Had Bulgaria’s history been different 70 years ago, March 10 would be an occasion for the deepest mourning, because that was the date marked in 1943 for the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to Nazi Holocaust death camps.
There is, of course, a day of mourning for the six million who died in the Holocaust, Yom Hashoah, this year beginning at sunset on April 6. But the Bulgarian Jews were not to be among that mind-bending number of genocide victims; that is why this year, Bulgaria and Israel are commemorating the 70th anniversary of the prevention of the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the death camps.
At a ceremony at the European Parliament on March 6, marking the 70th anniversary, Israeli president Shimon Peres said that the actions of that time were an honour for Bulgaria “and the choice to save lives will remain with you forever”.
The Bulgarian people were a shining example of heroism and courage, Peres said at the ceremony, held jointly with his Bulgarian counterpart Rossen Plevneliev and with those in attendance including Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov, European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, representatives of Jewish organisations and MEPs.
Plevneliev said that he was “proud to be President of a nation that showed courage” and had achieved a unique feat. Not only in Holocaust museums around the world was the number of Bulgarian Jewish victims recorded as zero, according to Plevneliev, but during that period the Bulgarian Jewish population actually had increased.
He expressed regret that Bulgaria had been in no position to save the Jews deported from Northern Greece and parts of Yugoslavia, saying that they had not held Bulgarian passports and were not Bulgarian citizens.
Mladenov spoke of the figures established from recent research in the archives of Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry, which showed that through the issuing of transit visas to Jews in Europe, enabling them to escape the Holocaust, some of Bulgaria’s diplomats had contributed to the saving of 10 000 lives.
Seventy years on, it is important not only to remember the history but also to grapple with the fact that it is disputed and also has been subject to various versions and interpretations.
It is also important not to portray the Jews of Bulgaria simply as passive pawns in the story. Among those 48 000, there were those who took the initiative and those who assumed leadership. Without them, the story might have been different.
As to varying versions of the story over the years, communist Bulgaria had its own, ludicrously putting at the forefront its own partisans and operatives. In turn, other versions have given much credit to the then-monarch, Boris III; his role is among the most-debated and many contemporary observers of the period would hardly accept too positive a light being shone on him. Yet, from some years ago, it is his name that is honoured on a plaque in central Sofia – as Stefan, Kiril, other church leaders and Dimitar Peshev are memorialised too.
No one can dispute the admirable moral fortitude of two Bulgarian Orthodox Church leaders, metropolitan Kiril of Plovdiv and metropolitan Stefan of Sofia. With deputy speaker of parliament Dimitar Peshev, Kiril and Stefan are formally honoured by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations. These three were prominent in responding when what was about to happen in that March of 1943 was brought to their attention.
It was on March 2 that Bulgaria’s council of ministers approved the plan for the deportation of the Jews. Already, the country – in alliance with Hitler’s Germany – had in place the Defence of the Nation Act, a raft of anti-Semitic measures both professional and personal approved by Bulgaria’s parliament in 1941.
When word of the cabinet approval of the deportation reached some members of the Jewish community, a delegation of Kyustendil Jews went to see Peshev, who in turn – historical accounts say that his first reaction was disbelief – went to see interior minister Petar Gabrovski, saying that he would make the plan public, certain that indignation would follow.
It is notable that Peshev was confident that there would be indignation. As Hitler’s regime pressed Bulgaria to get into line on anti-Semitism and measures of persecution against Jews, more than one Bulgarian spoke out, citing the equality promised in Bulgaria’s Turnovo constitution.
Metropolitan Stefan told Boris: “If the persecution of the Jews continues, I shall open the doors of all Bulgarian churches to them and then we shall see who can drive them out”.
From Plovdiv, Kiril sent word to the king that if the trains attempted to leave, he would lie on the railway track in their path. Kiril went to the camp where Jews were being assembled for deportation and told officials that if they attempted to go ahead with the transport to Poland, they had better be prepared to load him on board too.
Gabrovski was forced to suspend the order, after consulting higher up the line of authority, while Peshev compiled a petition with the signatures of 43 members of parliament speaking out against the deportation plan.
The deportation plan was postponed. Instead, with it being apparent also to Berlin’s representatives in Sofia that there was significant Bulgarian resistance to the deportation plan, a more extensive internal deportation plan went ahead, with Jews being moved out of major cities and arrayed in various villages and rural areas.
In Northern Greece and parts of Yugoslavia, however, the trains ran, taking 11 343 Jews to their deaths at Treblinka.
The above is familiar narrative. But a few more notes of context are needed, and none is meant to denigrate the sterling courage of those non-Jewish Bulgarians who intervened at considerable risk to their own fates.
Several historians point to the outcome of the battle of Stalingrad, the defeat of Hitler’s forces at the Russian city in February 1943. The notion of this is that in Sofia, some may well have begun to believe that Hitler’s invincibility was being reversed; although it may also be pointed out, as above, that the cabinet agreed to the deportations even after some word of what had happened at Stalingrad began to filter out.
Further, historians add that there had been discreet diplomatic signals to Bulgaria from the United States and United Kingdom that acquiescence in Jewish deportations would not play well once the Allies had won (bear in mind that the Allied war aim was to secure the unconditional surrender of Hitler’s Axis, a policy by definition unlikely to make any form of accommodation with a vanquished enemy possible).
And it is time to add the role of the Jews themselves. This was more than that of the delegations to Peshev, among others, though the composition of the delegation that saw the deputy speaker also is an indication of the diverse places of Jews in Bulgarian society.
One notable leader was Avram Tadjer, who as a colonel had served with courage and distinction in Bulgaria’s armed forces in World War 1. Ironically, in that first war, when Bulgaria too was on the side of Germany, Bulgaria’s forces already had seen a number of Jews serve honorably as officers, among them second lieutenant Moreno Graciani of the 22nd Etur infantry regiment, Sason Alkalai, commander of the medical unit in the Bulgarian army in World War 1 and Lieutenant-Colonel Moses Kohinov of Vidin.
There were some wealthy and successful Jews, but also the Yuch Bunar Jewish quarter in Sofia was among the Bulgarian capital city’s poorest neighbourhoods.
More or less the lineal ancestor of what Sofia currently is pleased to call zone B5, the area where today the Synagogue is one of the very few reminders of its past, it was crowded, impoverished and working class, a mixture of humble accommodation and some small businesses. It was also the time when Sofia had more than one synagogue – old maps show where they were, now long gone.
Part of the actions against Jews had been forced evictions from homes in better neighbourhoods, forcing families to move closer to or into Yuch Bunar.
The scene was set for the events of May, among a community that no benefit of historical hindsight that, from Bulgaria at least, the trains to the death camps would never run.
Reportedly in response to a fresh round of planned registration, apparently linked to the initial deportation plans, a mass protest was called. Tadjer is said to have been among the initiators of the protest, so was community leader Solomon Leviev.
The protests, in which non-Jewish Sofians showed solidarity with the neighbourhood’s by-then reported population of 25 000, turned into resistance by militants within the Jewish community. Around May 23 and 24, street fighting ensued. The number of those killed, which included gendarmerie, is uncertain (especially given, among other things, the lack of a free press at the time) although it is not regarded as having been high. Amid the mayhem, Boris is reported to have decided that this was a good time to retreat to a resort outside Sofia.
Boris died in August 1943, after returning from a meeting with Hitler at which the Bulgarian king again faced berating over his steadfast refusal to allow the deployment of Bulgarian troops against the Soviets.
Under a regency, Bulgaria was involved in some failed attempts at negotiating a separate peace, while Sofia came under the intense attentions of Allied air force bombers.
Aside for individual serious bombings, there was an intense campaign between November 1943 and April 1944. The death toll ran into many hundreds. More than 12 500 buildings in Sofia were destroyed. The bombing campaign was conducted by US, British and Commonwealth fliers, from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; the US air force alone dropped more than 40 000 bombs on the Bulgarian capital. Infrastructure, including railway lines, was seriously damaged; much food had been diverted to the German army, and Sofia was left littered with ruins, evacuated to a large degree, and with ordinary people struggling for necessities.
In September 1944 came the Soviet invasion and the grabbing of power by a communist regime that, among other things, persecuted Peshev along with all MPs from the parliaments during the war. The years that would follow would see most of Bulgaria’s Jews leave for Israel while in Bulgaria, the communist regime sought to subvert Judaism in the way it did with all religions.
More accurate interpretations and memorializing of the prevention of the deportations would come only with the end of that communist regime. As an aside, some of Bulgaria’s Jews recall how the regime try to write Todor Zhivkov into the Yuch Bunar May resistance – with the anecdote being that the subsequent communist dictator, when asked why his face never appeared on any of the films and photographs of the events, had said that he had been so busy running around leading the resistance that the cameras had not captured him.
On March 7 2013, Israel’s ambassador to Bulgaria, Shaul Kamisa Raz, was in the city of Vidin, the port town on the Danube where the presence of Jews may be traced back to at least the sixth century and which a Jewish population of about 1500 before World War 2. The meeting with the ambassador, which was followed by the laying of flowers at a monument donated by Vidin Jews who moved to Israel in gratitude to Bulgarians for preventing the deportations, was – according to local media reports – attended by just more than 20 Jews.
(Main photo, of Israeli president Shimon Peres and Bulgaria’s Rossen Plevneliev: president.gov.il)