SOFIA, BULGARIA -- For a 68-year-old Jewish accountant who lives in Eastern Europe after the death of communism there and during a sporadic reappearance of antisemitism, Baruch Magriso made a remarkable claim:
"As far as I know from my life, everybody in my country likes Jews."
Magriso said the last time he can remember hearing an antisemitic insult was 1944. That was just before the Soviet army invaded to help the Bulgarian underground defeat a Nazi-puppet regime.
Only once can he remember seeing graffiti that denigrated Jews. It was written not in Bulgarian, but in Russian.
Bulgaria has an acute case of the post-Communist blues. Its economy is a wreck, its environment is poisoned, and each month brings longer lines for less food. With its curses, however, this Balkan country has been granted at least one blessing.
Bulgarian Jews, of whom there are now only about 3,500, have no complaint that they are being singled out as scapegoats for all that has gone wrong here. The lifting of the Communist lid, they say, has not released repressed resentments.
"It is evident that Jews are respected and credible to non-Jews," said Iosiff A. Levi, 64, president of the Bulgarian Jewish Council.
Levi said that for the Bulgarian Jews he knows -- and he knows most of them -- there isn't any post-Communist "Jewish problem."
His soothing words stand in contrast to the complaints voiced in Eastern Europe this past year by leaders of some of the world's largest Jewish organizations. They say antisemitism has blossomed in the region as a bitter fruit of pluralism.
It is "part of democracy. If you're free to do anything else, you're free not to like people," Edgar Bronfman, president of the New York-based World Jewish Congress, said in Warsaw earlier this year.
There are ugly examples reported across the East. The Polish Helsinki Committee charged two weeks ago that there has been an explosion of "publications denigrating and ridiculing people of Jewish origin." A whispering campaign about the supposedly Jewish ancestry of Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Roman Catholic, is believed to have damaged his chances in the presidential election.
In Hungary, anti-Jewish slurs were part of last spring's national election.
In Romania, old men from the Iron Guard -- Nazi thugs from the World War II era -- have spoken publicly about making a comeback.
In the Soviet Union, the ultraconservative organization Pamyat -- which blames Jews for killing Christ and Czar Nicholas II -- has frightened many Soviets of Jewish origin and helped spark an exodus of nearly 200,000 this year to Israel.
Bulgaria, a country of 9 million people, is not without black marks in its historical treatment of Jews. Throughout much of the 19th century, there was job discrimination. Jews were often accused of ritual murder of Christians. But Bulgarian Jews -- most of whose ancestors arrived here in 1492 after their expulsion from Spain -- managed to fight their way into the hearts of the average Bulgarian.
They did it in 1877 by forming a volunteer corps that defended Sofia against Turkish soldiers. This earned them a royal proclamation of thanks, along with guarantees of full equality in the 1879 constitution. Later, with the blessing of Bulgarian Czar Ferdinand, they built in Sofia the largest Sephardic Jewish synagogue in Europe.
The most important gauge of Bulgarian-Jewish relations is the record of World War II.
According to the Bulgarian Jewish Council, Bulgaria is unique among the countries of Eastern Europe because not one Jew was allowed to be transported out of the country to Nazi death camps. Nor were any Jews killed inside Bulgaria merely for being Jewish, the council says.
In the early 1940s, the German-controlled Bulgarian government passed a law ordering that Jews between the ages of 18 and 50 be rounded up and put in labor camps.
Levi said the law caused widespread outrage. Forty-three members of the National Assembly risked their lives by opposing it, as did some of the country's most influential writers. Most significantly, Levi said, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church denounced the law.
"The archbishop of Plovdiv said he would travel with the Jews if they were put on trains to go to concentration camps outside the country," Levi said.
Lack of local cooperation, according to Levi, consternated the Nazis. A copy of a letter from the German ambassador in Sofia to his Foreign Ministry in Berlin, dated June 7, 1943, was found here after the war.
It begins: "Although the Bulgarian prime minister was willing, he is powerless to expel the Bulgarian Jews because of the mentality, because of the lack of ideological purity" in the Bulgarian people.
The letter concludes: "The Bulgarians cannot find any foibles in Jews that will help them to undertake activities against them."
After the war, as Bulgaria moved toward communism, Jews were allowed to leave for Israel. Between 1948 and 1953, about 45,000 did so, with the help of the Bulgarian government, which provided transport. Only about 5,000 Jews chose to stay.
"All Jews that were Bulgarian citizens were allowed to take all their property. I was a witness," Levi said.
Old age, intermarriage and conversion to Christianity have diminished the size of the remaining Jewish community. The last grand rabbi retired 25 years ago. This year, severe economic hardship in Bulgaria has pushed about 800 young Bulgarian Jews to make plans to leave for Israel.
Levi, who is teaching a crash course in Hebrew to these young people, said he believes a Jewish community will survive in Bulgaria. If the economy improves, he said, Jews will return.
"There is no reason here for hatred," he said.