Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage

Conference Summary

On November 5th, 2001, the Brudnick Center and the Institute on Race and Justice co-hosted a conference titled, “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage: Lessons from Bulgaria.

In the morning session, the panelists analyzed the culture of tolerance in Bulgaria during World War II that saved Bulgarian Jewish residents from the Nazi death camps. Some of the factors cited by panelists as contributing to this remarkable occurrence were Bulgaria’s tradition of religious and cultural tolerance, including a mutual understanding of, respect for, and interdependence between Bulgarians and their Jewish neighbors, and the willingness of those individuals at various levels of leadership – Bulgarian politicians, professionals, academics, and clergy – to protest the deportation to death camps. The morning session was followed by a screening of excerpts from the film, “The Optimists,” which gave more detailed background information about the events leading up to and culminating in the protest of Bulgarian citizens against the Nazi orders for deportation of their Jewish citizens.

Finally, the afternoon session highlighted the ways in which we may apply the lessons we have learned from the Bulgarian experience to contemporary situations of inter-group conflict and violence. Panelists referred to conflict situations brought about by racial, ethnic, religious, and economic differences and emphasized the importance of acknowledging the transformative power of human relationships and establishing forums to facilitate discussions of diversity, difference, and the possibility of community reconnection.

The Morning Panel: Petar-Emil Mitev, Professor: St. Kliment Ohridsky University Department of Politology. (Sofia Bulgaria); Emmy Barouh, Author, International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations (Sofia Bulgaria); Paul Bookbinder, Professor of History and Director of the European Studies program; UMASS Boston; Helen Fein, Author and expert in Genocide Studies; Gordana Rabrenovic (Moderator) Assoc. Director of the Brudnick Center for the study of Conflict and Violence, Assoc. Prof. of Sociology Northeastern University.

The Afternoon Panel: Nancy K. Kaufman, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston; Rev. Ray Hammond, Co-founder of the Ten-Point Coalition; Robin Chandler, Chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Northeastern University; David Schmitt, Brooke Professor; Department of Political Science, Northeastern University; Deborah Ramirez, (Moderator)Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Institute on Race and Justice; Northeastern University.

Notes From an Attendee

Roy N. Freed

      I write this essay to explore if the reputed traditional ready acceptance by Bulgarians of practically all ethnic and religious differences among themselves might point to conditions or actions for avoiding and overcoming ethnic, religious, racial, gender, and other antipathies in other societies, in order to produce similar genuine social civility in them.This remarkable normal Bulgarian behavior dates back to the millennia-old Bulgarian lands and continues in modern ethnically and religiously diverse Bulgaria. This behavior is even more remarkable when it is noted that Bulgaria is located both right in the middle of the otherwise hate-ridden Balkans and in the Southeastern corner of Continental Europe, most of whose countries, both near and far from it, were wracked with vicious anti-Semitism before and during WW II and many still are even today.
      I am moved to write this essay now when the long overlooked general social civility of Bulgarians seems finally to be recognized implicitly through belated attention to the fairly unique heroic action of the Bulgarian people, during WW II, in saving their entire 50,000 Bulgarian Jews living within the country’s pre-WW II borders from actually planned deportation to the Treblinka death camp in response to pressure from Nazi Germany, to which Bulgaria was allied.
      I hope that my analysis can help in reducing persistent ethnic, religious, racial, gender, and similar discrimination and antipathies in other countries.

Who I Am

      As I presume to share my thoughts on how reputed Bulgarian exemplary interpersonal behavior might show others how to achieve social civility, let me identify myself to bare any possible biases or predilections that might be thought to color my version of the Bulgarian society on which this essay rests. I am a Jew who is entirely secular naturally, at least through secular parents and possibly also through general social influences during my growing up in the U.S.A. during the entire Great Depression, when many people earnestly sought remedies for the prevailing deep ethnic and racial discriminations as well as the severe economic malaise. My forebears came to the U.S.A. from Lithuania and Belorus at the end of the 19th Century and the very beginning of the 20th, to escape persistent anti-Semitism and its accompanying lack of opportunities there for economic advancement and personal fulfillment through education and the like. I am pleased to identify myself, and to be identified by others, as Jewish, despite persistent anti-Semitism, albeit at a greatly reduced level in the U.S.A. since WW II.My version of being Jewish reflects my personal attribution to Judaism of deep social concerns, maximum acceptance of differences among people, and especially a firm commitment to helping others. In addition, I am a retired lawyer who favors the enjoyment of civil and human rights.
      Moreover, I am proud to be a political liberal of the rationalist, open-minded Enlightenment stripe, who yearns for maximum peace and social harmony in the world and, hence, a minimum of ideologically based antipathy among people. In that respect, I like to think in terms of the importance of ready “acceptance,” and possibly even cherishing, of human diversity in the form of ethnic, religious, gender, racial, and similar identified differences. I strongly prefer this characterization over the more common notion of “tolerance,” which has the negative connotation for me of putting up, possibly grudgingly, with something distasteful.
      I became positively disposed to Bulgarians by meeting many of them starting during a purely social visit to Bulgaria in 1987, and that disposition expanded greatly when my wife and I were Fulbright Teaching Scholars at Sofia University in early 1989, at age 72, in our respective fields of clinical social work and law. I found in most of the very many Bulgarians I met the positive qualities I describe below. We now have countless warm, close Bulgarian social and professional friends both in Bulgaria and in the U.S.A. We visited Bulgaria ten times since our 1989 Fulbrights, or thirteen times in all, primarily on working visits to advance our very diverse successful volunteer educational, cultural, and business projects there, including primarily promoting professional graduate social work education and practice there, American tourism to Bulgaria, and the exhibition of Bulgarian films in the U.S.A. Moreover, our circle of Bulgarian friends constantly expands through our active networking through the Internet and in person in Bulgaria and here.

Why I Am Writing This Essay Now

      I am particularly moved to write this essay by attending a conference on November 5, 2001, at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, on the subject, “Ordinary People; Extraordinary Courage: Lessons from Bulgaria.” The “Ordinary People” were the Bulgarians within Bulgaria’s pre-WW II borders during WW II, when it was allied with Nazi Germany. The “Extraordinary Courage” was their action in resisting the Bulgarian government’s planned deportation of a number of Bulgarian Jews from within the country’s pre-WW II borders to the Treblinka death camp. The “Lessons” I expected to be whatever guidance Americans might draw from that Bulgarian experience. I was delighted that that conference was held to give publicity to this singular humane action of substantial numbers of Bulgarians, which has certain counterparts in the behavior of the Danes, the Finns, and the Italians as groups of people, in contrast to the heroic actions of individual people in various countries. I am glad that the conference moved me to present my views on those possible “Lessons.”
      The conference was set up by Prof. Jack Levin of Northeastern University’s Brudnick Center for the Study of Conflict and Violence and sponsored by that Center and its Institute on Race and Justice. I thank him and his associates warmly for their doing this.
      The conference had two sessions, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. This ostensibly purely functional arrangement turned out, to my mind, to be substantively significant for exploring the planned subject, because the afternoon speakers did not hear the presentation of the Bulgarian story during the morning session. Although the way the difference played out undercut what I expected the content of the second session to be, nevertheless, its different treatment turned out to help me derive a positive conclusion about the Bulgarian experience that I overlooked in my pre-Conference futile effort to draw a useful lesson from it, as I point out below.
      The first session, entitled, “Bulgarian Resistance to the Deportation of its Jewish Population,” fulfilled the plan to identify factors behind the Bulgarians’ saving “their Jewish neighbors.” The speakers on this subject were Prof. Paul Bookbinder, a Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, particularly German history, and Director of its European Studies program; Mrs. Emmy Barouh, a journalist, the wife of the present Bulgarian Ambassador to Mexico, a niece of one of the Jews who prevailed upon Dimitar Peshev, then a key figure in the Bulgarian Parliament, to take leadership to forestall the planned deportation of the Bulgarian Jews, and the daughter of a man who was saved whom my wife and I interviewed about the saving; and Prof. Petar-Emil Mitev, a Professor of Political Science at Sofia University, Sofia, Bulgaria. Prof. Bookbinder’s description of the saving was notably detailed and accurate, and he and the others identified the favorable social circumstances that apparently made it possible. Their description is confirmed by the recent book by Prof. Michael Bar-Zohar, entitled, Beyond Hitler’s Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews, which is well worth reading. By the way, although the lives of the entire 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved, they were subjected to many indignities and financial losses through the enactment and relatively mild enforcement of a counterpart of the Nazi anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws.
      I present now my understanding of the salient aspects of those favorable social circumstances for the saving. Bulgaria is a millennia-old land, but a nation only since 1878, when the Ottoman Empire that controlled it for 500 years was driven out with the military aid of Russia. Even though the early Bulgarians were converted to Christianity in the Ninth Century, Bulgaria, old and new, was always significantly ethnically and religiously diverse. It had many Jews there, including Romaniotes from even before the Diaspora triggered by the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and very many much later as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 by invitation of the Ottomans, as well as indigenous Turks; Pomaks, who are descendants of Bulgarians who converted to Islam during the Ottoman Empire; Greeks; Armenians; Romanians; and others.I believe that it is especially notable that the Bulgarians of all ostensible religious identities have been secular at least until the demise of the Communist regime in 1990. Bulgaria never had religious wars or insisted upon conversion to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
      There has never been sustained significant anti-Semitism among Bulgarians; aberrational manifestations of it during WW II, when Bulgaria, under Tsar Boris III, was allied to Germany, were largely institutional among relatively small groups of rowdies called Legionnaires and Ratniks, but also existed among a small number of Government legislators and key bureaucrats, especially those charged with carrying out the planned deportation. To the contrary, countless Bulgarians regard their traditional freedom from anti-Semitism as an obligation of themselves and their country and view it as a badge of honor to be preserved. Moreover, the three Bulgarian Orthodox Metropolitans and the numerous political leaders, professionals, and public figures who resisted the planned deportation insisted that it flew in the face of Bulgaria’s deep commitment to genuine democracy. Bulgaria’s first constitution adopted upon its liberation from the Ottoman Empire, the Veliko Tornovo Constitution, was one of the most liberal in Europe. For example, it declared that any slave who set foot in Bulgarian automatically became free. Bulgarian commitment to modern democracy is noteworthy in light of its people’s having been under Ottoman domination for five centuries, its geographical location in Southeastern Europe, and its heavy peasant background. I have been delighted to note, that despite the isolation of Bulgarians from the West during its five centuries of Ottoman domination, an authoritarian monarchy that some people call fascistic, and Communism until 1990, countless of them wholeheartedly embrace the values of the Enlightenment.
      Throughout Bulgarian history, Bulgarians of all ethnic groups, including Jews, but thus far not Roma or Gypsies, lived fairly intermixed and, at least until the immediate present, were essentially on the same modest economic and social level. They did not have the extremes of great wealth and poverty that existed in other countries. There were never any ghettos in Bulgaria. The disgraceful effort in the 1980s to force the Bulgarian Turks to change their names to Bulgarian-sounding ones and forgo speaking Turkish in public, which caused many of them to flee to Turkey, was driven by the Communist leaders for their ulterior political purposes and did not reflect the view of the Bulgarian people at large and was not supported by them. Bulgaria welcomed many Armenians who were refugees from Turkish oppression, and the Armenians always have been fully integrated in Bulgarian society.
      The second, or afternoon, session, entitled, “Lessons for Reducing Hate and Bigotry in the Contemporary World,” was designed ostensibly for some Boston community leaders and academics working actively to reduce ethnic and racial tensions to draw lessons from the Bulgarian experience. The speakers in the second session were Nancy R. Kaufman, Executive Director of the umbrella Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston; Rev. Ray Hammond, an African-American Co-founder of the Ten-Point Coalition, an organization designed to reduce racial and ethnic tensions in Boston; Prof. Robin Chandler, Chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Northeastern University; and Prof. David Schmitt, Professor in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University.
      However, those speakers did not try to find lessons in the Bulgarian experience, as the title of the conference implied that they would. Their default might have been due to the fact that they did not know enough about the Bulgarian experience to be able to draw on it. Their viewing the documentary film, “The Optimists,” about the saving did not explore Bulgarian social civility in enough depth. It is more likely, and actually preferable, that they had their own agenda, which was to describe their current work on improving racial, ethnic, and religious relations, of which they are justly proud. Their description of their very constructive, professional efforts to overcome tensions among racial and ethnic groups in Boston actually provided a more practical perspective on steps to achieve social civility than trying to figure out how the Bulgarian experience might be replicated here. Ms. Kaufman and Rev. Hammond told of their team efforts to overcome boundaries among racial, ethnic, and religious groups in Boston to achieve maximum common understanding and to ameliorate a variety of troublesome economic, educational, and other social problems. And Prof. Schmitt told of efforts by community leaders in Northern Ireland to overcome longstanding, bitter antipathies between groups identified as Catholic and Protestant that appear to have prospects of being successful

My Conclusions on How to Strive for Inter-group Civility Anywhere

    Here are my related, somewhat overlapping, conclusions regarding possible lessons on how to achieve social civility in diverse societies that seem to flow from general, readily available, sociological insights into social group interactions taken together with both the specific, probably unique, general Bulgarian civility and some earnest, constructive efforts being made here in Boston by skilled social activists. As it turns out, despite my high hopes that the unique Bulgarian experience might reveal a general panacea for inter-group tensions, my following more realistic conclusions for the more usual societal situations are quite mundane:

    1. The challenge to determine how to advance social civility, which means working toward maximum ready acceptance of ethnic, religious, racial, gender, and similar differences, is a normal professional problem in sociology and group psychology. These fields inform us that it is unfortunately normal for people in social groups to claim, as a form of perverse human competitiveness, superiority in some respect over at least some other groups, and often to scapegoat and denigrate other groups as a step in that process. These competing groups might exist both within a single country, such as the clearly multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-racial U.S.A. and the much less emphasized multi-ethnic and multi-religious Bulgaria, and as entire countries as expressions of nationalism.
    2. As a visionary, I, and possibly some others, have hoped that the professed admirable general civility among the people who make up the various diverse ethnic and ostensible religious groups in Bulgaria might be a model that could be emulated. For years, I hoped that it was a transportable panacea against social turmoil. However, I now conclude that Bulgarian civility is entirely unique and cannot be intentionally replicated elsewhere, particularly not in the U.S.A. I reluctantly conclude that, if that type of civility does not already exist in a country naturally, essentially spontaneously, as a result of prevailing favorable circumstances, it cannot be produced by design.
    3. Although I am disappointed that the Bulgarian situation does not appear to be applicable directly in other countries, as I idealistically had hoped, I now see it, more likely, as a reasonable goal in choosing steps to try to approach it. The very existence of that Bulgarian society should persuade the most hardened cynic that identifiable groups of people actually can live together with reasonable tranquility, even if they do not actually love each other. As an aside, it also proves that a society properly identified as predominantly Christian is not condemned to be anti-Semitic. As that goal, I see that practically all Bulgarians in Bulgaria, despite their ostensible separate ethnic and religious subgroups, continue to constitute, in effect from a sociological point of view, a single, or unitary, national social group, except for the Roma thus far. Moreover, I am aware of serious professional efforts in Bulgaria to tackle discrimination against the Roma. I believe that Bulgarians can be considered to be a single social group for many basic purposes because their ostensible subgroups have lived in substantial economic and social harmony in the general civil functioning of the country, even though some of them, such as the Turks and the Pomaks, maintain somewhat separate ways of life, based on religion, culture, language, educational level, and similar factors. In this regard, although I have heard Bulgarians say that they “hate the Turks,” associating them reflexively with the detested Ottoman Empire of centuries ago, they are not disposed to kill them, and they did not grasp the occasion of the Communist Party oppression of the Turks in the 1980s to try to drive them out of Bulgaria.
    4. While I regret that the Bulgarian model of social civility cannot be replicated, I still consider it an invaluable goal to be sought. To that end, it is essential to identify measures that might help specific societies move toward that goal. In this respect, I was interested in the earnest, essentially self-help, private citizen efforts being made in Boston to bridge the common gulfs between and among various American ethnic, religious, and racial groups toward possible social amalgamations to note those that appear to be ideal and worthy of emulation. These efforts arise from socially motivated felt needs to improve inter-group relations, as the speakers described. They include not only open, mutually respectful active communication among respected group leaders but also joint efforts to build a sounder society by striving to fill social, economic, and psychological needs in the community at large.