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Letter from Sofia

DIMITAR PESHEV

Letter from Sofia
November 30, 2004

Here’s a quiz.

Can you name the European country that protected its 50,000 Jews during the Second World War, despite Hitler’s determined efforts to have them deported to the death camps?

Let me give you a hint.

It’s the very same country that was allied with Hitler as one of the Axis nations, just as it had joined with the Central Powers during World War I.

The country? Bulgaria.

Located in southeastern Europe, Bulgaria, about the size of the State of Tennessee, isn’t exactly a household name for much of the world. It spent a good part of the last thousand years trying to assert its independence, more often than not unsuccessfully. For five centuries it was dominated by the Ottoman Empire, and before that by the Byzantine Empire. It gained its full freedom from the Ottomans in 1878, only to choose the losing side in both world wars, and then to fall into the Soviet orbit for four decades.

Moreover, with no significant diaspora in the West, with little tourism from outside the region until recently, and with little known about its culture, people, or products, the usual response I’ve encountered to Bulgaria is something akin to a blank stare. When asked to place it geographically, most people say that it’s somewhere in the Balkans, but few know exactly where.

In fact, it is in the Balkans, and its location is strategically important. Its neighbors to the south are Turkey and Greece, to the west Serbia and Macedonia, and to the north Romania. On the east, it borders the Black Sea, together with Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey.

Bulgaria’s population numbers 7.5 million. Like an increasing number of European countries, its population is expected to decline in the coming years due to a low birthrate. Ethnically, the country is 84 percent Bulgarian, 9.4 percent Turkish, and 4.7 percent Roma (Gypsies). Religiously, 83 percent of the population is Bulgarian Orthodox, 12 percent is Muslim, and there is a smattering of Catholics and Protestants. Jews number approximately 6-8,000, though estimates vary.

Source: Global Jewish Advocacy