To Be a Refugee: a Testimony of a Jewish Bulgarian Family
Updated: Jul 21, 2021
Published in: Refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe in British Overseas Territories
Series: Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, Volume: 20
Editors: Swen Steinberg and Anthony Grenville
It is based upon a lecture delivered in London 2017 as part of a conference held by The Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, Institute of Modern Languages Research, University of London.
Did I write it so as not to go mad, or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind? Was it to leave behind a legacy of words, of memories, to help prevent history from repeating itself? Or was it simply to preserve a record of the ordeal I endured as an adolescent, at an age when one’s knowledge of death and evil should be limited to what one discovers in literature? [...] In retrospect I must confess that I do not know […] I am a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try and prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory."
(Wiesel, Night, p. 7)
Who is a refugee? What parameters are required to determine such a status, which carries obvious legal, cultural, physical, familial and psychological connotations? Is the term universal and timeless or should one define the term specifically along a geographical and temporal timeline? The scope of this chapter does not allow a comprehensive study of this methodological issue, and I propose instead to place my definition within two categorical fields: the first is the context of Jewish refugees during the Nazi occupation of Europe and in particular the Balkan countries, and the second is the definition embraced, or rejected, by one particular individual whose story will form the backbone of this article.
In his review of Sir John Hope Simpson’s report on the state of the refugees in Europe published in 1939, Malcolm declared the problem to be riddled with many “ifs”. The mass deportation and murder of millions of Jews, and other Europeans, had not yet begun, but awareness of the magnitude of the problem already existed especially amongst academic circles. The grave threat to the well-being and survival of many individuals posed by the Nazi regime in Germany and in the countries occupied by it was imminent and, according to Simpson’s report, required an immediate response if the precarious situation of those endangered populations was not to deteriorate further. As we know, the efforts of the Allied forces, military and otherwise, were not successful during that time, and it took some years and millions of casualties before Europe was able to begin to recover from the atrocities of the Nazi regime. It can be argued that that the process of coming to terms with the loss of most of European Jews, and many other, can never completed. I present this historical documentation at the outset to support my claim that during the Nazi regime, all non-Aryan communities and individuals were potentially refugees or victims. To be living in a continent threatened by the measures that the Nazi regime and its allies were beginning to deploy inevitably destabilised the relative security that these communities and individuals had been enjoying.
In a letter to Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher whose work greatly influenced her, Hannah Arendt wrote on 29 January 1943 about her status as a stateless person. She does not complain, but rather describes her circumstances in having succeeded in leaving Nazi Germany in time. She claims that at the present time a person with dignity can only live at the edge of society.
She opens her essay “We Refugees” by stating the obvious: “In the first place, we don’t like to be called ‘refugees’ […] A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held […] with us the meaning of the term ‘refugee’ has changed.” (p. 110). More than forty years later, Julia Kristeva, herself a Bulgarian philosopher and psychoanalyst, has expanded the use of the term into new realms. Relying on contemporary views and the fact that Jews, for instance, were denied their citizenship while still living in Nazi Germany, Kristeva claims that a person does not have to be physically exiled from his or her homeland to be considered a refugee or exile. One can be an exile while still residing in one’s homeland. The change in the environment around one can render one a stranger to oneself.
As I will show later, living during the 1940s in Bulgaria, which had allied itself with the Nazi regime and had adopted anti-Jewish legislation and measures, meant that for the whole Jewish population, Bulgaria, their place of residence and in many ways their home since the Middle Ages, had become a place where they could not help but feel themselves to be persecuted simply for being Jewish, dependent upon the good will of their former fellow citizens. In the vast majority of cases, that alienation abated somewhat once the war was over, but the Bulgarian Jews no longer felt at home in that country. The particular testimony that I will discuss later represents an extreme example of how that sense of alienation caused one particular family to turn itself into a refugee family, seeking asylum in British-mandated Palestine.
The Jews of Bulgaria
It is commonly known that in Denmark and Bulgaria the local communities, with the co-operation and leadership of national politicians, generally succeeded in keeping the Jewish community safe from the extermination plans of the Nazi regime. Bulgaria marks the annual anniversary of the prevention of the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the Nazi death camps on 10 March, in a ceremony attended by state officials and representatives of local communities. Bulgaria’s unicameral parliament, the National Assembly, voted unanimously and without debate on 8 March 2013 to adopt a declaration marking the seventieth anniversary of the prevention of the deportation of Bulgarian Jews. However, the Jewish community of Macedonia does not participate in these anniversaries, holding the Bulgarian government responsible for the deportation and murder of Macedonian Jews.
Bulgaria joined the Axis forces in 1941 as a passive ally. It was “rewarded” by the Nazi regime by annexing and occupying Thrace, Pirot and Macedonia in April of that year. The occupation did not pass without local resistance, and soon the Bulgarian army found itself dealing with uprisings which it suppressed violently. I will return to this event, as it was written about in the testimony of my protagonist. Bulgaria, ruled by King Boris, also resisted mounting pressure from Germany to join her in the war against the Soviet Union and maintained diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union throughout the war. Bulgaria did, however, pass several anti-Jewish laws, restricting the movements and basic freedoms of Jews and sending thousands of young Jewish men to work camps, separating them from their families.
There were about 48,000 Jews living in Bulgaria at the beginning of the war, the vast majority of whom survived the war, due to the efforts of various political figures in the Bulgarian administration, including Bishop Kiril of Plovdiv, the member of parliament Dmitri Peshev and King Boris. To that figure the Jews of Thrace, Pirot and Macedonia were later added. Those Jewish communities did not share the relatively good fortunes of the Bulgarian Jewish community. After a visit in January 1943 by the Nazi Theodor Dannecker, Eichmann’s former representative for the Jewish Question in Paris, the Bulgarian anti-Semite Alexander Belev, who headed the Jewish department in the Sofia government, overcame all parliamentary resistance and succeeded in bringing about the deportation of 13,341 non-Bulgarian Jews from the occupied territories of Thrace, Pirot and Macedonia. They were sent to their deaths in Treblinka and Auschwitz during March 1943. They were rounded up and put on trains which stopped at Lom, a small port town on the Danube. It was in Lom that the protagonist of this testimony lived with his family. From Lom, the Jews were placed on four ferries and taken to Vienna, nearly a thousand kilometres away, from where they again boarded trains that took them to their deaths. It was rumoured that two of the ferries never arrived in Vienna and were sunk by the Nazis en route.
During that time, the Allied forces began employing air raids to target German troops. These air raids, as well as the shift in the course of the war, created popular pressure on the Bulgarian government to end its alliance with the Axis forces. The advance of the Russian forces facilitated that process, and on 9 September 1944 Bulgaria ceased its collaboration with the Nazis.
The vast majority of the Bulgarian Jews emigrated to the newly established state of Israel after 1948. There are still a few thousand Jews living in Bulgaria today, enjoying for the time being the good relations with other communities that have mostly persisted since the arrival of Jewish immigrants in Bulgaria in the Middle Ages.
In his book Testimony, which is dedicated to the exploration of the impact of testimony taking from Holocaust survivors, the French psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Dori Laub (1992) writes: “Whoever listens to the story of extreme human pain, of severe emotional trauma, is required himself to deal with unimaginable pain.” (Laub, Testimony, p. 67) The testimony that I have gathered from reading the memoirs of a father and his son, written forty years apart, illuminates the last few years of the family’s life in Bulgaria and their early years in Palestine. In some ways, those years between 1941 and 1948 were ordinary years. What makes them special, and worthy of preservation and presentation, is the knowledge of what happened in the years preceding and following that period. As Laub writes further: “The listener needs to know the territory upon which he writes […] furthermore, he needs to be able to listen to the silence which is being spoken beyond the words themselves, to recognize the silence and wait.” (p. 68)
When a person sits down in his room to write a memoir, he is usually addressing his private words to a specific reader. As he sits down and pens his thoughts, or types on his computer, he has in a mind a very specific reader to whom he wishes to communicate. He is having a dialogue through the written media which he may well have meant to conduct verbally and directly with that person, but for a variety of reasons, prosaic or not, he writes his words down on paper. The memoir that I am writing is based upon reading and analysing the memoirs of two authors, one of whom is no longer alive. He is not here to give his consent and to consider the various implications of making his memoir public. Even though the memoir does not contain information which seems too private, in my judgment, to share, the ethical consideration is as valid as it would have been in the case of secret love letters. This issue has been addressed by Laura Hobson Faure in her work with the diaries of Holocaust survivors. What does one do if information discovered in the writings of a deceased person can affect the well-being of survivors, such as a secret love affair?
As I will discuss later, the information revealed in Dr Leon Alfandary’s memoir does not carry that kind of impact, but I would suggest that the actual existence of the memoir as a testimony, regardless of the details it contains, has a powerful impact. It is not an historical document and is erroneous factually in several places, assuming non-deliberately. Alfandary wrote the memoir many years after he had arrived in Israel. Some of the factual errors are perhaps due to lack of knowledge or misconception. Those errors do not alter, in my opinion its validity as a document testifying the state of mind of its author who attempted to share his very personal and subjective remembrance of his past. His intention was not, I believe, to cast new light upon the historical event he described but rather to show its impact upon his memory for the benefit of his descendants.
Reading and analysing the two memoirs is therefore done with caution. It is sensitive material, not due to its content, but due to its mere existence. Each reading enfolds within it unknown dimensions, resounding and sending echoes within one’s psyche. Reading the material can evoke a sense of loss and trauma. This testimony is mainly based upon the memoir of Dr Leon Alfandary, who was born in 1897 in Romania and who died peacefully in 1981 in Tel Aviv. It uses information from the memoir of his son, Dr Haim Alfandary, born in 1928 in Sofia, Bulgaria, who is still alive and well, living in Israel. As produced here, the memoir calls for further investigation, contextualization and analysis. It is still relevant in its current relatively rough format as a story told by a father and grandfather to his child and grandchildren.
Leon Alfandary was born in Romania in 1897. His father, Haim, was a copyist of Holy Scriptures (Sofer Stam) as well as a precentor (Chasan), a Kosher butcher (Shochet) and a Mohel (performer of male circumcision). His many talents led him from one job to another in the Bulgarian-Romanian region. Leon was one of nine children, raised by his mother, an illiterate housewife who earned the respect of her family by being a dedicated mother. The memoir was written in 1979, when Leon was 82, four years before his death from a heart failure. The 60-page memoir is handwritten in Hebrew and contains some photographs and documents. Its linguistic style is unique and at times awkward, as it is written in a language the author learnt as an adult and is not his mother tongue. Nevertheless, it is eloquently written and makes a clear and engaging read. The author acknowledges that in the opening page and begs the reader to be forgiving towards his many grammatical mistakes.
The scope of this article only allows an analysis of the relevant passages in the memoir, those relating the events between the years 1941 and 1948. The opening pages describe the history of the family and the happy childhood years of the author, growing up in Sofia. Though physical conditions were at times harsh, his memories are of a caring family who maintained traditional Jewish values in a liberal atmosphere.
He goes on to describe the daily events, including the time he spent with his father at work, which he did with awe and admiration. He describes the family as well integrated into the Jewish community and on good terms with its non-Jewish neighbours. Anti-Semitism was always in the background, but only to such an extent as not to cause too much disturbance. It was a fact of life for Jews in Bulgaria. The author does describe a couple of incidents when, already a young man, he had to assert himself in face of verbal affronts. It sounds as if those incidents were the exception, as the overall feelings towards the Jews in Bulgaria were favourable. Alfandary was conscripted into the Bulgarian army at the beginning of World War I and took part in heavy fighting in Macedonia and Romania. He is relatively reticent concerning that period, only mentioning off-handedly that he received a medal for his part in those battles.
The medal turned out to be important, as it later helped him to maintain a relatively secure status during the Nazi period as a war veteran. Once the war was over, he tried to resume his aim of studying medicine. He travelled to Vienna, where he failed to be accepted (due to anti-Semitism, he thought). He then went to Prague, where he was accepted and was able to start his medical studies. Life was harsh and he was short of money and had to return to Sofia to raise more funds. He completed his medical studies in 1923 in Hamburg, where he also enjoyed the lively cultural atmosphere of the city, meeting many students from all over the world. In the following years he began his medical practice first in Sofia and then in Lom, where he settled with his bride Edith (they married in 1927) and their newly born son Haim (born in 1928).
The small family enjoyed a good life in the years preceding the outbreak of World War II. Leon’s status as a doctor in the small town of Lom was prestigious. He began political activity in the local Zionist movement and was prominent in it both in Lom and nationally. He held various positions in Zionist organisations which harboured the dream of immigrating to Palestine and establishing a Jewish state there. As his son recounted in his own memoir forty years later:
Soon, the growing practice enabled my parents to buy a large two-storey house on the main street of Lom. It had a large backyard and two shops at the front rented to local merchants. In the backyard my father built an apartment which served as his practice. A man of property now, he took an active part in the local Rotary club and acted as the head of the small Jewish community. One had only to see him walking along the main street of Lom, wearing a Borsalino, swinging his walking stick and nodding to passers-by. The show was complete when I, his son and heir, walked side by side with him. In that sense he was a proud and a vain man but so were all members of the bourgeois class then. He was respected by all and never turned away a patient for lack of money. When needed, he responded to all, day and night.
The good life took a turn for the worse when the Nazis seized power in Germany. He wrote:
With the rise of the Nazi party to power in Germany, the skies became overcast over our heads too. The buds of their deportation from Europe and the beginning of their extermination appeared already in 1940.
Alfandary then recounts an incident when he was involved in aiding a small vessel, the Pentcho, which was sailing down the Danube. Departed Sulina, Romania, 21September 1940, wrecked 9 October 1940. The boat was previously named Stefano, built 1907, 243 gross tons. The old Italian paddle steamer Pentcho (also Pencho) was chartered to sail from Bratislava down the Danube. She sailed on 20 May 1940 with 514 passengers, mostly Betar members. The voyage was greatly delayed by the various governments en route. She finally sailed from Sulina, Romania, on 21 September 1940, but on October 9 her single boiler stopped working and the ship was wrecked north of Crete on Chamilonesi Island (now called Nisos Khamili). Everyone on board was rescued by the Italians and taken to Rhodes. All but two were then interned at Ferramonti Camp in southern Italy where they were still detained when Allied forces liberated the area in September 1943. In June 1944 they travelled on the Polish liner Batory to Alexandria and then by train to Palestine.It carried about 500 Jews who were making their way illegally to Palestine from Europe. Some of the people on the boat were Jews escaping from concentration camps, the situation on the boat was dire and Alfandary was able to gather food and medicine for the travellers. The people on the boat finally arrived in Palestine only in June 1944, more than three years after their journey had begun and including a long period of internment in Italy. Years later, in 1965, Alfandary was rewarded with a medal in Tel-Aviv for his rescue efforts.
This incident was the turning point in Alfandary’s attitude to Bulgaria. He no longer felt as safe as before. After the aid operation was completed, in which other individuals from the town were involved including his wife and twelve-year-old son, he was summoned for questioning. As he was accompanied onto the boat by a Bulgarian official, he was reported for exchanging words in German with the people on the boat. That had aroused someone’s suspicions. Bulgaria had not yet made its alliance with Nazi Germany at that time, and he was suspected of being a German agent.
I was called for a prolonged police investigation and this could have been very difficult for me and far reaching negative consequences if it was not for my good reputation as a senior doctor in Lom and a loyal citizen.
The Nazi Era – A Refugee at Home
Thus began what I shall call his term as a refugee in his own homeland, which ended when he took his family with him on the journey to Palestine in 1944.
After this incident, a darkness fell on us. We witnessed the first signs of persecution which preceded the Holocaust. But we did not listen to these signs. We lived under the illusion that what went on beyond our borders will not affect us. Had we not been so deluded, many of Europe Jewry could have escaped in time.
Alfandary refers to the denial that he, and many others, used in order to cope with the sense of looming disaster. Those who did see what was coming soon left Germany and Europe while they still could. Hannah Arendt, quoted earlier, was an example.
It did not take long and the impact of the Nazi regime was felt by us. The Germans occupied Romania (November 1940) and were allowed to pass through Bulgaria, invading Greek Thrace (April 1941) which was handed over to Bulgarian rule in return for their co-operation with the Nazis. The Germans began to instil in the Bulgarian populace, who were liberal and tolerant until then, hatred towards Jews. A law was passed for protection from Jews; a heavy levy was passed on Jewish property, later to be totally confiscated. The licence to practice medicine by Jews was revoked and a similar prohibition was declared upon almost all occupations. We were left with no means of supporting ourselves. I managed to survive by relying on savings which I had hidden from the authorities.
The Bulgarian occupation of Greek territories had a personal effect on Alfandary’s life. He was conscripted into the army as a civilian doctor and was sent to Drama in Greece, initially to help deal with the outbreak of malaria in the region. Alfandary had made a name for himself as an expert in dealing with malaria in Bulgaria, including receiving a Rockefeller Fellowship to further specialise in the field.
Once in Drama, he witnessed the brutal behaviour of the Bulgarian army towards the Greek population, reaching a nadir on 29 September 1941, when “harsh reprisals” against Greek partisans took place.
On Yom Kippur [the holiest day in the Jewish calendar], a few weeks after arriving there, a rebellion of Greek partisans broke out, supported by the local population. Since there were not enough Bulgarian soldiers all the civilians were recruited. I, as a war veteran and an officer, received a squad under my command and reluctantly and in the beginning took part in the repression of the rebellion. I was a witness to executions by German soldiers, and some Bulgarian soldiers, of many rebels who were captured in the area.
Alfandary describes his testimony of the repression of the uprisings. The syntax and the use of language in this paragraph show his sense of horror of what he had witnessed. He then goes on to describe his encounter with the small Jewish community in Drama, an event which was to be significant in years to come.
I was able and allowed to save a few Jews from Kavala [a city thirty-eight kilometres north of Drama] who were amongst the captured partisans. For a few days, the city [Drama] was like a ghost city under full curfew, permitting no one to leave for any purpose. Gun shots and explosions were occasionally heard.
Amidst all that, he was surprised by an unexpected visit from his wife and young son who arrived from Sofia. They too witnessed the aftermath of the horrors.
She was shocked by the silence and the destitute state of the city, with pools of blood and bits of brain (crushed skulls) scattered in the streets. Her fear and anxiety were only increased as she was not able to locate me despite her efforts.
After the rebellion was crushed, Alfandary stayed in the region for several months. He would spend his days travelling from one village to another, trying to achieve the aim of his mission: fighting the malaria outbreak. He was accompanied by an armed policeman as revenge was feared from the locals. He finally succeeded in getting himself transferred back to Lom after using all his connections at the Ministry of Health in Sofia.
Back home in Lom, he was perhaps relieved at not being at the front, but the situation was only getting worse.
Here also we felt the tightening of the ring around us. The Fascist Bulgarian government decided to appoint a Commissar for Jewish Affairs [Alexander Belev] who appointed officers throughout the country. Their work was to control the Jewish community, initiate restrictions and persecutions. These actions were to be paid for by the Jewish community’s funds. The Commissar controlled the physical, public and social aspects of the lives of the Jewish community.
It is at this point that Alfandary begins to narrate the chain of events that finally led him to feel an imminent danger to his life and the lives of his family and to leave his beloved homeland in 1944. His narration is abrupt and shifts from a relatively detached description to an emotional and tortured account of what happened in Lom in March 1943. He begins with a dry and sombre historical description which breaks in mid-paragraph into a detailed testimony of what changed his life irrevocably.
Rumours of cruel mass murder of Jews in Europe were everywhere. The Bulgarian government was under heavy pressure by the German delegates and agreed to deport the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace to Poland. About 84 train carriages, originally used to move cattle, shut and locked, carried men, women, children and old people to the port of Lom on the Danube River. They had been travelling for five days and had been supplied with dry and salted food with not enough drinking water, no access to leave the carriages to go to the toilet. It was my bitter fate to welcome them at the train station, as I was recruited that day to the municipal Ministry of Health, and I was charged with disinfecting the carriages. Heart breaking cries emanated from the carriages as well as pleas for water. Through the top windows I heard my name being called – these were Jews from Drama whom I had met [in 1941] and befriended. Once the doors of the carriages were opened, the corpses of two old men who died on the way were taken out and brought to burial in our town. We were faced with a horrid and stinking vision of dirt and destruction. On the floor were leftovers of salted meat, empty cans and overcoats full of human excrement! We did not stall and were quick to arrange aid despite the threats of the German police which escorted the train. We collected supplies from all the houses: bread, fruit, buckets of water and we also prepared a big pot of hot soup. Unfortunately the brutality and cruelty of the German guards exceeded itself and the pot was kicked and spilt over the tracks in front of the hungry Jews. Even diapers for a baby that was born along route were not allowed to deliver. Once they were removed from the carriages, they were forced to hand over all their jewellery, rings, bracelets and watches. They were then put on four vessels that sailed north on the Danube on their way to Poland. From a later testimony by a Bulgarian doctor who accompanied them, it appeared that two vessels with Jews who were not fit for physical work were deliberately sunk along the river. The Jewish community in Lom was panicked and anxious lest our turn for deportation will now arrive.
It is in that vein that the memoir continues to describe life in Lom in the following months. Jews were ordered to wear a yellow Star of David. As a war veteran, Alfandary and his wife were allowed a different category of brand – a round yellow badge. He reports drily with not many details that he was ordered to be the chairman of the Jewish community in Lom by the Commissar, “with no pay naturally”. He recounts what he thought was the government plan to force all Jewish families to leave the big cities, including Sofia, and to resettle in towns along the Danube where it would be easier to deport them when the time came. About 1,000 Jews were sent to Lom. All the local Jewish families had to take an extra family into their home. Most of the families were housed in abandoned industrial buildings with insufficient means. Small groups of families were crammed into small areas and lacked all privacy.
They were given food from a communal kitchen that had been set up, providing meals which were often hardly nourishing. The community had to rely upon its own resources to provide for the newly arrived refugees. Some assistance arrived through the American Joint Distribution Committee towards the end of 1943. A full curfew was in force during the night and movement was restricted throughout the day. The town was regularly bombed by the British Royal Air Force. Leaving Lom was forbidden. Telephone lines in the Jewish homes were cut and it was forbidden to listen to the radio. Still, some information was coming through which gave them some hope – it was rumoured that the Russian army was advancing westward, “strengthening our hearts that we may after all escape extermination”.
Then comes the report of a day in March 1944.
Towards the end of 1943, my house was surrounded by a few policemen and soldiers. They invaded my home and went to the roof in search of a radio transmitter they claimed I was using to direct the English air raids. Nothing was found. It is easy to understand the fear and panic that I was seized with, as well as my family and the rest of the community. This vicious plot and the threats that Fascist groups made to my life in case they lost government or if the German forces left Bulgaria quickened my resolve to escape as soon as possible. I succeeded in bribing an old patient who was a police officer and obtained a passport with an exit visa, all this with the knowledge of the Commissar in Sofia. Risking a severe punishment if I was caught, on the night of March 23rd, 1944, on a cool evening, protected by complete darkness (due to the curfew and the obligatory darkening of house lights), I parted from some good friends and left with my wife and son. I was able to take some personal effects in three suitcases including “a treasure” consisting of eleven gold coins.
Thus ended a lifetime in Bulgaria. Like thieves in the night, they left what had been their home, and that of their ancestors, for many years. From being refugees in their own home, they became refugees on the road, going through various mishaps along the way to Palestine. “Leaving Bulgaria, my passport was stamped with the word ‘emigration’ meaning that I will not be able to ever return.
They had to bribe their way through Turkey, risking being turned back and turned over to the Bulgarian authorities at one point, since they lacked a transit visa. Finally, after passing through Syria and Lebanon, they arrived safely in Haifa on 18 April 1944.
Refugees in Palestine
On 18th April, 1944, we stepped on the soil of Eretz Israel, the object of our dreams for scores of years. A new era began for me. The only assistance I received from the Jewish Agency as a refugee was seven Pounds per person. I never asked for a reward for my work and the material and emotional sacrifices I made towards Zionist ideal. I gave with willingness as I was very idealistic. I met with relatives and friends, members of the movement and soon gave a talk in Tel-Aviv on the Jews of Bulgaria and the need to rescue them.
Once the initial enthusiasm passed, mundane life had to be confronted. It was not easy to find means of support. “Having left a thriving practice in Bulgaria, I had to start from the beginning as a senior doctor and seek temporary employment with various places.” (33) He describes how he rode a mule around villages in the north of Palestine, making house visits in various places. His daily experience included getting kicked occasionally by his mule, as she noticed that he was an inexperienced rider.
He did not always feel welcomed by the older Jewish settlers. During the fall of 1944, a few months after their arrival, he found a post as a doctor in Kibbutz Naan. “Living conditions and nutrition were harsh. The reception by the Kibbutz members was cold and disheartening.” They lacked basic things which had been left behind, such as blankets, and used their coats to warm themselves at night. He wrote that not being a Kibbutz member but only an employee made them feel as if they were “aliens in the eyes of the Kibbutz members”. In 1945 he received a permit to work as a doctor from the British authorities and with much effort and saving was able to rent a small room in Tel-Aviv, 2.5 by 3.5 metres square, where they all lived and where he received patients during the day. There was also a kitchen which was shared with some other families.
Living conditions were harder than ever before, especially for my wife who made inhuman efforts to make sure that I was able to earn my living. More than once when she was not feeling well and had a temperature, she would have to vacate the room with little notice and lie down in the bath tub until I finish dealing with the patient that had arrived for a visit. She got used to doing various acrobatics – leaving the room through the window and returning to the kitchen through the small balcony. During his holidays from school, my son would sleep on the kitchen table and do his homework sitting on the roof. These were the years of war, days of struggle, battles between the various Jewish underground organizations and the British forces.
It was not just ordinary patients that Alfandary had to treat. Later on the same page in the memoir, he recounts that once he was summoned home to treat an emergency case and found on the newly purchased sofa a young man who had gunshot wounds, having been involved in skirmishes with the British forces. It was hard to make ends meet. He could not see how he would ever be able to earn enough to resume his past status in Bulgaria. The war was over by then and he even entertained the thought of gathering enough resources to travel back to Bulgaria and to try and sell the property he had left behind there. Gradually, though, he was able to better his current situation and that thought seemed irrelevant. He never went back to Bulgaria, even in the years to come when the vast majority of Bulgarian Jews immigrated to Israel once the British Mandate was over. It is significant that he decided to include that thought in his memoir, as an indicator of a certain misgiving about the haste with which he had left his homeland.
Alfandary concludes his memoir, written two years before his death, with greetings to his two grandchildren. He especially addresses his grandson, then seventeen years old, the author of this article. In a loving paragraph he advises me to pay close attention to my studies and to realise that actualising your potential comes through hard work and persistence. These words have accompanied me ever since. Writing this testimony is in many ways a tribute to him, and my grandmother, for the lives they endured through the drama of World War II and the establishment of the state of Israel.
The memoir contains many details which could be explored in far greater depth than the scope of this chapter allows. For instance, had Alfandary made the right decision by leaving Bulgaria as he did? Was he really in mortal danger, or was the advice of his neighbours simply a ploy to remove him from his property so that it could be plundered by them? It is easy to speculate now, since it is known that the Bulgarian Jews did in fact escape the fate of other European Jews, as I have pointed out earlier. Was the burden of his own experience during the two incidents I described, the Drama affair and the transport of Thracian Jews, the factor that overwhelmed Alfandary and hastened his decision to leave, fearing that worse was to come?
When asked by Theodore Reik, his disciple, how to make a major choice in one’s life, Sigmund Freud replied in the early 1920s: “I can only tell you of my personal experience. The decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of our personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.”(Reik, Listening with the Third Ear, p. 7 ).
In the book Un Sac de Billes, based upon the memoir of the Holocaust survivor Joseph Joffo, the narrator recalls the life-changing decision his father made in 1941, after the Nazis occupied Paris. Promising seven-year-old Joseph and his twelve-year-old brother Maurice that he will follow soon with the rest of the family, their father urges them to leave home that night with very few belongings, some money and an instruction sheet they must destroy. The boys manage to escape and reach the Free Zone of France, where they undergo a serious of dramatic events, including capture by the Nazis, from whom they escape through their ingenuity and the kindness of a Protestant priest. When they are eventually reunited with their family in Paris at the end of the war, they find that their father, who set them free by letting them go, has himself perished in a concentration camp.
It is possible to think that the choice he made that night came from that deep place Freud referred to when giving Reik his advice. It was a choice that saved their lives. Alfandary could only make a decision based upon his own experience, listening to his own heart and intuition. It was neither right nor wrong. It was the only choice he could have made. Towards the conclusion of his memoir, he wrote:
This was my life. I was not particularly gifted. I was not a genius or pious but a human being with all his strengths and weaknesses of other humans.
Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees”, in Mark Robinson (ed.) Altogether Elsewhere (London: Faber & Faber,1994).
Benjamin Arditti, The Jews of Bulgaria during the Nazi Regime (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Israel Press, 1961).
Michael Bar-Zohar, Beyond Hitler's Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews (Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corp, 1998).
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