Interviewer: Dimitar Bozhilov
My ancestors came to the Balkan Peninsula after the persecutions in Spain
five centuries ago. My mother's family lived in the town of Nis that is situated in Serbia now.
They moved to Sofia, Bulgaria at the beginning of the 20th century.
My mother Delicia had four sisters and two brothers but one of her brothers drowned in a river while they were still living in Nis.
All my mother's sisters and brothers were born in Nis, where there was a
big Jewish neighborhood. My mother's family members spoke mostly in Ladino.
They also spoke Serbian because they had lived in Serbia. My mother knew a
lot of songs in Serbian and she sang very well. I suppose that there was a
certain reason that made my mother's family move from Nis to Sofia. The
fact that one of her brothers drowned in a river near Nis might have also
influenced their decision to leave.
My maternal grandfather, Bohor Beniamin, made his living as a pastry-maker.
My maternal grandmother Lucia Beniamin was a very nice woman and she was a
housewife. They settled in the Jewish neighborhood named Iutchbunar after
coming to Sofia. This quarter was to the west of the center of Sofia and
the poorer Jews lived there. The richer Jews in Sofia lived in the center
of the town. My grandfather opened his own pastry shop on Pozitano Street
and he used to make the best pastry in the whole neighborhood. I suppose
that the pastry he made was kosher. Most of the Jews in the Iutchbunar
Quarter bought kosher food. They would buy live hens and take them to the
shochet in the synagogue to kill them. My mother's family's economic status
was not good and they didn't have their own house - that is why my
grandparents used to live paying rent in the house of their youngest
daughter Mazal. My mother and her sisters and her brother were still young
when they came to Sofia and none of them was married then. They all got
married in Sofia. My grandfather Bohor had a beautiful tallith and books in
Hebrew from which we used to read on holidays. My grandfather Bohor was a
religious man and he went to the synagogue regularly.
My mother's sisters and brother already had families at the time that I
remember them. My mother's oldest sister is named Bucha and she has three
sons who live in Israel. My mother's other sisters are named Lenka, Mazal
and Blanka, and her brother, Marko. My mother's youngest sister's husband
was a housepainter. His name was Leon. His father had been a chazzan at the
synagogue and people in the quarter respected him very much. They had six
children. One of their sons became a hero in Israel later on. Aunt Lenka
had two children who also lived in Israel. My Uncle Marko was a barber.
Aunt Blanka went to Belgrade in 1939 and married a Bulgarian Jew there. She
were told that she was sent to a concentration camp during the Holocaust
and killed. We did not get any message from her after the invasion of
Serbia by the German troops. Aunt Blanka had one son, who lives in Israel
now. My mother's youngest sister lived on Bregalnitsa Street with her
husband who had his own house, and my grandparents lived there with them
for a time. My mother's other sisters and her brother lived in rented
places in Iutchbunar.
My mother Delicia was a hairdresser. I remember that there were special
curling irons at home that she used in her work. She had worked as a
hairdresser before she got married. I suppose that she learnt this trade
while she was living in Nis. She went to school in Nis up to the fourth
My father's family comes from Sofia. My father Mehanem Eshkenazi has one
sister, Ester, and four brothers. One of his brothers, whose name was Leon,
went to America when he was very young and we have no information about him
since then. Another brother of his, Israel, left for Tzarigrad (now
Istanbul) in the 1930s. He owned a hemp goods factory and his material
status was very good. He had a big family, six children - two sons and four
daughters. One of his sons, Robert, lives in Israel and the other one,
Nisim, in England. My father's oldest brother was called Rahamin and he was
a tailor. We used to keep in touch all the time until 1943 when we were
interned from Sofia. My paternal grandmother lived for some time in
Tzarigrad in the house of the youngest brother Israel. So I practically
never saw her. My paternal grandfather had died before my grandmother went
to Tzarigrad to live with her richest son.
My father was born a short time after the liberation of Bulgaria from the
Turkish yoke in 1878 and there wasn't a Jewish school then so far as I
know. I guess that he went to a Bulgarian primary school. He had been a
hired laborer before he got married. My father probably fought in the
Bulgarian army during the Balkan war in 1912. During WWI he was captured in
1918, but I don't know where.
My father had been married to another woman but she died very young. It was
a coincidence that my mother had been a bridesmaid at their wedding. My
father's first wife knew my mother and that is how my parents met each
other. My mother Delicia and my father Menahem married in 1920. My parents
got married in the synagogue. Civil marriage did not exist at that time and
all Jews married in the synagogue. My father worked as a hired laborer for
many years at the fruit and vegetable shop of a friend of ours on Sveta
Nedelia Square in the center of Sofia. I remember that every evening my
father used to come home very tired from work and he would send me to the
nearby pub to buy some anisette for him. I used to taste a little from it
every time, and that's why it's the only drink I like, even now.
Every Saturday my father used to go to a Jewish café on Pozitano Street in
the center of Sofia and play cards and backgammon there. I remember that
they played for chocolate bars, and we little kids used to go to the café
to check if our fathers had won chocolates so that we could take some of
My home was on Opalchenska Street. It was a run-down, two-floor brick house
where we lived together with some other families. We had electricity in the
house. All the occupants were Jewish. We had a neighbour who breast-fed me
after I was born because my mother couldn't, and our neighbour had a baby
at the same time. This house no longer exists. A new one was built in its
place and the children of the previous owners live there now. All my
maternal and paternal relatives lived in the Jewish neighborhood.
I don't know how long I lived in the house on Opalchenska Street for we
moved while I was still a very little girl. We lived at many places until
1943 - on Ovcho Pole, Odrin, Slivnitza and Naicho Tsanov streets. I suppose
that my parents were really poor and they had to move very often. We lived
on Odrin Street for the longest period of time, in two different houses.
These houses no longer exist and there are big blocks at their place now.
My brothers and I were already grown up when we lived on that street. My
brothers were taken from there to the labor camps in the 1940s. We lived
together with Bulgarians in Odrin Street but I never felt a negative
attitude towards us though one of them was a member of Brannik. (Brannik
was a pro-fascist youth organization. It started functioning after the
National Defense Law was passed in 1939 and the Bulgarian government formed
its pro-German policy during WWII. Brannik's members regularly maltreated
Jews.) In every house we lived we had a little space and it was never
enough for our big family.
There were two Jewish schools in Sofia, one in the center of the town and
one in our neighborhood. The children of the richer Jews who lived in the
center used to study in the central school. I went to the one on Osogovo
Street. Everything in the school was free of charge for us. The textbooks
were free and sometimes we were even given shoes and clothes. I went to the
Jewish school until the third grade (equal to today's seventh grade); up
until then, I had studied there for four years. We used to study all day at
the Jewish school: general subjects in Bulgarian in the morning; and the
same subjects, such as reading, writing and mathematics, in Hebrew in the
afternoon. In the upper classes we started studying Jewish history, too.
One of the subjects we studied was Tanach. We studied the history of the
Jewish people and the Five Books of Moses. We also had religion class,
taught in Hebrew.
The Jewish school organised excursions and summer camps. There was a Jewish
summer camp in the town of Berkovitsa where we used to go on holiday.
Children from the poorer families were accepted in that camp. My mother
went to this camp to work as a cook so that my brother Beniamin and I could
both go on holiday there. I remember that one summer I fell into a deep
pool and had to be rescued. I have very pleasant memories from those
vacations and also many good friends with whom I keep in touch even today.
We had various organizations in the Jewish school: Maccabi, Akiva, Hashomer
Hatzair. Maccabi was a sports organization that organised international
competitions and Hashomer Hatzair was a scout organization and we used to
learn Hebrew there. We used to stay after school and play different games
or learn Jewish dances; we would try to speak only in Hebrew. These
organizations had a very positive educational influence on us, teaching us
to be very well organised. While I was studying in the Jewish school all my
friends were Jews. They were mostly my classmates and we were all members
of Hashomer Hatzair. The Jewish organizations existed until 1943 when
internments from Sofia began. The Bulgarian government banned them when the
National Defense Law was passed in 1939, but they went on functioning
illegally. (The National Defense Law was a law against Bulgarian Jews,
featuring detailed regulations. According to this law Jews did not have the
right to own shops and factories. The Jews that lived in the center of
Sofia were forced to move to the outskirts of the town. The internment of
Jews to certain designated towns was legalized. This was in preparation for
the deportation to the concentration camps.)
I did not have the possibility to continue my education after I graduated
the third class of the Jewish school and I started work at an upholsterer's
atelier. I worked until 1943 when the internments started. I continued my
education after 1944. I graduated from the evening school in Sofia. Because
our financial status wasn't stable, I used to work every summer. As a
student I used to work in an umbrella workshop on Dondukov Boulevard. I
also worked for a friend of my mother's who sewed corsets. One summer
holiday I worked for a Bulgarian lady who had a millinery workshop.
My parents were not very religious and they didn't go to the synagogue very
often, only on the high holidays. I used to celebrate most of the holidays
in the Jewish school when I was a student. We all gathered at home together
with our neighbors on Pesach. Sometimes we gathered with some relatives in
the house of an aunt of my father's who lived far away from our house. We
used to lay a big table with matzo and boio (bread balls made of water and
flour without any salt and yeast); there was only kosher food on the table.
My mother took care of the whole household. She had separate dishes that
she used on Pesach only. Tinkers used to pass through the Jewish
neighborhood every year and tin the copper dishes so they always looked as
good as new ones. We did that also in order to make sure that the bread did
not have any contact with the dish. After the holiday we put away the
dishes until the next year.
When Pesach was coming, the chocolate factory in Sofia would bake matzo,
which we would buy for the period of eight days when we did not use any
other bread. We always got new shoes for Pesach, though our family was very
poor. I had cousins older than me and I wore their old clothes. There was a
synagogue next to the school in our neighborhood and there were a chazzan,
a shochet, and some clerks there.
We made a Pesach Seder. There had to be seven special dishes on the table
and they had to be arranged on one plate. We made a special dish of ground
walnuts, sugar and apples. We laid that on a leaf of lettuce, and we called
it maror. We did tanit for Yom Kippur: on that day we didn't eat anything
till evening when the shofar was sounded at the synagogue.
We didn't work on Saturdays and that is how we observed Sabbath. We didn't
turn the lights on until a certain hour then. We observed the rest of the
Jewish holidays also. The holiday of fruits, Frutas, is in February. Purim,
the day of the masks, is in March, and Pesach is after that. The most fun
holiday for the children, Lag Baomer, is forty days after Pesach. We used
to go to the field then and gather grass. There was the holiday of
fruitfulness, Succoth, when we built a special small straw cottage at the
synagogue and arranged all kinds of fruits and things gathered after the
I came into a Bulgarian circle of friends in the late 1930s. I was already
a left-winger then. We had to trade in our ID cards for new pink ones in
the 1940s, and some of us had our names changed. (Repressive measures
against Jews were taken after the National Defense Law was passed in 1939.
Their ID cards were replaced by pink ones so that they differed from the ID
cards of other Bulgarian citizens. Many Bulgarian Jews were moved to
designated towns where they had the right to leave their lodgings at
certain times only.)
The names of some Jews were changed to typically Jewish ones so that our
Jewish origin was clear to the other citizens. My name was from Matilda to
We had to wear yellow badges that showed our Jewish origin but I hardly
ever wore mine because I was living in a mostly Bulgarian circle. Anyway I
was always ready to show it when necessary.
On May 24, 1943, Slavic Script and Bulgarian Culture Day, there were sudden
protests among Jewish youth against the authorities' decision to forcibly
move our families out of Sofia. Many of our families had already received
notices for a forced internment. In 1943 the removal of the Jews from their
homes started in order to organize their deportation to concentration camps
abroad. Because of the sharp reaction of the Bulgarian population and of
some of the members of Parliament, the deportation was stopped at the last
moment. I was a member of the Revolutionary Youth Union by then. Both Jews
and Bulgarians were members of the RYU, a pro-Communist and anti-fascist
youth organization. My parents couldn't prevent me from taking part in the
RYU's activities during WWII, as I did not let them know exactly what I was
doing. My father was a liberal man but he didn't take part in politics. My
brothers didn't have a particular political orientation either. I was the
only one in the family who participated actively in anti-fascist
activities. That's because of where I worked-- at a bazaar on Klementina
Street where there were many workers - cooks, tailors and others - and that
is how I came into contact with left-wing youth who were members of the
We gathered at the synagogue in our neighborhood that May 24. My neighbour
Solomon Leviev, a member of the RYU, spoke before the Jewish people and
called on us to go on a protest march to the center of the town where Tzar
Boris III was going to congratulate Sofia's citizens on the May 24th
holiday. So we went in that direction. We were walking on Klementina Street
(now Alexander Stamboliiski Boulevard). Suddenly mounted police intercepted
us and started to arrest people at random. I managed to escape together
with Solomon Leviev to the village of Kniazhevo (now a neighborhood of
Right after these protests, on that very day, arrests at our homes started.
The father of the boy with whom I had escaped was arrested and sent to a
labor camp. We lived underground in Sofia after this and we hid from the
police. I did not want to move out of Sofia but had to anyway. My family
got a notice that we had to leave for the town of Dupnitza and my parents
made me to go with them. Both my older brothers were in labor camps at that
time. My family left for Dupnitza at the end of May. I went back to Sofia
the next day. My parents did not know about that. They suspected that I
would join an armed anti-fascist guerrilla squad and didn't want me to go
back to Sofia.
I went back to Sofia with a fake ID card with a Bulgarian name on it, which
I got from my friends in the RYU. I lived in the lodging of a friend of
mine, Boris Brankov. After that I moved to the underground group in the
Lozenetz Quarter. We decided to join a guerrilla squad but the head of our
organization was arrested and so we failed. I was also arrested in June
1943. Someone had disclosed the fact that I was Jewish and I was sent to
Sveti Nikola, a concentration camp near Asenovgrad in South Bulgaria. These
camps were built as prisons for the anti-fascists but not especially for
Jews. I was sent there because of my anti-fascist activities, not because
of my Jewish origin. I stayed there until it was closed in November 1943.
The Bulgarian government changed that year. Ivan Bagryanov's government
came into power and he closed all political prisons but also founded some
new ones such as Sveti Kirik. When I came back to Sofia from the camp I
didn't have any identification again and I hid in the home of some friends
of mine. I understood then that my parents had been moved to the town of
Mihailovgrad, which was named Ferdinand then.
My maternal relatives were also forcibly moved from Sofia during the
Holocaust. My mother's older sister Bucha and her family were interned in
the town of Pazardjik. My mother's other sister Mazal was interned to Ruse
together with her big family and six children. They were all interned
except Blanka who went to Belgrade; unfortunately, she was sent to a
concentration camp there. I remember that my maternal grandfather died just
after the internment in 1943 and we did not even manage to put a tombstone
on his grave. My father's relatives were also interned. My father's
sister's children had already grown up and were sent to forced labor camps.
One of my father's brothers, Josif, was interned together with my father in
Dupnitza. My parents spent only a few months in Dupnitza and after that
they moved to Ferdinand (now known as Montana).
I went after them and joined the Jewish section of the local RYU
organization in the town of Ferdinand. My parents were suffering terribly
during the internment in Dupnitza and Ferdinand. My parents, my younger
brother Samuil and I lived in one small room. My older brother Beniamin was
in Sveti Vrach in the South near the town of Gotze Delchev. He worked
building roads there. My other brother, Eliezer, was sent to a labor camp
near the town of Svoge and he was also a road construction worker.
I tried to work while I was in Ferdinand to help my family. I sewed for the
neighbors so that we could buy some food. I was not a professional
dressmaker but I mended clothes. In Ferdinand I also looked after children,
made bricks, dug in the vineyards. All that was illegal and I did it
without the knowledge of the police as we had the right to go out of our
homes for only three hours a day. I worked as an assistant in the shop of
some friends of my parents. I used to hide my badge while I was at work,
and when the police found out that I was a stranger in town, and that I was
working illegally, they didn't know about my Jewish origins. So I managed
to leave town before they discovered my identity. I used to hide my badge
all the time and the police didn't know that I was a Jew.
I joined the Hristo Mihailov guerrilla squad in August 1944 together with
35 people from the town. All our actions were strictly organised and
disciplined because the authorities were after us and we lived underground.
We had leaders who decided who was suitable to join the squad. We went 40
kilometers during the first night after we joined the squad and crossed the
Serbian border. The police were chasing us the whole way. We met the local
guerrillas there - our squad was in touch with them all the time. On
September 5 we learned that the Soviet army was near the Danube and was
about to enter Bulgarian territory. Then we came back to Bulgaria. We
passed through the town of Ferdinand and on September 8-9 we were in
Berkovitza and we established the government of the Fatherland Front there.
(September 9th 1944 was the day of the communist coup d'etat in Bulgaria.
It meant the beginning of a new era in the history of Bulgaria, that of the
totalitarian rule of the Bulgarian Communist Party. The Fatherland Front
was the most popular anti-fascist and pro-Soviet organisation in Bulgaria
that existed formally during the whole period of the Bulgarian Communist
The situation changed and the guerrillas started to chase their
persecutors, mostly the so-called "desperados" who were famous for their
cruelty to guerrillas. The desperados had been authorized to persecute and
kill the guerrillas in Bulgaria. Many guerrillas had been executed in 1943
and 1944. We established the people's rule everywhere we went. Local people
knew their persecutors and the people who had maltreated them. All the Jews
in the squad, however, were from Sofia.
I stayed for a few days in the town of Berkovitza after September 9 and I
went back to Ferdinand after that. Together with a cousin of mine, I went
to Sofia to look for a lodging for our families. We found one on Naitcho
Tzanov Street and we called our parents. My brothers came back from the
camps. We lived at that place until my parents and my brothers left for
Israel. My brother Beniamin left first and he spent two years at a
transient camp in Cyprus. The British blocked the emigration of Jews to
Palestine because Palestine was an English dominion at that time. My
brother managed to move to Israel only after the establishment of the
country. I did not want to go with them because I thought my place was in
Bulgaria and I had to take part in the building of the new political and
economic system under the guidance of the Bulgarian Communist Party.
In 1948 we received clothes from the "Joint," the American Joint
Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief organization. We had a Jewish
organization in Sofia after 1944. We also had a Jewish hospital on Pozitano
Street and a relative of mine used to work there. This hospital is a
cardiac clinic at present.
We went on observing Jewish holidays until my parents left Bulgaria in
1948, gathering for the holidays and going to synagogue. After my parents
and my brother left for Israel, my husband and I didn't observe Jewish
traditions so strictly. I used to work on Saturdays, as it was a working
day in Bulgaria for a long time. Jewish traditions lost their meaning
gradually because my husband Mois Asael and I were both very busy with our
work. We used to work full-time, six days a week.
My family and I had to leave many precious belongings and books when we
were interned in 1943. That is why I don't have many souvenirs from my
relatives. My family had many beautiful books in Hebrew with velvet covers
and the Star of David embroidered on them, but we had to leave them. I have
kept a small carpet from my mother that is over a hundred years old. I have
also kept special clothing that my mother used to wear when delivering her
children and some special sheets also. The clothing that she wore was made
of a silky material - something like brocade. It was rosy with golden and
silver threads in it. Unfortunately those things of my mother's got lost
during an exhibition at the Jewish Cultural Home.
I have three brothers. The oldest one, Eliezer, is from my father's first
marriage. He used to live together with my mother and father. After that
his maternal grandmother took him to live with her. In 1941 he came back to
live with our family. My two other brothers are Beniamin and Samuil. They
all graduated from the Jewish school in Sofia. My two older brothers left
for Israel together with my parents.
My parents settled in the town of Jaffa. My brother Samuil still lives
there. My father became a peddler after they settled in Israel and my
brothers did dirty jobs. Only my brother Beniamin managed to do well for
himself. My other brother, Eliezer, who married there and had a big family
with five children, was a retail merchant. My youngest brother Samuil
worked in a film studio. I have one brother and many nephews in Israel now.
My maternal relatives also settled in the town of Jaffa. My aunts settled
in Jaffa, Bat Yam and Rechovot.
I have been to Israel about ten times. All my relatives on my mother's side
live there. Only one cousin of my paternal side lives there now. She is a
daughter of my father's oldest brother Rahamin. Only my mother managed to
come to Bulgaria after they left in 1948. She came here to see my daughter
in 1971. My brother comes almost every year. I keep in touch with him, as
the situation in Israel is very hard at the moment.
In 1944 I went to work in the militia as an operative officer. I worked
there till 1952 when a decision was made that Jews should be dismissed from
leading positions. A trial against doctors started in the Soviet Union in
1952. The Jews were accused of working against the Soviet authorities. As
Bulgaria was subordinate to the Soviet Union, all Jews were dismissed from
work at the militia. There were many Jews in the militia hierarchy at that
time, especially in my department, which dealt with the press, cultural
societies and schools. People who were fired were highly qualified, for one
had to speak foreign languages to work in my department. I couldn't find a
better job after 1952 because of my Jewish origins. I had to accept
whatever I was offered. I found work in the personnel department of the
City Management of the People's Health Administration after I was fired.
The Administration existed only for a short period of time and after that I
went to work in the personnel department of Material and Technical Supply
at the Ministry of Construction, from which I retired later.
After 1952 it was difficult for Bulgarian Jews to visit their relatives who
had left for Israel. I managed to go to Israel with great efforts in 1957.
I went with the special permission of one of the undersecretaries of the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Only a few Jews went on working as operative
officers in the hierarchy of the MFA after 1952, and they used to teach law
and criminology. I kept in touch with my parents regularly at that time.
The Ministry told me that I couldn't do that anymore if I worked there. I
chose to keep in touch with my parents and that is why I was dismissed with
the explanation that I had an "unsuitable environment" for a ministry
officer. That "unsuitable environment" was in fact my connection with
I worked in the Ministry of Construction in 1956. I was working in
Personnel and it was my duty to keep an eye on the workers' inclinations so
that we wouldn't repeat, in Bulgaria, what had happened in Hungary the same
year. This was carried out through stronger discipline at the work places.
The ministries took steps to avoid any kind of anti-Soviet inclinations in
After my parents went to Israel in 1948 I moved to a better lodging that
was in the apartment of some Jews who had already left for Israel. I had
the right to live in one of the rooms there. I met my future husband in
that lodging. My husband Mois Shemaia Asael was born in the town of
Dupnitza. He is an optician. He graduated from the Optics Institute of the
Ministry of Health in Sofia and he has worked as an optician for more than
40 years. His family didn't go to Israel but bought a house on Sofronii
Vrachanski Street where I lived with my husband for almost twenty years,
until 1970. After that we moved to the Mladost Quarter, a suburban
neighborhood in Sofia, and we still live there.
It was good for us Jews that the Bulgarian Communist Party was governing.
This gave us the chance to take part and work in state institutions. Before
1944 we did not have the chance to do that; we were deprived of our rights.
We didn't have the chance to study even if we wanted to. I supported the
official party position regarding the political developments in Hungary in
1956 and in the Czech Republic in 1968 during the whole period of BCP rule.
I myself was a member of the BCP and now I am a member of its successor,
the Bulgarian Socialist Party.
My daughter Regina was born in 1968. She wanted to go into her father's
profession and she went to study at the optics technical school. She chose
to deal with laser optics there. She used to work in UchTehProm, a laser
technology factory, but when the orders from the Soviet Union ceased after
the political changes in Bulgaria in 1989, she was dismissed from work. Now
she works at Social Care Centre in Mladost Municipality. My daughter
married a Bulgarian and she has two children, Simona and Martin.
I used to go on vacation with my husband every year in the 1960s. I took my
daughter to the seaside every summer in the 1970s. We had work then and we
had the financial ability to go to resorts. When my daughter started school
she used to go on vacation during the winter, the spring and the summer
holidays. We lived well until 1989. Now, after the political changes in
Bulgaria that began on November 10th 1989, we don't live well.
We have a group in the Jewish Community Center where we gather to talk in
Hebrew. There is a group for Ladino speakers also. I take part in both
groups. I graduated a Jewish school 65 years ago and I can speak Hebrew.
There are other groups where they teach Hebrew to those who want to go to
Israel. I do my best to help my daughter's family now. I observe all the
Jewish holidays and I go to the synagogue regularly. I have a special
chandelier for the Jewish holiday of light, Hannukah. I recently organised
a Bat Mitzvah for my granddaughter Simona at the central synagogue. 120
people attended the ceremony. My granddaughter had prepared a speech that
she read before the audience. It was a great festival. We treated the
guests to kosher food.