LEVY: Okay, how much do you know about the Jews in Bulgaria?
HEIFETZ: Very little. Could you start by just telling me for this oral history, tell me your name, and where you were born, and when.
LEVY: Okay. My name is Ram Levy and my previous name was, uh, Rahamim, which is a good Jewish name. And I was born in Bulgaria in 19 – October 7th of 1933, and uh, I spent my childhood years in a town called Samakov, which is, uh, a town with a population of maybe 25 or 30,000 people at that time – a small town in which there were maybe 100 to 130 families – Jewish families that lived in that small town. Uh, that was the place that later had – might have had many more Jewish inhabitants at one time but, uh, you know, due to the demographic changes or whatever, they might have moved to other places, nevertheless we are descendants of the Spanish Jews that were expelled in 1492, I think, during the – that period of time and they were the first in the countries of the Mediterranean – that is Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, some in Yugoslavia also, and many other countries as well.
HEIFETZ: How long had your family lived in this town?
LEVY: Uh, my father’s family – my mother’s from Greece, and, uh, my, they met and got married, and – but my father’s family has been in this town for as long as um, they remember and it’s – they had not moved to any other place. And there was some – one of the brothers had been to another neighboring small town. The Jews in these small towns were mostly, as in many other places, were merchants. And even though for only 120 or 130 Jewish families, that small town had a very beautiful synagogue which was slightly became perhaps in a slight state of disrepair. But it was obvious that it, you know, had very glorious past because it was so ornated and it was very beautiful. When I visted the synagogue in Amsterdam, the Portuguese synagogue, I found tremendous resemblance to that one. It must have been a kind of a prototype of the kind of synagogues that were built in the Jewish world and because it also, descendents of Spanish settlers, uh, Spanish Jews. But anyway, this synagogue was, even though we were not strongly religious, was the center of the Jewish life and that’s where, you know, on the Sabbath and they would meet, there would be prayers and on the High Holidays, of course. And, uh the gathering there was kind of an event. In addition to that there was also a Jewish school. And there were other Jewish institutions, but meanwhile, by the time I was eight, nine, ten, they had not been to the same level of, uh, then – how active or dynamic as they must of been in the past. That particular Jewish school that I was referring to was not right next to the synagogue, but it was the place where all the Jewish kids, uh, assembled almost everyday and played. And so our, despite the small numbers, the small Jewish community was very cohesive. And, uh, we lived in a – not exactly a ghetto. You cannot call that a ghetto but it was a district of town which, that was the only district in which the Jews lived. That – you know, it was the other districts in the town that there were no Jews living in them. So they were all kind of concentrated in a relatively small area. We all knew each other.
HEIFETZ: Could an outsider tell aside from the district where it was designated for Jews or where Jews ended up living, could you tell the Jewish children from others?
LEVY: No, uh, the Jewish children from others, maybe they were – we didn’t dress any – there were no people with peyos or anything like that. Bulgarian Jews had by that time begun to sort of not be heavy. No, the older generation was still quite religious, uh, but my father, for instance, he went, you know, he knew how to pray and everything, he knew how to read, but, uh, but he was not that strong about it, you know, he was not so particular about every little detail on Passover, or something like that.
HEIFETZ: What about keeping kosher, kashrut?
LEVY: No, no, there was not very strictly – but my grandmother did keep kashrut. When we were living in the same – there were two small houses that were one next to each other in the same, with the same yard, within the same yard. And anyway, the Bulgarians that lived in this district, maybe they were consisted 50% of the houses in that particular district were Bulgarians. Surprisingly, the relationship between them and us were very good. And yet the Bulgarians that lived outside of that district, the ones that had very little contact with the Jews in terms of being neighbors, were most of the time the ones that were mean to us. And the ones that later on during the Nazi years would be the ones that would be more difficult to venture in to them. If you lived in certain districts, they would recognize that you are Jewish. And you know in a small town, everybody knows who is a Jew and that was actually the reason why the Fascist regime following the orders of the Germans had expelled the Jews from the large cities and dispersed them in the small towns where everybody knows everybody else. So that they cannot hide their identity. That was part of the large plan – the, the large scheme of things that you have come across, I’m sure.
HEIFETZ: Now, explain a couple of – go back for me. When the Jews lived in this district, was it by choice or by order by this point?
LEVY: It was by choice. It was – there were no –
HEIFETZ: They chose to stick together.
LEVY: Yes, yes, but as the repression, and now if we start talking about ’39, ’40 and ’41, particularly perhaps between ’40 and ’41 Bulgaria, by being an ally of Germany, and becoming – being drawn more into this – they allowed German troops to go through Bulgaria and attack Greece and also Yugoslavia. So the Germans had passed through town. So I’d already seen the German troops in large numbers. And uh, but they were not in the same capacity as they would be in a country where they have conquered the country. There was a local administration was still functioning even though the Germans passed through it. And after they come – they went to attack Greece, they were no longer around. In other words, they were only for a certain period of time. But nevertheless, the Fascist regime, in trying – you know they were following, and the kind of, the general instructions of the Germans when you came to Jews, so they issued, in order to be in synchronism – sychronized with the Germans, they were doing things against the Jews following the sort of a general trend that was going on. And that meant issuing all kinds of restrictions. Uh, and again, all this, when compared perhaps to what I’ve heard about what was happening in other countries were not as terrible, but nevertheless we were, you know, ordered to wear the Star of David and it was something made of pla – rather than being sewn on the way that the Jews of other countries had, they were slightly smaller and they were a kind of a plastic and you had to stick them and go with them. On certain days, the Jews were not permitted to go to shop in the marketplace, um, and then, at one particular time, the Jews from the large city, from the capital city of Sofia where they had a very large Jewish population. The whole, the Jews of Bulgaria counted to something like, uh, 60 to 70,000 people. Let’s say 70,000 people. And probably two-thirds of them were in large – in Sofia. And they were dispersed to different towns, and then another hundred or 200 families – Jewish families were uh, designated to come to our town, Jews, and so –
HEIFETZ: And this was around 1941?
LEVY: ’41 or two, okay. And that’s when we suddenly had a large influx of relatively sophisticated Jews from large city, and they – they really rejuvenated the Jewish life in the sense that now we could then really be called a ghetto now because they’re all concentrated in the same small area. Then suddenly this relatively small area there would be many more Jewish kids with whom to play and it was, uh, and it was almost kind of a, for us it was almost an injected, a new kind of – new life injected – although we had enough kids and we played – but now there were more kids and we could do more things and have a lot more fun. Until, yeah, until then, what it meant being Jewish in a small town was again that anti-Semitism was growing from what it was before –
HEIFETZ: How did you experience this personally?
LEVY: And personally it meant that you could be recognized as a Jew by a group of kids mainly not from our district, and they would want to search your pockets to take anything valuable that you might have. And they might chase you and beat you, or call you names, uh, all kinds of things like that. And, uh, or they can – could ignore you at times, depending on what was happening and what kind of a posture they were, if they were bored and looking for something to do. Uh –
HEIFETZ: Did you fight back?
LEVY: Uh, on, myself in particular, I was the more, uh, belligerent, the one that is always – trying now not to sound as if I’m showing off – but in comparison to the other kids I was the more, uh, troubleseeking one, the one that – more rebellious towards, and didn’t accept that passively. On occasion I did, but on one occasion I got into a fight. And we were skiing at that time and the kids that surrounded me wanted to uh…My town was close to skiing areas, and you could walk to these skiing areas – and so that kind of a thing was done frequently. But all of Jewish kids were afraid to go there to ski, because it was kind of away from our district and you could, unless we were in a group of other Jewish kids, they would not go. So, but I loved this sport and, uh… (PHONE RINGS) Do you want to take that?
HEIFETZ: It’s all right.
LEVY: And, um… (PHONE RINGS, TAPE STOPS)
HEIFETZ: No, the more detailed about…
LEVY: And, uh, so I would, they would surround me and ask to search – and I had, the only possession I had – most of the time Jewish kids did not carry any valuables on them, and not, of course not money. So, our pockets at most times were empty, except in this time, I carried with me a wax, ski wax which I had made myself and I was very proud of it. And so I cooked it up with several ingredients. And so they of course wanted to take it. And I resisted and they tried force, and then one really kind of grabbed me and held me in the back, and one hit me and took this thing from me. And I was so mad and very enraged by this, and, uh…because I was holding poles, so I swang the pole and hit the guy I think, either in front of me, or the guy meanwhile who had released me. And I, uh, blood started coming out from his head because he was kind of scraped. And, uh, he might have not been badly wounded, but the blood kind of scared the others, and they started saying, “This Jew is crazy.” But I managed meanwhile to ski down the hill and run away. But afterwards, you know, there was a big chase after me. And for almost two weeks I was really hiding because they were, they all had determined, how can a Jew bear to fight back? And they were going to find me and beat me up.
HEIFETZ: How did your parents react to your –
LEVY: To my story?
HEIFETZ: – to your aggression.
LEVY: Oh, they were very, they said why you looking for troubles. You should be, you know, quiet, and all that, you know. They did not encourage. My father was more understanding, but uh, and maybe my father was – had been by that time already been in the labor camps. And that’s the other part that I want to tell you. The Jews were taken to labor camps I think in ’41 or ’42 the first time. All the labor – all the male Jews that were capable of physical work, above the age of either 17 or 18, I think, were taken to labor camps to construct, to build roads. And it was a hard work in which they were breaking stones and working all day. And in some places there were places where there were swamps. And so, they would be there about nine months of the year and the only time they will be sent back home on only, would be during the three months of the winter when work could not really progress as it should be. So I used to see my father during these years only a little bit at a time. And all the rest of the time, there would be nine months and sometime they’d never be sent home during these nine months. Uh, this is kind of a, you know, this is a general background. And gives you the kind of life now what would the Jewish kids mostly do, would be playing in this one schoolhouse, would be – and, uh, would occasionally one or two Bulgarian kids from the same district might be playing with us too. But most of the time the Jewish kids would be playing among ourselves. And we had fairly rich life in terms of what we were doing…
HEIFETZ: What did you play?
LEVY: Oh, we could be playing soccer, not with a real soccer ball, but with smaller soccers, we could be playing with walnuts. There were all games with walnuts we were playing, in which somebody wins walnuts and loses walnuts, we could be playing chess, uh, and if not, some other volleyball, or some other things. But this school had a yard of its own and it had fence around it, and so it was kind of a sheltered spot. Uh, in terms of, meanwhile what was happening, is that the restrictions as I said, of the Jews, were increasing. Uh, you’re not supposed to do this, you’re not supposed to do this…And then at one point, they closed – the Jews could not have stores of their own. Uh, they had to…
HEIFETZ: Your father was a merchant?
LEVY: My – my father was a merchant, yes. And they could not have…
HEIFETZ: What did – what did he…
LEVY: Oh, he had a store of, uh, how do you say, this materials and clothing, but mainly materials that before have been sewn into, what do you call that kind of a store?
HEIFETZ: Yard goods?
LEVY: Yeah, yeah, this always, materials, cloth, all kinds…
HEIFETZ: Dry goods.
LEVY: Yeah, and a lot of other things. He was a very well-known merchant in our town, very dynamic, but prior to that, but then had experienced some reversals. Anyway, the, uh, what was happening is that they issued a decree that the Jews cannot have their own stores anymore, they have to be sold to others, you know, it was that – be given – they have to have Bulgarian ownership, or something like that. So, when that happened, and, uh, you know, we managed to hide. Meanwhile the war had come and because things were not produced, all these things were very – became very precarious and very, you know, being traded in the black market. And it became the only commodity which one can use to get food. Food became more scarce because Bulgaria, more or less the Germans took, or drained, Bulgarian agricultural products, almost entirely, for their war effort. Bulgaria was kind of left with very little. And the only people that had kind of food, were the farmers. And the farmers, they were no longer willing to sell their, in most times were not, and it was rationed and small amounts of bread. There was no hunger, but it was, uh, it was beginning to get pretty tough. And with my father being away, in the – in the labor camps, that – that became a problem. So-
HEIFETZ: Excuse me, were you the only child at home?
LEVY: No, I have a sister too – who is three years older than me and she lives now in Israel. And my mother’s still alive. My father died 10 – 10 years ago. But, uh, what – now to go back to this – one of the more dramatic stories that happened, things that happened to me when I was a child was related to my father in the fact that he had come, realizing that we needed some materials in order to trade for food and all this, and the situation was getting pretty bad. Uh, he arranged with, he bribed, or arranged with the director of the camp to let him go. And you know, they found some excuse that – the director – because in order to avoid uh, for whatever reason, didn’t do it totally officially because I think he was not permitted to do it, but he was – since he was in charge, he could cover up for it. And he was a person that drank a lot, he was a, sort of a – and he needed that kind of money. And so, my father came, all of a sudden, you know, to, on a vacation and there was this specific intention was to, uh, for him to get something going so we could have food. And then –
HEIFETZ: Who was in charge of things at home while he was gone?
LEVY: Just my mother. My mother was trying to, uh, trade things with farmers to get food. And, uh, you know, sometimes with the help of relatives, sometimes on her own. And on one occasion, like we had some relatives in another town which was 30 miles away, but because there were roadblocks, you couldn’t go through the main roads. So we went through back roads through the forest at night, my mother and myself, with a gypsy and a cart. We had a horse and buggy, and in order to go there and bring some materials that we can trade for food. These were the kinds of things, that you know, but that is very memorable experience, that I was a young kid and we were in the middle of the night going through back roads in the – in the forest, you know, every sound –
LEVY: – was scary, yeah, it was scary, but I was supposed to be the one that is protecting my mother and going along. And…
HEIFETZ: And you were how old then, Ram?
LEVY: I was probably 10, close to 10, nine, 10, that kind of thing. But that was –
HEIFETZ: But you were the man of the family…
LEVY: Yes, so anyway, the uh – back to the story. My father had come from this trip, from the camp, which was very far away. And all of a sudden, after he was about 10 days or 12 days, I don’t remember the exact number of days, all of a sudden there were – in the afternoon – you know, just before we going to eat dinner – three policemen came. One was a sergeant and two other policemen came and said that, “You are a deserter from the camp and you are under arrest.” And they put him in chains. Now, I don’t remember that, you know we were so scared, and he started pleading with them, “There must be some misunderstanding. I got permission.” So they don’t – they knew, even because in a small town people were more – you know, they were not rough with him. There were several, you know, “Excuse me, we’re doing our duty. This is what we have received, to arrest you, an instruction to a deserter.” So, later on we found out that during that time, suddenly that old commander of that camp was replaced by another person and this other person counted my father as missing and since it was not properly registered that he had been given this…and so he was chained, and, you know, we were, you know, my mother was crying. And…
HEIFETZ: Oh, how awful.
LEVY: And, uh, at that time, these things, prison, being a deserter, we knew that deserting from the military, anybody who deserted from the military, and they were kind of under military supervision, in a way. They were not considered soldiers, but when they used the word, “deserter,” we know that these things could end up being shot. And so we were terrified with this prospect that he could suffer, you know, very serious – either be put for many, many years in jail, with hard labor, or be even shot because deserters were, uh, being shot.
HEIFETZ: What did you do, Ram?
LEVY: We cried, you know, but we were sort of trembling with fear, seeing, watching this. And, uh, what helped somewhat, was that the people, these gendarmes, or these policemen that came, they were sort of trying to be calm about it and trying not to be rough in particular, and even being mildly apologetic. And my father was saying, you know, he tried, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s going to be okay, because this is a mistake and I’m sure that the guy that gave me, that he will testify to this…” And, but nevertheless seeing my father in chains – was – was a terrifying experience. (PHONE RINGS, TAPE STOPS) …It’s okay, that’s what…Uh, that was one, then the story, the end of the story was that we were terrified. For further along, he was, I mean, with chains like this for 51 days in prison in a – in a small cell that resembles something from the Turkish period of time, you know very little, small hall and…
HEIFETZ: How did you know this?
LEVY: Very, well, he, uh, he had told us afterwards where he was. We didn’t…
HEIFETZ: But he did not write to you during…?
LEVY: No, he did write. He did write a lot but much of it got, got, was late, and he was not in our town. We could not visit him or anything. And then, during, these were very, very scary times for us not knowing what’s going to happen to him. And, uh, of course, all the hopes were that this person would be willing to testify and say that he had indeed given him permission, because if he, for his own reasons, would deny that, then my fate – my father’s fate would have been very, very – you know, he would have been in very serious trouble. But, as it –
HEIFETZ: It really depended on –
LEVY: – on this one individual and uh, so, of course they pleaded with him. And uh, I don’t know, might have given him some more money, whatever, but when the time came for him to testify, he did say that he had given this to him, because the family needed him and because he had done a good job of building, sort of beautifying the camp by making some stone arrangement, ornaments made of stones that were painted with some kind of – they made it in the shape of the – emblem of the country. In the – at the entrance of the camp. And uh…
HEIFETZ: And that was true?
LEVY: And that was true, that was true. And so, that was, my father was, you know, not put anymore in jail, he was not free, he was sent back to the camp where he got sick of malaria and something very unusual, he got sick of two different kinds of malaria at the same time. That was quite an unusual case and so he also was in danger of dying because of that. There were only, at that time, only 10 known cases in the world of the same person would have two different kinds of malaria. It’s called Tropic…(name of disease)(?) But anyway, uh, when he was sick he was at home and he was getting these attacks of malaria. And it was very, very serious. But he was strong enough and survived.
HEIFETZ: It’s frightening also to watch, for you…
LEVY: It was, it was definitely very frightening…during that period of time.
HEIFETZ: What did – did you have responsibilities while he was away or sick, even home?
LEVY: Oh, I was, uh, even bringing income. I was, uh, selling – I was selling something like a special kind of a candy that was popular at that time. It was sort of a fairly large pieces of candied, uh, it was a soft, soft kind of a…I have not seen much of this thing. It’s a Turkish – it’s a Turkish Delight, actually. Do you know what a Turkish Delight is?
HEIFETZ: Um, hmm. Is it like taffy?
LEVY: Yeah, but soft kind of candy, but anyway, some kind of a candy. Because it was popular, I would buy these, uh, boxes of these things, and go in the areas where the Bulgarian soldiers used to have trainings – outside of town, pretty far out, because they didn’t have, uh something. I would be standing around, or sometimes going to their camp, because they couldn’t bring – didn’t have canteens or all these kinds of things, so they would buy from me, and that produced enough income that I was, more or less, kind of supporting the family.
HEIFETZ: What were they like to you, the soldiers?
LEVY: The soldiers, uh, knew that we were Jewish, and in only one or two instances they were rough, uh, they were always, most of them were okay. But occasionally there would be some mean ones and one time, you know, they chased me, or something like that. But, it was never very serious. When the German troops were in town, that’s when once I was kicked by a guy, by another – another kid that was selling, also doing the same thing, he was a – it was a common activity among kids to be doing that. Not everybody did it, but, uh, quite a few kids did it. So one of the other kids, in order to get rid of the competition, pointed to me and then went and told the Germans, you know, that I’m “Jude”, and that kind of thing, and the Germans say, look to me to kick my, kick my box and told me, “Get out of here” and everything, got scattered. And I run away. This, these were relatively minor, I think, kind of, incidents.
HEIFETZ: But it must not have felt so minor to you at the time.
LEVY: At the time, no, at the time I didn’t know that. But, now, the most scary thing that happened during the entire period, and that’s the time when we were really, truly in great danger, was, now it must have been ’43 by that time. What has happened is that the German machinery, if I just perhaps describe what actually happened, and then we can describe what essentially had evolved. But all of a sudden, as we were there, all of a sudden, the word got around among the Jews that we will be taken to labor camps in Poland and in a very short time, and we will be allowed to take only very small amount of luggage and we’ll have to leave all our possessions. Without any – any other details were not available. There were many questions as to, “Why are they doing this to us?” “What have we done to them?” You know, and they, people, the rumor had started, not a rumor, but it was based on a fact, that some Bulgarians that were instructed to be ready for this deportation to transport the Jews. And they had the vehicles. They had bus – not buses, they had uh, large automobiles, these trucks, they had the trucks that would – they would use them to transport us to the railroad stations. Our town didn’t have a railroad. And, uh we were kind of in a mountainous place. But, uh, so now all of a sudden, this rumor appears, and it’s very ominous and very serious and it’s not – it’s not something that it’s – you can be brushed aside. Uh, everybody started, really, you know, the anxiety, the stress level that that produces was enormous. You know, my mother was crying. She didn’t know what – what was going to happen, you know, where we’re going to be taken, and all that. And, uh, the, I could hear her, “What have we done? What they want from us? Why is all this?” All these unanswered questions. All these anti-Sem – you know, “Why couldn’t they leave us alone?” And these kind of things. And throughout, while growing, I always heard from mother that, you know, no matter what the Jews did, whether good or bad, the Gentiles will hate them. And they will have this built-in anti-Semitism that comes from one generation to another and that they pass from one another and that you cannot trust even there some good ones but many of them are poisoned by their anti-Semitism, not propaganda, but the effects of anti-Semitism. But now what happens during this short period of time is that we are all trembling. And to me, I realize that now I will have to part from the place where I was born and grew up and that was very painful because I loved the mountains where I, you know, the location was very important to me. And, uh, it was very painful and kind of – my heart was, all this time, was under as if somebody was pressing strongly on my chest, you know that kind of thing, I don’t know how to…