Personal Project

The last Survivors

Life stories from Bulgarian Jewish survivors during World War II.

The story of the Bulgarian Jews during World War II is unique.

Bulgaria, allied with Nazi Germany, applied "The Law for Protection of the Nation" from January 1941. This law was a racial anti-Jewish law like the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany.

Bulgarian Jews left their homes and fled to the countryside. Their property and wealth were confiscated and stolen. They lived in poverty and insecurity and were not allowed to work. Men aged between 20 and 46 were forced to go to Bulgarian labour camps.

But in all these extreme circumstances, 48,000 Bulgarian Jews (within the old Bulgarian borders) managed to be saved thanks to the courage of Bulgarians who opposed the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews at the risk of their own lives. Because in March 1943 the trains were ready to leave to the death camps. In extremis, they even managed to stop the trains under great effort and personal risk.

Unfortunately, the Jews of the newly annexed Bulgarian territories never became Bulgarian citizens and were forced to board the trains under Bulgarian administration, to be handed over to the Nazi Germany and then deported to the extermination camps at Treblinka or Auschwitz (in total, approximately between 11,000 and 12,000 Jews were murdered).

The last Bulgarian Jewish survivors were children at the time. Their stories are testimonies - at the same time - of humanity, luck as well as the darkest moments of human history.

As Paulina said (one of the Survivors): "in September 1944, we became HUMAN again."

The contact to the Survivors had been established by the local Shalom organisation. The photos were realised from late 2022 until summer 2023 in Sofia and Plovdiv. Some of the survivors share with me their personal photos of their lives. They allowed me to scan their photos and to include them into the project.

Thank you to the last Survivors who participated to the project and shared with me their stories.

Thank you to the Shalom Organisation. Thank you Jasmin for the translations and thank you Teri for making the interviews with the survivors.

Please find under these links additional informations about the project:

interviews with the Survivors in Bulgarian


solo exhibition in Sofia

Esther, born in 1927

„Back then as young girls around 15/16 years we just wanted to go outside like the others did, take part in social life, get to know other young people... but it was not possible. That hurt a lot.“

“My mum had a sister, who was from Greece and got resettled; 1943 they brought my aunt, who was a mother of four children, to Treblinka. My mum cried until the end of her days whenever she washed the laundry, remembering her sister and saying, that they made soap from her.”

“They took our rights away from us – the right to use the main street, the right to go to the cinema, the right to visit any cultural institution. It was impossible for us to go to the shops, our possessions where taken from us, and at the doors there would be a notice saying “Here live Jews.” In the big cake shops, cafés and restaurants it said “Prohibited for dogs and Jews”. We were only allowed to leave the house in the morning, until 10:00 am. We could not even buy bread! We could not buy any food! And not only this.”

Stories have been a part of Esther’s life ever since, both she and her daughter have won a literature prize and her daughter even organises a writing contest every year, so that these historical events can be recollected. It almost seems as if the female lineage is destined to preserve these stories in a literary way – be it as writers or be it as object of literary representation themselves, as for example her father’s cousin, a Jewish Partisan who became the protagonist of her own tragic story, that the Bulgarian author David Ovadija turned into a novella. Even though they were freed before the deportation, she and her family had to endure and bemoan a lot. Esther knew exactly what was going to happen, once the “invitation” for the resettlement would come to reality. She knew that it was not true, what they told them. She knew they would not just be transported to some little villages somewhere in Bulgaria, but that their final destination would be the concentration camps – the camps of death."

Paulina, born in 1930

“It is over. Everything is over. But I will not forget. I will never forget these years. At the age of 92 by now, I can still see everything clear before my eyes exactly as it was back then.”

“Well, of course, EVERYTHING had changed with 1944. Life had finally begun! We’ve finally started to live like human beings.“

The librarian from Pleven is very grateful for her wonderful, lovely and happy family, that she was blessed to have and for all the good things that had happened to her in life – after 1944, when life finally started!

Avram, born in 1936

“Since the law of the nations, during the period 1941-1944, all Jews of age had to get special identity cards.

During September all Jews started to tear these cards apart. My grandfather Raphael set down and started to tear apart his special ID card, when my brother stopped him and right now I am keeping the special ID card from my grandfather. At first, in this card were his three names. Later they had marked his names with read colour and then they added his names, so there were four and not three. For example they wrote Rephael instead of Raphael.”

“The Jewish School in Vidin was turned into a sleeping room for the Jews who were banished from Sofia, and into a kitchen. So we, the pupils, had no school. Then the director of the school in Vidin took us into their school – the Bulgarians had school during the mornings and we, the Jews, had school in the afternoon. Until today I wonder, what was the name of this good director, who was he, I would be content to find out his name.”

“At the beginning of march 1942 there was a flood in Vidin, caused by the Danube river. Different kinds of boats were saving us, but primarily military boats. There were some branitsi, who wanted to have the Bulgarians transported first and only then the Gypsies and the Jews. But there was one military officer, who said:

“All are equal!” – and he transported Bulgarians and Gypsies and Jews. And I would really like to know the name of this courageous officer, for whom all Bulgarian citizens were equal.”

“All my relatives left for Israel after 1948, my family stayed in Bulgaria. My brother became an officer and taught artillery fire at the military academy. But I am very happy, because here I went to high school, then to college and I worked as a teacher for mathematics and now I am a happy retired person.“

Isaac, born in 1943

Music is his life! He even had dropped out of his engineering studies in order to dedicate himself completely to music. He followed his heart and performed on different occasions like university balls, events... He even played in the Bulgarian band “Shturtsite” (= “The Cicadas”), that became pretty famous later on.

“I do not have recollections of the war, because back then I was still a baby. And my parents didn’t tell me anything about the war, there are no stories about it.”

His children and grandchildren have emigrated to Israel, there was simply no future for them in Bulgaria.

Joseph, born in 1928

“These were hard times. We were afraid all the time, that we would be deported. It lasted until 1944. The unemployment, the famine, the misery.”

At 6 pm all the Jews had to be at home. There were laws and decrees against the Jews. The people from the Branik-Organisation had started to torture us; they came into the Jewish Quarter. The media told the population not to buy products from Jewish shops. In the stores the products were named with “EP”, which stood for “Jewish Product” (“evreiski product”). The police and the people from Branik were everywhere all the time.

“Actually in our neighbourhood Jews and Bulgarians were mixed and we used to live with each other, we liked each other.”

At a certain point all Jews had to stay at home, without employment and money. We got used to being hungry. Well, we could not go to work anymore. There was clear discrimination, while for example we could only buy one egg, whereas Bulgarians were allowed to buy two eggs. Joseph was twice severely beaten up – somehow he managed to survive both attacks, as he could make sure to save himself during the beating.

As his father died in the camp, he then – as the oldest son – was the patriarch in the family. All his sisters left to Israel in 1948, but he stayed in Bulgaria with his mother and his little brother to take care of them.

Victoria, born in 1932

“Bulgarians, Jews, Gypsies – as children we all used to play together outside and nobody cared about our different upbringings. Until the introduction of the Law for Protection of the Nation nobody cared, because nobody had any interest in ethnical or national differences.” Not only were Jewish pupils separated at school, but generally all the pupils often simply didn’t have lessons during the war.

Viktoria, who grew up in Kjustendil, remembers how her grandfather was sitting in the empty flat on the bed without mattress, telling her mother in Ladino, that he would go nowhere, but stay and die here, where he was born. At that very moment the waggons where already waiting for them at the train station in Kjustendil and her mother was standing there, the luggage ready. As a young girl, Viktoria also understood and knew, that the Jews from the neighbouring countries (Serbia and Greece and others) were transported through Bulgaria to the concentration camps in Germany and Poland, where they would die. They died. 11.340 Jews from these countries died.

Benjamin, born in 1939

„I am living my second life!

“What a happy occurence, that his mother went down to the basement with him when an unexpected attack started near them. Getting back to the room, his baby bed was torn apart. Already during his childhood Benjamin’s family had to move a lot. They didn’t have much, it was hard everywhere and they were not allowed to stay in his home town Sofia, because they were Jewish.

Ida, born in 1929

„The big tragedy was, that my parents had to sell the piano in order to buy food. Hence I was left without the piano, to my big disappointment.“

„There were broken windows, long journeys around the country to places, somewhere in the province, where we were settled in, not knowing if we would arrive there after all, not knowing why we were travelling two days, three days...“

The opera singer Ida experienced the war as an adolescent and after the war she lived a very intense and fulfilling life: Being part of the first ensembles of the opera in Plovdiv, having a family of her own and moving to Sofia, where she would be part of the Musical theater and would finally give international performances with a series of Jewish songs from Bulgaria.

As an adolescent she witnessed many dreadful things during the war... fortunately that was long ago...There was a group of young people at the place where they were resettled in and they were like a big community, that gave her a lot of strength under these circumstances. They would listen to music together and one of them would teach them about history.

Emilian, born in 1938

“During 1941 the Law for the Protection of the Nation was implemented, so all the Jews had to leave...

Well, my aunt, and her two daughters, they lived in Solun (=Thessaloniki). After the war started, they made a contract and started to deport all the Jews everywhere in Europe. She could not move to Bulgaria.

It is interesting, that the Jews from Macedonia and Thrace, that is Northern Greece, where the Bulgarian forces were, well it is interesting, that there the Bulgarian Jews were not seen as Bulgarian citizens. That is why they could not be saved like the Bulgarian Jews.“

“They lived in Thessaloniki and then the deportation started, the deportation from all of Macedonia and Northern Greece to Treblinka and especially from Thessaloniki they went to Auschwitz. After the war my father tried to find them, but in vain. Once I asked my father about my relatives, what happened to them, but he avoided to talk about this topic.” 

Avram, born in 1944

Avram remembers that he had a very happy and joyful childhood after the war – even though there was simply nothing! Quite exciting: How his father and mother made it possible to see each other from time to time even though they were in different camps.

Aaron, born in 1941

„Life is also filled with beautiful things. The most important thing is that we are healthy and well – everything else is transitory.“

He was three years old when he first met his own father, who felt like a stranger to him and of course, he was not at all pleased, when this stranger lifted him up on this first meeting!

It’s a pitty, that they did not go to Israel like the other family members. He would have loved to have them nearby. But his father believed in communism, so they stayed in Bulgaria.

Avram, born in 1933

„The problem is that the people tend to forget.“

Avram is grateful for 90 years, that God gave to him, 57 years of which he spent together with his wife. One should not forget! And yet, still, keep his mind on to the good and happy moments. Because the one that remembers only the bad things in his life, is actually committing slow suicide.

Haim, born in 1938

„Afther the 7th of September anti-Semitism would take place secretly.” – As a student, Haim found himself several times in situations filled with anti-semitic hostility. But when he tried to get help from the headquarter of the democratic forces, they just shrugged. So what could he do? “Why this hatred? And were is it coming from?”, Haim wonders until today, trying to understand the harsh reality he had experienced during his life as a Jew in Plovdiv.

One of his closer schoolmates emigrated with his parents to Isreal. After many years, he finally could visit Israel as an adult and it was then possible to meet his old friend from school. He was so happy!

“Once I played in the courtyard and my mum told me to come in, as the police hour was about to start. So I’m running over the courtyard, from one door to the other door, back to my mum – but there, a policeman is stopping me, saying it’s already 6 pm! But you know, it is not 6 pm! But he insists that I’m outside too late and that he’ll write a fee. So my aunt pays the fee, and then we go inside. But it was not 6 pm.”

Frida, born in 1918

Frida died few months after the photo session. 

Yudah, born in 1936

Yudah died few weeks after the photo session.