Priceless Lessons by Maxim Behar: A Story with the Nobel Peace Prize Winner Shimon Peres
Maxim Behar tells the story of his meeting with Shimon Peres, one of the most influential figures of modern times who has held the most important political roles in Israel as President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. This is a man who not only loved the Bulgarian people, but also praised them for the good example they set in some of the worst times for Bulgarian Jews. This is a story with valuable lessons and messages that Behar shares in his author series "Priceless Lessons" for BGLOBAL magazine.
"Come on, you..." - Shimon Peres, the man who constantly showed optimism...
The Israeli who uttered this phrase from the podium of the Sofia Synagogue loved Bulgaria, and not only because of the date March 10, 1943...
The top floor, of what was then the Japanese hotel in Sofia, long before it became a fancy restaurant, was a big meeting hall, and it felt rather strange to have only twenty people in that huge and almost empty hall.
Solomon Passy, who was then, as well as of now, the President of the iconic Atlantic Club of Bulgaria, paced with his hands clasped behind his back and only stoked our impatience.
It was worth it, though.
Shimon Peres was not only then Israel's foreign minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate,
but also a legendary figure,
one of those who managed to "put together" the puzzle so skillfully that the world trembled in the hope that this would be forever. He walked in cheerfully, shook hands with each one individually, asked at length who was what, and said "Thank you, thank you..." to each person.
At first, we took it as a show of politeness, but when plates of croissants and toast "landed" near us, Perez didn't touch any of them, but just stood up straight and once again said loud and clear in pure Bulgarian "Thank you!", and continued in English:
- Bulgaria is the country that saved our brothers and sisters and did not send them to the death camps in 1943, to be precise - on March 10… Trains left here empty, and we will never forget this historic moment, but just on the contrary - we will remind the whole world of it constantly. And that is what you Bulgarians did together and that is how you went down in history forever...
Political speeches at business breakfasts are all too rare, but even this element in Perez's brief emotional speech could not be considered political.
The truth about the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews
in the tumultuous days of World War II, this whole unique assemblage of parliament, king, church, professional organizations, and public opinion, despite the tumultuous debates over the years about who ultimately prevailed for this courageous decision, is indeed something historic. Sadly, and I hear this all too often traveling the world, the truth is still too little known, too little told and studied. And if we leave the arguing to the historians, we ultimately have to look at what ultimately happened.
Over the years there have been repeated encounters with Shimon Peres,
undoubtedly the most prominent modern politician
of a very young country which, since its inception, has been practically at war, sometimes with its neighbors and all too often within itself.
We met in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, at conferences in Washington and New York when in 2011 I participated in a Solidarity Mission to Israel with David Harris and other prominent politicians from the American Jewish Committee…
And whenever I shook hands with Peres again and again and reminded him of who I was and where I was from, he invariably held my hand longer and said, in a pronunciation quite good for an Israeli, "Thank you!"
I expected the same to happen during
his last visit to Bulgaria, now as president,
when he entered the long-awaited meeting in the Sofia Synagogue, looked at the front row where we were lined up together with Solomon Passy, the representative of the Jewish organization Shalom Robert Jerassi, the economist Emil Kahlo, and other friends, raised his hand in greeting and to the great surprise of the packed hall suddenly said:
- Come on, you! Thank you! (in Bulgarian)
Of course, we burst into laughter mixed with surprise, and then Perez, with his wide good-natured smile, explained:
- When I was young, we used to go every week to watch the Maccabi games from Yafo, a district of Tel Aviv populated mainly by Bulgarians. In fact, Bulgarians brought football to Israel and Maccabi, and that was the strongest team in the country - we all admired it. And because the crowd in the stadium was mostly Bulgarian, and the team was mainly your countrymen, we mostly heard them encouraging the players with this very phrase "Come on, you...". We didn't know what it meant, we just assumed it was something good, something motivating, and we shout it together with our Bulgarian friends very loudly...
The hall in the beautiful Sofia Synagogue fell silent, even a paper noise would be heard when Perez added:
- And I'll tell you again: thank you, Bulgaria, to your people. You have set an example to the world, this example we all remember, and it is your sacred duty to tell it to everyone, in every corner it should be known.”
Years have passed since then, but many years have also passed since 1943.
Wonderful artists like my friend from California - Ed Gaffney, who made a documentary about that dramatic year 1943, like Emil Kahlo, who wrote an interesting screenplay, and the colorful George Ganchev did the same, both no longer among the living, tried to tell this incredible story artistically.
But still, not only all of us in Bulgaria, but also the world is waiting for someone to make a feature film about the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews, but such a film that will win its Oscar, if not in Hollywood, at least by the audience, to become a bestseller and that is why you have my "Come on, you!", so let's hope it will happen.
I'm sure that Shimon Peres would be very happy too.