Friday, 15 January 2016

Cuba and Spain 2016: Travel Update I

Greetings!

This year's big trip is my first across the Atlantic, to the Caribbean island of Cuba, famous for rum, cigars and revolution. It is, of course, the latter that has tempted me over there but that doesn't mean to say that I'll be ignoring the other two.

I don't really have a fixed itinerary, but basically I shall land in Havana, try to get to the far east of the island as quickly as possible and then work my way back slowly. Cuban transportation is, apparently, notoriously unreliable, and so I want to be as near to Havana as possible for when my flight time comes.


As the map indicates, I hope to see therefore Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey, the Sierra Maestra (where Castro's guerrillas fought), the Bay of Pigs and Santa Clara (where Che is buried), as well as much more.

Santa Clara

Camaguey

The Bay of Pigs

Havana

Santiago de Cuba

This is my first trip to the Americas and so the opening of a whole new world to me. However, before I hit Havana, there's a several day warm-up stopover in Madrid.

Anyway, I shall endeavour to update this site as much as possible although, given the nature of the internet in Cuba, no guarantees...

Until then,

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Friday, 8 January 2016

Bulgarian Jottings VIII: Silistra

Greetings!

We're still in Bulgaria but for a limited time only since I'm due to jet off to Cuba a week on Monday. Rather excited as this will be my first trip to the Americas as well as being the last socialist hotspot to tick off. In the meantime I have been hard at work on my DPRK travelogue and I'm happy to say that it is very almost finished.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all my Bulgarian Jottings

I: In the Beginning…

II: Shumen

III: Nazdravei!

IV: Razgrad and Isperikh

and remember, you can also read about my 2011 travels around Bulgaria!





SILISTRA

Any visitor to Bulgaria sitting at a pavement café and sipping an espresso or cup of herbal tea in the sunshine, may soon have their attentions diverted away from the passing pretty girls and intriguing Balkan architecture.

For some reason that I have not yet fathomed out, (though most probably connected to some long-completed and forgotten Five Year Plan), every café, restaurant or snack bar in the country seems to come equipped with a collection of teaspoons that are notable for having the name and crest of a town engraved on the handle. These spoons are most singularly pleasant and when I first chanced upon one, I wondered if they were not part of some set where every major town or administrative centre in the country is represented on the end of a tiny sugar-shovelling and beverage-stirring device.

Upon closer inspection however, I discovered that whilst fine these teaspoons might be, varied they were not, for instead of representing each different city in the land, all turned out to bear the name and arms of the town of Silistra and none other. Now Silistra, for those of you who know not is a small city on the Southern Bank of the Danube River, a stone’s throw away from the Romanian border. I had heard of her, and read in the guidebook that her population was around fifty thousand souls, but that was all that I knew. Now that is all well and good, but even in Bulgaria, fifty thousand is not a large size for a town, nor did this particular one seemed to be blessed with any momentous historical remains or other attractions of note. Its crest showed half a cog and a stylised ear of grain which hardly inspires one either. So the question that struck me is that why should the crest of Silistra, which by all accounts seemed to be a fairly nondescript, middling-sized provincial town, be displayed on teaspoons throughout the land? What had they to be proud of? What was there in Silistra? Nobody I met could answer my question, as nobody it seems, had ever bothered visiting the place.

Thus, this looked like a situation to remedy, and so filched teaspoon in hand, off I went, taking the half past three bus from Varna.



The town comes as a pleasant surprise. Arrive at either its bus station or its railway station, (they’re adjacent to one another), and you may be mistaken in thinking that you’ve perhaps fallen asleep en route and that the driver of your bus or train has taken a wrong turn and brought you by accident to Kosova or Bosnia instead of the Danube-side town that you asked for. The scene is one of truly Third World dereliction, with crumbling terminals, overgrown paving, burnt-out kiosks and abandoned vehicles. Now Bulgaria is a very scruffy country. That’s perhaps the main reason behind many people thinking that it is far worse off that is truly the case. Scruffy it is, but behind the broken tiles and unpainted walls is actually a country that functions surprisingly well.

But nowhere in Bulgaria have I seen dereliction equal to the district surrounding Silistra’s bus and train stations. Only in Albania in fact, have I witnessed dereliction of this scale in Europe. You realise that you’ve entered a town at best down on its luck and at worst, possibly a war zone.

First impressions however, as the proverb goes, are often misleading, and in Silistra it seems that one would do well to listen to the wisdom of ages. The town centre, a mere mile or so away from that bombed out and bedraggled transport hub, is in fact one of the most ordered and pleasant in the country. Fine architecture and strolling locals congregate around the central Svoboda (Freedom) Square with its proud statue of Binev, (whoever he might be, I’m guessing a partisan).

The town’s crowning glory however, is its Gradski (Town) Park. Unlike its bigger brother upstream, Ruse, Silistra does not turn its back on the river that gave it its life, and these fine municipal gardens, in my opinion some of the finest in the country, particularly since a recent renovation courtesy of the Beautiful Bulgaria Project, are a pleasure to walk around.

I never fail to find watching the Danube flowing towards the sea an immensely peaceful and relaxing experience, and here in the Gradski Park, Silistra is surely on of the finer places to do it. Surrounded by flowers, the ruins of the Roman city of Durostorum, some intriguing modernist sculptures, a Soviet T-34 tank parked on a plinth in memory of the city’s liberation by the Red Army back in 1944, shady trees, fishing gents and pretty girls, one sees why this small town feels proud enough to put its name and crest on teaspoons throughout the land.



Written Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, May 2004
Matthew E. Pointon Copyright © 2004

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Bulgarian Jottings VII: In a Minority

Greetings!

And at long last, here is my much delayed posting of Bulgarian Jottings VII. Delayed because Windows Live Writer has decided to stop working and the alternatives are hard to understand. So please, bear with me as I navigate the techno jungle and have a happy new year and prosperous 2016!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all my Bulgarian Jottings

I: In the Beginning…

II: Shumen

III: Nazdravei!

IV: Razgrad and Isperikh

and remember, you can also read about my 2011 travels around Bulgaria!

IN A MINORITY

A LOOK AT THE MINORITY PEOPLES OF THE REPUBLIC OF BULGARIA

BULGARIA is arguably the least known of all the Balkan countries. It is definitely the one that has received the least attention from the world's media since the Fall of Communism back in 1989. In fact, even that didn’t attract too much column space. Bulgarian communism died with a whimper, not a bang and its collapse, compared with the nail-biting stand-off between Yeltsin and the Coup in the Soviet Union, the enigmatic Lech Walsea and his Solidarity movement in Poland, the dramatic uprising and execution of Ceaucescu in Romania and of course, the unbelievable Fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany, Zhivkov’s ousting from power and the promise of free elections at a later date seems drab and boring.

And since then, whilst the Balkans have constantly attracted the cameramen and reporters of all the world's major news agencies, it has been other countries, not Bulgaria, that have been hogging the limelight. Romania with its revolution in 1990; Slovenia's divorce with Yugoslavia and its brief ten-day war in 1991; Croatia's cessation and much longer and bloodier war that same year, lasting through to the next with its bloody ethnic cleansing, most notably the forced uprooting of the Krajina Serbs from the Knin Krajina. And then there was Bosnia, a bloodbath and entangled ethnic and religious web of a civil war which ended only with the Dayton Accords of the 21st November, 1995. Bosnia however, was my no means the end of the Balkan strife. Tiny, impoverished Albania, whose hard-line communism had ended, like Bulgaria's, with a whimper rather than a bang, dramatically descended into revolution and anarchy in 1996- 7, following the collapse of the government's Pyramid Savings Scheme, and then of course there was Kosova[1], with its .thousands of refugees spewing over the borders into Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, and NATO coming in with its tanks, planes and missiles to clear (?) the whole mess up in 1999, bombing that beleaguered province and Serbia proper into oblivion. And just when it all seemed over, quiet, tiny Macedonia, the only country to secede peacefully from Yugoslavia, erupted into violence, its native Albanians hoping to emulate their brothers' achievements in Kosova, with order only being restored when the forces of the United Nations were sent in.

Indeed, no other region on the globe, with the possible exception of the ever-unstable Israel and Palestine, attracted the world’s attention during the 1990s like the Balkans did, with every country barring Bulgaria and Greece going through some major crisis or other. Is it any wonder that Bulgaria's typical post- communist economic blues failed to attract much attention when all around there were wars, revolutions and mass murder going on at the same time?

Of course, Bulgaria’s escape from the eye of the world can only be viewed as a positive thing. Although it sounds like an over-worn cliché, she has been an oasis of calm in that stormy Balkan sea, and even the casual visitor can see that this has clearly done her good. Economic progress may not have been as spectacular as hoped for, but she has clearly fared well in comparison with her more excitable neighbours. Worryingly however, it seems that many have mistakenly taken this serenity for granted. Nobody has once stopped to think of Bulgaria as the next Bosnia or Kosova.

Looking at the Balkan conflicts however, with the exception of Romania's revolution and Slovenia's bloodless and by and large, economically-orientated cessation, all have involved, to a greater or lesser extent, that terrible phenomenon known as Ethnic-Nationalism.

Nationalism is taken for granted in today’s world, with most of us seeing the globe's surface as being divided up into a series of ethnically-homogenous national states as the optimal political solution, (with the exception of the USA, Canada, Australia, etc. They’re different because they’re ‘new’). Such thinking however, it should be remembered, is relatively new, emerging in Western Europe in the late Eighteenth Century and ideal for that historic and heavily-populated area of the globe. In the Balkans however, the situation has always been somewhat different. Until the late Nineteenth Century, the entire region, (excepting Montenegro), was carved up between two great empires; the Hapsburg and the Ottoman, both of which were multi-national and multi-ethnic in their make-up. And although it was nationalists such as Levski, Delchev and Effendi who helped finish off those entities in South-Eastern Europe, what they left behind was a world away from the relatively homogenous states of Europe’s West. Every state in the Balkans contained significant minorities and Bulgaria was no exception. Yet these minorities are not like those in say France, or Spain, who’s Basques, Catalans and Bretons are centred upon ancient homelands. In the Balkans, with its centuries of moving and mixing populations about, the population of one village could be largely made up of one nationality, and the next, an entirely different one. Or even within a single street, several races might belong, and to complicate matters further, these 'different' nationalities may be physically indistinguishable from one another. The Bulgarians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Bosnians, Croats and Slovenes are all South Slavs and all racially akin.

Now of course, modern-day Bulgaria is not Bosnia-Herzegovina or even Macedonia where a mere 68% of the population are Slavic, (of all creeds). The Bulgarians nowadays constitute 85.1% of their population, which is of course, a commanding majority. Nonetheless, the remaining 14.9% is still a very large percentage of the population and it should be remembered that in the ethnically-torn Kosova of 1999, around 90% of the inhabitants of the region were Albanian, and what’s more, whilst Bulgaria has been peaceful for the last decade or so, things have not always been so.

Now that last statement may surprise a few, but it should not surprise those of you with long, (and sharp), enough memories. In fact, it is a sad, yet true fact, that the recent wave of Balkan ethnic discrimination was started by the Bulgarian government a full seven years before Milosovič & Co. started attacking their former compatriots.

And the group that bore the brunt of that very first wave of hate, are the group that I shall now turn my attention to.

THE MUSLIMS

Bulgaria's largest minority is its Muslims, who constitute 12.7% of the population, (around one million in total), of which 822,000 are Turks, 143,000 Pomaks, or Bulgarian Muslims, and 113,000 Tsigani, (Roma or Gypsies). In the summer of 1984 the Bulgarian communist regime, then under Todor Zhivkov embarked upon a policy of ‘Bulgarianisation’ of its Muslims of all groups, but in particular the Pomaks, which involved forced name changes from traditional Turkish and Islamic ones to something a little more Bulgarian, (i.e. Slavic and Christian names). This process continued for five years against increasing hostility and opposition from both the international community and the Muslims themselves, culminating on the l0th May, 1989, when the Turkish government lifted travel restrictions for Bulgarian citizens, (Bulgarian Turks had been pressing to cross the border for some time ). For nineteen days a human river flowed towards Istanbul, where many of the Bulgarian Turks and Pomaks had family. The Bulgarian press labelled this exodus ‘Golyamata Ekskursiya’ or ‘The Great Excursion’, claiming that the Turks were merely taking advantage of the lifting of restrictions to visit their relatives and do a little sight-seeing in the land of their ancestors. The reality of course was far different. This was much closer to the expulsion of the Israelites from Egypt than a horde of modern-day photo-snapping tourists. Then, on the 29th May, the border was closed. Turkey was unable to absorb any more refugees. The Great Excursion was over.

That the Great Excursion was ethnic-cleansing on the scale of Bosnia, Croatia or even Kosova is of course not true. Violence and coercion were employed, but there was no mass murder or razing of Muslim villages. That said, the event was still a cataclysmic one for such a small country. With so many Turks and Muslims gone, the work traditionally done by them was left neglected, in particular the harvesting of Bulgaria’s valuable tobacco crop. To rectify this, the government organised shock work brigades from the cities to do the jobs of the missing Muslims. It was only when they were out in the fields that many Bulgarians realised the damage that had been caused by the government’s Bulgarianisation programme that previously most had mildly accepted.

That of course was almost fifteen years ago and these days name-changing campaigns and Great Excursions. ~re rarely talked about. After the fall of the Zhivkov regime, many of the Turks, disillusioned .with life in th~ Motherland, returned to their homes and fields in the newly-liberated Bulgaria. By March 1991 around six hundred thousand of the country's Muslims had also re-established their Islamic names and the Bulgarian government had apologised to its larger neighbour for its past wrongs. With a Turkish political power forming part of the government, freedom of religion and Turkish language instruction reintroduced in some of the schools in predominantly Muslim regions, the present reality is a world away from the turbulent times of the late 1980s, and indeed, as before Zhivkov started his Bulgarianisation process, Christian and Muslim today live side-by-side in, (especially considering that this is the Balkans), relative harmony.

All of which begs the question as to why? Why did Todor Zhivkov, a moderate leader by communist standards, start to stir up ethnic divisions with a group, (or groups), that had always proved themselves loyal to his regime? Why fix something that ain’t broke? And why did the Bulgarian people, by and large, go along with it all?

Read most Western news sources or articles and you find one answer. It was all plain and simple economics. In its early years, following World War II, communism in Bulgaria, like in its big brother in the Soviet Union, created an economy that grew steadily. Then, as Brezhnev sat in the Kremlin and the USSR began slowly to stagnate in the 1970s, so did Bulgaria. By the 1980s it was evident even to the ordinary man in the street that things were going wrong, not only at home, but also where it really mattered, in Moscow. Zhivkov, always a practical man, and a born political survivor, needed something to divert his people's attentions away from the country's woes, and like Slobodan Milosovič a decade or so later, he turned to Nationalism.

Bulgaria has, as has been detailed in previous chapters, along and at times glorious past. She was in the Middle Ages, one of the most advanced and powerful states in Europe. Then came the Ottomans, laying all to Waste before them and before they knew-it, Bulgaria was subdued and more importantly, cut off from the Renaissance and the resurgence it caused in the West, her identity being preserved largely in the isolated monasteries of the mystical Orthodox Church. By the time that she had finally broken free of the ‘yoke’ in the late Nineteenth Century, she was no longer a European leader, but instead, backward and poor.

Two factors are crucial in this, (as preferred by the nationalists), interpretation of Bulgaria's history. Firstly that Bulgaria, whilst she is now undoubtedly backward and impoverished, was before quite the opposite, but, (as they see it), on a par with England, France and far and away above Germany, (this is undoubtedly true, though one must consider the fact that the Fourteenth century has never represented a high point in the histories of any of those three nations, one of which didn’'t even exist at the time). Bulgaria was great. Now she isn’t. 

Who changed all of this? The Turks. The Turks who came, massacred, stole, taxed and occupied Bulgaria for six centuries. Yes indeed, the Turks are largely to blame for all of Bulgaria’s present woes, (or so says the man at the helm of a failing economy). And the second factor? Christianity. What kept the Bulgarian spirit alive all those years? What was the thing that kept the Bulgarian apart from the Turk and what's more linked him to his Slavic brothers and protectors, the Russians? What came from Europe and not the sandy wastes of Arabia? What was the very soul of Bulgaria that no Turkish sword could ever destroy?

Now of course these or at least the second factor, presented some problems, particularly for an atheist socialist regime that is opposed to any religion as being the ‘opiate of the people’. However, when they stressed ‘Christianity’ they meant not as a faith, but as an identity, a Slavic identity and what's more, (and increasingly important since 1989), as a European identity. And an identity distinct from that of Mohammedan Turkey, which was in the early eighties conveniently on the other side of the Iron Curtain as well as being responsible for innumerable past grievances.

Yes indeed, the Turks and their Islamic faith were and are the cause of all of Bulgaria’s ills! They were the evil that ruined the land. All well and good if you want to believe it, (and many did and do), but of course it leaves a little problem, that being a rather irked one eighth of your population. And the solution? Why, to turn that irked eighth into Slavic Bulgarians like everyone else.

Such reasoning may sound stupid on the surface and of course in many ways it was. One cannot make an ethnic Turk or Tsigani an ethnic Bulgarian no matter how hard one tries, and to force people in one direction of course, often makes them run off in the opposite one. However, Mr. Zhivkov and his friends did have something to work with. Many Turks who'd come as settlers or officials during the Ottoman times had intermarried with Slavs over the years, spoke Bulgarian and were Muslim in name alone, different only in their ancestry. And then there were the Pomaks.

‘Pomak’ is derived from the Bulgarian term for ‘helper’. It is not however, the complimentary term that it initially seems to be, for the ‘helper’ in ‘Pomak’ refers to helping the Turks in their subjection of the country back in the Fourteenth Century, and the real meaning in English is far closer to that of ‘traitor’ than ‘Good Samaritan’. The story, (or at least the official Zhivkov version of it), goes like this. When the Ottomans came to Bulgaria they attempted to convert the whole population to the Islamic faith, but of course the firm Christian inhabitants of the country refused to comply, despite horrendous massacres and extra taxes placed on non-Muslims, (including the infamous Blood Tax). In the isolated villages of the Rodopi Mountains however, the conquerors met with more success, managing to convert the vast majority of the populace who were mere simple peasants. In fact, what would often happen is that the Turks would approach only the local priest, (often a Greek), convert him, and then his entire flock would be forced to follow suite without entirely realising what they were doing.

There is of course, much truth in this version, but nonetheless, it is still a little condescending to the ‘simple’, ‘ignorant’ Pomaks whom the kindly Mr. Zhivkov merely wished to bring back into the Bulgarian fold by letting them reassume their Slavic identities. Nowadays, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Pomaks themselves, (or Bulgarian Muslims as they are officially referred to), offer a different version of events. They claim that they were never Christian Slavs at all, but instead a race of mountain people who were in fact Muslim long before the Ottomans ever arrived, and indeed are the country’s oldest adherents of the Islamic faith.
What the real truth is, it is probably impossible to ascertain. Documents do not abound from such times and later intermarriage and intermingling with both Christians and Turks clouds matters further. Looking at the Pomaks that I know, I must admit that they don’t look entirely Slavic, but there again, nor do many Bulgarians. And any visitor to Ankara or Istanbul will surely agree with me that whilst some Pomaks may look Turkish, so do most people on the globe, ‘ethnic’ Turks coming in all shapes, colours and sizes, from the almost Mongolian, to the Slav look-alike, to those who obviously have more than just the Arabian religion inside them.

Nonetheless, there was some credibility in the official tale, and many of Bulgaria's Muslims, Pomak, Turk and Roma alike, did feel sufficient affinity with their Bulgarian brethren to change their names and, more importantly, not revert to the original Muslim one once restrictions were lifted. It is little remarked upon, (But I think telling), that of the approximate one million name changes, around 400,000 have chosen to stick with their Bulgarian titles. Many more use subtler measures. The family of a Bulgarian Turk friend of mine, Gilbert, (Mr. Ruschev under the name-changing campaign), have reverted back from Ruschevi to their Turkish name, Fuchidji. However, amongst Bulgarian friends and neighbours, they use its Slavicised version, ‘Fuchidjievi’, which in my mind is perhaps the best solution of all since, (like the Turkic peoples of the former Soviet region of Central Asia), they are not Turkish Turks but, after centuries of living in Bulgaria, Slavicised Turks.

There are however, perhaps other reasons behind the name-changing campaign and the Great Excursion that are less discussed in the Western World. When I started teaching adults in Bulgaria, I decided to ask my students what their thoughts were on the upheavals of the eighties and to my surprise, most replied, ‘Sad, but necessary.’ Puzzled, I quizzed further, asking as to what they meant by ‘necessary’ and they explained that although they'd always got on with the Turks, the Turks had at that time started an underground organisation or political movement that aimed to create firstly an autonomous Muslim region, and then at a later date, a Muslim state, centred upon Razgrad, (which was to be its capital), in the area of Bulgaria where a Muslim majority exists. Although this organisation was still nascent and weak, Todor Zhivkov at the time decided to ‘nip it in the bud’ as it were and send clear signals that Bulgarian unity was not going to be destroyed. “And it worked,” continued Yavor, a lawyer and somewhat nationalistic student of Bulgarian history. “Look at Kosova. Bulgaria could have been the same if it hadn’t been for Zhivkov’s campaigns. In the West you deride him for the Great Excursion, but if it hadn’t have been for that, then there would have been a lot more bloodshed and suffering.”

Bulgarian Turks emigrating in the 1980s

How true is all this then? At first I considered the idea preposterous. Such a small state, economically unviable could surely never survive. But there again, does common sense always take precedence in the Balkans? Kosova is an equally preposterous idea, Macedonia little better. Yet Macedonia is a reality and the country of Kosova may soon well be. The fact is that the whole plot may have been cooked up by Zhivkov’s propaganda department as an excuse to act as he did, but talking to some of Bulgaria's more militant Muslims, one begins to have doubts. The answer perhaps, is that only time will tell, once all the relevant and now guarded government documents come to light.

All these facts and figures however; one million Muslims, 12.7% of the population, 600,000 reverting to their Islamic names, 300,000 depart in the Great Excursion, whilst necessary and ideal for a university thesis, do not tell us anything about who these people, these Muslims of Bulgaria, actually are and how they live their lives, which for me is far more interesting and important than reading about ethnicity statistics. Thankfully however, during my time in Bulgaria, I managed to get to know on a personal basis many Bulgarian Muslims, not only Turks, but also Pomaks, two girls, one of whom was half Syrian and the other, half Palestinian and also some people from mixed Christian and Muslim families, (which even in this day and age, are not as common as one might expect).

The thing that struck me most profoundly about them, was how Islam seemed to be only a label. The Fuchidji family in Tutrakan, my Muslim students in the schools where I taught and Fatme Muktar, a Pomak Human Rights Expert, were all absolutely indistinguishable from the average Bulgarian Christian in everything barring some facial features. True, Miss Muktar never touched alcohol, but that was because it gave her a headache and not because Allah forbid her to do so. All spoke Bulgarian as their mother tongue, ate pork, drank alcohol and deported themselves almost identically to their Christian brethren.

What’s more, (like with the Christians), religion was most notable by its absence. Both Gilbert Fuchidji and Fatme Muktar both lamented several times on the decline of the country's mosques but neither used them regularly, (if at all), for worship. Islam for them, seemed to be just a label, an identity, that kept them apart from the Christians, (who, barring Easter Sunday, seemed to use their faith but as a label too). Miss Muktar, educated and intem~ent as she was, could not even name the Five Pillars of her faith, let alone did she strive to adhere to them. She was not atypical.

Now of course, the Muslims that I encountered are probably not entirely representative. For a start they were largely well-educated and affluent, whereas in Bulgaria, most Muslims, (particularly Pomaks and Tsigani), are rarely the latter and at times not the former either, usually occupying the poorest strata of society. What's more, I do know that in many Turkish and Pomak households, Turkish is used as the mother tongue, and that some effort at least is made to follow the tenets of the Islamic faith, particularly regarding abstinence from pork and to a lesser extent alcohol, and in the mountain regions many women wear hijaab (headscarves), although the veil is never seen.[2]

Nonetheless, there does seem to be some religious fervour amongst Bulgaria's Muslims and when I took a trip to Demir Baba, the tomb of a Shiite saint, I met it full on, with groups of hijaabed grandmothers sat on blankets reading passages from the Koran and praying to the long dead saint. In fact, it was the most potent display of religious fervour that I encountered whilst in Bulgaria, barring the spectacle of Orthodox Easter, but this was no festival day, only a normal Saturday.

The Shrine of Demir Baba

That however, is not the full story, for although Bulgaria’s Muslims are by and large lax when it comes to following the Orthodox structures of their faith, almost all that I met seemed to obey and be guided by afar stricter moral code than that of their fellow Christians which, whilst not Islamic, may have its roots in the faith or perhaps an older, peasant way of life. Their attitudes on sex and marriage for example, differed greatly from those of the majority of Bulgarians whose attitudes are very much in line with the European norm. Few Muslims would dream of marrying a non-Muslim, and those who do so, usually do it without the blessing of their families. What’s more, many Muslim men still expect virgin brides and as a consequence of this, many marry much younger, particularly amongst the Pomaks, and tend to have more children. My Pomak friend, Fatme, was unmarried at thirty and had studied at university, but she was a very rare exception. She related how all her classmates from her Rodopi town had married before twenty, as had her younger brother, and most now had children.

Another factor which I thought was interesting, was that although a Muslim union is something sought after, Turkish and Pomak parents alike balked at the thought of their daughters marrying Arabs. “The Arabs are backward and do not treat their women with respect,” Fatme explained. “The Turks are different. They have only one wife, their women do not veil, and they can work. They have opportunities. The Arabs on the other hand have four wives and the wife must stay at home to look after the children.” That to me said more about Bulgaria's Muslims than anything else. They are different to the Christians, but it is Ankara that they turn to, not Mecca, and their spiritual leader is more Kemal Atatürk than Mohammed.

Despite their differences and the tumultuous recent history, it is heartening to see that nowadays very little animosity seems to exist between Christian and Muslim in Bulgaria. In the classes that I taught and the towns and villages that I visited, they seemed to be living side by side in perfect harmony. Of course that image can be misleading, problems do still exist and they lived in a similar harmony as late as the 1970s, and of course in Yugoslavia, as late as the 1980s, but nonetheless, considering what waters have flowed under the bridge in the last few decades, that really is good news. Perhaps more surprising is that the Turks themselves feel little if any hatred towards the Bulgarians. In the early Spring of 2003 I went for a weeks holiday to Turkey and whilst in Istanbul stayed with some relatives of the Fuchidji family who had previously lived in Shumen, but had been forced to leave under the Great Excursion. Over a beer or two I asked Ahmet, the head of the household, about his thoughts on his former country.

“Bulgaria is a fantastic place; beautiful, quiet and the Bulgarians are good people. We only decided to stay here because my business did well and we regularly return to Bulgaria. What’s more, I still do a lot of business with them and I want [my son] Denis to study in Plovdiv at the university there. We insisted that he learn Bulgarian when he was young.”

This surprised me. Fantastic place ok, the scenery is nice. But ‘good people’? Weren’t they the same ones that had .thrown him out of the land of his birth? I asked him such.

“That was a long time ago,” he replied. “We don’t think about it now.”

Most Christian Bulgarians are almost as complimentary. Even the nationalistic lawyer Yavor and Pavel Marinov admitted that the Turks were, by and large, good citizens, and all agreed that Istanbul was a city that far surpassed any other, not only in the Balkans, but in most of the rest of the world too. “No, we don’t hate the Turks now,” said Yavor. “Not since they gave up the idea of an autonomous region.” Hatred in Bulgaria it seems, is reserved for a different group entirely.

THE ROMA

After the Turks, Bulgaria’s second-largest minority is the Roma. I don’t like the term personally, for it easily confused with ‘Roman’ or more often, ‘Romanian’, (as many Roma live in Romania). It originates from somewhere else entirely however. The Roma are more commonly known in Western Europe as ‘Gypsies’, but this word too can be misleading. ‘Gypsy’ is derived from 'Egypt' where in olden times it was believed that they came from. Least confusing is the term that the Bulgarians themselves use, ‘Tsigani’ but, alas, some see that as offensive.

The Roma do not, as I said come from Romania, Rome or Egypt, but in fact a land which they themselves call ‘Rom’, (hence, ‘Roma’), which was situated somewhere in modern-day India. Little is known of their early history , save for the fact that for some unknown reason, midway through the Fifteenth Century they started to emigrate towards Europe in waves. No one is quite sure why. Some suggest that they came with the Kubla Khan’s armies, others suppose the returning Crusaders. Only one thing is certain, by the Seventeenth Century they were well-established right the way across the continent, from the British Isles to the Russian Steppe, but most of all, in Eastern Europe where to this day they form a sizable minority in most countries.

Whatever the reasons behind the decision to leave Rom might have been, one is tempted to think that however cataclysmic they were, mass exodus was perhaps not the best solution for the problems of the Roma people, as ever since they hit Europe, their national tale has been one of woe. Stigmatised, marginalised, attacked and often massacred in every country that they took refuge in, the Roma have never been considered welcome guests and even today in the tolerant West, they are often lambasted and stereotyped in the press. East of the former Iron Curtain however, the situation is far worse. Occupying the lowest strata of society in all of the former socialist states, the Roma are disliked by the general populace, impoverished, often illiterate or ill-educated and discriminated against by the authorities. Theirs is a grim position to be in. The question must be asked therefore, as to why are they in it?

One reason undoubtedly, is the very closed nature of their society. Like the Jews whom they are often compared to, they rarely marry outside of their own race and rely very much on kinship ties and almost clannish structures when doing business. Although they live in Bulgaria, to a far greater extent than both the Turks and the Pomaks, they do not live with or interact with the Bulgarians, or indeed the other minorities either. And much of the: interaction that there is, takes place within the workplace, but as the Roma occupy the very lowest level of society they are plagued by unemployment, (in 1994 76% of working-age Roma were unemployed), and thus even this contact is limited. Instead they live largely inside their autonomous communities, speaking Romish, marrying each other and living by their own laws enforced by their own unofficial courts. As Krasimir Krustev, a Bulgarian lawyer whom I sometimes shared a beer with, and who had several Roma friends, explained, “The Tsigani don't care about breaking Bulgarian laws or getting into trouble with the police. They are however, terrified of breaking their own laws. No Tsigani would ever do that.”

Rightly or wrongly, it is a well-known historical fact that communities that keep themselves to themselves are often disliked, mistrusted and persecuted by the majority. The three European races famous for living in such away – the Jews, Armenians and Roma – all suffered holocausts in the Twentieth Century. Ignorance, (on both sides), leads to mistrust and mistrust to hatred. And hatred in the very worst instances can lead to mass murder. An estimated one and a half million Roma died in the camps during World War II in a holocaust that is little talked about. And the hatred that caused Hitler & Co. to treat the Roma as he treated the Jews, still continues to this day.

It is perhaps my greatest regret concerning the time that I spent in Bulgaria, that I never got to know any Roma on a personal level. Exploring their very different lifestyle, lived alongside one that is so familiar to me would have been fascinating. However, that I did not get to know any is perhaps unsurprising. After all, I tried. I asked Bulgarian friends to introduce me to their Roma colleagues, but all seed fell on the proverbial stony ground. Either they had nothing to do with the Roma themselves, or they thought that such introductions would be wasting my time.

“Matt, you want to meet Tsigani, to find out how they live, right?” said Krasimir Krustev. “Well, I can introduce you to some if you like, but the thing is, the ones that I can introduce you to aren't typical. Certainly, if they speak English they will not be, but even those who only speak Bulgarian too. The Tsigani that I come into contact with are educated and independent. They have broken away from the tribal life and for you to base your opinions on them would be very mistaken.”

He had a point. The only Roma that the Bulgarians interacted with to a great extent, lived as the Bulgarians themselves did, almost as ex-pats from the Roma  world. They would be as accurate an indicator of Roma life as Bulgarian ex-pats in London or New York are of contemporary Bulgarian life. And so it was that I was introduced to no real-life Roma and I had to fall back upon secondary opinions and comments, which sadly are often derogatory or downright racist, labels such as ‘dirty’ and ‘thieves’ being hung around Roma necks on a regular basis. For example, when my mobile phone was stolen on the train to Sofia, the universal response of my colleagues was, “So, a Gypsy stole Matt's phone!”

“But it wasn't necessarily a Gypsy!” I protested. “You don’t know. All Gypsies steal everything here,” said a fellow teacher. “But this time it wasn't a Gypsy. It was a student from Cherven Bryag, I know who it was as I was talking to him beforehand.”

“Are you sure? It could well have been a Gypsy...”

Of course there is, as always, a grain of truth in the prejudices of the majority.[3] The Roma constitute 3.7% of Bulgaria's population, but according to Mikhail Ivanov, an advisor on ethnic problems, 25-28% of the crimes in the country can be traced to Roma offenders. But can one expect any different with such high unemployment and general public and police animosity? Me suspects not.

Nonetheless, one can partially understand Bulgarian grievances. The Roma do show open contempt for Bulgarian law, (which conversely shows open contempt for them, some claim), and their lifestyles are radically different from those of the majority. The high birth-rate in particular, worries the ever ethnic- conscious Slavs and the role of women in Roma society is far removed from that of the liberated Bulgarian female. Their marriages, organised by parents, with dowry payments are the norm. How can one expect a country, where most wait until their late to mid twenties and follow love matches and have on average less than two children, to understand? And in a culture which places so much importance on education, the Roma who keep their offspring out of school and instead have them work for the family from an early age, are an anachronistic anathema. And when government efforts are made to improve the lot of the Roma , the results are not always appreciated.

“The government gave a grant to all the Tsigani in my town to improve their houses,” Yavor related “Overnight satellite dishes appeared on every shack and big parties were held in the street. The houses however, remained the same as before.”

Quite what the future will hold for the Roma , one dares not to say. The EU is doing its level best to improve their circumstances, but without a change in mindset, not only of the Bulgarians but, (perhaps more importantly), of the Roma themselves, it seems that they will remain, for some time at least, a race apart.

Roma in Bulgaria

THE VLACHS

I first encountered a Vlach on the train to Sofia one sunny August day. I was travelling with Ivelina Metchkarova from Pleven and we were passing through the spectacular Iskur Gorge. Besides us, there was one other person in the compartment, an old peasant gentleman.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” commented that man.

“Yes, very,” replied Miss Metchkarova, (my Bulgarian at the time was barely good enough for conversation).

“I know this line very well,” he continued. “I helped to build it you see.”

It transpired that this ageing gent had been in the work parties that had widened the country’s trunk rail route from one to two tracks in the 1950s. And before that, he’d been serving the Revolution in another way, as a partisan in the Fatherland Front. “The peasant farmers used to hide us from the Germans in holes underneath their cottage floors,” he reminisced, his mind back in more turbulent times. Now however, he was a simple farmer himself, in the Dobrudja region.
He alighted at one of the small stops after the gorge mellows out into undulating countryside. “What an interesting man!” I remarked to my companion.
“Yes,” she agreed. “He was a Vlach you know?”
“A Vlach? What’s that?”
“They’re Romanians who live in Bulgaria. There’s quite a few of them in the north eastern part of the country. Bulgarian was not his native language actually.”

It was several years later before I got to thinking of the Vlachs again. This time I was in Tutrakan with Gilbert Fuchidji. Walking up the steep hill from the Old Town to the New, we passed two wizened old ladies dressed in black and speaking in a strange tongue.

“Are they Turkish?” I asked Gilbert, knowing that his people form a sizable minority in that town.

“No, no. They’re speaking Romanian,” he said. “Quite a few of the older people around here do.”

“Why’s that?”

“Tutrakan used to be in Romania.”

Not just Tutrakan, but in fact all of Dobrudja, the region which forms Bulgaria’s north eastern corner, from Tutrakan right down to the coast at Druzhba. And it wasn’t that long ago either. In fact, Bulgaria acquired Dobrudja; (or ‘Southern Dobrudja’ as the Romanians say, ‘Northern Dobrudja’ is a province still within the present-day boundaries of Romania), as recently as 1940, as part of a deal imposed on a reluctant Bucharest by no less a personage than Mr. Adolf Hitler, who at the time, the Bulgarian government was an ally of. I’d learnt about this before, when visiting Queen Marie’s villa in Balchik, by asking one of the attendants why ever did the Queen of Romania build her villa in Bulgaria? However, that was all that I did know and trying to find out more was not easy. Search the web and apart from the bare facts of the ‘returning of the pure Bulgarian land of Dobrudja to the Motherland’, (Bulgarian sources), or the ‘loss of an integral part of Romania’, (Romanian sources), little else is mentioned. All that most say is that the Craiova Pact, (the name of the treaty ordering the border changes), was accompanied by a ‘population exchange’.

But how much is contained within those two innocent-sounding words? A visit to Tutrakan’s town museum can shed a little light. In amongst the lengthy explanations of the return of Dobrudja to the Motherland, and the photographs of cheering patriots, it is also mentioned that in 1940 the town’s population shrunk by over five thousand souls, more than fifty per cent, due to that innocent little population exchange.[4]

For Dobrudja, far from being a ‘pure Bulgarian land’ or ‘an integral part of Romania’ was in fact never an integral part of any country. From the earliest recorded days it has been, like so many regions of the Balkans, an ethnic hotchpotch where different races lived side by side. Mr. Nicolae M. Nicolae, himself a Vlach, son of a Mocan, (descendent of a wandering Transylvanian shepherd), born only a few miles from Tutrakan, and later the Romanian Ambassador to the United States, describes Silistra prior to the Bulgarian takeover:

“Silistra, the capital of Durostar county, the town where I was born in 1924, had always its life on the normal track. I would even say this was the place where various ethnicities set up a model of peaceful living. The inhabitants of Silistra numbering 16,000 souls were Romanians, Bulgarians, Turks, Armenians and Jewish. All these ethnicities had their own primary -and even secondary - schools in their own languages. The Romanian language was the lingua franca of this living together.”

www.vlachophiles.net/dobrudja.htm

No, far from being anyone’s ‘pure land’, Dobrudja had always been an ethnic mish-mash of truly Balkan proportions, and whilst the Bulgarians may have formed the largest single ethnic group, (in Southern Dobrudja, over both parts of the region however, the Romanians were the biggest entity), they were far from being in a majority. Indeed, spread across the region there were similar numbers of Vlachs, and in many towns, such as Tutrakan, these Romanians formed the majority.

Dobrudja’s Romanians however, were an interesting lot. Largely shepherds named ‘Mocani’ in Romanian, they traditionally lived in Transylvania in the summer and migrated to the milder Dobrudja during the winter months. Some decided to stay on all year round, and thus became the ancestors of the modern Vlach, (the word ‘Vlach’ by the by, being derived from ‘Wallachia’ , Romania’s southernmost region).

These Vlachs though are now few in number, the vast majority having left with the Craiova Pact, and are in many ways largely Bulgarianised. The Treaty ordered all Romanians out of Bulgaria, but a few preferred to stay in their villages. This was allowed by the Bulgarian government, but such concessions did however, come at a price:

“…By October 1st, 1940, the evacuation of the Romanian population of Cadrilator was practically completed. 7km off Silistra was the village of Aidemir, inhabited principally by the Mocani, scions of the shepherds settled with their flocks of sheep from the Transylvania’s Marginime of Sibiu … These Mocani stubbornly hoping the departed Romanian Armies would soon be back refused to leave their place of birth and obey the agreement stipulating the exchange of population … The Bulgarians very first move though was to forcibly change our surnames into Bulgarian ones. From Nicholae Marin, by father suddenly became Nicolaef .The second phase consisted in depriving us of Romanian citizenship and exchanging it into Bulgarian one, a measure that was not out of place considering that we now lived in Bulgaria.”

Nicolae M. Nicolaeon www.vlachophiles.net/dobrudja.htm

These days few obvious traces remain of Dobrudja’s Romanian heritage. Dobrich and Silistra seem as Bulgarian as any other town in the country, and the ethnic patchwork of the town that Nicolae describes is now all but erased. Official population figures on the municipality website show Silistra’s present-day make up as follows: Bulgarians 60,502 Turks 9,956 Tsigani 4,595

The Vlachs aren’t even mentioned, they’re merely apart of the 1,532 ‘Others’. Nowadays no Romanian language education exists and Bulgarian is without a doubt, the lingua franca.

Yet a population exchange of such proportions, (circa 150,000 evacuated), is an immense occurrence. How come that we never hear of it? Perhaps because it happened at a time when so many others were being uprooted and was dictated by a man who did far more damaging things than moving a few thousand Romanians and Bulgarians out of their homes, that it fades into insignificance, and is now not worth mentioning between two friendly governments. And so it is that there are only a few, an ever-diminishing number, of ageing Vlachs to remind us of a very interesting and extremely important chapter in Balkan history.

The return of Southern Dobrudja to Bulgaria, 1940

THE ARMENIANS

Of all of Bulgaria’s many and varied minorities, it was perhaps the Armenians, who currently number around 22,000 who fascinated me the most. They are a strange people; slightly darker-skinned and wider- eyed than both the Bulgarians and the Turks. I immediately knew that one of my students, Hacho, was of a different background the moment that I set eyes on him. The second Armenian that I taught, Araksia, I did not need to guess at, for she told me straightaway, before I'd even had the opportunity to introduce myself, of her ethnicity, birthplace and a brief potted history of her race's long and troubled history. She reminded me of a Jew, for members of that race too tend to be enthusiastic students of their own heritage and what’s more, like to pass their knowledge of that history on to interested outsiders. But there again, those two nations do have much in common; an ancient faith that they’ve clung to, a long history as a minority in the Ottoman Empire, a Diaspora, painful memories of a Holocaust, a tradition of being successful businessmen and of mutual self-help, and nowadays a small and troubled homeland with the Holy of Holies, (for the Jews -the Temple, for the Armenians - Mount Ararat), always within sight and always just out of reach.

In fact it was in Israel, or to be more exact, in Jerusalem, that I first came across this ancient race. The Old City has for millennia, been a meeting place, (and battleground), between people of different faiths and races, a. hotchpotch of the Biblical and Holy. Samaritans, Philistines, Arabs, Ottomans, Nabateans, Crusaders, Romans, Jews and Greeks have all dwelt, traded and prayed within its walled confines. The Armenians have long had a presence there, even before Christ was born, but in the Fourth Century AD they began to arrive in significant numbers, establishing churches and monasteries, and congregating in the highest area of the Old City, the site of the famed Mount Zion. Nowadays that area is known as the Armenian Quarter, which along with the Jewish, Arab and Christian ones, form the Old City. It occupies one sixth of the land of that city and its focal point is the Cathedral of St. James, built on Zion itself.

The reason behind the Armenians occupying such an important position in the Holy Land, (especially when one considers the small size of their race ), is because essentially, they got there first. The very first monarch on Earth to embrace the Christian faith was Tiridates III of Armenia who did so in 301AD, and ever since they’ve boldly defended and clung to that faith despite being surrounded and outnumbered by heathen adversaries. Their tale once again resembles that of the Jews; holders of an ancient faith with few friends, preserved in its temples and in the manuscripts written in a unique alphabet. Even today, wherever there is a sizable Armenian community, it is marked by a church, even in Orthodox Bulgaria, (where the national faith is virtually indistinguishable from that of the Armenians). During my travels around the country, I saw several; in Plovdiv, Burgas, Dobrich, Sofia, Shumen and Varna.

Seeing a church is one thing. Getting inside it however, is another thing entirely. I was eager to see the interior of an Armenian church, to see how it differed from that of a standard Orthodox Christian House of Worship, but alas, all those that I came across, appeared to be locked. After eight months of hopefully walking past and trying the doors, I eventually found the Varna Church of St. Sarkis open one day, so without a moment to lose I ducked inside. What I discovered however, was a disappointment. The church, although dating from the Mid-Nineteenth Century, had recently been renovated and any atmosphere that it may have once had, had alas, been destroyed.

At the door however, I met the warden who was pleased that a foreigner was taking an interest in her people. Why was the church open today? Well, because tomorrow was the anniversary of the Armenian holocaust and there would be a big memorial service to which I was more than welcome to come.

Work commitments however, prevented my attendance, but I did manage to ask the old lady what she thought of the Turks, descendants of course, of the holocaust perpetrators. “Well, they’re stupid people aren’t they? And lazy! And what they did to the Armenians in 1915! One and a half million slaughtered! But unlike the Germans, they never said sorry.”

1915 is a year engraved in all Armenian hearts. The dying Ottoman Empire encouraged its citizens, (especially the now-persecuted-themselves Kurds), to rise up and attack their separatist-minded, (and wealthy), Armenian neighbours. How many were killed in the ensuing bloodbath is unknown, but the lowest estimate is around half a million. The Armenians themselves claim three times that number. What rankles most though, is that the successor state to the Ottomans, the Republic of Turkey, has never accepted responsibility in the same way that the post-war Germanys did, and apologised. And unlike the sufferings of the Jews, the Armenian Holocaust is largely unknown to the world and no compensation has ever been offered. Indeed, when a top Nazi expressed his worries to Hitler about the forthcoming ‘Final Solution’ for the Jews, the Austrian dictator replied, “Who remembers the Armenians?”

It was partially because of that Holocaust that fleeing Armenians took refuge in Bulgaria, although there has been an influential, prosperous and largely mercantile Armenian minority in the country for centuries.[5] In 1881 there were 3,440 Armenians in Bulgaria, but by 1922 this number had swelled to 47,000. Nowadays however, migration to the West and low birth rates have brought this figure down to 22,600.

I was interested to find out however, how this race were viewed by the Bulgarians. The three Armenian students that I taught, (Kaloust, Araksia and Hacho), were all highly intelligent, talkative and seemed to be accepted by their peers. Was this normal however?

“Oh yes, entirely, especially the talking,” said Pavel Marinov. “No one can talk like the Armenians, we often joke about it. They are generally pretty smart too and we Bulgarians have no problems with them. For a start, they are Christians which helps, but that’s not all. They also work hard and are loyal to Bulgaria. They are our brothers, unlike the Gypsies for example.”

So what are the differences then?

“Well, a different church and different names of course. Plus they tend to marry their own kind. As for anything else, well it depends if they are Armenian Armenians or Bulgarian Armenians. Araksia for example, was born and brought up in Armenia. She speaks Bulgarian with an accent, and is quite different in her mindset. Hacho however, was born here and his family have lived here for years. He is no different from any Bulgarian.”

I found experience bore out some of what Marinov said. When preparing my Year Eight students for their listening examination, I asked each to speak for five minutes on the subject at hand. Not one managed to do so except for the chatterbox Hacho who would have continued for five more if I’d have let him. About the marriages though, the issue seemed less clear cut. I met a Russian on the train once whose wife was Armenian and so too it later transpired was the wife of the Russian Consular Secretary whom I tutored. But both those marriages had occurred in the Soviet Union when, (legally at least), they were all citizens of the same country. Perhaps things were a little different in Bulgaria?

My most lasting impression of Bulgaria’s Armenians however, is a profoundly positive one, and one of hope. In my Year Twelve class there were only three non-Bulgarians, two Turks and the aforementioned Armenian Araksia. And in every class the Turk Sema sat besides her best friend, Araksia. I once asked Araksia about this when she was talking about the Holocaust in a class discussion. “What the Turks did was very wrong,” she said, “and that the Turkish Government doesn’t apologise is just as bad. But that was a long time ago and it is hardly Semats fault now, is it?”

Oh, if only all the Balkan peoples could forgive and forget like that, then what a world we would have!

The Armenian Church in Varna

THE JEWS

After talking of forced name-changing campaigns, population exchanges, discrimination, a mass exodus and of a people despised and mistrusted by the majority population, one might expect a discussion of Bulgaria’s Jewish population to be the icing on the cake in a long tale of woe, misery and racism. After all, have any race suffered so much, in so many countries, over such along period? And is any race more well-known for being disliked and discriminated against by the locals wherever they have settled? Surprisingly however, there is no such tale to tell in Bulgaria, and those who are perhaps by now harbouring a none-too- positive image of the Bulgarian people when it comes to the field of race relations should think again, for Bulgaria was the setting of what is one of the most remarkable and touching tales of racial harmony in the tumultuous Twentieth Century.

There have been Jews in Bulgaria for centuries, with evidence existing of a community as early as the Second Century AD. However, the majority came late in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain by the Catholic Inquisition. Prior to World War II there were over 50,000 of them with communities in all of Bulgaria's major cities. However, as we all know, World War II represents a momentous and tragic chapter in Jewish history .Every country that was occupied by Hitler or his allies was systemically emptied of its Hebrews, who were then transported to work or death camps in Germany and Poland where their lot, unless they were very lucky, was death through either overwork and starvation or of course, the gas chambers. Whilst of course others suffered as well, most notably the Gypsies, it was the Jews who bore the brunt and contemporary estimates reveal a Jewish death toll of around six million.

At the start of the war, Bulgaria’s leader, King Boris III, wasted no time in signing an alliance with Hitler. He knew full well that his tiny Balkan state had no hope at all in trying to resist a Nazi War Machine that toppled the combined might of Britain and France in just a month. The Socialists of course, lost no time in condemning Boris as a traitor, but in reality, the move was an incredibly astute one, as not only did Bulgaria escape Nazi occupation, but it also meant that they won Dobrudja back from Romania, (in the Craiova Pact of 1940, already discussed during the section on the Vlachs), and had the Axis Powers won the war, they would also have added Macedonia to their national territory as well.[6] On top of that, Boris also insisted on a clause stipulating that the Bulgarians would never have to face Russia in combat, (at the time Hitler was adhering to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which placed the two countries as allies, thus this insistence can be seen a fine piece of foresight by Boris), thus honouring the role played by the Big Slavic Brother in establishing Bulgaria's freedom and virtually eliminating any Bulgarian deaths on the battlefield.

And indeed Bulgaria's alliance with the Nazis proved to work well in practice and bring benefits to the country until well into the war. Then something happened to change matters. The Nazis, in order to implement Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ to the ‘Jewish Problem’, began rounding up Jews all across Europe to send to the death camps. In March 1943 they reached Bulgaria and 8,500 prominent members of the Jewish community were rounded up and taken to Treblinka.

The response was not one anticipated by Hitler, or indeed anyone else. Whilst in other countries the locals had meekly gone along with the Nazi's plans, and in some they had actively supported them, the Bulgarians showed themselves to be made of different fibre. Headed by the Orthodox Metropolitans[7] Kiril and Stefan, and the Deputy Speaker in Parliament, Dimitur Peshev, a huge campaign was started to stop the deportations. The scenes that followed were remarkable, from ordinary folk lying across the railway tracks to stop the Treblinka-bound trains, to King Boris petitioning Hitler himself, the whole country rose up to protest the deportation of its Jews. Eventually the Nazis, with more important things to deal with, changed the order to one ordering the Bulgarian Jews to be placed in labour camps within Bulgaria itself, where there were to be no gas chambers. At the end of the war, all of the country's Jews, barring that initial 8,500 had survived. Of all the countries under the Axis sphere of influence, only Bulgaria managed to save its Jews. It was little short of a miracle.

The story of the rescue of Bulgaria's Jews fascinates, awes and intrigues me. Perhaps it's because I'm a foreigner, or because I have Jewish friends, I know not. But I personally consider it by far the most glorious moment in Bulgarian history. Levski’s, Botev’s and Khan Asparukh’s exploits pale in comparison. Even more surprisingly though, most Bulgarians think nothing of it.

It is strange that a nation managed to save its Jews, but to me, it is even stranger that it should happen in Bulgaria. In a region plagued by ethnic-cleansing and strife, of which we have seen, Bulgaria has far from been free, a nation bands together, with pressure from both the top and the bottom, to save its minority of a people hated the world over. How can a people who deport the Turks and marginalise the Gypsies be capable of such heights? I am confused. Perhaps it is because the Jews never posed a threat, always worked hard and had never occupied Bulgaria in the past, that, like the Armenians, they were respected. Or perhaps it is just as Boris Haralampieho, the then Bishop of Pazardzhik who’d helped stop the deportations in 1943 said: “Everyone is entitled to his own faith. No one should violate the intimate spiritual life of another. That’s how I think now, that’s how I have thought in the past, and if I live any longer, that's how I’ll think then.”

Nowadays only around five thousand Jews reside in Bulgaria, mostly in Sofia. The rest have emigrated to Israel. That seems a shame and perhaps a little ungrateful, but it is understandable. Memories of the ancient community however, still remain, both in Bulgaria and in the Holy Land, where Dimitur Peshev has a tree planted in his honour in the A venue of Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial.

Besides, I shouldn't be too judgmental. After all, it was Jewish emigrants in Israel who first introduced me to that beautiful Balkan country and culture, and amongst them I still have friends. And on New Year’s Eve, 1999, sat in a restaurant on Tel Aviv’s waterfront, at a Bulgarian ex-pat party, listening to Bulgarian supergroup, Shturtsite live, drinking rakiya and eating shopska salad, I raised a toast, for if it had not been for the actions of Peshev, Kiril, Stefan et al, out of that crowd of three hundred, I might have been the only one there to enjoy it.[8]


THE OTHERS

In addition to those minorities discussed already in this article, Bulgaria is also home to a number of other fascinating peoples who have found sanctuary within her borders at some time during history. Perhaps most intriguing are the Gagaous, a group of Turks who live primarily in the village of Vinitsa near to Vama, and who to this day, have preserved their Turkish language and customs, but unlike their brethren, have embraced Christianity.

Then there are the Greeks, who have had a presence in the country since ancient times. Vama (Odessos), Nesebur (Messembria), and Sozopol (Apollonia-Pontica) are all Greek towns and their influence can clearly be seen in the art of the Thracians and the present-day Orthodox Church, once, (much to the annoyance of the Bulgarians), almost entirely Hellenised. Nowadays very few Greeks remain, but there some mountain peoples who speak the Hellenic tongue. Once, when examining a ruined mosque in Provadiya, I got into conversation with the man who lived next-door and asked if I spoke his mother tongue – Greek.

And of course there are many more, particularly other Slavs from the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, who have intermarried with their Bulgarian brethren and become absorbed into the Bulgarian nation. In the small school where I taught, we had one Russian-born teacher and another from the Ukraine, and seven students, (that I knew of), who had one or more Russian parents. There was also a half Palestinian, a half Syrian, two Poles and one girl of mixed Romanian and Greek parentage on top of the Turks and Armenians, (no Tsigani though, perhaps evidence of their financial and social low-standing; this was a private school after all), so being a foreigner was no perhaps so special in such a cosmopolitan environment.

Cosmopolitan or not however, racism alas exists, not only towards Jews and Muslims, but also, (notably at football matches), towards blacks of which Bulgaria has a very small number, by and large socialist-era immigrants from Nigeria and Ethiopia. Towards the ‘Yellow Races’, (as one Bulgarian friend so eloquently put it), there seems little animosity. The small number of Vietnamese guest workers who undoubtedly are viewed as a race apart and a little strange, are respected for their hard work and not the butt of jokes or abuse. Indeed, Bulgarian racism, where it exists, seems more directed towards ancient hatreds and those viewed as slovenly, dirty and lazy. The hard-working Jews, Vietnamese and Armenians all escape it.

Which is perhaps a good thing, and overall, looking at the situation of Bulgaria’s minorities, (especially .considering where she is geographically), a general assessment of her record since the advent of democracy must surely be positive. True, the situation as regards the Roma is unacceptable, but this is perhaps due to faults on both sides. The Roma aside though, Bulgaria at the moment at least, is something of a model of racial harmony and acceptance that alas, is no Balkan norm, and should not be taken for granted as presently seems to be the case.

Copyright @ 2003, Matthew E. Pointon Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, October 2003
Amended, January 2007, Smallthorne, UK

[1] Throughout this article, the province is referred to by its Albanian title 'Kosova' as opposed to the Serbian title 'Kosovo' .This in deference to the fact that the vast majority of its residents are Albanian
[2] The official figures: One third of Bulgarian Turks pray five times daily, 15% on religious holidays only and 16% never. 40% follow Koranic orders on drinking and eating. Taken from Turks. Pomaks and Roma in Bulgaria after 1989.
[3] As an interesting postscript, several years later when I came to work in a prison in the UK, I did get to know a Romanian Roma well. He was in prison for stealing a mobile phone, had never attended school and told me to ‘never trust gypsies as they steal everything’!
[4] The figures given the Tutrakan Guide Book by Peter Boychev and Emit Petkov state that in 1930 the town had 11,175 inhabitants but by 1941 this had shrunk to a mere 5,600.
[5] For a flavour of how this minority lived, I suggest a visit to the restored house of merchant Hindlian, to be found, just below the Armenian Church in Plovdiv’s Old City.
[6] As it was, Bulgaria did administer the province after the Nazis defeated Yugoslavia. However, once the conflict was over, it was handed back to Belgrade.
[7] A Metropolitan is akin to a Bishop.

[8] Those wishing to learn more about the saving of Bulgaria' s Jews should consult Beyond Hitler's Grasp by Michael Bar Zorhar.