Controversy over round table on Second World War labour camps for Bulgarian Jewish men

The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria Shalom has sharply criticised a “national round table” held on January 17 billed as being on the question whether Jewish “labour service” – as the title called it – during the Second World War was a rescue plan or a repressive measure.

The event was held at the Military Club in Sofia and was co-organised by the Institute for Historical Research at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and the Independent Historical Society.

Over the course of more than three hours, participants advanced the thesis suggested by the former part of the title of the event, arguing that not only Jews were conscripted to labour, citing documents of the time as to the food rations in the camps, saying that only about 20 per cent of Bulgarian Jews wore the Star of David patches made mandatory by the Defence of the Nation Act and arguing that Jewish banks such as Geula had not been acted against.

The head of the Institute for Historical Research at the Bulgarian Academy of Science, Dr Daniel Vachkov, who chaired the event, argued that the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from deportation would not have been possible without the backing of the state.

Spas Tashev of the Demographic Institute at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences spoke harshly against the monuments that have been put up at the sites of some Jewish forced labour camps in Bulgaria.

Citing archives, Sylvia Avdala of the Independent History Society rejected the use of the term “labour camps” saying that it was not used in the documentation of the time and called on the State Archives, represented at the event by Roumen Borissov, to abandon the use of the term.

At the event, favourable references to Tsar Boris III were applauded. Among the organisers of the January 17 event were those also involved in a June 2018 exhibition that accorded credit to Boris III and the government for the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews – an assertion that at the time also caused major controversy.

Members of the Bulgarian Jewish community, on the sidelines at the event, objected to its thesis. Among those who stood up to object was Eli Anavi, head of the Sofia organisation of Shalom, who said that his father had spent nine months each year for four years in the labour camps and the answer to the question posed in the title of the event was a simple one, that the camps had been a repressive measure.

He also pointed to the deportation and murder of more than 11 000 Jews from lands in neighbouring countries then under Bulgarian administration – a subject not much referred to during the event.

In a statement, Shalom expressed deep concern about the event.

“We are disturbed, and highly disappointed, to note that the Institute for Historical Research at the Bulgarian Academy Sciences has agreed to lend its name to an event that seeks to distort history by giving a platform to the false interpretation that the forced labour camps, to which Bulgarian Jewish men were sent during the Second World War, were established to shelter these men from becoming victims of the Nazi death camps of the Holocaust,” Shalom said.

“By doing so, the reputation of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, built up over the more than 150 years since its founding, is being put at risk by association not only with fake history but with outright Holocaust distortion.”

By associating itself with this so-called “national round table”, it is also putting at risk the name of Bulgaria, not only in regard to the truth of the events involving the country at the time of the Holocaust, but also considering that this country is proudly a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and as such has a duty to uphold and promote accurate knowledge of the events of the Holocaust, the statement said.

It is equally disturbing to note that the names of other Bulgarian institutions have been associated with this event, including – going by the notice on the website of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences – the Ministry of Defence, Sofia University St Kliment Ohridski, the GS Rakovski Military Academy and the Veliko Turnovo University Saints Kiril i Metodii. “Whoever involved them in this ill-conceived project is also complicit in putting at risk the names of the Republic of Bulgaria and their own names,” it said.

“Linking this event to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is marked on January 27, is a mockery of the survivors of the suffering and the victims of Nazi ideology,” Shalom said.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Bulgaria we remember all six million Jews murdered, including those more than 11 000 Jews deported from the territories of northern Greece, Vardar Macedonia and the city of Pirot, administered by the Kingdom of Bulgaria, as we honour the deeds of the Bulgarians who genuinely played key roles in the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from deportation, the statement said.

“We will never forget that the Jewish labour camps were nothing other than a part of the antisemitic repressive apparatus of the time, characterized by acts of violence and inhuman conditions,” Shalom said.



The Sofia Globe staff

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