It was a combination of a political mission and a highly personal desire that drew Buzz Warren to spend two days in Bulgaria last month.
The newly installed president of the Metro New Jersey region of American Jewish Committee was part of a delegation of national AJC leaders on a whirlwind journey to three stops in Europe in August.
As a member of the organization’s national board, the retired advertising executive joined national AJC executive director David Harris and five other AJC leaders in meetings with Jewish leaders and heads of state in Greece and Cyrus, as well as Bulgaria.
But a big part of Warren’s motivation was to pay homage to an old friend, Julius Garfunkel, who spent a lot of time in Bulgaria after marrying a Bulgarian woman.
“Jules introduced me to Bulgaria,” Warren told NJ Jewish News in a telephone interview a few days after returning to his home in Bloomingdale.
“When he got very ill and when he knew he was dying, he decided he wanted to be buried in Bulgaria. It was a gesture on his part to show his love and appreciation for what the Bulgarians did for their Jews in World War II.”
When he died four years ago, Garfunkel left his friend a legacy of affection for this eastern European nation with an unusual history.
“The unique thing that sets Bulgaria apart from other countries in World War II was that while the Bulgarian government was part of the Axis and fought on the side of the Germans, church leaders, government officials, and others fought to save some 50,000 Bulgarian Jews. The Bulgarians understood the Jews were their neighbors and fellow citizens, and they did so at great risk. The Germans were saying, ‘Ship us your Jews,’ and the Bulgarians delayed doing so,” Warren said.
There were exceptions, however.
“The Germans put the Bulgarian government in charge of Macedonia and Thrace. There they requested the Bulgarians round up the Jews, and they did.
“It’s a mixed bag,” Warren said, “but it is a remarkable story of a country saving their Jews.”
‘Proud of Jewishness’
Bulgaria’s history of heroism loomed large over the AJC delegates’ Aug. 22-24 visit. They met with leaders of Shalom, an umbrella organization representing the country’s 6,000 Jews, and brought those leaders along to AJC’s scheduled meetings with Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and other government leaders.
“The Bulgarian Jews are very proud of their Jewishness. There is minimal anti-Semitism, and although some acts have occurred, they seem to be a minor amount,” he said.
Although many of the Jews consider themselves Orthodox, “the Jewish population is fully integrated…. They are assimilated. There is a lot of intermarriage, and many only go to synagogue three times a year on the High Holy Days,” said Warren.
Amid military pomp and sizeable media coverage, Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov presented an award to AJC director Harris.
It was one gesture of amity between the government and the Jewish community. Recently the two entities joined to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Sofiar Synagogue in the capital city of Sofia.
“We consider these things significant, and when as we sit in meetings with the prime minister, we bring the local Jewish leaders along. It adds a bit of emphasis,” Warren said.
After leaving Bulgaria, the AJC leaders made a one-day stop in Athens to meet with government ministers.
“The Greek Jewish community is very scarred from World War II, unlike the Bulgarians,” Warren noted. “There are 5,000 people spread out among nine Jewish communities in Greece, and their representatives were at all of our meetings. They have great concerns over anti-Semitism, and in Athens, the two synagogues are guarded 24/7 protectively, and there have been vandalism and fires in other Jewish areas of Greece.
“They didn’t say they feel unsafe,” said Warren, “but they are a small community, and the older members felt more threatened than the younger members.”
At the same time, Warren said, the Greek government “is actively engaged with Israel,” as demonstrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sealing trade and tourism agreements during a visit to Athens last month.
In Cypress, their last stop, the delegates discovered “there is no organized Jewish community we were aware of, but Cypress has been increasing its relationship with Israel,” said Warren. “They refused the Gaza flotilla ships from entering their ports. Things keep shifting in the Middle East, so it is very important to build longstanding relationships.”
Before leaving Bulgaria, Warren made a private pilgrimage to the grave of his friend. What he noticed there seemed to speak to the attitude of a country toward its Jewish population.
“The cemetery is in the center of Sofia. It’s the main cemetery, and there are sections for different religions,” he said. “The Jews were totally integrated there as equals.”