75th anniversary of rescue of Bulgarian Jews commemorated in Plovdiv
The 75th anniversary of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps was commemorated with events including wreath-laying and speeches at the Monument of Gratitude in Plovdiv on March 11 2018.
The ceremony was attended by Israeli ambassador Irit Lilian, Plovdiv mayor Ivan Totev, district governor Zdravko Dimitrov, municipal council chairperson Savina Petkova, deputy culture minister Amelia Gesheva, members of the leadership of the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom”, representatives of the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, rabbis from several Balkan countries, Bulgarian Orthodox Church Plovdiv Metropolitan Nikolai, and members of the community who were rescued from death 75 years ago.
The Plovdiv Metropolitan of the time, Kiril, played a strong role in the resistance to the deportations. The plan that was thwarted had envisaged sending about 841 Bulgarian Jews from Plovdiv to die in the Holocaust.
One of those who was rescued, Dr Haim Pardo, told local media that on March 10 1943, police had come to their home and taken him and his mother. His father was in a labour camp at the time. Anti-Semitic legislation then in force compelled Bulgarian Jewish men to work for several months at a time in forced labour camps.
Pardo recalled how in Plovdiv, crafts associations such as those of the shoemakers, the unions of doctors, of lawyers and of merchants, all had opposed the deportations, paying no heed to the risks of doing so.
He also recalled how Metropolitan Kiril had climbed a fence where Jews were being held pending their imminent deportation, and gave a very strong speech, calming people. Kiril said that he would not allow the Jews to be deported, and if need be, if the train tried to leave, he would lie on the rails in front of it.
“Such a move by a spiritual leader, I think, has affected many religious Bulgarians to remember it,” said Pardo, who remained living and working in Bulgaria after the Second World War.
“My father’s family came here to Bulgaria in the 16th century and we have been here for more than four centuries. I see myself as a Bulgarian and all my friends are Bulgarians,” he said.
Ambassador Lilian said that the State of Israel is eternally grateful to the Bulgarian people and clergy who in those times rescued thousands of Jews, adding also commemoration for the Jews from territories in northern Greece and Yugoslavia, then under Bulgarian administration, who were deported to be murdered in Treblinka.
Today, the language of hatred, xenophobia and anti-Semitism was not a thing of the past, she said. “That is why we have to unite. We must not forget that the rescuers of the Jews were people who made and followed through their choice. We should not forget that indifference is not the beginning, it is the end, as Elie Wiesel said. Bulgarians will always be remembered for not surrendering their humanity. That is why Israel will always be grateful,” Lilian was quoted as saying by Plovdiv news website podtepeto.com.
Dr Alexander Oscar, president of the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom”, said: “We are here today to thank the people of Plovdiv who were not indifferent to the suffering of their Jewish brothers and sisters and stood up to prevent what could have been one of the greatest tragedies of Bulgaria. We remember and will never divert from doing so”.
A delegation of Shalom, with the Israeli ambassador, and accompanied by representatives of the World Jewish Congress and organisations from Israel, the United States and Bulgaria, met with Plovdiv mayor Ivan Totev, with Shalom presenting him with the book “Bulgarian Jews: Living History” and with the book “75 Years. Unforgotten Faces of the Rescue”, the latter about ordinary Bulgarians who stood up against the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews.
The delegation laid flowers at Bachkovo Monastery at the graves of Bulgarian Orthodox Church Metropolitans Kiril, who in 1953 went on to become Patriarch of the church, and Stefan, who from 1945 to 1948 was Exarch of the church.
(Main photo: podtepeto.com. All other photos: Moni Frances)