Matilda Albuhaire -- A Sephardic Family Story

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Centropa's first film produced by the award-winning Bulgarian Photographer's Association.

Here is a story that begins in Istanbul in the 1850s and ends in contemporary Sofia.

After the death of his wife, Matilda Albuhaire's grandfather traveled with his young son to the Black Sea port of Bourgas, where he opened a small shop in a town filled with Greeks, Turks, Jews, Muslims and Bulgarian Christians. Matilda became a teacher in the Bourgas and Sofia Jewish schools, and when war came, waited with the other Bulgarian Jews for their deportation "to Poland," not knowing what awaited them there.

But Bulgaria's Jews were not deported -   the accompanying study guide provides articles and essays describing this remarkable incident.

After the war, most Bulgarian Jews emigrated to Israel; Matilda remained, and after the fall of Communism, once again became active in her Jewish community.

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Matilda's story begins in Istanbul, where her grandfather lived in the late Ottoman Empire. Through its long history, the Empire had controlled Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Egypt, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, as well as parts of Arabia and large amounts of the North African coast. Find a brief summary of Ottoman history here, or explore this site from the University of Michigan's Turkish Studies Department for more information.

As part of the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria fought with Germany and Italy in the First World War. Learn more about Bulgaria's involvement in the war here.

Between the wars, Bulgaria's political scene was turbulent, marked by coups, strikes, and takeovers. On the eve of the Second World War, Bulgaria was operating under a royal-military dictatorship led by Tsar Boris III.

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Matilda lived and worked in Sofia. There have been Jewish communities in Sofia since Roman times, augmented over the centuries by Jews from Hungary, Bavaria, Spain, Germany, Russia, Romania, and Galicia. Learn more in this account from the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture.

Matilda's mother was from Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria. Read about the history of Plovdiv's Jewish community here.

Matilda talks about some of the Jewish youth-groups that operated in Bulgaria. Hashomer Hatzair is the oldest Zionist youth goups in Europe. You can visit their website to learn more about their history, aims, and activities. She also mentions Betar and Maccabi. Explore Centropa's archive for photos of youth group activities in Bulgaria.

Much of Bulgaria's Jewish population are Sepharic, and before the 1940s Ladino was spoken widely.

Matilda's grandfather came from Istanbul to Bulgaria. He prayed regularly in the synagogue, and had a seat in the front of the teva. Find out more on the meaning of teva in synagogues, or Sephardic Arks.

After the Second World War, Bulgaria's communist leaders often tried to deny the existence of minority groups by manipulating or suppressing census data or by forcibly assimilating groups they labelled "undesirable". After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, minoritiy communities could enjoy greater freedom of expression. Flip through the PDF of this book to learn abour the suppression of minorities under Bulgarian communism (available in chapter titled "Ethnographic Characteristics").

The Joint Distribution Committee operated in Bulgaria today, assisting Jews living in poverty. Read more about their work in Bulgaria here.

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Bulgaria was part of the Axis Alliance during the Second World War, during which time it occupied areas of Greek Thrace, Macedonia, and Serbia. Learn more about Bulgaria's involvement in the war here. This page contains a summary of the Axis Alliance powers, detailing their participation in the war and overviews of their surrenders.

After 1940, Jews in Bulgaria were made to wear yellow-star badges, part of the descriminatory measures imposed in countries with anti-Semitic legislation during the war. These restrictions also  excluded Jews from public service, limited the places that Jews could live, and restricted the occupations that Jews could have.

Unlike other Axis countries, Bulgaria's Jewish population was persecuted, but not deported to killing centres. This has a lot to do with Dimitar Peshev, who was able to prevent deportations from Bulgaria. Learn about his efforts here. The deportation of Matilda and her family was fortunately cancelled.

Anti-Semitic activity in Bulgarian-occupied territories was brutal. Most of Macedonia's Jewish population was deported and killed. View footage of Macedonian Jews boarding trains that would take them to Treblinka concentration camp in Poland here.

Matilda's brother was sent to a forced labour camp. Explore Centropa's collection of photographs of Bulgarian forced labour.

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After the war, the People's Republic of Bulgaria was established. Over forty years of communism, Bulgaria had three presidents. Georgi Dimitrov is known for eluding Nazi persecution for the 1933 Reichstag fire. He led between 1945 and 1950. He was followed by Vâlko Chervenkov, who eagerly consolidated Stalinist-style communism between 1950 and 1956. Todor Zhivkov, the longest-serving leder of any of the Soviet countries, was in control between 1956 and 1989. He was known for agricultural collectivisation and suprressing internal dissent.

In communist times, the Synagogue in Bourgas was turned into an art gallery. Read more at the Centre for Jewish-Bulgarian Cooperation.

In 1989, a series of revolutions took place throughout the Soviet Union, overthrowing communist states. Find a broad overview of the 1989 revolutions here, and learn about the end of communism in Bulgaria on this page.

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