In 2007 I flew from Tel-Aviv to Sofia, Bulgaria. My ticket was issued by Ophir Tours in Rishon Lezion.
The purpose of my trip was two-fold. One was to visit with the Jewish community in Sofia in the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe. The second was to have an audience with His Holiness, Patriarch Maxim, Pope of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
The Sofia Grand Synagogue was one of the most beautiful I had seen. There was a daily morning minyan attended by men and women. Following the prayers, the women prepared a hot breakfast for the worshippers. Several of the older men and youth who had been in Israel spoke fluent Hebrew and conversation flowed. I do not speak Bulgarian.
The older members described life in Bulgaria during the Second World War. Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany but refused to enforce racial laws. When the German troops entered Sofia and demanded the deportation of the Jews, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, led by its Pope, and accompanied by hundreds of Bulgarian Christians marched down the central avenue to protest the German demands.
The church and its leaders defied the Bulgarian government and, initially also King Boris, who were allied to Nazi Germany, by maintaining protest marches, preaching sermons calling on Bulgarian Christians to help their Jewish neighbors and providing aid to Jews in need.
The Pope himself declared “if any of our Jews are deported, I myself will lie on the train tracks to prevent any train from deporting them”.
The Jews of Bulgaria, natives of Bulgaria, were saved thanks to the humanity of the Orthodox Church. Non-native Bulgarian Jews, Macedonians and Greeks, however, were not saved and were deported. This was due to an agreement between King Boris of Bulgaria and the German authorities that no native born Bulgarian Jew would be deported. Not a single native Bulgarian Jew was ever deported and an entire Jewish population was saved.
The Jews lived in relative safety during the war years. To this day, they praise the former King and the late Pope of the Orthodox Church for saving their lives.
Anti-Semitism has been an unknown disease in Bulgaria’s history. Its hostility has been against the Muslim Turks who ruled over them for hundreds of years.
I had been a guest of the leader of the Jewish community who wined and dined me as though I were a member of the royal family. Every Bulgarian Jew whom I met treated me with immense kindness and were anxious to hear stories about life in Israel. No one had expressed interest in making aliyah as their lives were free and comfortable in Bulgaria.
One day I was taken to a summer camp for 200 Jewish children from Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Greece and Slovenia. What a joy it was to see them singing in Hebrew, dancing the hora, and proudly exemplifying their Jewishness. Many of them, perhaps even a majority, were children of mixed marriages but who were raised as Jews. Several of them had visited in Israel to see family relatives but all returned to Bulgaria. “It is our home” was the reply to my question.
A few days later the telephone rang in my hotel room. It was from the office of the Patriarchate inviting me for an audience with the octogenarian Pope. I was accompanied by a young Jewish woman from the Office of the Jewish Community who was to act as my interpreter. We were joined by the Pope’s secretary, Bishop Naum in the offices of the Holy Synod.
After initial greetings, I mentioned to His Holiness the Pope the gratitude of the entire Jewish world for the courageous acts of his predecessors and the members of the Orthodox Church who put their own lives in danger to save the lives of Jews.
The Pope was very gracious and humble. In his reply he told me “the Jews were Bulgarian citizens. They have lived in our country in peace and prosperity for centuries. They are our people and it was our Christian duty to help them during the very dark and bitter days of the German war”.
We exchanged gifts and I left with a blessing from Pope Maxim.
When it came time for my return flight to Tel-Aviv, I encountered a problem at the airport. At the gate, my ticket was not accepted.
The agent simply repeated over and over again in limited English, “no good, no good. Paper ticket. Paper ticket”. I did not understand what she meant. My ticket was a paper ticket, an electronic ticket, issued for two flights on El Al airlines. But “paper ticket, paper ticket” was not acceptable. Finally I learned that they required a regular passenger ticket, not an e-ticket.
I was instructed to go to the El Al office in downtown Sofia to exchange my ticket for a regular one.
Doing so meant I lost my flight. I phoned the El Al office from the airport and described my problem.
The office was scheduled to close in twenty minutes but it would take me at least forty-five minutes to reach it by taxi. The woman at the other end of the phone kindly and graciously responded, “don’t worry. Don’t hurry. I will be pleased to wait for you”.
With the new ticket in hand issued by El Al (all thanks to them) I returned to my hotel to await a flight back to Tel-Aviv on the next day.
At the Sofia airport, I presented the new ticket and was allowed to board the flight. Ma tov lihiyot ba bayit kan ba aretz. How good it was to be home here in Israel.
Every time I hear the words “paper ticket, paper ticket” the Bulgarian visit comes to mind.