NEW Israeli ambassador Emanuel Zisman spent his early childhood in Bulgaria.
"I don't remember it so clearly," he told The Echo. "We knew that we were going to be delivered abroad and there were some rumours but nobody knew what would happen. We knew that we were to be put with other Jews outside of Bulgaria and that there was a big danger but what the danger was we didn't know.
"Bulgaria was an integral part of the Nazi alliance - but Bulgaria and only Bulgaria saved its Jews. All the 50,000 Jews who lived in Bulgaria during the Second World War were saved by the Bulgarian people.
"On March 10, 1943, the Jews of Plovdiv, more than 1,000, including my mother, my sister and myself, were taken from our homes and concentrated in the Jewish quarter, near to the school. But during the day the public pressure was so strong that the tsar of Bulgaria, Boris III, decided to cancel the deportation. It was a long day but a very, very happy night.
"This is the main reason why we have a very special, not regular diplomatic relations with Bulgaria, a very deep relationship - because we are very indebted to Bulgaria for this act."
In 1949, Mr Zisman's family emigrated to the newly established state, to Jerusalem.
Bulgaria was the only communist country in the Soviet bloc which gave Jews permission to emigrate to Israel at that time.
"Approximately 40,000 people went to Israel and some of us, at the beginning, took part in the war for independence. The Zionist movement was very strong in Bulgaria, and we did not want to be in a communist regime. It was very hard because the economic and social situation in Israel was very very bad. We lived for a long time 12 families in one barrack with one toilet outside. Twelve families from different countries, without a common language. But everybody suffered with a smile because we were in our motherland!"
Mr Zisman came to Bulgaria - his first ambassadorial posting - in October. He stood down in May 1999 after a long career as a politician both on the Jerusalem city council and in the Knesset (parliament). He was also for a time chairman of the Jerusalem region Labour Party.
He said: "I still support Ehud Barak, who is still prime minister until next week (beaten by Likud hardliner Ariel Sharon in elections last Tuesday). I don't know what he will become. Maybe defence minister.
"Barak was ready to do a new and extreme compromise but Arafat didn't move even one inch and it's not possible to achieve a lasting and realistic peace with the Palestinians without mutual compromise and mutual retreats. But a new government - maybe this will change Arafat's position because it's a very extreme, uncompromising position. There are now negotiations for the platform of the government but it must be a practical, realistic platform otherwise it can't be a suitable government. They will look for interim agreements, new agreements and after some interim agreements, if the two sides can realise the interim agreements, and believe in each other, maybe that time will be right for a final agreement.
"Sometimes I think about going back into politics but my desire was to finish in politics and to be an ambassador. I accepted the proposal to be in Bulgaria because I was born here and I have very, very deep and warm sentiments to the Bulgarian people and I'm very satisfied; I feel a warm sympathy not only in the ministries and the Parliament but the people of Bulgaria. Sometimes I think I'm the sky, so great is it! I don't mean personally but as the Israeli ambassador."
Mr Zisman was also chairman of the Knesset's Israel-Bulgaria Parliamentary Friendship League and as such had much to do with the development of the Bulgarian Forest, part of a Jewish National Fund project to bring colour to Israel's arid lands. A group of American Jews originally proposed that this forest be called the Forest of Boris, after the tsar, a proposal which Mr Zisman did not support. It was eventually named the Bulgarian Forest and it contained four monuments - including one to the tsar. Then Michael Bar-Zohar's book - Beyond Hitler's Grasp - was published and old controversies about Boris III's actions and motives were stirred. Jewish groups in Aegean Thrace and Vardar Macedonia - areas from which the monarch failed to save 11,343 Jews - began to protest. A new monument is being built to replace the one to the tsar - honouring the Bulgarian people as a whole. Mr Zisman said: "We are very, very grateful to the Bulgarian people and the Bulgarian church and the leader of the parliamentary group who fought against the tsar. But this tsar, who agreed to co-operate with the Germans and to the deportation of the Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, the same tsar who decided to send me to the concentration camps, this is the same tsar who changed his mind. I couldn't say that the tsar is only responsible for the killing or only responsible for the salvation."
Mr Zisman said his primary mission is to increase the economic, commercial and touristic relations between the two countries. The news on Monday night that the Israeli owners of Bulgaria's flag carrier Balkan Airlines, the Zeevi Group, are suing the state for $230 million over the failure of the privatisation deal appeared like `a dark cloud in a clear sky' to him. He said: "Bulgaria is now a democracy and the Balkan Airlines deal is between a private company and the Bulgarian government. There's no connection with the Israeli government and the embassy. I hope this crisis will be very short however, and my goal is to do what I can do for a good solution.
"But we have, for instance, the new owners of Mobiltel (Bulgaria's first GSM mobile phone operator) who will be here by the end of the month. Our common goal is not only to continue to develop and invest in Mobiltel; they are very rich people and they promise me that they are going to invest in other economic spheres here."
Mr Zisman's wife, Sara, is also Bulgarian. They have three grown-up children.
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