Remarks by ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman to the National and World Economy University

  • November 20, 2014

I am honored to be in Sofia today, together with the Anti-Defamation League’s top leadership, at the invitation of President Plevneliev, who was our guest in Washington last year, as a headline speaker at our major event to celebrate ADL’s 100th anniversary.   

ADL plays an active role in international affairs and we meet with many presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers.  We could have invited the German Chancellor, the French President, or the British Prime Minister to speak at our 100th anniversary, and they very likely would have accepted.

But we chose your president.  We invited President Plevneliev, because Bulgaria means so much to us.  The people of Bulgaria performed the greatest action, at the worst moment, for the Jewish people.  Your people saved my people – fifty thousand of them – during the Holocaust.

That action also embodied the theme of our centennial celebration: “Imagine a world without hate.”  During my introduction of President Plevneliev, I said:

“Bulgaria represents the idea, to the highest degree, that nations can rise against evil, even when chaos is reigning around them.  What Bulgaria did to protect its Jews in the face of the vast moral breakdown during the Nazi onslaught is, in my view, what the work of ADL is all about.”

The president then gave a beautiful and moving speech, of which you should be proud.  And we were proud to highlight Bulgaria and the heroic actions of its people, your families, at a major event in Washington attended by Vice President Biden, high ranking U.S. State Department officials, dozens of ambassadors, more than one thousand guests and the international media.

ADL has tried for many years to spread the story of Bulgaria’s rescue of its Jewish community.  In 1998, at another public event, we presented President Stoyanov, on behalf of the people of Bulgaria, with an ADL prize, called the Courage to Care award.  We give this award to those who saved Jews during the Holocaust at great risk to themselves and their families.

I am here today because of the courage of one such person. You see, I stand here today, not only as Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, but also as Henryk Stanislaw Kurpi, a child whose life was saved from the burning flames of the Holocaust by a courageous Catholic woman in the city of Vilnius, Lithuania. 

When the Nazis invaded my small hometown in Baronowicz, what was then the Soviet Union and is now Belarus, my parents arranged for my Polish Catholic nanny to take me into her home and protect me.  Bronsilawa Kurpi, my nanny, raised me from the age of one until I was six as a Catholic: I was baptized, renamed, and I truly believed that I was of Catholic descent.

The Holocaust was the most bloody, horrific chapter of this century, and, perhaps, of all time.  But I survived it because somebody simply said “No, I will not stand by silently, I will not be a part of the evil.”

There were others – not enough – but still others who cried “no” as well. 

And who knows, if only there had been more individuals and communities throughout Europe – more Bulgarias – who said “no,” who knows how many other Jews like me may have survived.

Allow me to briefly recount the scene.  On March 10, 1943, the Jews of this country, of Bulgaria, were rounded up for deportation to the east.  All across the country, Jews gathered as had thousands of Jews from other countries, in school yards and other sites, to board the box cars that would transport them to their deaths.  But on that day, a miracle occurred.  On that day, the Jews of Bulgaria did not crowd into the cars bound for the Auschwitz or Treblinka death camps.

On that day, March 10, 1943, the Bulgarian guards defied their Nazi overlords and told the Jews to go home.

In the late summer of that year, the Bulgarian people again refused to comply with the Nazis’ murderous demands. 

When Adolf Eichmann dispatched his deputy to Bulgaria’s capital to oversee the deportation of 24,000 Jews, Bulgarian citizens drove truckloads of Jews to the countryside, where they once again escaped the deadly grasp of the Nazis. 

The frustrated Nazi officials hoped that food shortage and other hardships placed on the peasants in the countryside by the sudden influx of these Jews would prompt a surge of anti-Semitism, and subsequent expulsion.  But the Bulgarian people defied their expectations and embraced their Jewish neighbors with sympathy and compassion.

One hundred percent of Bulgaria’s Jews survived the Holocaust.  One hundred percent.  That is approximately 50,000 human beings.  Consider, for a moment, the bloodshed, the betrayal that was taking place just outside the Bulgarian borders and throughout the region.  Can you appreciate the uniqueness of the actions taken by the Bulgarian people? 

Please, try to fathom the strength of character, the bravery exhibited by you, the nation of Bulgaria.  You, amidst an avalanche of evil that succeeded in drowning nearly every neighboring country, had the courage to stand up and say no.

The Talmud, the great book of Jewish teaching and law, teaches us that if one saves the life of a single human being, it is as if he has saved the entire universe.  What would the Talmud say about saving an entire Jewish community? 

How many are alive today?  My heart leaps when I consider the tens and tens of thousands of children and grandchildren of those 50,000 who can testify that they are doctors, lawyers, scholars, and parents for one reason and one reason only: in the midst of hell there was courage, there was heroism, there was goodness.

To you, the people of Bulgaria, I say: this is your legacy forevermore. Your example will always be a light unto the other nations, a bright spot in this horrific era of utter darkness.  It is essential that you take pride in this legacy, for it now defines you and embraces you.

No Bulgarian child should pass through the school system without learning about it, without being told of this most amazing chapter in Bulgaria’s history and without being made to feel proud of it.  A wonderful book was published 15 years ago in English, called “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp: the heroic rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews.”

I am proud to say that ADL underwrote its translation into Bulgarian and distribution in Bulgaria’s schools so that the story will, in fact, be widely studied.

At the same time, we must also always remember that Bulgarian authorities repressed, expropriated, and then deported 13,000 Jews under their control in occupied territories in Greece and Yugoslavia.  They were sent to their death in Nazi camps.  It was after that deportation that the Bulgarian people rose up to protect their own Jewish neighbors.

I mentioned at the beginning that Bulgaria’s popular uprising against the deportations is what the work of ADL is all about.  So let me be more specific about what we do.

The Anti-Defamation League is one of the world’s premier civil rights and human relations agencies, fighting anti-Semitism, prejudice, and bigotry while simultaneously defending democratic ideals and safeguarding civil rights for all. 

ADL, through our 28 offices around the United States and in Jerusalem, develops materials, programs, and services that build bridges of communication, understanding, and respect among diverse racial, religious, and ethnic groups.

Sadly, even after 100 years of such work, challenges remain.  In the United States and, indeed, all over the world, anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry abound.  There are a frightening number of haters in our midst – neo-Nazis, skinheads, Holocaust deniers, racist politicians – who try relentlessly to spread their dangerous message of hate and who are now doing it through the Internet. 

Prominent racists-turned politicians are making their debuts in the public arena, spouting hatred and disseminating virulent stereotypes directed at minorities of all types.

Unfortunately, they are finding fertile ground.  Earlier this year, ADL released the results of the first-ever global survey of anti-Semitic attitudes.  The ADL Global 100 poll surveyed over 53,000 adults in 102 countries and territories in an effort to establish, for the first time, a comprehensive data-based research survey of the level and intensity of anti-Jewish sentiment across the world.

The survey found that anti-Semitic attitudes are persistent and pervasive around the world. More than one-in-four adults – 26 percent of those surveyed – are deeply infected with anti-Semitic attitudes.  This figure represents just over 1 billion people around the world.

The overall ADL Global 100 Index score represents the percentage of respondents who answered “probably true” to six or more of 11 negative stereotypes about Jews. An 11-question index has been used by ADL as a key metric in measuring anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States for the last 50 years.

I’m sure you’re curious how Bulgaria scored.  Unfortunately, not so well.  Bulgaria’s index score was 44%, higher than the Eastern European average of 34%, higher than the EU average of 25%, and much higher than the U.S. score of 9%.

The most believed stereotype is “Jews have too much power in the business world.” Two out of every three Bulgarian adults agreed with that.

Half of your country thinks Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Bulgaria, and that Jews have too much control over global affairs.

A third thinks “Jews have too much control over the United States government.”

And one in five Bulgarian adults thinks “Jews are responsible for most of the world's wars.”

Given Bulgaria’s heroic rescue of its Jewish community, the poll results about knowledge of the Holocaust were also disappointing.  28% of Bulgarian adults have never heard of the Holocaust.  Of those who have heard of the Holocaust, one in four think the number of Jews who died in it has been greatly exaggerated by history.

We – all of us – have much work to do.

You’ve heard a lot of statistics, but let me tell you a story about stereotypes and hurtful words.

One day, a teacher overheard one of his students telling an embarrassing story about another boy in the class who happened to be particularly funny-looking.  Disappointed in his student, having thought better of him than to poke fun at a lonely, unpopular child, the teacher confronted him.  As soon as the student heard his teacher’s harsh rebuke, he immediately felt sorry and ashamed. 

“What can I do?” He desperately asked the teacher. 

The teacher responded: “go to the top of the highest nearby mountain, find a dandy-lion weed with lots of seeds, and blow it in the wind.” 

The advice seemed strange, but the student felt so ashamed at his behavior that he was prepared to do just about anything to ameliorate the situation. 

So he shrugged his shoulders and did as he was told.  The next day, the student approached his teacher.  He said, “I did what you said.  I went to the top of the highest mountain and blew the seeds into the wind.” 

“And did they disperse?” asked the teacher. 

“Oh yes,” said the student.  “The seeds flew everywhere.  A huge gust of wind came just as I was blowing, and it carried them away.”  The student was very proud. 

At that point, the teacher said, “Okay.  Now go collect the weeds.”

“What?”  Said the student, startled.  “But that’s impossible!  I told you, the wind carried them off.  They went in every which direction.  I can’t go get them.”

“Aha,” said the teacher.  “Nor can you undo the damage you have done to your classmate.  The words are out there now and all you can do is hope for his forgiveness.”

Alas, the words of hate are out there, the stereotypes, the misconceptions are out there.  None of us are pleased with this fact, but it is a reality and we must confront it as best we can. We at the ADL do our utmost to prevent the inception of hate, to stop the seeds before they settle across the landscape.  Or, at the very least, we work everyday to minimize the damage hate can cause.

Our dedicated leaders and skilled professional staff monitor extremist groups and bigoted politicians, expose their hateful agendas, and stop them from attaining further prominence or popularity. 

A great deal of our time is also spent educating adults and youths, both in the U.S.  and abroad, about hatred, its proponents, and its consequences. 

A particularly dangerous problem, and one that seems to be fostering strength both in America and abroad, is that of Holocaust denial and revisionism.  The ADL fights these revisionists every step of the way, forbidding them to erase what may be the most significant history lesson of all.

ADL also focuses much of its attention on conducting dialogue and establishing harmonious relations between Jews and other religious groups, especially those who have a long history of preaching anti-Semitic rhetoric. 

The ADL is a strong and consistent voice on behalf of tolerance and diversity.  It is internationally recognized as a champion of justice and tolerance.

As citizens of a country that is universally admired for its tolerance, you can certainly appreciate the importance of our mission.  

But there is another key ADL mission that I know Bulgaria can also understand, given its experience in World War Two as one of the few nations to protect its Jewish population.  And that mission, my friends, is the ADL’s strong support for the state of Israel.  Israel, as you know, arose from the ashes of the Holocaust. 

Its existence now assures Jews everywhere that should, heaven forbid, a catastrophe akin to the Holocaust ever befall the Jewish people again, there will always be a guaranteed refuge.  The Bulgarian Jews of World War Two found that life-saving refuge amidst their non-Jewish Bulgarian brethren.  And now, today and tomorrow’s Jews will always have Israel. 

The ADL therefore supports the Jewish state proudly and happily.  We strongly urge the government of Bulgaria, who has likewise shown support for Israel, to continue along this most noble path.

In a similar vein, I encourage you to hold fast to the democratic values Bulgaria adopted after the Communist era, to nurture and strengthen them. 

Your mission is a noble one, an admirable one, and ultimately a beneficial one for the people of Bulgaria.  The ideals embedded in democracy, tolerance for each and every human being – regardless of race, religion, or gender and difference of all kinds – respect for the law, freedom to explore and to change – these ideals will lead you to greatness. 

But only if you commit to them wholeheartedly, only if you appreciate them as you would a lost child who has, after years of searching, finally been found. 

I urge you to undertake a comprehensive and sustained campaign to implement democracy and its ideals into every facet of Bulgarian life.  This campaign must be fought through legislation, law enforcement, education, and popular culture.  You must focus your efforts, in part, on the young, by introducing diversity training and race and religion-sensitive curriculums into the classrooms. 

Bulgaria has laws against hate crime and hate speech, but it must enforce them for all citizens, including elected officials.  Moreover, if a violation of such a law should occur, Bulgaria’s leadership must be prepared to take a public and proactive stance against it.

We welcome the steps Bulgaria has taken to begin training law enforcement officials through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on how to recognize hate crimes and to help sensitize law enforcement in dealing with victims of hate crimes.

Democracy must penetrate the very infrastructure of Bulgarian society.  It’s the only way.  Values of tolerance and understanding, diversity and respect should be taught and practiced at the highest levels of government all the way down to the grade school classrooms. 

Every Bulgarian man, woman, and child must learn of his or her country’s extraordinary bravery during the Holocaust, as well the failure of most other countries to exhibit that same behavior.  The consequences of remaining silent, of hating one’s neighbor, must be made clear to all.

And I truly believe that by implementing democratic principles at all levels, Bulgaria, as an economy, as a country, will reach great heights. 

Tolerance works.  Understanding, diversity, they work.  Not only do they prevent calamities, but they induce economic, political, and social success.  I believe this – no, I know this – with all my heart.   It takes courage, yes.  But that is your legacy, Bulgaria.  I know you will honor it by doing what is right.

"Every Bulgarian man, woman, and child must learn of his or her country’s extraordinary bravery during the Holocaust, as well the failure of most other countries to exhibit that same behavior.  The consequences of remaining silent, of hating one’s neighbor, must be made clear to all." Share via Twitter Share via Facebook

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