When Bulgaria allied itself with Nazi Germany in 1941, its Jews were not deported en masse like in other countries but they suffered persecution and horrors nonetheless. At age 14, Berta Nisim Levi-Vladimirova was forced to work on vegetable plantations, at a can factory, and at a brick factory in Vidin, Bulgaria. Often, Berta and other Jewish workers were left to sleep in wet and cold fields without any water or food.
Now an 83-year-old widow, Berta lives in the capital city of Sofia on the fifth floor of an apartment building with no elevator, where she takes care of her 57-year-old disabled son. Berta has herself suffered a heart attack and stroke, and lives with cancer. She also lives with the knowledge that if something were to happen to her, her son would be left alone.
When Berta learned in June that she would receive help with shopping and cleaning through Claims Conference-funded homecare, tears welled up in her eyes as she struggled to believe that somebody would be thinking about her needs on a daily basis. Until recently, Berta didn’t even consider homecare an option because, like many in Bulgaria’s poor Jewish communities, she thought of it as a luxury for the wealthy that she couldn’t possibly afford. To help Berta and Bulgaria’s other estimated 900 elderly Nazi victims, the Claims Conference is working to change this perception.
Until recently, homecare for elderly survivors has not been a primary focus of the Bulgarian Jewish community. Because Jews were not deported en masse after Bulgaria allied itself with Germany, many of the country’s estimated 900 Nazi victims alive today have their families intact. And not realizing that help is available, Bulgarian Jews go to great lengths to take care of their families. Of the 160-some members of the Jewish community in the small city of Varna, for example, 20 are Nazi victims and of those 20, only two receive homecare services.
Shalom, the representative and operational body of the 19 local Jewish community branches in Bulgaria, uses Claims Conference funding to pay for medical care for Nazi victims and to run senior day centers. These centers provide daily hot meals to attendees, often the only hot meals many Nazi victims receive.
Through the increase in funds it negotiated with the German government for homecare programs around the world, the Claims Conference is significantly increasing its allocation to Shalom to help build up homecare programsand to get Bulgaria’s poor Nazi victims the services they need. But as the Claims Conference and Shalom work to create the necessary infrastructure, the mindset of the very people who need care has to change as well.
Those who have accepted homecare, like sisters Matilda Nisim Perets-Versano and Margarita Nisim Perets of Sofia, are extremely grateful for the services. "Homecare helps tremendously because we don’t do anything by ourselves," said Margarita.
Living in Vidin during the war, their family and the town’s Jews were confined to their homes, allowed to leave for only two hours a day to buy food. Matilda recalled that she would cover up the yellow star sewn into her clothes and sneak out to visit a baker in town who secretly gave her bread.
The sisters began receiving homecare last year, and they are very thankful for the help they get from their provider, Katya."We are lost without Katya," Matilda said. "I am speechless out of gratitude."
Many more Jewish Nazi victims like Matilda, Margarita, and Berta are in desperate need of homecare. The challenges in providing homecare for Bulgaria’s elderly Nazi victims are great, but the Claims Conference is working with its local partners to ensure that all survivors who need homecare receive it, as well as to change attitudes, build programs, and ensure that no Nazi victim is abandoned.