Thoughts from First International Trip to Greece, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan

Greek survival during the Holocaust was miraculous, as someone whom we met was 9 at the time the Nazis came in 1943. Other families hid his family, the Greek policemen stood up to the Nazis when they tried to come to their house, and perhaps the most astounding, he spent 18 months sleeping in the mountains to escape the Nazis. He slept in snow, he slept piled on top of his brothers, he slept through everything. After his amazing survival, he came back to his town, Chelkita, and uncovered a cemetery there of Jews that dates back to the third century BCE. Speaking to this man was absolutely the most inspirational part of Greece.

One of our amazing tour guides, this one in Thessaloniki, talked not only about the genocide that is the Holocaust, but the “memocide” that occurred within it. Greek Jewry was one of the hardest hit of all European countries in terms of the percentage of the Jews that were murdered. In Thessaloniki, 96% of the Jews were murdered, meaning the Greek traditions were almost completely wiped out and barely anyone was left to remember who was killed. The memocide that occurred, though, took this a step further, according to our guide. There was a Jewish cemetery that held 350,000 corpses of Jewish mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. During the Holocaust, Nazis told the Jews at the time that in just a few days, they were going to destroy the cemetery, wiping out these people’s memories forever. The Jews acted as swiftly as they could, but managed to only save 1,000 bodies.

As a result, the Nazis successfully wiped the memory and ancestry of the Jewish people here, so much so that currently, on the land that was the cemetery, Aristotle University stands with its thousands of students learning every day. Many students may have no idea exactly where it is that they are. The only reminder to those passing by is a small yet powerful monument that was only erected after the year 2000. The monument has tombstones around its edges with the message written in various languages, including Hebrew and Ladino, about what happened here. In the center of the monument there is a casket made out of stone, with a Jewish star tilted on its side sitting in front of it and a menorah pushed to its side sitting behind it. It gives the whole monument a disheveled feeling, a feeling that goes far beyond the monument for the Jewish community here in Greece. Thessaloniki has worked hard to revive its Jewish roots, and as warm the community was to us for Shabbat, the community is still small and working to get back to where it was. That being said, the values and closeness that this smaller community fosters cannot be fully understood when trying to compare it to our own larger Jewish communities in the US. These Jews need each other to simply just continue the tradition and the faith. There’s more to going to synagogue, to being Jewish, a sense of a larger belonging that makes the sum of these Jewish parts powerful.

Earlier in the trip, in Athens, we got to meet the Chief Rabbi of Greece, Rabbi Negrin, who acted as our tour guide at all the important Jewish places in Athens, from the Jewish school, to the Jewish museum, to everything in between. What is most impressive about Negrin besides his young age, is that he is a homegrown Rabbi, which cannot be said about any other Rabbi we met on this trip. Everyone else is imported from either Israel or Moscow, making it harder to really get close with the community and gain trust. For Negrin, however, the entire community watched him grow up and knows the education he got and what his values are. He knows all the kids and their parents, making the community more willing to follow him. He is a very modest chief Rabbi, and he even came running with us and showed us the President’s house among other government buildings during our run. He inspires the Jewish kids in Athens to become professional Jews, one of the most helpful ways to ensure the strengthening and continuation of Jewry in Greece.

We also visited the Parthenon and the Oracle at Delphi, two centers of the Greek Empire during their reign. What was so mind-blowing being at these two places was that Greek civilization was just so advanced for their times. They made huge advances in medicine, technology, architecture, etc. and everyone was expected to be multifaceted and not specialize in one thing. Everyone was supposed to participate in the democracy, no matter who they were, so much so that the word idiot stems from the ancient Greek word idiotes, which means private person or self-centered person who does not care of the matters of society. To paraphrase, Greek society considered people who didn’t care for others idiots. They paved the way for philosophy, but Greece’s greatest philosophers were not solely thinkers, but also doctors and play writes and anything in between. The Oracle at Delphi also dates back thousands of years and was seen as the center of the universe at its time. Kings from all over the world came to ask the Oracle their biggest questions/problems, to which the Oracle would respond in almost a riddle that the King would not understand until it was too late.

We also saw one of the first stadiums where track and a type of olympics was held at the top of Delphi, which was really cool. There was seats and the field spanned about 170 yards on the straightaways. That night, we made a 4 hour drive and arrived for Thanksgiving dinner late. While it was weird having Thanksgiving in Greece, especially with having a vegetarian, Turkey free meal at the hotel, we all talked about what we did at home and some even went around the table and said what they were thankful for. Even though it wasn’t a traditional Thanksgiving to remember, there is no doubt I’ll never forget Thanksgiving in Greece.

Before we left for Bulgaria, a few of my friends and I got our last souvlaki. As we were waiting for our food to come, my friend started asking people in the restaurant if anyone spoke English. One person pointed to his friend, and so we began to talk to him. We eventually learned that he was a Syrian refugee who had been smuggled out of Syria with his Grandma and eventually found his way to Greece. Though he didn’t have a job, he was just happy to be out of Syria and be in a safe space. We practiced a little bit of our Arabic as we rushed back to make the bus to Bulgaria. We learned the next 5 days in Bulgaria would be similar yet different to Greece. Not only did Bulgarian Jewry have to survive the Holocaust, it also had to survive communism. In Bulgaria we would focus much more on meeting our Jewish peers, the 17-18 year olds that were beginning to make up the next generation of Bulgarian Jews.

Communism almost completely wiped out any real trace of religion in the country, and as a result, the Jewish community has had a hard time flourishing in the recent past. However, led by the young people in the community, through youth groups and the JCC, the Jewish community is becoming more and more involved. Many grandparents made sure that their grandchildren knew what Judaism is all about before passing, and so the kids feel a real familial connection to their Judaism. The big problem in Bulgaria is that they have been unable to have a homegrown Rabbi, and instead have only imported Rabbis from Israel. As a result, the Rabbi that is supposed to be the leader of the community does not actually know what the community is really about and often leaves once his kids become old enough for day school, since there is no day school for the kids to learn at. Overall, the city of Sofia was pretty booming, especially after being in Athens. Maxim, who is about 30 and is the head of the JCC in Sofia, has high hopes for the community and says that it is going to get better as the current kids become adults. BBYO, an international Jewish youth group, has a very strong presence with the kids here, and it was clear that these kids are pretty proud of their Judaism. This is definitely a city worth coming back to, but having said all of this, there was something off with Bulgaria.

Something just didn’t sit quite right here, whether it was seeing swasitkas in train stations or hearing what the communists did to the religion here or the effect they still have today. It was inspiring to see the efforts of Maxim and a women our age named Alexa who were reviving the community through JCC and BBYO activities for the youth; however, the Jewish community has a long way to go. At the Lauder school that we visited in Sofia, they are not allowed to teach religion as said above, but the 9th grade Hebrew class that I visited looked and felt a lot like my 8th grade Hebrew class back in Boston. The only difference was that instead of explaining Hebrew in English, the Israeli teacher explained it in Bulgarian. Besides this detail, though, the class was learning in the same style through similar books that many of my friends on Kivunim had read in high school. It made the world seem pretty small, especially the Jewish one. We also learned from Maxim, 30, about how it was really his grandparents’ generation that brought back Judaism to their kids after communism. The parents’ generation didn’t really have much religious background and, as a result, didn’t always practice so much in the home. This left the responsibility to Maxim and the JCC to provide Friday night dinners and such to the community to instill Jewish traditions in the youth outside of the home. It made me wonder what is more important in creating Jewish traditions and values – Jewish education or practice in the home? Practice in the home really solidifies it as part of your own tradition, whereas learning it in school might just make it another fact.

Later in the day after visiting the Lauder school, we were split up into groups of 3 plus 1 Bulgarian teen and visited the elderly. The woman I met with asked us at the beginning if we spoke any other languages besides English in Bulgarian, and we all thought we knew Spanish so we said Spanish. As a result, she started speaking Ladino, a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish (the Spanish equivalent to Yiddish) which we could not understand at all. It definitely felt like a missed opportunity to hear an amazing story and ask the elderly about communism and the Holocaust all due to a language barrier.

What was very cool to learn about, though, was about how Bulgaria saved its Jews from the Holocaust. Two bishops basically saved the Bulgarian Jews by sticking up for them in the Bulgarian Orthodox community. They made sure the Nazis didn’t touch the Jews by not sending them to the death camps. At the monastery we visited, they even have a plaque as a memorial to these two bishops and the amazing feats they accomplished. They are also buried at this beautiful monastery.

The night after the monastery we tried to go to a club, but they charged us 5 times the amount they were charging Bulgarians, so we decided to just go to this Bulgarian rap concert. It was one of the most bizarre experiences I have had. The rappers were all dressed in lab coats as scientists, and I had no clue what they were saying but the whole crowd was getting really into it. It felt like one of the most uniquely Bulgarian experiences I could have had, yet it also felt like I had been to the American equivalent. This opened my eyes again to the globalization of the world today. This was reenforced by seeing all the McDonalds, Subways, and KFCs that were in Sofia. American influence definitely reaches far across the world. I saw this even more in Azberaijan, a country I really didn’t expect to see these American companies in. After an interesting week in Sofia, we boarded a plane to Baku via Istanbul. We had no clue just how different this third country would be.


Azerbaijan highlights:
Azerbaijan and its capital Baku were definitely the highlights of this three-week adventure. As soon as we got off the plane, it was clear that this country was very different than the other countries or anywhere else I’ve ever been. Every single building is majestic and lit perfectly in the night to make the city look rich and powerful. After all, it is an oil-rich country, and as a result it has as someone told us, they have too much money to know what to do with. It was surreal walking around and felt like we were in the capital of the Hunger Games. The crazy thing was that the buildings we did go into were actually pretty run down inside, and as we got out of the city the wealth gap was very easy to see. Buildings became smaller, way less nice on the outside, let alone the inside. It also seemed like everyone we met with was feeding us propaganda, and we somehow got access to a ton of government officials, including the assistant to the President. We were also on national TV and on the front page of the big paper there. For the first while, no one would give us a straight answer about what Azerbaijan’s biggest internal problems were; it seemed like they wanted us to believe they had no problems and was a utopia. All they would tell us about is their conflict with Armenia that they said was their national tragedy, and everything related back to this. This was definitely an eye-opening experience.

​Even on the plane ride to Azerbaijan it felt different than the other countries. I sat next to a little boy and his mom, and despite our huge language barrier, using the maps on the plane tvs, we were able to communicate. I showed them Boston, and they showed me Baku, where they were from. They were returning from a mini-vacation in Istanbul and tried to teach me about their country. When that was hard, the little boy started teaching me how to count to 10 in Azeri, which was one of the cutest things ever. I taught him some English words as he taught me more Azeri by explaining with his hands. This encounter gave me a positive outlook before I even got off the plane, which was reinforced again by these majestic buildings. It just felt like this was the place to be and everything was perfect in those first few hours. It began to feel a little fishy the next few days.

In our first full day, we met with the multicuturalism center, which is part of the government. There was press on hand for what they called this international conference. They told us about how tolerance was a huge huge deal for them in this country, and that everyone lived in perfect harmony with each other, especially among different religions. Despite the country being 95% Muslim, the minority groups have never felt any type of discrimination. There has never been any anti-semitism, which was incredible to hear. However, once we started prodding a bit more with our questions, it was clear they were not painting the full picture of Azerbaijan. While it does seem like there is complete religious tolerance among the people, other forms of tolerance that we, as Americans, take for granted, were not seen. When one of my friends asked them to explain what other tolerance there was outside of religious tolerance in the country, for example about gay and women’s rights, they gave a very vague answer. One of the women leading the meeting said that they basically had a don’t ask don’t tell policy, where people can do whatever they want behind closed doors in private, but she did not say what that meant in public. After the meeting, I asked one of the other leaders of the meeting, and he said that same-sex marriage is not legal in the country. Also, the women said she did not believe in the need to advocate for women’s rights because, as she said, women already had equal rights. She referenced herself being in the position she was in in the government to argue that women have equal rights here. The rest of our trip begs to differ, though, as she was one of the only women we met that was part of the government. Almost every other government or significant official we met with was an old, white male. She also argued that it is the fault of the woman in domestic violence issues because, as she said, the woman should be able to defend herself or not piss off her significant other so much that he moves to violence, which definitely shocked me. It showed the culture of the country was still trying to shake off its communism just 20 years after becoming a democracy. When I asked one of the meeting leaders after the meeting to expand on what their tolerance policy was – they were very vague with it during the meeting – he said that people don’t really know anything else in the country, and so their policy is a “ignorance is bliss” approach. Basically, they just don’t do anything to incite discrimination, making it seem like it is more because of the people than the government that this place is so “tolerant.”

We also went to the Jewish city of Quba, which, as I said above, is the only completely Jewish city outside of Israel, but as our tour guide kept telling us, it is not a ghetto. The Jews here are called Mountain Jews, but their religiosity has almost vanished because of communism. Many of them don’t know any of the Jewish laws, but interestingly enough, a good portion of them go to synagogue every single morning, despite not really knowing the prayers. They also have a tradition of taking off their shoes before entering the prayer space, which one of our teachers said was probably because of the Islamic influence in the state. They said they kept kosher, but when someone asked them what that meant, their definition of Kosher was different than the traditional definition. According to the woman we met with at the synagogue there, the Mountain Jews have been in Azerbaijan in Quba for over 2600 years, making it one of the places the Jews have been for the longest. We didn’t get to meet with the Jewish school there, though we did get to have a great snowball fight among ourselves, including our director!

We went to the memorial park in Baku as well, which had memorials for their biggest tragedies, including the one with the Armenians. At the end of it, they had an eternal fire, which is a big deal in Azerbaijan, as the name literally translates to country of fire. This was one of the most influential places for Zoroastrianism back in the day due to its propensity for natural fire. There is a mountain in Azerbaijan that has had a natural fire due to the gasses it emits for over 60 years continuously. This fire was also lit during the time of the Zoroastrians, which the religion cherished, as they found fire sacred. As a result, they built a fire temple which we visited, which felt like it was straight out of Avatar the Last Airbender. There was fires all around the temple with mini rooms that told their stories.

We also were told we were going to be meeting with the Vice President of Baku for 2 hours during our trip, but when we quickly found out at this meeting that it was actually the “assistant to the president” which some said was his second hand man, while one of our tour guides said he was actually a lot farther down the ladder than that. Either way, there was a crazy amount of press there, and this man called this meeting an international conference with Masters and PhD students from leading American universities and top representatives from Baku. This was obviously false, as none of us is even in college yet! But for propaganda’s sake, on this day we were. He again told us about the conflict with Armenia and it still felt like everything he was telling us was not real. He wouldn’t say anything negative about the country, saying again the country’s biggest internal problem was the Armenian occupation of their land and left it at that. While it was very cool to meet with a government official who may or may not have been really important, it still felt like we were being lied to. This began to get cleared up once we visited the Chabad a day after the assistant to the president.

The Chabad Rabbi met us outside the Jewish school, and from there right when we walked in we saw what were basically shrines to Heydar Aliev, Azerbaijans first president after Soviet rule some 20 years ago. These shrines are found all over the state, and the airport, train station, business center, mall, etc. are all named after him as well. While the country supposedly has a democracy, his son quickly was elected after Heydar with 88% of the vote. According to one of my friends, though, the election results were released accidentally by the government before the actual election, which would seem to say that these elections may have been rigged. Also, next to the usual Rebbe that is pictured in Chabads was Heydar Alieve’s photo, again showing the culture here that no one could be above this president.

The Chabad Rabbi explained to us why everyone was telling us lies; it was because it was their custom as hosts to just say positive things to their guests. This meant that everything positive they were telling us, he said, was actually true. They just didn’t like saying the negative things. This Rabbi was also imported from Israel but has been living here for 7 years. He has fostered a strong Jewish school in Baku that gets around the laws of Azerbaijan that prohibit teaching religion. The government is afraid of Islamic radicalism, and as a result, he said, it prohibits any religious education, despite it being a Muslim country. He added that the government doesn’t really care too much that they are teaching religion as long as they don’t see it. At the Chabad school, we walked into a room where there was a girls choir singing songs in Hebrew that many of us knew from camp or school, so we promptly joined them for an impromptu song session. It was really cool that even though we didn’t know their first language, Hebrew united us, a language we both knew solely because we were Jewish. This, and this trip as a whole, definitely made me prouder to be Jewish.

One of our tour guides was named Cameron, and he offered one of the more realistic points of view that we got. A little background on why we were able to meet with all of these government officials: There is an Israeli-Azeri named Aryeh Gut who has helped bond his two countries to become closer Allies, and Kivunim brought him in to give us a lecture because we were going to Azerbaijan. He has high connections in the Azeri government and so he arranged for all these meetings. He even came to Azerbaijan with us to meet these officials with us. Needless to say, he was more a part of “old money” than new money, aligning more heavily with the government. Cameron, on the other hand, was a young 20-something who has a boyfriend of 8 years. In one of our reflection sessions, we had both Cameron and Aryeh join us help us figure out what were some of the challenges the citizens of the country face. While Cameron started to try and share his point of view, Aryeh would interrupt with his point of view. We could see the difference in opinion, but more than that, I thought it highlighted what maybe is one of Azerbaijan’s biggest challenges: the disconnect between the government and its people. Our tour guide said he likes the president, but he has a problem with the government as a whole (sound familiar?). He pointed to teacher salaries, medical treatment, and more. Past the problems and challenges both these men told us their country faces, it is clear that there is a huge gap within the country in many different aspects of life.

Before we left Azerbaijan, we had our final big meal all together in the old city of Baku with plov, a pilaf dish that they cooked inside squash. At this dinner, we listened to traditional Azeri song and saw traditional Azeri dance. After having most of our dinners out and in smaller groups the past few weeks, it was nice to have everyone together to reflect on a life changing three weeks. We said goodbye to our new Azerbaijani friends and had one last dance party dancing to whatever was playing. (Earlier in the trip, when we had a group lunch at a local Domino’s, we basically turned the restaurant into a dance club by blasting taylor swift and having a dance party. Anytime there is music, we all get up and dance.) Boarding the plane and then finally arriving back in Jerusalem, I was happy to come back to my home for the year and have some time to digest what we just saw.

We met people who looked, thought, and lived differently than we live, yet at the very core of everything we did, there was always some type of connection that could be made with “the other.” Although we have experienced vastly different lives than those of the people we met in Greece, Bulgaria, and Azerbaijan, we could connect with one another because at our core, we are all human. No matter what separates us, whether it be physically living somewhere else or psychologically, it seems that if we just make the effort, we can make “the other” our friend. It was a crazy three weeks, and a great start to what has been and is going to continue to be an enlightening year.

About the Author
Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff is from Boston, Massachusetts and is currently studying on a gap year program called Kivunim, learning Hebrew and Arabic and traveling the world. Next year, Dan will attend Northwestern University and will major in Journalism.