The first time I visited Bulgaria was in the winter of 1985. As the overnight train from Istanbul lumbered through the country, the only thing I saw in abundance were statues to “Our Soviet Liberators.”
In Sofia, I walked past a flatbed truck unloading cabbage before a grocery store that had not yet opened. A man stood on the back and shoveled loads of cabbage onto the sidewalk, then drove away. Hotels were filthy, restaurants smelled rancid and the food tasted even worse.
The following summer I drove across Romania. After passing through endless acres of wheat fields, I arrived in a town to find no bread in the shops. I sped across an enormous hydroelectric dam to find the nearest town plunged into electrical brownout. I passed through the Ploesti oil fields to find the nearby gas stations empty.
While all the communist bloc countries had fallen behind the rest of Europe by the 1980s, Bulgaria and Romania had become the Galapagos Islands of the continent; only Albania, then cut off to outsiders, was a stranger place. Once communism fell in 1989, both countries faced a decade’s worth of political corruption, financial incompetence and massive pyramid schemes that stripped naive families of their life savings and led to a banking collapse.
Even today, as both countries put their respective houses in order and currently have well-respected governments that are battling corruption, one wonders what these two Balkan lands can bring to the European Union, which they joined earlier this month.
If one uses foreign investment activity as a barometer — and the flow of capital is often a leading indicator of how secure investors feel — then things are indeed looking up. From the airport here in Vienna, there are something like six large planes flying daily to Bucharest and Sofia, disgorging men and women with fat briefcases, fast laptops and plenty of contracts to sign.
But the most valuable thing the E.U.’s two newest members can offer their neighbors cannot be measured in euros.
What I have learned in my 20 years of driving through, poking around and hiking in the Romanian and Bulgarian countryside is that in general, people get along rather well with each other — as well they have to, since there are dozens of ethnic minorities in each of these countries.
In Bulgaria, there is relatively little tension between the large Muslim population and the rest of society, even though in neighboring Yugoslavia this was hardly the case. Drive through the countryside on any Sunday and you’ll find Armenians, many of whom found refuge in Bulgaria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dressed in their best traditional costume. You’ll also run across Karakachans, a fascinating sect of Eastern Orthodox Christians who tend sheep in mountain passes.
No story of Bulgarian minorities, however, is more remarkable than that of the 50,000 Sephardic Jews who survived there during World War II.
This is a narrative that’s been pulled in more directions than warm taffy. Those loyal to the monarchy claim that King Boris III saved the country’s Jews from deportation. Others say a parliamentarian, Ditimar Peshev, was “the man who stopped Hitler,” as one author put it. Others state that the Communists should get all the credit.
Albena Taneva, a historian in Sofia, presents a more logical thesis: When the 11,000 Jews from Bulgarian-occupied Thrace and Macedonia were being deported to Germany’s death camps in Poland, neither the king nor the government raised a finger. But when the police began summoning Jewish families from their homes in such Bulgarian cities as Sofia and Plovdiv, it was the priests of the Bulgarian Orthodox church, along with local townspeople, who stood up and refused to let the police deport their Jewish friends.
As Taneva tells classroom after classroom throughout Bulgaria: “It was your grandparents who did what others in Europe would not do. They saved their Jewish neighbors — not a few hundred or a few thousand [as in Denmark] but more than 45,000 souls.” Civil society, Taneva says, is what Bulgarians should be most proud of, and she is currently devising programs for Bulgarian high-school students to present this story to their counterparts in Germany and in the United States.
Romania, too, has its own story to tell to its more affluent neighbors to the west. An enormous country of high mountains, fertile farmlands and a population of some 23 million, it is home to no fewer than 20 ethnic minorities, although only around a dozen have between 10,000 and 100,000 adherents each.
In the Danube delta there is a sect of Russians, the Lipovans, that broke away in a snit from the Orthodox church more than 200 years ago and make their living fishing. A few miles south of them is a colony of Crimean Tatars, and not far from them, a community of Turks. In central Transylvania, meanwhile, there are a few thousand ethnic Germans, as well as a cluster of Armenians, not to mention more than a million Hungarians.
It is in the Banat however, where everything’s a pleasant mishmash of cultures. For hundreds of years, until the region was carved up in 1918, there were no borders here — the towns of Novi Sad in Serbia, Szeged in Hungary and Timisoara in Romania are all less than an hour’s drive from each other.
During my last trip to Timisoara, I passed a German-language school not far from a Hungarian one, which itself isn’t far from a Serb school. A synagogue still sits between them.
The synagogue’s rabbi, Ernst Neumann, died a few years ago at the age of 84. When I last saw him, in 2001, he couldn’t get past the well-intentioned but ultimately misplaced values of those pushing for European integration.
“What’s all this I read in the press about tolerance for one’s neighbors?” he demanded to know. “Why don’t we actually try to like each other?”
That is not to say, of course, that there are no thuggish politicians in Romania and Bulgaria working to stir up ethnic hatred to secure votes. It’s certainly worked elsewhere, from the Netherlands to Israel. Indeed, some of these tinpot Balkan hate-mongers have risen in the polls from time to time. By and large, however, voters in these countries have not yet chosen to drink from this poisoned chalice.
Romania and Bulgaria entered the E.U. this month with a lower per capita income than any other member state, and each has a host of other problems remaining to be solved. But both societies bring to the E.U. values we can all respect, and I can only hope that we learn from them as much as they profit from us.
Edward Serotta is the director of Centropa.org, a Vienna-based institute specializing in Jewish history and culture in Central Europe.