It was ninety degrees in the shade. But Eli Lobel couldn’t stop shivering.
“Look at me,” he demanded as he and his wife, Anelie, waited for the plane from Bulgaria to arrive. “I’m not a religious man – and I’m not superstitious. But that string of nasty coincidences is giving me the shakes.”
“Maybe it’s something you’ve eaten. I’m not keen on the shawarma place where you and Yossi like to nosh.”
“This not about food. It’s what happened last month – and because we’re here at Ben Gurion Airport waiting for our boys to return from Burgas.”
The Lobels’ sons, Natan and Izzi had insisted on going ahead with a long-planned trip to Bulgaria despite what had just happened to other Israelis there.
“I won’t be happy until I see our boys come through customs,” continued Eli.
“Nearly every day we hear about modern versions of the ancient tragedies we are supposed to remember at this time of year.
“O.K., we no longer have a temple to be destroyed. Instead, we’ve had two desperate people burn themselves to death – and several more try. Then just as we learned about the terrorist murders at Burgas, the news stations began reporting the death of the Torah sage, Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv. They say he left one thousand descendants. I don’t suppose any of them will ever visit former Nazi Europe on a pleasure trip.
“I’m telling you, Anelie, our boys have the whole world to explore – they didn’t have to go to Bulgaria. Remember what my father always said?”
“Wow, that’s a long speech. You don’t usually say that much all week! I know you’ve never been happy about Israelis visiting Bulgaria after the effort your family made to come here in the 50s. And yes, I know your father made you promise you’d never go back. But that was then and this is now. Anyway, it’s said that compared to most of Europe, Bulgaria treated its Jews well during the Holocaust.”
”That’s not entirely true. Do you also remember what we read when we took our London cousins to the Ghetto Fighters House Museum in the Galilee?”
“That was quite a while ago but I do remember their visit. Your Dad was still alive and the little one – Alex – made him laugh by calling him ‘Great Uncle Bulgaria’ after a character in a British children’s TV show.”
“But I’m making a serious point here. The popular – I consider - fanciful - version of events implies that the Bulgarian nation led by Czar Boris rose almost as one to save the Jewish community. While German-allied Bulgaria did not deport its Jews, it did institute the usual anti-Jewish laws restricting all normal activity.
“But much worse was that it also deported about 11,000 Jews from annexed territories in Macedonia and Thrace. They mostly perished at the Treblinka death camp.
“However the historians see it, I insist that we Jews in Bulgaria ‘proper’ were – well, bartered - for those in the other territories. Far worse for me was that I never found out what happened to my dear boyhood friend, Manny who had been in Thrace looking for work just before the war broke out. I’m left to guess that he was swept up with the mass of non-Bulgarian Jews who were captured and then deported. I try not to think about it and then, during a restless night –"
Eli’s reverie was cut short as Anelie glimpsed their boys strolling towards them.
“Hi, you two! You must have been busy. No time even to send us a picture or call us on Skype?”
“Sorry, Mum. Don’t be too annoyed. We have been busy – you won’t guess how …” said Izzi.
“We only spent a couple of days at Burgas. Y’know I’m not much good at grilling myself in the sun so we hired a car and …”
“Yeah,” added Natan, helping his brother to stash their bags into the boot, “as you’ve told us so much about Sofia, Dad, we decided to visit the city and surprise you with some great pictures.”
“But we got the shock – huge!” said Izzi.
“But the guy – about your age, Dad – and a little like you and me in shape - kept looking at us very hard. Then he gazed at me even more closely,” said Natan.
“’My Hebrew is not good,’ he said. ‘But I want to say that my name is Manny Ishakh and with your build - silky hair - high forehead - square jaw - you’re a perfect replica of my closest boyhood friend – my dear Eli Lobel and …’”
“You’ve got his picture?”
“’Don’t be silly, Dad! We’ve also got addresses - phone numbers – everything …
“But there’s more. Manny got really emotional. We became quite embarrassed. He kept pumping my hand, stroked my arm – then realising my discomfort - backed off, apologised and invited us to his home. So using our touring schedule as an excuse, we said ‘no’, but of course promised to make sure you’d contact him.”
“We guess he’s very lonely,” added Izzi. He told us he’d never married and we suspect he doesn’t have much money.”
Eli and Anelie exchanged looks.
“Maybe I’ll call him when we get home,” said Eli slowly. “But it’s going to be a painful business.”
“Tell you what,” cut in Izzi. “I didn’t eat on the flight and I’m starving! As we’ve got some spending money left, maybe we could talk about this at the nearest Burgus Burger Bar?”
“How sweet!,” said his mother. “It’ll make up for not hearing from you for ten days.”
(Copyright, Natalie Irene Wood – 10 August 2012)