Sofia, Bulgaria — The Jewish women who formed a mutual aid group here three years ago to give self-esteem and a little income to its elderly members during a time of near poverty called their organization Bendichos Manos, Ladino for “blessed hands.”
Zafira Levi’s probably are the most blessed of all.
The 78-year-old seamstress is the group’s teacher, showing members young and old how to make knit kipot, which are sold to visiting Jews. And she helps repair the parochetot, or ornate ark covers, which hang in the auxiliary prayer room of the Sofia synagogue where her husband, Samuel, works as sexton.
For Levi, whose family was deported in 1943 to the countryside, along with thousands of Jews from the capital, her work with Bendichos Manos is part of her Jewish commitment, which never wavered, even during decades of communism.
A mizrach hangs on her living room’s eastern wall. There is a mezuzah on the apartment’s doorpost, a bilingual siddur on top of the television and a box of Israeli Elite chocolates on a shelf near her pair of candlesticks, which she lights every Friday evening.
Levi disappears for a minute, then returns with a scrapbook. She points to a black-and-white photo of her family from about 60 years ago. Her relatives have little yellow stars on their lapels.
She sewed the stars on.
“With black thread,” she says. “I was crying all the time.”
After the Bulgarian parliament passed the Law for the Defense of the Nation, patterned after Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, the yellow star became mandatory.
Her family wore the star when deported, following Nazi pressure, in 1943. The Germans wanted to concentrate the nation’s Jews in one location, before their eventual “resettlement” in Polish death camps. The Bulgarians, Germany’s wartime ally, put the Jewish men to work at forced labor but refused to deport the Jews.
“The people were very good to us,” Levi says of her family’s internment in the countryside. Bulgarians gave her relatives food and moral support.
She would have immigrated to Israel after 1948, but her father became sick and she stayed to take care of him.
Her sewing for the Jewish community, she says, is a tikkun, or repair, for the spiritual damage her hands did with the yellow stars. “Da, da” — yes, yes.
“I want to leave some memory after me,” Levi says. “This is a mitzvah.”