Menorah candles were lit in the former synagogue of Burgas on the sixth day of the holy Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah. A religious ceremony was held there for the first time since 70 years ago, when the temple was converted into an art gallery. Shlomo Goldenberg, the chazan (lead cantor) of the Central Sofia Synagogue, who reads holiday prayers, arrived in Burgas for the ceremony. Under the tradition, the main candle, called the Shamash, which occupies the central place and keeps the sanctity of Menorah from desecration, is lit by a person respected by Jewish people. The honor to light the Shamash was bestowed to the Mayor of Burgas Dimitar Nikolov.
“Hanukkah is historically linked to the struggles of Jewish people against invaders in 165 BC. This ceremony is a message of peace, understanding and success. It is the right time now to talk about the humanity of Bulgarians who saved their Jewish compatriots. Today Jews are in Bulgaria and are alive because Bulgarian people had the courage to protect them,” said Rabbi Shlomo Goldenberg before 200 people who attended the ceremony.
The ritual lighting of the Hanukkah candles was part of the memorial evening “Memory for the Rescuers of Bulgarian Jews,” which put the finishing touches of the celebrations dedicated to the 70th anniversary of preventing Holocaust in Bulgaria. This particular gesture of gratitude was organized on the personal initiative of Alberta Alkalay, together with the organization of Bulgarian Jews “Shalom.”
The hall on the first floor of Art Gallery “Petko Zadgorski” proved too small to accommodate all who wished to attend the memorial evening. Burgas Regional Governor, Pavel Marinov, and the Regional Governor of Sliven, Korneliy Zheliazkov, the Honorary Consuls of Israel, Orlin Mandov, of Russia, Tonko Fotev, and of Ukraine, Dimitar Karanenov, the mayors of Nessebar, Nikolay Dimitrov, and of Primorsko, Dr. Dimitar Germanov, the leader of the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria party, NFSB, and owner of TV SKAT, Valeri Simeonov, representatives of the businesses and of institutions in the city, journalists, public figures, and intellectuals were all in attendance. Guests also included Maxim Benvenisti, Chairman of the organization of Bulgarian Jews “Shalom,” heads of regional organizations of “Shalom” in Burgas, Shumen, Sliven, Yambol and Ruse. Prominent writers, Nedyalko Yordanov and Rumen Leonidov, were part of the audience as well.
The most honored guests, however, were the descendants of those prominent public figures and citizens of Burgas, who, in the macabre years of the Second World War, have remained faithful to the basic law of people – humanism.
“This evening is dedicated to them. We thank them as Jews for surviving and existing today. We thank them as Bulgarians as well for our country having an everlasting moral capital that makes it proud before the world – not giving nearly 50 000 of its citizens for extermination in Nazi camps,” said Alberta Alkalay at the start of the event.
An extremely moving documentary “Let’s Remember” told the story of the time of rescue and of the people, who declared their sacrifice for a great human cause. The film highlighted less popular facts about the Jewish community in the city and the names of prominent Bulgarians who were willing to pay a huge price for the audacity to oppose Hitler’s genocide machine.
Joseph Assa, 90, is the oldest Burgas Jew, survivor of labor camps and of the terrible events of 1941 – 1944. He told his most vivid memories of danger, uncertainty, resentment of the disregard for human dignity and right to life. He named dozens of his fellow citizens and friends who were not afraid to stand against repressive laws and to help their Jewish neighbors.
The people who have been compassionate to the fate of Jews in Burgas are many. The names of most of them sounded in the hall of the former synagogue. Burgas has always been a tolerant and cosmopolitan city. For this reason “Shalom Bulgaria” chose it as the place to focus on the gratitude to rescuers. The Chairman of the organization Maxim Benvenisti presented honors to the heirs of Burgas Mayor Dyanko Pravchev (1939 – 1944) and of writer Petko Rosen. They had a major contribution in the organization of public resistance against German orders to extradite Bulgarian Jews to death camps. This is how hundreds of Jewish families in Burgas were rescued as well. The Steering Committee was established to nominate them as honorary citizens.
Mayor Dimitar Nikolov was bestowed with honorary insignia for keeping the spirit of tolerance in the city. An award was also presented to Alberta Alkalay for always keeping alive the memory and for promoting that heroic part of history that still fuels our national self-esteem today. Alberta organized and conducted the National Student Literary Competition “A Person Who Saves One Life, Saves an Entire Universe.” For her initiatives she has been nominated for the annual award of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee for contribution to human rights and their protection – “Human of the Year.”
The memorable evening was accompanied by the exhibit “Some Stories” of young Burgas artist of Jewish origin Bettino Assa. Bettino is the recipient of an award of the Bank of Montreal and of the prestigious prize in a painting competition, organized by the Royal Bank of Canada.
The emotional music and dance performances by students of Burgas Music School and of the Choir School “Milka Stoeva,” prepared especially for the event, moved the audience to tears.
The idea of the evening was summed up by poet Rumen Leonidov with the following words: “Let’s be eternal servants of Light and never of Darkness!” Reverence for the Rescue and the Festival of Strength and Courage, Hanukkah, symbolically joined their semantic vibrations in a unique phenomenon that can happen only in Bulgaria – the only country in Europe that had the courage and strength to preserve intact its entire Jewish community from Hitler’s grip.
This post is also available in: Bulgarian