Two Jewish sisters pose in traditional Bulgarian dress.
Photograph | Photograph Number: 01218
- Photo Designation
LIFE BEFORE THE HOLOCAUST -- Bulgaria
- Photo Credit
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Norbert Yasharoff
Two Jewish sisters pose in traditional Bulgarian dress.
Pictured are Lisa and Berta Yasharoff, the sisters of Joseph Yasharoff.
- Norbert Yasharoff is the son of Joseph and Nelly Yasharoff. He was born February 18, 1930 in Sofia, Bulgaria, where his father was a prominent lawyer. Norbert had one sister, Odette (b. 1936). The Yasharoffs led a comfortable, upper middle-class existence that included evenings at the theatre and summers in the countryside. They owned a large, three-floor apartment house in downtown Sofia. The family occupied the middle floor of the building, which they shared with Norbert's paternal grandparents, Nissim and Oro Yasharoff. The Yasharoffs were vacationing at a spa in Solu-Dervent when news came of the German invasion of Poland. In September 1939 Norbert was the only Jew in his third grade class, where he was treated with the same religious toleration enjoyed by all Bulgarian Jews since the country's independence from Ottoman rule in 1878. However, the situation quickly deteriorated. In the late fall, a vicious anti-Jewish campaign was unleashed in the Bulgarian press. Articles, which accused Jews of conspiring to undermine the economies of many nations, were accompanied by grotesque caricatures. Soon after being exposed to antisemitic propaganda for the first time, Norbert endured his first personal encounter with anti-Jewish animus when his long-time Bulgarian friend and neighbor suddenly began calling him "dirty Jew" and other epithets. In the fall of 1940 the Yasharoffs were forced to swap their second-floor apartment for the less comfortable first floor flat they had leased to a mixed Bulgarian-German couple. The German wife, Herta Balsamov, was an unabashed antisemite who had long coveted the Yasharoff's flat and took advantage of her husband's fascist credentials to get City Hall to evict their landlord. Soon after their move they attended the Balsamov's house warming celebration which included a ritual cleansing of the home from the "foul Jewish spirit that had resided in it before." Less than a year later, in accordance with a provision of the anti-Jewish "Law for the Protection of the Nation" (enacted in January 1941), the Yasharoffs were forced to relocate to a residence near Youch Bounar, Sofia's Jewish quarter. There they shared an apartment with the family of Sandro Arie, a cousin of Joseph Yasharoff. Unlike most Jews, Joseph Yasharoff was granted the privilege of retaining his law practice after the implementation of the anti-Jewish decrees of 1941. In mid-1942 he was called upon to defend a former client, a Jewish industrialist who had been arrested on trumped up charges of economic exploitation. Though Joseph poured every ounce of his skill and energy into preparing his defense, conviction and a death sentence were the foregone conclusion. The trauma of losing his client and friend was compounded by his required presence at the hanging. Norbert continued to go to school but had to wear a Jewish badge and suffer endless humiliations, such as having to give the Nazi salute as he greeted his teachers in successive classes each day. His classmates generally treated him as an inferior. At the close of the school year in 1942 Norbert received his middle school diploma but was not allowed to attend the graduation ceremony. In the wake of the wave of arrests of Jewish community leaders and prominent Jewish citizens that took place at the beginning of 1943, the Yasharoff family became extremely nervous that Joseph would be taken away. Norbert devised an elaborate warning system and escape plan for his father that thankfully he never had to implement. In early March 1943 Norbert accompanied his father and a group of Jewish leaders and doctors to the main railroad station in Sofia, where he witnessed, to his shock and horror, a transport of Jewish deportees from Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and Thrace making a brief stop on its way to Treblinka. The Jews, who were locked like cattle in boxcars, were begging for food and water through the slats of the doors. Norbert's father and colleagues had brought food, water and blankets for the deportees, but were prevented from delivering the supplies by Bulgarian guards who forced them to disperse. A few days later Jews living in a number of the provincial towns of historic Bulgaria were also threatened with deportation to Poland. Fortunately, this decree was rescinded at the last moment due the efforts of National Assembly vice-president Dimitar Peshev and members of the Holy Synod. However, in order to appease the Germans for failing to carry out the deportation action, the Bulgarian government agreed to order the expulsion of the Jews of Sofia to towns near the Danube River from which they could be easily transported to Poland. The expulsion order came in the form of individual pink notices that started arriving in the homes of Sofia Jews on May 24, 1943. With the help of Metropolitan Stefan of the Orthodox Church, the second phase of the expulsion plan, namely, the transfer of Sofia Jews to Poland, was dropped, but he could not avert their expulsion to the provinces. With the help of influential friends, Norbert's father was able to arrange for the extended family to go to Pleven, where they had close relatives and a place to stay. Their experience in exile was far less unpleasant than for most Jews because Joseph had left money with his Bulgarian law partner in Sofia and arranged for him to deliver the required sums at regular intervals. While living in Pleven Joseph served on the local Jewish consistory, which established a center at the local Jewish school and provided material support and cultural activities for the impoverished exiles. Norbert was permitted to attend a local high school, but was often subject to physical attack and harassment by members of the fascist youth movement. As the tide of the war turned, enforcement of the anti-Jewish laws was gradually relaxed until the laws were officially abrogated in the summer of 1944. By October, one month after the arrival of Soviet troops and the establishment of the new anti-fascist government, the Yasharoffs were resettled in their former home in Sofia. Joseph Yasharoff immediately resumed his law practice, setting up an office in his home. He concentrated his efforts on helping fellow Jews regain their confiscated property. However, he was soon called away from these cases to defend Dimitar Peshev, the former National Assembly vice-president who had saved the Jews from deportation. Like most other members of the wartime government, Peshev was arrested in November 1944 by the new communist-dominated regime and brought to trial before the special People's Court. Yasharoff's strong defense (Norbert worked as his father's research assistant.) persuaded the court to spare Peshev's life and limit his sentence to 15 years. (He was released after 18 months.) Communist rule soon broke the Yasharoff family's emotional bond to Bulgaria. It was replaced by a growing attachment to the ideals of Zionism. Norbert in particular became an active member of the General Zionists. After graduating from high school in 1947 Norbert spent several months in a "volunteer [communist] labor brigade," a virtual requirement for gaining entry to the university. He was then accepted to the physics program at the University of Sofia. His studies took a back seat to his activity in the Zionist movement. Six months after the declaration of the Jewish State Norbert left for Israel with a group of young Jewish recruits for the Israel Defense Forces. He sailed from the port of Bar in Montenegro aboard the SS Pan Crescent. The rest of his family joined him in February 1949. After serving in the Israeli Air Force, Norbert received degrees in journalism and diplomacy from the Hebrew University and joined the local staff of the American embassy in Tel Aviv. In 1968 he moved with his family to the United States, where he joined the editorial board of the Yearbook on International Communist Affairs at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His subsequent career included posts at the San Francisco Examiner, the Voice of America and finally with the US Foreign Service.
[Sources: Yasharoff, Norbert, "Reaching the Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Memoir of Persecution and Survival," (unpublished ms.), n.d, in USHMM Archives. Norbert Yasharoff Papers; Yasharoff, Norbert, USHMM oral testimony (transcript), November 22, 1989.]
- Photo Source
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumProvenance: Norbert YasharoffSource Record ID: Collections: 1990.151.1Second Record ID: Collections: RG-10.235
Record last modified: 2003-04-11 00:00:00
This page: https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/pa1144330