‘Talking about my deceased family was taboo’

lyna-greyLYNA DEGEN-POLIKAR (49) came to the Netherlands in 1992. She works as a GGD psychologist.

“One night, my uncle smelled smoke. It was July of 1944, and he was held captive in a Bulgarian labor camp. Someone had set their hut on fire. He quickly helped the elderly and children outside, but died from his injuries a day later. So did ten others. He was only sixteen and extremely talented: he played the piano beautifully and spoke many languages. His death is the family tragedy. This portrait of him used to grace my grandmother’s wall, and still hardly anyone ever talked about this part of our history.

After the war, Bulgaria was so proud it hadn’t killed any Jews they didn’t want anyone to bring up any other victims. My uncle, but other family members, too. People who were transported to Polish concentration camps, in Bulgarian trains that traveled through parts of Greece and Yugoslavia that were occupied by Bulgaria, accompanied by the Bulgarian army. My grandmother saw her family pass by one time. When she tried to hand them bread through one of the windows, Bulgarian police officers started shooting at her. Twelve thousand people from new parts of Bulgaria have been gassed after deportation, but the government didn’t see the need to discuss any of that. After all, they hadn’t been real Bulgarians.

Although my childhood memories during communism are mostly good ones – we lived in a snug little apartment and secretly tuned in to BBC at night – the period didn’t leave much room for my Jewish background. The government insisted everyone was equal, so we couldn’t organize ourselves as a group as that would raise suspicion. After the fall of the Wall, I became one of the founders of the Jewish Youth Association in Sofia. I met young Jewish people from other countries as well. One of them was Dutch, and I fell in love with him. We traveled to the Netherlands together, and it was only there I started developing my Jewish identity. War victims are acknowledged here and nobody feels weird talking about it. My uncle’s portrait has a prominent spot in my house now.”