the Rhodope style perched on those slopes and panoramas, the haystacks enfolded in the style traditional to the region, those winding roads that meander amid it all, offering the eye a delight, the memory a treasure, the impulse to urge others to sample the magnificence of it all.
But hold that impulse of delight. On this sweltering early July day in 2019, our purpose is different, not to savour the delights of the surroundings, but to commemorate those whose sweat was forced from their brow, more than seven decades ago, to make those roads possible, the ones today that motorists may drive on their way in the direction of Greece.
We commemorate much grimmer summer sweltering days, long days and long months – from March to the first biting chills of winter – when, under the antisemitic Defence of the Nation Act, Bulgarian Jewish men, aged from 18 to 45, were pressed into forced labour, to build these roads.
The road from Nedelino to Byal Izvor is about 18km. The road from Nedelino to Zlatograd, about the same distance. Thirty-six km of road built by men, many at very least unaccustomed to hard manual labour, none accustomed to the vagaries of undernourishment, inadequate accommodation, the perspiration and desperation for water, all in the name of a Bulgaria turned officially hostile to one of its communities, those decades ago, here in Nedelino, between 1942 and 1944. Separated from their families, for those long months, those families themselves stricken by discriminatory food rationing and a raft of other deprivations of human rights, all for being Jews.
Addressing the July 3 ceremony to unveil a commemorative plaque to those who suffered here, Maxim Benvenisti, head of the Tzedaka charitable foundation of the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom”, says: “Some gave bread, others gave beatings”.
This is true. There were those – very many – Bulgarians who, offended at the injustices meted out to their Jewish compatriots, did what they could to alleviate their suffering. There were also those who revelled in augmenting their suffering.
History is a messy business, points out the ambassador of the State of Israel, Irit Lilian, before the monument is unveiled. Neither quite white nor black. It is true that Bulgarians stood up to prevent the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews to the death camps of the Holocaust. It is also historical fact that Jews from territories then under Bulgarian administration were deported. It is also true that at forced labour camps like at Nedelino and about 10 others, Bulgarian Jews were penalised, in conditions that were inhumane, for no other reason than a statute – modelled on the Nuremberg laws of Hitler’s Germany – that deemed them deserving of penalty.
We have driven the road to get here, we see the road signs pointing to Byal Izvor and to Zlatograd. We stand, shedding streams of perspiration in the unrelenting July heat. When the ceremonies and speeches are over, for us there will be respite, cool water, delicious Rhodope cuisine. For the Bulgarian Jewish men of those decades ago, there was no respite. History records that the “summer” labour camps could continue into the overtures of winter. In recent history, Nedelino has been cut off and deprived of electricity in the throes of winter. No time to be in a tent or a draughty barracks, facing another day of slave labour, another day of pickaxe and spade in the name of the roads which, Boyan Kehayov, mayor of today’s Nedelino municipality points out, we still drive on.
History bequeaths us things; roads, that we still use, however brutal their provenance. Moreover, an obligation of commemoration, an obligation of memory, an obligation to ensure that the next generation knows. In front of an assembly of residents of Nedelino who turned out to watch the ceremony, an air of solemnity about them, that last-mentioned obligation was affirmed by all.
The State of Israel’s Ambassador Irit Lilian, in a meeting at the municipal headquarters ahead of the official public ceremony, praises mayor Kehayov. He has had the courage to become the second mayor, after that of Breznik, to co-operate in the placing of a plaque commemorating the forced labour of the Bulgarian Jews all those decades ago. He has demonstrated his willingness to face the truths of history head on, honestly. In remarks repeated later at the public ceremony, ambassador Lilian expresses the hope that others, in other municipalities that were the sites of forced labour camps for Bulgarian Jews, will follow suit.
The plaque is unveiled, by the mayor, by the ambassador, by Nikolai Galabov, head of the Friends of Israel in Bulgaria “Negev” instrumental in the implementation of this project.
In the searing sunshine that beats down its heat on Nedelino this day, there is another commemoration, another part of the colourful fabric of this southern Bulgarian town, perhaps a few more than 20km from today’s Greek border, which fated the brutal construction project of those roads those decades ago. On the renovated town square, a memorial is unveiled to Nikolai Kaufman, the musicologist who encountered and was entranced by the local variations of folklore and brought them to the attention of specialists around the globe.
Kaufman, of Ashkenazi Jewish descent – he made contributions in that area as well, in his studies of musicology – is the subject of an emotional tribute by his widow Dimitrina, who said her farewells to him just last March. After detailing Kaufman’s considerable contributions to the science of musicology and the unique place of Kaufman and Nedelino within it, she verges close to losing her poise, her detailing of these achievements. “We love you, Nedelino,” she chokes. Moments after his memorial is unveiled, she leans in to place a kiss on the effigy of her late husband.
There they stand now, those monuments to the inmates of the labour camps to which Bulgarian Jews were forced, and the musicologist who made his contribution not only to a local but also to a global culture. Affixed to the wall is a painting depicting forced labour at the Nedelino camp.
There is a road that runs from Nedelino, and in the words of that writer, it is lovely beyond all singing of it. Ceremonies over, our car makes its winding way towards Sofia. We turn right, to do so; there is a sign to the left: “Byal Izvor 18km”. In the phrase of Holocaust remembrance, we look on that modern sign, and: We Remember.
(All photos: Clive Leviev-Sawyer, The Sofia Globe)