At a ceremony on May 27, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Groysman opened a square and unveiled a memorial in honour of Dimitar Peshev, who while Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly during the Second World War played a key role in the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from being murdered in the Holocaust.
The ceremony came at the close of Borissov’s two-day visit to Ukraine, the first by a Bulgarian head of government in 14 years.
Also in attendance at the ceremony were Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova and Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko.
In March 2018, to mark the 75th anniversary of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews, Kyiv City Council adopted a proposal, initiated by the Bulgarian embassy in the Ukrainian capital, to honour Peshev. A memorial plate describes the merits of Peshev and the contribution of the Bulgarian people to the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews.
“Bulgaria is the only state that saved its Jews – more than 50 000. In this way we want to show once again how humane and strong the Bulgarian people are, and how in very dark times, they managed to protect the Jews,” Borissov said.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Groysman said that the work done by Peshev should be remembered.
“To every person comes a situation in which he has to decide how to act.We know the work of Dimitar Peshev and his courage to take such a step in times of hard trials,” Groysman said.
In 1943, while Peshev was deputy presiding officer of Bulgaria’s Parliament, he joined with 42 other MPs in a petition to the Prime Minister of the time, Bogdan Filov – a known pro-Nazi – against plans to deport the Bulgarian Jews.
The response was threats against Peshev, including that he would be handed over to the Gestapo. He was stripped of his post. However, because of a successful campaign of opposition to the deportations by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, leading intellectuals, professional associations, ordinary people and some politicians from the ruling majority including Peshev, the planned deportations of Bulgarian Jews were postponed. The end of the Second World War in Europe meant that they never happened.
As an Axis ally, Bulgaria implemented anti-Semitic legislation, the Defence of the Nation Act. The numerous measures against Jews included severe economic restrictions, deprivation of civil rights and for Bulgarian Jewish men, forced labour for several months of every year.
After the Second World War, Bulgaria’s communist regime held a People’s Court, with a bench for anti-Semitic crimes. Among those convicted was Peshev, because as a member of the ruling majority, he had voted in favour of the Defence of the Nation Act, though he later recanted his support. He was given a relatively short jail term after members of the Bulgarian Jewish community interceded in court for him. Peshev died in relative obscurity and poverty in 1973.
Peshev is honoured at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Memorial Centre in Jerusalem as Righteous Among the Nations, a title bestowed on non-Jews who made efforts to help Jews not fall victim to the Nazi death machine.
In 2018, Bulgaria is commemorating, along with the prevention of the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews, the deportation of 11 343 Jews from the “new lands” of the time, territories in neighbouring Greece and the then Yugoslavia that were under Bulgarian administration. The Jews from the “new lands” were mass-murdered at Treblinka.