Note by Veni: Recently I took an interview by a very interesting person. Ellis Shuman was born in the USA, and is an Israely-based author, who publishes regularly in the UK edition of the Huffington Post, naturally my interview starts with that question –
Israeli writer publishes a story about Bulgaria in the UK edition of a US online media – is this what you’d call “globalization”?
The way we view the world these days has changed and there is no doubt in my mind that the Internet has played a major role in opening borders between the citizens of different countries, except where online use is limited by totalitarian states. As a writer, I can easily write and submit stories and articles from the comfort of my home, no matter where in the world my home may be. There is no doubt in my mind that we are today witnessing an expedited process of globalization, enabling the exchange of views, culture, products and innovations on a scale never previously seen.
I define myself as an American-born, Israeli writer who writes about Bulgaria, and I believe I may be unique in this characterization. My wife and I lived in Sofia for two years as part of a job relocation, and we regarded this experience as an adventure. Upon my return to Israel I became determined to share Bulgaria through my writing, both to encourage western tourists to visit the country and also in my fiction, as I set the location of my suspense novel in Bulgaria. The ability for citizens from one country to experience life in another is also a sign of globalization in the world today.
You write about Bulgaria. Many people in Bulgaria don’t understand this interest. How could you explain them why every country is important, including their own?
I had the advantage of living in Bulgaria as a foreigner. Although I went to work each day, I was never involved in the politics or overly concerned by daily material matters. Elections took place while I lived in Bulgaria, twice, but I didn’t know who was running for office.
My home country of Israel is beautiful, with much history, religion, culture, and national beauty that attracts tourists and pilgrims from all over the world. But, as an Israeli citizen, I am frequently upset with my country’s politics and problems. Israel has religious strife, quite a lot of poverty, corrupt politicians, and a serious, frequently violent stalemate with the Palestinians and our Arab neighbors. Yet, despite all of this, Israel is my home, and I am proud of its achievements and successes. I do my best to forget about the politics and downside of life, and instead concentrate on everything good in my country.
My advice to Bulgarians, as well as to Israelis, is to stand back for a moment and appreciate what you have. Living in a country with vast natural beauty, rich culture and traditions, and memorable history, gives you so much to think about with a positive attitude.
Thank you for this positive approach – sometimes I wonder why there’s no more enthusiasm among the people, who constantly seem to be unhappy. Have you noticed that not a lot of people smile on the streets in the Bulgarian cities? People are kind of always worried about something. How is it in Israel?
According to recent surveys, Israelis, on the whole, are happy people. And this despite the politics, the religious strife, and the threats posed by our neighbors. I don’t say that Israeli people can be seen smiling when they walk on the streets, but on the whole, they are mostly concerned with their own individual affairs.
When I walked the streets of Sofia, which I did quite a lot while I was living there, I did notice that not a lot of people were smiling. I don’t know if this was a remnant of years under communist rule, or just the sign of a closed nature. In any case, all the Bulgarians I met were very hospitable and friendly. What’s most important is maintaining a positive approach to life and concentrating on what’s good. With these thoughts in mind, smiles will appear on the faces more of the time.
Bulgaria has deported 11343 of its Jews, and have stopped the deportation of another 48000. Do you have any explanation why there is reluctance among the general Bulgarian public to acknowledge both facts, and even the Parliament last year accepted a declaration, where the actions of the pro-fascist Filov government (of 1943) are somewhat put aside?
Living in Sofia, both as a Jew and as an Israeli, I felt quite safe. Before I arrived, I wasn’t aware that the Bulgarian Jewish community was spared the horrors of the Holocaust during World War Two. During my time in Bulgaria I began to research this subject, and as I learned of the role of the church, Bulgarian politicians and ordinary citizens to save their Jewish neighbors, I became even more proud that I had an opportunity to live in Bulgaria.
Looking back, it is easy to be amazed at this wondrous rescue, when so many countries in Europe hardly objected when the Jews were turned over to the Nazi. Yet, as I soon learned, Jewish citizens of Bulgaria were also rounded up, the men sent to labor camps, and those living in Macedonia and Thrace were actually sent to the concentration camps. I don’t have all the facts, but certainly the Bulgarian leaders at the time were pressured by their Nazi allies to take some actions, and these actions led to unfortunate results. This only serves to leave me more impressed that despite this pressure, the Bulgarian Jewish community was saved.
The rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews is one of the things I stress in my writing, because people are just not aware of this story. It is quite possible that the Bulgarian public is also not fully aware of what occurred. This is a story that must be told. I am proud to take a small role, through my writing, in relating what happened.
I wanted to make sure you understand that the official history and the real history somewhat differ, and there are people, who are not afraid to say both good and bad things that have happened at precisely the same time. Would you be willing to take on a task to write the actual story?
It would be easy to say that there is a definite history of something that happened in the past, but I think history can be very subjective. People see things in different ways, based on what influences their lives in the present day. Official histories can present the facts, as seen by official historians, but what really happened can be somewhat different. As a writer and journalist I research each topic that I feature in my writing. I endeavor to present only facts in my books and articles. It’s not always easy.
The story of Bulgarian Jews during the World War Two era continues to fascinate me. I am sure that I will return to this subject again and again in my writing. Writing the actual story is quite a daunting challenge, one that would require extensive research. I wish that I had the time and resources to take on such an undertaking, to present it accurately in the focus it certainly deserves.
Where do you live now, and what do you do?
I was born in Sioux City, Iowa, in the United States, but moved to Israel as a teenager with my family. I finished high school in Jerusalem, served for three years in the Israeli army, was a founding member of a kibbutz, and now live in a small community just outside Jerusalem. During my years on the kibbutz I worked as a farmer – driving tractors, picking vegetables, and milking cows. I was formally trained in the hospitality field and worked in hotels for many years, including a position at the Jerusalem Hilton.
For the past ten years I have worked at a marketing company serving clients in the online gaming industry. My position was relocated for two years to Sofia (2009 – 2010), which is where we have a major customer support center. Since coming back to Israel I have taken on a new position in the same Tel Aviv-based company that sent me to Bulgaria.
I continue to visit Bulgaria on a daily basis through my writing. I have written articles encouraging western tourists to visit Bulgaria, and I based my suspense novel “Valley of Thracians” in Bulgaria. I write book reviews for The Times of Israel and travel articles for The Huffington Post. I am currently finishing the editing process of my new novel, which will again be set in Bulgaria, but with a strong connection to Israel as well.
A question about the future. How do you see the future of Israel?
My parents made the move to Israel out of idealism, out of a commitment of Jews to return to their homeland. The State of Israel was created as a safe haven for Jews, but, it must be realized that there were, and there are, and there always will be others who share this very small piece of real estate. The United Nations recognized long ago that Jews and Arabs must share the territory known as Palestine; the Partition Plan divided up the land between the two communities. As hard as it is for many Jews to renounce a claim on what is seen as a Biblical heritage, this ancient land must be shared.
I believe that most Israelis are willing to accept a negotiated final status agreement with the Palestinians, allowing us to live our own lives in a Jewish State, and letting the Palestinians live their lives separately, in their own independent state. Unfortunately, there are extremists on both sides, mostly fueled by religious passion, that are preventing the realization of this peaceful future. And our leaders, both Israeli and Palestinian, are as yet unwilling to make the much needed concessions to enable the resolution of the ongoing conflict.
As a result, ordinary Israelis and Palestinians will continue to be in a constant “state of war”, unable to live calm, normal lives and become the friendly neighbors that I know we can be.
What about the future of Bulgaria?
I am certainly no expert on Bulgaria, and during the two years I lived in Sofia, I kept a safe distance from all local politics. Yet, I see that Bulgaria has a unique position in the world, as a member state of the European Union, yet as a country with strong historical, traditional and even religious connections to its neighbors to the east. Bulgaria needs to take advantage of this position, bridging east and west, and certainly can take on a strategic role in regional affairs, if it so desires.
My company established a customer support center in Sofia not only because Bulgarian salaries are low (which, unfortunately is the case), but because the Bulgarian people are very intelligent and motivated. I was always amazed at how many languages my young coworkers spoke, how eager they were to introduce me to their country, and how fascinated they were in my interest for Bulgaria.
Bulgaria can certainly play a pivotal role in Europe, providing high tech infrastructure and a base for industry. The possibilities for tourism development are great, as Bulgaria has something to offer every possible tourist, at all times of the year, and at extremely affordable prices. In short, I think Bulgaria could, and should, feature more prominently on the world map.
And a more general question – do you think that the world as a whole is going down the hill? Wars, Ebola, crisis, conflicts, and the instant reporting, which makes us part of all this.
I don’t think that anything has changed, really, except for our involvement in what is going on. We’ve always had wars and diseases and conflicts, yet today, everything is happening on a global stage. With a click of our finger, we can get informed, and more importantly, we can influence what is going on. Many recent social uprisings have been fueled by Twitter and Facebook, and here I’m referring to those staged in totalitarian, undemocratic states including Iran and China. Social media can lead to social change, and things can happen very quickly. Technological innovations are great, but we, as humans, have to come to terms with how best to use them.
Newspapers publish mainly negative news, which sells best. How do you manage to write good and positive stories?
Just over ten years ago I worked as the senior editor of an online Israeli news magazine, a website that reported all the “news and views” from and about Israel. In this job I was constantly glued to the news – reading the newspapers, watching the television, and surfing the Internet. If something happened, I needed to know. Most of this news was indeed negative, but out of commitment to my job, I was addicted to what was going on.
When I moved on to a different job, I turned off the news. Bad things happen constantly, but I don’t let them affect me or concern me as they did in the past. I keep a positive outlook on life, concentrating on what is good, and this is the attitude I express in my writing. Not all of my stories and articles are entirely happy, but, I do hope they will be perceived with the positive outlook I maintained when I wrote them.
If my writing influences readers around the world to think more positively about Bulgaria, and about Israel, I will be very pleased. In that case, my words will have served their purpose.