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Conference Summary

On November 5th, 2001, the Brudnick Center and the Institute on Race and Justice co-hosted a conference titled, “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage: Lessons from Bulgaria.

In the morning session, the panelists analyzed the culture of tolerance in Bulgaria during World War II that saved Bulgarian Jewish residents from the Nazi death camps. Some of the factors cited by panelists as contributing to this remarkable occurrence were Bulgaria’s tradition of religious and cultural tolerance, including a mutual understanding of, respect for, and interdependence between Bulgarians and their Jewish neighbors, and the willingness of those individuals at various levels of leadership – Bulgarian politicians, professionals, academics, and clergy – to protest the deportation to death camps. The morning session was followed by a screening of excerpts from the film, “The Optimists,” which gave more detailed background information about the events leading up to and culminating in the protest of Bulgarian citizens against the Nazi orders for deportation of their Jewish citizens.

Finally, the afternoon session highlighted the ways in which we may apply the lessons we have learned from the Bulgarian experience to contemporary situations of inter-group conflict and violence. Panelists referred to conflict situations brought about by racial, ethnic, religious, and economic differences and emphasized the importance of acknowledging the transformative power of human relationships and establishing forums to facilitate discussions of diversity, difference, and the possibility of community reconnection.

The Morning Panel: Petar-Emil Mitev, Professor: St. Kliment Ohridsky University Department of Politology. (Sofia Bulgaria); Emmy Barouh, Author, International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations (Sofia Bulgaria); Paul Bookbinder, Professor of History and Director of the European Studies program; UMASS Boston; Helen Fein, Author and expert in Genocide Studies; Gordana Rabrenovic (Moderator) Assoc. Director of the Brudnick Center for the study of Conflict and Violence, Assoc. Prof. of Sociology Northeastern University.

The Afternoon Panel: Nancy K. Kaufman, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston; Rev. Ray Hammond, Co-founder of the Ten-Point Coalition; Robin Chandler, Chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Northeastern University; David Schmitt, Brooke Professor; Department of Political Science, Northeastern University; Deborah Ramirez, (Moderator)Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Institute on Race and Justice; Northeastern University.

Notes From an Attendee

Roy N. Freed

Who I Am

Why I Am Writing This Essay Now

My Conclusions on How to Strive for Inter-group Civility Anywhere

  • The challenge to determine how to advance social civility, which means working toward maximum ready acceptance of ethnic, religious, racial, gender, and similar differences, is a normal professional problem in sociology and group psychology. These fields inform us that it is unfortunately normal for people in social groups to claim, as a form of perverse human competitiveness, superiority in some respect over at least some other groups, and often to scapegoat and denigrate other groups as a step in that process. These competing groups might exist both within a single country, such as the clearly multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-racial U.S.A. and the much less emphasized multi-ethnic and multi-religious Bulgaria, and as entire countries as expressions of nationalism.
  • As a visionary, I, and possibly some others, have hoped that the professed admirable general civility among the people who make up the various diverse ethnic and ostensible religious groups in Bulgaria might be a model that could be emulated. For years, I hoped that it was a transportable panacea against social turmoil. However, I now conclude that Bulgarian civility is entirely unique and cannot be intentionally replicated elsewhere, particularly not in the U.S.A. I reluctantly conclude that, if that type of civility does not already exist in a country naturally, essentially spontaneously, as a result of prevailing favorable circumstances, it cannot be produced by design.
  • Although I am disappointed that the Bulgarian situation does not appear to be applicable directly in other countries, as I idealistically had hoped, I now see it, more likely, as a reasonable goal in choosing steps to try to approach it. The very existence of that Bulgarian society should persuade the most hardened cynic that identifiable groups of people actually can live together with reasonable tranquility, even if they do not actually love each other. As an aside, it also proves that a society properly identified as predominantly Christian is not condemned to be anti-Semitic. As that goal, I see that practically all Bulgarians in Bulgaria, despite their ostensible separate ethnic and religious subgroups, continue to constitute, in effect from a sociological point of view, a single, or unitary, national social group, except for the Roma thus far. Moreover, I am aware of serious professional efforts in Bulgaria to tackle discrimination against the Roma. I believe that Bulgarians can be considered to be a single social group for many basic purposes because their ostensible subgroups have lived in substantial economic and social harmony in the general civil functioning of the country, even though some of them, such as the Turks and the Pomaks, maintain somewhat separate ways of life, based on religion, culture, language, educational level, and similar factors. In this regard, although I have heard Bulgarians say that they “hate the Turks,” associating them reflexively with the detested Ottoman Empire of centuries ago, they are not disposed to kill them, and they did not grasp the occasion of the Communist Party oppression of the Turks in the 1980s to try to drive them out of Bulgaria.
  • While I regret that the Bulgarian model of social civility cannot be replicated, I still consider it an invaluable goal to be sought. To that end, it is essential to identify measures that might help specific societies move toward that goal. In this respect, I was interested in the earnest, essentially self-help, private citizen efforts being made in Boston to bridge the common gulfs between and among various American ethnic, religious, and racial groups toward possible social amalgamations to note those that appear to be ideal and worthy of emulation. These efforts arise from socially motivated felt needs to improve inter-group relations, as the speakers described. They include not only open, mutually respectful active communication among respected group leaders but also joint efforts to build a sounder society by striving to fill social, economic, and psychological needs in the community at large.