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Ram Levy

Nationality: Bulgarian
Location: Bulgaria • Israel • Missouri • Samakov • St. Louis • United States of America
Experience During Holocaust: Family Survived • Was a Child During the Holocaust

Mapping Ram's Life

Click on the location markers to learn more about Ram. Use the timeline below the map or the left and right keys on your keyboard to explore chronologically. In some cases the dates below were estimated based on the oral histories.

“During this short period of time, we were all trembling. I realized that 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.” - Ram Levy

Read Ram's Oral History Transcripts

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Tape 1 - Side 1

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.
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 –
HEIFETZ: Terrifying.
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.
LEVY: Yeah…
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…

Tape 1 - Side 2

…was to carry with us, that it was a very small amount of luggage, uh, we didn’t know what to make out of it. That means that we must have some – that means that, uh, they were…uh, they will give us someplace, or where are we going to be living, after all the rumors spread that they maybe they had barracks and we will be made to live in barracks. But all these were probably fabricated notions. Nobody had an idea, any idea, and nobody came forward with an explanation. (PAUSE) This thing lasted for at least two weeks. This fear, constant fear that we were going to be taken any time and this way we’re facing very uncertain future as to where we gonna be taken, what will – gonna be done with us. But nobody brought forward the idea that we will be killed and that, or something like that, that the Germans were gonna kill us all. Nobody even brought this, seems like there’s something in human nature that wants to push aside, or push away this notion. That it’s not – they don’t want to accept these fears because otherwise if one suspects that kind of thing, that the conclusion would have been just another way to hide, or to do something like that. But apparently in our town nobody sort of engaged in any activity of this kind, so more or less they were all saddened and there were prayers in the synagogue and praying to God to save us from this kind of a disaster and guard us and all that. But, uh, these were very, very sad times. My mother was crying and didn’t know what to take and what does it meant, and you know, she – I remember, these were such small things. She had just acquired a white – how do you call this thing that women carry, the, uh…
LEVY: No, no, a white, what you have to carry, a bag, not a bag, but it’s a, the thing you put all the…
HEIFETZ: A purse?
LEVY: A purse, that’s it. A purse, that’s the word I was looking for. She bought it brand new and that was her prized possession, you know, that beautiful white, uh, purse. Recently she had bought it. She started, you know, thinking, should she take this, her beautiful prized possession, white purse, or not. And, uh, these are sort of minor things that stick in my memory, but I remember that we were very, you know, everybody was not playing, there was no smiling during that time. There was no joy. There was the saddest period of time was when we found out – even the kids, when we gathered in the school, we would still ask this, these questions. And everybody would – you know, either somebody would say something, “Maybe this and this, maybe this and this, maybe this is going to happen.” But we all realized that it’s not good, that it’s going to be basically bad thing. We will all be deprived of our homes and who knows where we’re going to be. And…
HEIFETZ: What did you want to take with you?
LEVY: I – I don’t remember if I – you know, I didn’t have a great deal of toys. But there were many things I used to play with. And, uh, I was not seriously thinking of which one of my things. I don’t have anything stuck in my memory along these lines, these things that has to –
HEIFETZ: – You also had the mountains –
LEVY: Yeah, I knew that – I had one of these pocketknives that was slightly larger than normal the knives of the other kids, we used to hide it very much not to have it being taken by other kids. But, uh, I was going to take that with me. And not in order to defend myself, but just to have something to cut things with. And, uh, we used to be useful in that respect. You know – it was – okay, back, now what happened was at the end of these two – dreadful two weeks of time – then the word came that this has been postponed, or it’s not going to take place. Nobody knew for sure. But, somehow, uh, the danger, the imminent danger, was removed.
HEIFETZ: When you say the news came, aside from just hearing word of mouth, was there news in the paper, on radio?
LEVY: No, no, absolutely not. No, no, there was probably not – no they never dealt with these things at all. Never made – of course there were decrees against, like what – there would be some new rule against the Jews or something that would be posted on the walls of the streets. And surprisingly, there would be a guy that would be going everyday, would be making the daily announcements on all kinds of decrees and rules, he would be going on specific locations, and, uh, beat a drum so that people will know to come around and listen and he will make – and read this announcement.
HEIFETZ: In uniform?
LEVY: Yes…and he was a uniformed man. And he was um, this was something left over from, you know, who knows, because Bulgaria is basically a backward country and now we’re talking 19, as I said, 41, so many of these small towns had many habits and many things were going on maybe the same it was in this country a hundred years ago, something like that. But, uh, that was basically – (OVERTALK)
HEIFETZ: …Newspapers, there were newspapers, but they didn’t…
LEVY: No, there was not mentioned anything about the deportation, the time the deporation was cancelled. No, no that was, but a lot was happening during that period of time. And we found out afterwards, after the war, what essentially had happened. That the, uh, the Fifth Column, you know, as the Third Reich, had Fifth Columns in everywhere, including Bulgaria, they had prepared all this deportation of the Jews. But the last –
HEIFETZ: Explain the Fifth Column.
LEVY: The Fifth Column was the, uh, part of the German apparatus that penetrated into different countries and it didn’t – it used some sympathizers, political sympathizers of the Nazi movement within this country, and they would penetrate the administration of that country and become – you know, they will be exploited to get the things that the Third Reich wanted, to get them done and to achieve their objectives. So they were the Fifth Column, you know. And okay, they had prepared all this. There were Bulgarians that had prepared all this. The deportation was all set up. And nobody knowa as – for sure how high people within, you know, whether the king knew all along that this – that these preparations were being made, or not, or they just wanted – or maybe the Fifth Column had prepared this for everything to be ready and just at the end having kind of signed it as along with some other things and kind of slipped it through him. But, uh, what has happened is that, luckily, luckily, that the Bulgarians – a lot of Bulgarian Jews had Bulgarian friends. Some of them had people that were in the Parliament, the Bulgarian Parliament. And somehow, when they heard that we will be deported, and mainly the word got around because simply they didn’t have as tight a security in terms of – the Germans were performing, see they were not themselves executing the oppression, so they were not as tight-lipped as they did it in other countries. So there were enough people that heard about the preparations for the deportation, and, uh, and they, immediately they, uh, mobilized, the friends – they went to their friends and said, “This is not fair what are you doing to us,” to the Bulgarian friends, and the Bulgarian friends had heard of what’s going to be done, realizing, accepted that, and they prob you know registered a complaint to their representatives. And so the word got quickly to important people within the not the administration, but within the political system, that this is not going to be done and, what saved us, and this is the one act that is not well known. And that was that, uh, the most critical days, when everything wasn’t set in motion, and we were just about to be taken. And in one case we found out that we were only 48 hours from the deportation, that everything ______, and we found out that only after the war. But everything was set, you know, and there are plenty of documents that prove that. These members of the Parliament that finally decided that this is – what’s going – what’s being done to the Jews is totally unfair. And it also violates the sovereignty of…Bulgaria. Say that you are now deporting the Jews and they are Bulgarian citizens. They’re born here, grew up here, and been here for four – 500 years, generations, almost as long as we have. But tomorrow, maybe somebody, some other Bulgarians could be – other Bulgarians could be deported, and taken, you know, deprived and that sort. So, more or less, working around these angles, what now? Uh, these several members of the Bulgarian Parliament had circulated a letter protesting the deportation and had managed to find 73 or 76 other members of the Parliament to sign that letter. Of course there was a fraction, that did not sign, thinking that that would not be nice in the hands of – you know, that that would politically not be favorable then. But anyway, such large number, and that was well more than half of the members of the Parliament at that time. So, it was maybe even two-thirds, I don’t know the exact number of what, but it was definitely more that 50%, maybe 60, or 70%. And with this letter, it was given to the king, and based on this, so now that kind of gave the king, even if he was vascillating, whether to go along with the Germans or not go along with that, that gave him enough strength to, uh, to say no. And he had cancelled the deportation at the last minute. (OVERTALK) King Boris III. So King Boris III was, because of this, because he finally cancelled the, uh, the order to deport the Jews, much, you know, the popular belief was long after wards, was that he was the one that saved us. However as more and more research was done into this, and of course there were all people who were closed, then all the details – many of the details came out. I don’t know if every little detail will come out. But then it became now that he was not as resolute about the whole thing as we wished he was. And, uh, he dragged his feet for a long time, when he first, when people that first wanted to go straight to him, even some religious leaders in Bulgaria wanted to go to him and complain, and plead with him on behalf of the Jews to stop that, he would not see them. He would say that he doesn’t feel well; he would not receive them. And so the whole thing dragged. And only after this letter of – that was signed by the 73, or as I said 76 members, that’s when the decision was cancelled.
HEIFETZ: You mentioned religious leaders. What was the dominant religion in Bulgaria?
LEVY: It is…Greek Orthodox – Christianity. Christian, uh, it was – Bulgaria is right north of Greece and strong influence of Greek Orthodox religion because the Greeks were the ones that converted the Bulgarians into Christianity in the 1000, perhaps maybe 1012, 1000, 100, or something like that – 1100….11th uh what do you call it…century.
HEIFETZ: And then – were there many people speaking Greek?
LEVY: No, no, no. They were the ones that converted, no – they were not speaking Greek. But they used the Cyrillic alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet, the Russian – was devised by two Greeks, Kiriou and Metobi (?), because they were the ones that were, you know, they were the ones proselytising and spreading the Christianity and they were the ones converted the Bulgarians into Greek Orthodox.
HEIFETZ: And then the language…was what?
LEVY: Bulgarian. It’s a Slavic (OVERTALK) Yes, it’s a Slavic language. Bulgarians are Slavs. And, it’s close to Russian, very close to Russian.
HEIFETZ: And did you speak Yiddish, or did you speak…?
LEVY: No, we speak Spanish, we speak Ladino. You heard of this dialect, Ladino? Because we were descendents of the…
LEVY: …of the Spanish Jews. There were very few, I’ve never met while I was in Bulgaria I never met Jews that spoke Yiddish, but there was a very small group. Of the 70,000 Jews that were mainly, maybe three, four, 5,000 Jews that were Yiddish speaking Jews.
HEIFETZ: But most did not speak Bulgarian then?
LEVY: We spoke – at home my mother spoke with us mainly Spanish. And my grandfather spoke mainly Spanish, uh, with us, and, uh, but we answered to them in Bulgarian – they knew Bulgarian – so we were, we were, the kids were already using Spanish less and less. But, uh, I, because my mother was from Greece, and her only language, the main language, her language to communicate with us was Spanish. She was learning Bulgarian, but very slow, so I absorbed large doses of Spanish. But anyway, back to this period of time, that when we were so close to being deported. So, we were saved, and, uh, it’s not well-known story, but I think that this episode was in one of the few cases in Europe in which a body of, you know like a congress, or something like, a legislative body within the country, collectively sort of opposed, took action to oppose the deportation and that was – there weren’t many cases like that which…Of course there were some cases, in Denmark I think, or, uh, yes, in Denmark….
HEIFETZ: Rami how do you explain that action by the political body?
LEVY: Uh, again, for some reason, the winds of anti-Semitism had not – you know, somehow anti-Semitism didn’t catch the same way as it existed in other parts of Europe. For some reason, uh, you know, Europe was domin – Bulgaria was dominated for 500 years by the Turks, Turks – Turkish regime. And they acquired, only recently, their independence. Uh, and there was anti-Semitism in a very, sort of a benign, relatively benign level. It was not the kind of anti-Semitism that you hear about in the countries like Romania, or other countries where many Gentiles would be glad to, themselves, the killing Jews, in some cases. For some reason, there wasn’t, I don’t have a deep philosophical explanation for it…
HEIFETZ: Does that have anything to do with the religion?
LEVY: Uh, I don’t know. Religion has always also been blamed as a source of anti-Semitism. And, uh, it could be that the Greek-Orthodox religion was not so much focused on this, the Jews killed Christ, and all that stuff and that could be, I, I don’t have a very good…but it’s more than that. There is, uh, the Jews were kind of living separately within Bulgaria, but still for some reason in a good relationship between them and the Bulgarian Jews were…I don’t know, there were other minorities in Bulgaria. And maybe because we were one minority and, uh –
HEIFETZ: There may have been other minorities that were more of a threat than the Jews.
LEVY: No, I don’t know. There were Gypsies there, and, uh, there were also Turks. And Turks were a minority that was not looked nicely because the Bulgarians suffered so much under the Turks.
LEVY: Anyway, but, I, uh – this subject of how the Bulgarian Jews were saved – they are the subject of several studies. And one of them is a guy who might be from Bulgarians family descended, who had written a Ph.D. thesis in And I have his name, and I have it probably still around, but there is a copy of his pieces in – in the Washington U. library. And there is also another book by Vicki Tamir on that, and I at one time had a copy, but somehow lost it and so…I don’t know where it is. It’s just one of those things.
HEIFETZ: Rami – during all this, how did you come to know so much of what was happening?
LEVY: Uh, during that time we didn’t know what was happening. All this – the deportation we knew about, as I said to –
HEIFETZ: To your mother’s –
LEVY: No, through all of it, all of it was so intense. It was – the discussion it was nothing, we could not escape. That it – it was, suddenly, it was the thing that came upon us as a lightning and then we were struck. Uh, but in other places that we didn’t even, you know, later on we found out the other places didn’t even have that kind of knowledge. Actually, not everywhere, they found out as early as we did. And in other places, they found out that they might be deported only three or four days before the deportation was supposed to have taken place. But we were, as a – I’m repeating myself now but – the way the plan was, it was stopped, it was stopped, literally 48 hours before it was to be executed. (OVERTALK) And once you were being taken outside of – outside of the borders of Is – of Bulgaria, that would have been it. We would have been in the hands of the Germans.
HEIFETZ: Do you remember hearing the plan being over? Do you remember –
HEIFETZ: You don’t remember your mother…
LEVY: No, no, no. We only, well it was never sort of totally clear to us that the danger has totally, completely gone over. And that was sort of a point of fear, or something, a…
HEIFETZ: A shadow, kind of.
LEVY: Yes. And as it turned out, there was a secondary plan towards the end of the war, when the Germans were all, you know, in, just, maybe seven or eight months before they collapsed, they wanted to take all the Jews and – outside of town. And there was a secondary plan to get rid of the Jews by killing – similar to the Einsatzgruppen. By that time the King Boris had died, and the country was being ruled with real Fascist, you know, Fascists of the kind that were very much, uh, they were not what, the kings too was more, how shall I say, an aristocrat. And he was not prone to do these kind of drastic actions. But since he had died, and the story was that he was poisoned by the Germans because he refused to let the Germans use Bulgarian troops and also to deport the Jews. The story went that that was the two reasons why the Germans poisoned him because he was a very healthy man. He went to, uh, Germany and 15 days after he went to Germany he died, all of a sudden, without any…illness or anything like that. So, so now, our situation was more precarious. Now, the authorities could do something on their own without disregarding – totally disregarding any protest or anything like that. And there was such a plan to take us to the outskirts of the city. And actually they have already designated the areas where we would be taken and where there would be mass graves. I was even told at one time that even, the actual, they were digging, they were actually digging the graves, the big hole where we would be killed and thrown in and that kind of thing. But, you know, this is the way we survived. There were times of relative, you know food was scarce. You know that my father was gone and we needed – they were working hard and this malaria. You can say this other episode, when we were fearful, you know, and anti-Semitism, you know, being afraid to go in to some places, being beaten occasionally, and being called all the derogatory names and all these things.
LEVY: Oh, no, bi – bitten, yeah, there was, not once or twice we would be, Jewish kids would be bitten – am I pronouncing it right?
HEIFETZ: Beaten.
LEVY: Beaten, yeah. So, I would say that, uh, I was reluctant partially to come because we were saved and we were not – we were spared the great, you know, the great, great tragedies and suffering that some of the other Jews, the Jews from other countries have experienced. So relative to their suffering, you know, our suffering is really very minute. Even though (OVERTALK) it was traumatic at that time.
HEIFETZ: Yes, because, I know that you can look back on it and say it wasn’t much, but I’m thinking for a 10 year old child it’s severe –
LEVY: It was, it was –
HEIFETZ: It’s not, you don’t know, compared…
LEVY: At the time we didn’t know, of course…
HEIFETZ: No, your own pain as a child…
LEVY: We were always wondering, you know, I was – when I would be by myself, “What could have Jews done?” You know, when I would be laying here before falling asleep or something, when something would happen. And you say, “Why aren’t…” I could never comprehend at that age what is it that the Jews, uh, you know, why this being perpetuated after all, because I could see no reason, we were in every respect similar…then you know, sometimes it could be that they hated that we are smart. And they would be – occasionally, this notion would be perpet – some explanation would be given of this kind. But always we tried to find, you know, something to give us enough pride to keep up this, you know, image that we’re not garbage. You’re not something that everybody could step on you and you’re not supposed to say a word. Uh, that was the painful part was when…At times, one thing that was very painful for me particularly was that in, when the propaganda against the Jews was at its – at the highest, occasionally there would be a group of – there was something like Hitleristic Youth. It was not, I would say no more than 50% of the young people would belong to it and it was still not like in Germany. But they were still indoctrinated with Nazi ideas. And, uh, the people, the young guys that were belonging to this youth also had these Nazi type of insignia and they were going with these – they had short knives, you know the kind that, like hunting knives but Nazi knives. You know that – Nazis liked very much that kind of paraphernalia. That was very much a part of their organization, you know, the military type of styles. And kids that belonged in these – to these organizations and being indoctrinated with anti-Semitic ideas, they would, a very favorite trick of them was to send, when they see some Jewish, to send some kid that is much smaller and tell this kid to start bothering them. And this kid will start hitting older people or, like kids, and when I was 12 or 13 they would send a kid that is six, seven year old, and he’d start spitting on you, or doing something mean to you which you normally would, you know, slap that kid, and the kid will never dare it. But they will be sitting and only waiting, that if you dare to do anything that is only – you know – that – as if you hit him or something. If you dare to hit him, or lose your temper, then they immediately know, that gives them the excuse to come and beat you up. And so they would engage in this kind of provocations. But again, it was not everybody, mainly again, people that were not from our district. They were Gentiles that lived in other places. But, these were the kind of, you know, life – we were isolated in a small town, as I said, away from the big events, you know, but nevertheless, that’s how…
HEIFETZ: But for a child, to have to be so wary and to feel lonely and restraining of all of these emotions which you must have had to be very –
LEVY: Oh yeah, that was very painful –
HEIFETZ: – very controlled.
LEVY: Very painful. What these little bastards used to come to us and try to pull all these kind of tricks, call you names, and curse you, and say your mother is a whore or something like that and, just trying to provoke you into doing something. And some of them were getting to be pretty good at that but we had to learn, you know, to more or less ignore, even if you were kind of – you know, you’re boiling particularly for somebody who was, you know, I was, at that time for a kid, for a boy, your not exactly manhood with but, your boyhood very much depended on if you, you are tough enough to fight for what you think is just and right. These were the kind of things that were happening.
HEIFETZ: Ram, how did you feel about being Jewish then?
LEVY: I never, surprisingly, I never felt that something like being sorry that I am Jewish. I was – we – there was enough – somehow the education, and the celebration of the holidays and everything. We were brought up not to be ashamed of the Jewishness. We never tried to hide the Jewishness in any way. Like, denied it, I’m not – not to say that I’m Jewish. I had an experience here with, I met once, uh, eating in this restaurant, I was talking to – Hebrew, and the people sitting – girls, young girls, that were sitting next to us, sort of identified and one of them said that she knows a little bit of Hebrew, this and that, and started talking. And it turned out later on, another girl that was with her, that didn’t look Jewish at all – had no Jewish features whatsoever, it turned out that she was Jewish too. And she did not – she said that she doesn’t like to emphasize, or to make people know that she’s Jewish. People most of the time assume that she’s not, and she doesn’t try to do anything to change – she’s confortable with the way things are and– doesn’t feel the need to make them aware of it in any way, even if they say something about Jews. I was shocked when I heard this, in this country that something – and then we over there we were never trying to hide our identity, trying, to sneak or pass as – so there was somehow, I don’t know how, there was something that we were not, we knew that being Jewish could be very unpleasant, but we never thought of trying to hide it. We somehow knew that’s it; you have to accept it.
HEIFETZ: It was more – not being able to escape from it than feeling there was enough in it for you to want to be Jewish?
LEVY: Uh, it was, I think a little bit, a little bit of both. There was some – I would kind of vaguely feel that went that way. (PAUSE) But, uh, you know, childhood, basically everybody thinks of childhood as being a great, great experience and to me the great experience was being – growing in this small community and having Jewish friends that were – because we were surrounded by somewhat hostile environment, we kind of – we were forced to rely on each other and that keeps – kept us close together. And so, in that respect I think that we had quite a special…combination of circumstances that we had long periods of time where there was no trouble lurking and we would be playing in this Jewish school and, uh, having a good time. But these dreadful, scary times were also very strongly ingrained in the memory too.
HEIFETZ: And I would think too, that a really difficult thing for you would have been seeing your father go and order to be without him…
LEVY: For long periods of time. That, yes, interestingly, that only I felt this after I had come to this country and later – very late in my life I realize how damaging all that was to me in terms of – not having my father along. Having these kids to play with was one thing, and at that time kept me occupied, but not having the father around for such long periods of time, and then seeing him being sick, seeing him you know, all that. That had a very, you know, emotional price that I was not aware of at some periods of my life. But what later on maybe 15, 20 years ago when I started realizing how important that was.
HEIFETZ: Can you tell me how that affected you, his absence?
LEVY: Well, the, uh, I was denied his – he was a very special individual. He was very talented. He was – with music – he was avery friendly person, had many friends. And socially, very capable socially, his social skills. He was a very interesting person. He had always interesting stories to tell. And so, in that sense, I was, you know, deprived. This long interval –

Tape 2 - Side 1

LEVY: Okay, it was probably 1943 when, or the end of ’42, or the beginning of ’43 when, uh, the doctor there was a Jewish doctor, and he was just one of the few doctors in town. There were only about three or four doctors in the city. And he was the only Jewish doctor. He was commissioned to go with the Bulgarian troops to Macedonia. And Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia which was conquered by the Germans, and given to Bulgaria to administer – Bulgaria had always had political designs, territorial designs for Macedonia. They claimed that they were the same people and that, truthfully there is very similar in their anthropologically, or uh their, speak the language, is very similar. And because of that, the Germans sort of, in order to reward them for their, being their allies, they gave Macedonia to Bulgaria. And Bulgaria was administering – administering these territories. So this doctor was taken there to give, uh, healthcare to the people of this Macedonia where there were also quite a few Jews lived there, maybe hundred thousand Jews lived in Macedonia, or at least 50 – 70,000 Jews. And it also so happened that my mother’s relatives were from that district. She was from Greece, but you know, they came to this part of Macedonia where he was, which was, uh, Bitundia. Bitundia is a city now in, uh, Scopia, Bitundia’s a city in Yugoslavia, but, uh, so he was – because he was a Jew and he spoke Spanish, and he lived with some Jewish family, local Jewish family. But he was there for several months. When, all of a sudden the word in town got from, you know that he had come back, and he has terrible stories to tell as to what he had witnessed, what has happened to the Jews of Macedonia. And what it turned out, it was one night, all the Jews were rounded up, and he was rounded up with them, to be deported because, now this was, the Germans were in force there. The Germans did that, not the Bulgarians, but the Germans. The German troops were there and they collected everybody like this in a – as a military operation, waking them up in the middle of the night, you know, making them dress and right away rounding them up in a, putting them something like a stockade surrounded with barbed wire. And so he realized what was going to be happening, that they will be taken somewhere and the way they treated them, with the roughness and with the beating and everything that he has seen. And the way that, you know, that they were very cruel in that process, what they were doing, he realized that the situation is very serious and that’s the end. He more or less thought that that’s the end. He’s in – knowing what the Germans, what he had heard from other things that there were other things that were – there were other incidents that he had heard from the Jews that had happened in Macedonia prior to that, that he knew that the fate, that’s it. However, it was his luck that, uh, just as he was standing in this stockade, surrounded with hundreds of other Jews, that there were some Bulgarian soldiers were walking by and looking at them. And because he was close to the edge, close to the fence, one Bulgarian soldier suddenly recognized him and say, “You are Dr. Isocov from Samokov. I know you. You have treated my parents.” And he says, “Yes, I am he – I am here.” And he said that the soldiers told him, “What are you doing here? You are Bulgarian Jew. You don’t belong here with them.” And he say, “Well, this is what has happened. I was living with them and they picked him up. And so, do something, you know, to save me.” So he said, “Wait right here. And I’ll try to talk to my officer.” So he goes and talks to his officer, and the officer comes back and manages to convince the Germans that that is a Bulgarian, and he’s from a town and he’s recognized and Bulgarian – Bulgarian needs him to treat because he’s an MD to treat other people in the occupied territories. And so they, he managed, the Germans, after quite resisting, the Germans were not convinced. Even one person they didn’t want to release, you know, but after all, when the Bulgarians insisted enough, they saved him. And, so that’s how he was saved. But the thing was, that when he came and told, in the synagogue when we were all collected, he told a story, and what he had witnessed, what has happened to the Jews, the cruelty with which they were taken to this stockade, how they were beaten, how they were, you know, in the middle of the night they were herded out of their homes without – and no possessions, with nothing. And, uh, my mother knowing that her relatives, when she heard that tragic, tragic story. He was very descriptive. And he – I don’t remember all the things he had said, but he was very, very – everybody was crying. And I remember that I was crying too even I didn’t know my relatives. But my mother, hearing all this, she, that that’s, she said, “That’s what happened to my family. I’ll never see them again.” And fell, fainted. In the middle of the synagogue she fainted. You know, we were all scared. Everybody running around my mother and carried her…out, and she, you know, she was so, for weeks, so…despondent on this, knowing that this is their end, and the Germans are going to kill them. And that that was the first time, because they were so barbaric and then later on they were rounding them up, they realized that that’s not what, uh, not their, their fate – their fate is going to be very bitter. And so, that’s something that I had forgotten to mention earlier.
LEVY: But I was very glad you –
HEIFETZ: – You were really – the atmosphere both of your home and of the country was – there was a real depression.
LEVY: There was, very strongly. There was something that, the feeling of helplessness, the something that our fate is in the hands of some other people and there is nothing we could do about it. That was – that was very sad, and you could feel this in our parents – how they had difficulty accepting it and they were never cheerful. And you know, they were always preoccupied with these fears and worries as to what – what is going to happen next, and these kind of things.
HEIFETZ: Like living on the edge of that mountain, really.
LEVY: That’s uh – that was true, that was true. And so, in that respect, our parents were so much affected, we being younger and having this place where we can play this, slightly, temporarily escape this. But in the homes it was, uh, this fear was constant and the effects of all these restrictions on us and the actions against us were very strongly felt.
HEIFETZ: Instead of parents being able to allay childhood fears like it might be in a normal climate, this was not at all the case –
LEVY: Absolutely no – they could not, they were, they were always uncertain about it. You only hoping that, you know, praying that you, only God will save us, and that kind of stuff. And, uh, when would they have enough of persecuting us, when will they be satisfied. How much would they – at what point would they say that that’s enough, and let, you know, we’ll let them…Would they ever change, would it be always like this. Would be always restricted like that…And we always thought that when war ends and things will be better…
HEIFETZ: Did you have nightmares when you were young, at this time?
LEVY: I would occasionally dream about being chased by these thugs, you know, that when, they want to take my possessions and in the end, that we had beatings or something, that I will be dreaming, suddenly will wake up, running away from some that are chasing me because of particularly after I beat this one Bulgarian and I was hiding for two weeks. After that, I would dream of these, actually the bad guys, seeing me in the street, and starting, and catching me and trying to beat me up. And I kind of trying to take, to get, to tear myself away from them. So I would wake up with, suddenly realizing that I am sleeping, and dreaming.
HEIFETZ: I wonder if the…aggression of your peers, the non-Jew, was more overt than of your parents’ generation, because the Bulgarians…
LEVY: The kids, yeah, the kids were more free to do things, because you know, presumably, the grown-ups were more presumably, supposed to be more civilized and not doing things. But the aggression of kids – kids sometimes fight even without – they would have fights between two groups even if they’re both Christians. So, even if – whenever there was Jewish kids, it was even more permissible, it was no – there would be no consequences. They knew that – nobody – if they beat up a Jewish kid, nobody will come after them and beat them up because they did it, you know.
HEIFETZ: So the anti-Semitism among the adults may not have been as severe as to the children.
LEVY: The kids – it was more – they were exploiting it, being mean. They could be mean. The ones that wanted to be mean could be mean without having any bad effects, any restraints. But there were some that were, you know, now I realize what is this…
LEVY: Okay, but this is more or less, so now you’ve heard the most important things.
HEIFETZ: Explain to me what happened then after – as this situation, imminent danger passed, but still the anxiety continued, until the end of the war?
LEVY: Absolutely. Well there was, until actually, the machinery, the Russian troops had advanced and the Germans were in retreat. And as the Russian troops approached, the more they approached the Bulgarian border even though it was not highly publicized in the media, or anything like that, there was no – I mean the only thing was radio – they were not saying, but it was obvious that now all these, the regime, all the Fascists that were running the country, the policemen and so on, that all of a sudden, they kind of, almost disappeared. They wanted to vanish because they knew that their fate would be pretty bitter. And the partisans, you know, started coming down. Actually before the Russian troops even reached our town, already the partisans, you know, the partisans came down the mountain. There were partisans there, and there were quite a few Jews hidden among the partisans too.
HEIFETZ: What did you – how did you see all this?
LEVY: Oh this, they were our liberators. We didn’t think in terms of, at that time, Communists being, you know the terrible things that we think about Communism today, by no means. At that time the Communists were the Russians. The Russians were our liberators.
HEIFETZ: Did you (OVERTALK) You were excited yourself?
LEVY: Oh, absolutely. They were, uh, we thought of them as the ones that defeated the Germans. The Germans were the ones that were the hating – the ones that we so strongly hated. Right after that, all the Bulgarian Jews enlisted in the Bulgarian army, entered the war against the Germans, right after that. The Germans were still in Yugoslavia and Bulgarians, after it, went to fight them. My cousins were drafted and they went, they themselves volunteered and went and fought against the Germans. Along with the Russian troops and along with this newly established Bulgarian government which was of course pro-Soviet and of course anti-Nazis. So they required, of course, all these Fascists that were in power before the war, they were all put in jail and wiped out and all the restrictions against the Jews were of course lifted.
HEIFETZ: No more yellow stars. (OVERTALK) What did you do with your yellow star?
LEVY: Well, the yellow star was in the family for a while. You know, we had one or two, probably until we came to Israel. When we came to Israel in ’49, again, we couldn’t carry too much. It was one of these things that the Jews from Bulgaria were permitted to leave, but not to carry too many things. So you, there were some restrictions as to what – how much we can carry. Probably in that stage, those were kind of left behind, but we didn’t – some families did save them and had them – had the stars, I, I…
HEIFETZ: Do you remember taking yours off, though and not wearing it anymore?
LEVY: Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. That was actually not a sudden event. It was not – we were with the stars until – I have pictures, school pictures which were taken in the class in which I had, I had it, I still have that. But then, as the, towards the end of the war that they were no longer enforcing it. So even if they saw you without it you would not be, not given any arrest or not beaten up or not…You will, occasionally they will say, “Where is your, where’s your star?” And so you will pull it out…It was actually kind of a game. You would try to take it off. With, you know, as a defying them; that was an act of defiance is not wearing your –
HEIFETZ: A real resistance.
LEVY: Yeah, that kind of thing. An indirect, but, um, no, I don’t believe that that being, maybe others could associate with that, but in our case it was a –
HEIFETZ: A gradual thing.
LEVY: A gradual, yeah.
HEIFETZ: There were more and more times when you didn’t have – have to wear it.
LEVY: Well, you could sneak around without it and they will no longer be bugging you as it was in the beginning. In the beginning, you know, “hey, you put your, where is this”. You go back home, put it. If you, you know, “Oh I forget. I changed my coat, in the other coat”, these kinds of things. Go back home. Not the teachers. The teachers never asked us to do that. But, uh, people on the streets, you know, the ones that were the Fascist types, and the policemen. If some policeman saw you and you…
HEIFETZ: You, explain, continuing in the synagogue. So the synagogue continued to exist throughout –
LEVY: Oh yes. Oh yes. The synagogue continued to function, continued to function. Yes, absolutely. And, uh, but there were no men of course. There were actually – it was so sad – there were only the old men that were there, and the kids and the women. And there were, the place was kind of empty but except for these old men and so on, and so it did continue to function.
HEIFETZ: And no burning of the books?
LEVY: No, no, no, no, no. There was – none of these things happened. Also, the Jewish stores were not destroyed, and that kind of thing. They were just given to Bulgarians. They were taken over by Bulgarians. And then the Jews had to take whatever they could, you know, in the beginning, if they had a little bit of time to take it home. To take some of the posessions from the stores to bring it home.
HEIFETZ: When you say a Bulgarian now, when you think of a Bulgarian person, how do you feel about them?
LEVY: Uh, I think that Bulgarian people are – the people themselves – are good-natured people. They’re hard-working and they’re decent people. And, uh, they were not infected by this intense, most of them were not infected by the intense antisemitism. And there was plenty of it, but not, nothing of the kind of intensity they would want to kill us. You know, like really going out and by themselves kill us. They would, probably even the ones that were – hated the Jews, would be satisfied to see a Jew be beaten, well beaten and that’s it. But they wouldn’t want to kill themselves, or so –
HEIFETZ: A non – so a non-hostile people, basically.
LEVY: Yeah, that’s right. And so, and because we were, the circumstances that we were saved after all, makes me feel that you know, in a sort of a, it’s both a combination of circumstances but also a contrib – a very distinct contribution by the people. And something should be mentioned more in the West doesn’t know all that history because we were a small group of people and somehow when a country – and I’m sure that in Bulgaria was not a Communist country – we would have heard a lot more. But somehow in the West, we don’t like to give credit to people that are now Communist or something. There is something about it. You know, I myself hate the regime. I think the regime now is terrible. The present Bulgarian regime, they’re not – they’re not Communist, they’re just pure totalitarians, you know, nothing. They have no resemblance of really, of being Socialist or anything like that. They’re just pure brute force and it’s a police state…
HEIFETZ: What were your parents’ political thoughts?
LEVY: Well, they’re, you know, my – they were basically pro-Western. My mother was educated in French schools and spoke French. And my father knew a little bit of German and he was not a germanophile by any means, but he, you know. They all viewed always, the West, as the country, places with freedoms, and culture and everything else. But they didn’t have any political views of being Socialist or Zionist active. My father was a Zionist when he was very young, but then he was not active later on because he was a member of Zionist organization. And I saw these pictures. In a collection of the Zionist movement in Bulgaria they had pictures from different towns and all of a sudden there was a picture –
HEIFETZ: I’ll be darned.
LEVY: There was a picture of Bulgarian Zionists – of our town and there was – why are you recording this? It’s just stories. I guess, no, no, stop it. Now I’m giving you a…(TAPE STOPS) In ‘40 – the State of Israel was established in ‘48 and then, by that time, because Bulgaria was already sort of a Communist country, uh, and what has happened is that the establishment of the State of Israel had given the Jews incredible new feeling. And it was, all of a sudden, it was recognized by Russia right away. And at that time, because the Socialist movement in Israel was pretty strong, the countries of the Communist world had kind of viewed Israel as a bastion of, as an island of Socialism in a very backward Arab world. So they supported Israel at that time. So they were not very – as hostile against Israel as they are now, of course. And so, you know, our feelings started growing and now maybe that’s the place for us to go. There’s a new state and a new country and new place for all of us not to be persecuted. And exactly because, because of what had just happened, we were just, were saved only few years ago, we were going to be taken to the concentration camp. Now we heard what happened, we knew already what has happened to some millions, and we knew we were that close of the same thing happening to us. It was obvious that we, you know, that to all our parents that we have no future, we – to stay among the Gentiles. The Jews have to be together in a state and that’s the way, the only salvation. And that’s the way, when the aliyah gates opened, when we could go. All of a sudden, the country that there was not, there were not so strongly Zionistic, there were no people that had been educated in the Zionistic ideas from their childhood and on, and all of a sudden there were all, you know, they all went. Almost at the same time. In the period of two to three years, probably two years, 95% of the Bulgarian Jews immigrated and all of us almost in ____. In, the fastest the ships could come back, each time they went back and brought 3-4000 people. Went back, the same ship went back, and the Bulgarians made this a condition that the Jews could not go with any other ships but Bulgarian ships. And, you know, that they will be payed for it. Some very a high price. And then we were more or less, not exactly sold, but the Bulgarians benefitted from the fact that we left, you know, they were given some…aid, technical aid that was organized from Jewish organization. They built some school, all kinds of other things. And they were given actually even foreign currency to them, the government. It was not…well publicized but –
HEIFETZ: Given by whom?
LEVY: By the Jewish agency. To let the Jews immigrate.
HEIFETZ: By the Israeli Jewish agency?
LEVY: No, by, no –
HEIFETZ: By the Bulgarians –
LEVY: No, no. By the Israe – not Israeli, the Jewish agencies, not an Israeli entity. It’s kind of a world Jewish…
LEVY: …the agency of the World Jewish Congress. And they’re the ones that had the financial means at that time to induce the government to let the Jews go. In other countries, like Romania, they didn’t have the same – there was a strong opposition. They didn’t let them go as easy as we were given. But, uh, again, the Bulgarians kept with this tradition of not being anti, you know, so in that sense it was better.
HEIFETZ: By this time you were about 13? By the time you left?
LEVY: No, I – I left, I was 16 years old.
HEIFETZ: 16. How did you feel at that time about leaving your home?
LEVY: Well it was, again, very painful, very very painful – parting from friends, from the place where you have grown, in that respect. But there was always, uh, at the same time there was some adventure in the air, you know, a new place, Israel, and all that.
HEIFETZ: And you thought that you’d see these people again in Israel?
LEVY: Oh yeah. There were – we all immigrated together, the same – so we more or less thought, more or less we’ll be together the same place. That helped, but still leaving the places where – and I was very, in the first two, three months in Israel I was very homesick, you know, back to…
HEIFETZ: What did you miss?
LEVY: Oh, you know, the sights, you know, being around the places where you grown up and you loved –
HEIFETZ: Your school, and the mountains…
LEVY: The mountains, and you know, everything that was your hometown. This being attached to one locale and not knowing when, if ever, you’re going to see it – and as a matter of fact, I never been there. My sister has, but for one reason or another I haven’t had a chance to go. I’ve been sort of thinking about that, but…
HEIFETZ: Now, would you like to?
LEVY: Oh yes, very much, but being an Israeli that lives in the United States, each time, I use my vacations to go back to Israel to visit my family. They’re the ones that deserve that time, and so that’s how it ends. But we left – Bulgaria was emptied from Jews. There were only – now there were maybe 2-3000 Jews when we left in Bulgaria. And they were all – they were either strong Communists in, or somehow, for one reason reason or another. Very few Jews that were not – not involved in the political system that had stayed. Maybe some, but that were afraid to start a new life, not knowing whether their professions would be needed in Israel, and all these kinds of things. But, the Jews of Bulgaria were very much accepted in Israel as a – they were the cream of the crop in terms of they were the ones that – everybody agrees, you know, that they’re good citizens, they liked them. There was one group of Jews, that they don’t have really enemies. It’s not like the Ashkenazi, or the Sephardim that they have somewhat enemies. There was no antagonism against the Bulgarian Jews and they were all saying good things about them.
HEIFETZ: So you were very welcomed when you got to Israel.
LEVY: Uh, no, that developed later on, this feeling towards – the positive feelings towards the Bulgarian Jews developed –
LEVY: – later on with time. But in the beginning, no no, the beginning, we felt kind of – the locals let us feel like we’re dirt. You immigrants, all the new immigrants –
HEIFETZ: Greenhorns.
LEVY: Yeah, we didn’t – they treated us. You don’t know the language, you’re – they called us “Soapy” (?) you know, the guy that’s upon us. You’re not tough like us. They considered themselves to be tough and we’re the European Jews that were afraid of everything. That’s the way they perceived us in the beginning. But they found out that the European Jews could be very tough too, and they fought in the wars, and all kinds of things.
HEIFETZ: Where’s home for you?
LEVY: Uh, that’s a tough question. I still consider myself Israeli, very much so. I became, Israel has the fantastic ability to transform people, particularly young people. And within five years, or six years of the time, where I had already served the army and this experience really transforms you into an Israeli 100%. You’re, you’re going, you’re training and you’re guarding, doing everything, then that’s it. And these are the formative years.
HEIFETZ: ‘Cause you give so much, you feel, a part of this…
LEVY: Whatever it is. But it’s something in the country. And let’s not forget, Israel of the 50s was a very, it’s a young country with totally different spirit than it’s now. Now, somehow with all the economic difficulties, and somehow people could be nervous and sometimes even be critical of what is happening and unhappy about things, and not everybody is doing well. But at that time, people didn’t have expectations, terrific expectations, everything was – everybody was in about the same level. There were no rich and poor. There were few people that were wealthy, but nobody saw them. Everybody else lived modestly. Everybody had just come from Europe without anything and they all were believing in the future, and it was very, very terrific period to be in Israel. And it was not – it was difficult, it was tough, but somehow the mood was great.
HEIFETZ: You were really part of something bigger than –
LEVY: Absolutely.
HEIFETZ: – than just you.
LEVY: Oh yeah. I was in a kibbutz with the rest of – with a group of Bulgarians. That’s the first 10 months. And that’s where I learned Hebrew, and that kind of thing. But I had some fears about not being able to go through education. I didn’t know Hebrew and only after I got in high school – I went two years in high school and that was, that was. I think I should perhaps say that that too was helped, make me a better, more of an Israeli and this high school education is very nationalistic. It gives you all this Jewish – the good Jewish education with all these writers – Bialik, Chernikovsky(SP?), all of the, you know, Sholem Aleichem, everything is – you now discover, all of a sudden, you didn’t know all this about how great the Jews, the great history of the Jews and all this. And you begin to feel pride and everything…
LEVY: And it’s a very, very exciting prospect – process.
HEIFETZ: But – in Bulgaria, your education was Jewish schools.
LEVY: No, it was not. No, the Jewish school was not truly functioning Jewish school. It was a school that we used to meet there, but at one time it was a functioning school. It didn’t have classes. We used to go to Bulgarian schools. I knew very little of Jewish history when I…
LEVY: Very little. I mean, what I picked up here and there from stories of, you know, like, Mitziat Mitzrayim, or you know, I knew little, very little of Jewish history at that time.
HEIFETZ: What about through – did you have a religious education through the synagogue?
LEVY: Uh, very little. We knew few things how to say during prayer, you know, a few general kind of prayers and how to behave during things, but we didn’t have – I couldn’t read Hebrew.
HEIFETZ: I see. And there was no Bar Mitzvah then?
LEVY: Uh, there was, well, there was not strictly, not the way you know it here, no. There was not. It was kind of a more glorified, and more – slightly, slightly fancier birthday.
LEVY: It was not like a long preparation of that kind of stuff and…
HEIFETZ: You really couldn’t enter a Jewish mentality in Bulgaria.
LEVY: No. Right, remember, that that was during the war again, when I was 13 and that was – we were not in the mood to be thinking very much about these things when all kinds of other things were happening. Maybe in Poland, in somewhere where they were so religious, where religion so much dominated their lives, they were the ones that did their Bar Mitzvah even in – when the harshest of conditions. But that was not the situation where I was.
LEVY: Maybe it should have been, but that was not the case.
HEIFETZ: But, entering Israel really allowed yourself to become a Jew in the fullest sense…
LEVY: Absolutely, absolutely. I, and you know, to gain a lot more pride about my Jewishness and all these things and…it was a great experience. That was really terrific. I, I – despite, you know, Israel might have many, many drawbacks but it given to me this fantastic feeling that I don’t know if I would have been able to feel anywhere else, and at any other time, except that one particular interval of time. Now, I know that kids that go even now they have a truly great time. My daughter spent, at University of Tel Aviv, one semester. She had a great time, but she didn’t come back with this – the kind of enthusiasm that I experienced simply because she was there in a different time and she was coming from a different place. She was coming from a rich – from a country that had all these –

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