In Bulgaria, One Family Opens Their Home (and Their Hearts) to Ukraine’s Jews

When the Ukraine crisis began, Bistra Titeva took her calling as a hospitality professional even more seriously: She and her husband opened their home to a family seeking shelter.

By Bistra Titeva - Member of Jewish Community of Sofia, Bulgaria | October 7, 2022

Members of the Bulgarian Jewish community, Bistra Titeva and her husband Bobby took in a Ukrainian Jewish family when the crisis began.

As an expert hospitality and tourism professional based in Sofia, Bistra Titeva has dedicated her life to welcoming newcomers into her home country of Bulgaria. And when the Ukraine crisis began, Titeva took her calling even more seriously: She and her husband opened their home to a family seeking shelter. In this reflection, Titeva describes this experience, her connection to the Bulgarian Jewish community, and the responsibility she feels to help the vulnerable at their hour of need.

It all began that March afternoon, ten days after the conflict began in Ukraine. I was doing some Friday shopping with my husband Bobby, purchasing things for the weekend. 

Then, my phone started buzzing: It was Julia Dandolova, the CEO of Shalom, the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria. She told me that a family of five needed accomodation — two parents, three daughters. Would I be able to open my doors to this family in need?

“I just need an hour,” I said. “Let me talk it over with Bobby.”

The central synagogue in Sofia, Bulgaria.

In truth, we didn’t even need an hour. To many people, this choice would be a difficult one, and rightfully so: What’s more personal, more intimate, more private, than opening your home to people you’ve never met?

Sure, this was a big step for Bobby and me. But at the end of the day, the answer was simple: We’d open our doors, open our hearts, and welcome this family in need. 

You see, our connection to Ukraine’s Jews goes back much further than February 24th. 

My husband’s grandfather, Jacob Herzkovic, was a Ukrainian Jew. He left Odesa about 150 years ago and settled in Bulgaria with his wife and children. Like the family we were welcoming, he was once a newcomer, but he found a home here and a sense of Jewish life.  

That’s why I say we’re all connected: Bulgarian, Ukrainian. Jews everywhere. Everyone.

This Ukrainian Jewish family had just arrived in Bulgaria after fleeing Ukraine. They had made the difficult journey from Vinnytsia, about four hours southwest of Kyiv, through Poland. When they arrived in Bulgaria, Shalom welcomed them with open arms — and then I got that call from Julia.

At first, they were scared. So I did what I always do to welcome people: I made them food. In my years of hospitality experience — and experience being a human — I’ve learned that food always helps ease people’s minds.

Shalom has made so many newcomers feel at home — in fact, they started helping from the very first day this horrific situation started. Whether it’s help finding a job, or help finding accommodation, Shalom has really stepped up for Ukraine’s Jews.

And from the moment they arrived, every Jew arriving here from Ukraine has enriched Bulgarian Jewish life. My community has become bigger; we have a lot of new friends, new members, new kids. This diversity is good. It makes us stronger and more vibrant. Now we have lots of people from different regions, and this will open up people’s perspectives, as well as their sense of what Jewish life can look like. 

I’ve lived in Israel and I’ve lived abroad. In each of these places, I’ve found something to love. But Bulgarian Jewish life is unique: Bulgarian Jews have such warm hearts. 

Shalom, and JDC, are a big part of this. Without them, I wouldn’t feel quite as at home here. I’ve been connected to Shalom for a very long time. When I moved back from Israel, Shalom welcomed my family, and now we participate in many of their programs. My kids were always excited to attend Jewgaton, the JDC-supported summer camp, and my son particularly loved Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary, where he spent time with Jews from across Bulgaria and around the world. 

So it only felt right to pay it forward to help.

Jewish Bulgaria is more than just a community on paper. It’s a community in practice –– at every camp session, every festival, every class. Here, the boundaries between people are easy to bridge: We cross these distances easily. If you feel welcome, we may become friends. And we’ll have so much fun together –– you’ll drink my rakia, eat my shopska salad, stay in my home, drink my coffee, visit my friends, meet my family!

We’ll have so much fun together — you’ll drink my rakia, eat my shopska salad, stay in my home, drink my coffee, visit my friends, meet my family!

In distinct ways, we’ve all endured these difficult times, and I’ve learned that we all share a sense of vulnerability in the face of the pandemic, the lockdowns, and now the emergency in Ukraine. Four years ago, no one of us could have imagined that we’d be stuck in our homes, with masks and sanitizer, not even able to hug our loved ones. No one could have imagined what’s happening in Ukraine. 

Though this crisis has sparked the worst in some people, it has also sparked the best, opening people’s hearts to strangers. 

Just the other day, the father of the family we helped called and told us he feels better, that he’s feeling good about the future. I hope they will stay here in Bulgaria — find a home, build a new life. I hope their kids will attend Jewgaton, Szarvas, and make new friends, just like my kids were able to do. 

My mother always taught me to believe in goodness. You live one life, just one, and you don’t know what will happen the next  day, or the day after, in one year or in two. We have to keep our humanity and believe in the good. 

And we are all responsible for each other.

Bistra Titeva lives in Sofia, Bulgaria. She has a master’s degree in tourism from Sofia University and has worked in the Ministry of Tourism for 15 years, along with many years in the private tourism sector.

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