site.btaRescue of 50,000 Jews in Bulgaria's Miracle of WWII, Says Svetlozar Kalev of Shalom Organization of Jews
If there are miracles, the rescue of 50,000 Jews in Bulgaria is the miracle of the Second World War, Svetlozar Kalev, Chairman of the Shalom Jewish Organization's chapter in Plovdiv (South Bulgaria), told BTA in an interview. "We are extremely grateful because what happened in Bulgaria did not happen anywhere else," he added.
According to him, the most important thing is that there was no deportation of Jews, thanks to the entire Bulgarian people and exclusively to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The Church influences people and unites all those who fight against this injustice, Kalev said.
The chairman of Shalom's Plovdiv chapter recounted memories of his father, Vitali Kalev, who worked for three years in labour camps.
"With the adoption of the Law for the Protection of the Nation, which led to a number of restrictions on the Jewish population, all Jewish men from 18 to 55 years of age were called to work in labor camps. At the time, my father was 21 years old," Kalev said.
Vitali, born in 1920, was the eldest of five children. He was only 16 when he started working because his parents were poor, like most who lived in Plovdiv at the time. These were working-class families who earned their living by hard labour. My father worked as an apprentice, a servant, a farmhand," Svetlozar Kalev said.
After September 9, 1944 [the communist coup in Bulgaria], his father managed to finish high school, became a journalist and worked until his retirement at Radio Plovdiv.
Vitali was in camps in Sandanski and Simitli (Southwest Bulgaria) and worked in road construction. These were times when families were left without men and income for many months, times of hardship and suffering, Kalev recalled.
In the camp near Simitli, where his father was sent, living conditions were very harsh. There were men there who were engaged in intellectual work - violinists, pianists. For them it was unbearable to do hard physical labour and to break rocks on the roads, for example, Kalev added. "One of my father's memories is that they all joined efforts and worked and met the quota of a famous violinist from Sofia in order to allow him to save his fingers and to be able to play afterwards," said the Chairman of Shalom's Plovdiv branch. According to him, the quotas were very difficult and almost impossible to meet. "My father used to tell me: 'There were good people and very bad people, those who despised the Jews and those who helped us. Like in any society'," said Kalev.
The men were not in the camps year-round, but for six or seven months at a time. There was everything there - somewhere they were allowed to symbolically celebrate the Jewish holidays, they had get-togethers, and even though life was harsh, in some camps they allowed these so-called entertainments, Kalev added.
In one of the camps, Vitali got a hernia. The doctor was a Serb officer and told him, "Boy, we don't have an anaesthetic to perform the operation, grit your teeth." They did the operation on him twice without anaesthetic. My father lived until he was 90, and he told this story with a kind of affection, Kalev recalled.
The Chairman of the Jewish organization in Plovdiv said that there are people in the Jewish community who lived to a very old age.
"Imagine finding yourself in such mortal danger. Well, what does it matter if later in your life your boss scolds you or you have some misfortunes. You have already become a philosopher. You have survived the worst. Everything else can be accepted. And maybe that's why their lives were easier - because they took things gracefully and went their own way," Kalev said.
One of the memories Vitali told his son, and later his granddaughters, was about the gathering of the Jews in Plovdiv in 1943. At the beginning of March, the deportation operation began and the first group was from Plovdiv, Kalev recalled. On March 10, about 700 people were summoned to the courtyard of the Jewish school to be transported by trucks to the train station and from there by train directly to Treblinka. Most of the people gathered at the school knew they were going to work, a small number knew they were going to their deaths. Some of them were afraid to tell their relatives, but the surrounding Bulgarians knew, Kalev said.
At the time Vitali was in a labour camp in Simitli. On March 9, while he was working on the road with other men, a train on which a friend was travelling passed him. He was coming from Plovdiv and told him, "Vitali, your people are being picked up," Kalev said. Vitali and another friend immediately caught a train to Sofia and from there left for Plovdiv - without documents, money and clothes. In Plovdiv, on 11 March, he met an acquaintance of his mother, who assured him that everything was fine, Kalev added.
Vital, however, was declared a fugitive, then arrested and had to be tried by law. In front of the military court, one of his lawyers told him that the judge was very good and advised him to say that he had gone to his parents because he was very worried. Vitali listened to him and the judge gave him only three months in prison, Vital's son said.
Vital Kalev began to tell his son about this period of his life only after Svetlozar became a college student. He was a good-hearted man and these camps, in my opinion, have not changed him, Svetlozar said of his father. He added that as children they knew about the Holocaust but had not heard these stories, and every family keeps a similar one. "In the 1960s, television appeared in Bulgaria and we saw the truth about the Holocaust on some of the TV shows," Svetlozar Kalev said.
I would like to point out that as early as 1940-41 this dissatisfaction among the Bulgarian people began, who even then understood that something was going on, but the authorities remained blind and deaf for three years, Kalev said. In his words, at the time the Law for the Protection of the Nation was in force, all Jews were described as "things of German pedantry." Eventually, the people prevailed, ordinary people wrote letters to the King, Kalev recalled. "Civil society woke up. Rich people did it at the risk of losing their professions, their properties, their status, like Obreiko Obreikov, Metropolitan Kirill, who stood up to the State during the war, small merchants, writers, artists, all sorts of people," said the Chairman of the Jewish organization in Plovdiv.
"Now we are explaining to the youth what happened because they have to assimilate it and understand how difficult justice is to attain," said Svletlozar Kalev. In his words, the Bulgarian people were convinced of the idea that other people cannot be killed and tortured unjustly. Some Jewish organizations around the world do not believe in the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews, Kalev said. People from Jewish families abroad come to Bulgaria and travel around the country meet with locals and put the pieces together of what happened, he added.
"Let's admit that Bulgaria is a unique country. There is a lot of grief and injustice in its history. Bulgarians have developed their own way of fighting this and always look to help others. Justice is woven into Bulgarian society," Kalev said. He said the Jewish population has always been well accepted in Plovdiv.
After the events of World War II, many Jews left for Israel. Jews have always dreamed of returning to the Promised Land, and there were clubs in Plovdiv where women prepared young girls for that, Kalev said. Today, the city's Jewish community numbers about 350. They celebrate holidays together, observe traditions. In Plovdiv, the properties of the Jewish community were preserved and under the Restitution Law returned completely, Kalev said. He added that the former Jewish school, whose building is owned by Shalom, is now a private school. We are pleased that the building has retained its purpose and will remain so, Kalev said.