Bulgarian firefighters 311.
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Bulgaria’s 92-strong fire-fighting delegation was the first foreign team to put
boots on the ground in the fight against the Carmel wildfire, a fact that
reflects the importance of the country’s ties to Israel, according to a former
Bulgarian ambassador to Israel who is now his country’s deputy foreign
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“We didn’t bring the planes and helicopters that other
countries sent, but we did send 92 people, all of them professionals with a
great deal of experience in dealing with fires like this. Bulgaria is five times
the size of Israel and is full of forests and mountains,” Dimiter Tzantchev said
over the weekend.
Tzantchev also related two stories from Bulgaria’s
Jewish history that he said illustrated the country’s “special relationship”
with the Jewish people.
He first spoke of the Holocaust and the efforts
made by the Bulgarian people and local Orthodox Church to save the country’s
48,000 Jews. Bulgaria was the only country under Nazi occupation that did not
deport a single Jew to the death camps, and after the founding of the State of
Israel in 1948, nearly the entire community immigrated en masse to
“Since I’ve been up here, I’ve been approached by a number of
older Israelis who were born in Bulgaria and immigrated to Israel after the
state was founded. They told me that when they saw Bulgaria was the first
country to send people, they said, ‘You cannot imagine how proud we were.’”
Looking back further into history, Tzantchev spoke of then-chief rabbi of Sofia
Gabriel Almosnino, who offered the help of the Jewish community when the Turks
threatened to torch Sofia during the country’s revolt against its Turkish
occupiers in 1878.
Tzantchev related how, as rioting and arson spread
through Sofia in 1878, the Jewish community formed a militia and a team of
firefighters that helped save the city from being set aflame by the retreating
After independence, the Jewish fire team stayed on, becoming part
of the city’s first-ever fire department.
The former Bulgarian ambassador
to Israel said such aspects of his country’s history help illustrate why “when
[Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu called our prime minister, there was no
hesitation on his part.”
He added that the deployment was open-ended, and
would continue “as long as the Israelis need us.”
Tzantchev said ties
with Israel were important for a number of reasons, one of them being that the
country is Bulgaria’s biggest trade and economic partner in the Middle East and
shares security concerns.
Regardless of the realpolitik involved in the
Bulgarian decision to send aid to Israel, Tzantchev said that at the end of the
day, “this isn’t a political mission, it’s a humanitarian one. There is a
country in need, and we are here to help them.”