Bulgaria marks 80th anniversary of prevention of deportation of Bulgaria Jews, deportations from ‘new lands’

Ceremonies were held in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia on March 10, marking the 80th anniversary of the prevention of the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews to the death camps of the Holocaust.

There was, however, a nuance of difference as some ceremonies commemorated those events while also remembering the 11 343 Jews deported to be murdered from the “new lands” under Bulgarian administration at the time, while others did not.

There was a further nuance as some accorded the role of “saviour” of the Bulgarian Jews to Tsar Boris III, a claim rejected by leading academic historians in their contemporary interpretations of the events of 1943 and also rejected by mainstream leaders and members of the Jewish community.

In 1943, the plan to deport Bulgarian Jews was indefinitely postponed after considerable pressure was exercised by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, some members of the ruling majority, professional associations, leading intellectuals and ordinary people. However, 11 343 Jews were deported from territories in northern Greece and the then-Yugoslavia that were under Bulgarian administration; the vast majority were murdered at Treblinka soon after arrival.

The 2023 commemorations included church services by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and a March of Tolerance culminating in the memorial in central Sofia to the prevention of the deportations.

At the memorial, both the prevention of the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews and the deportations from the “new lands” were commemorated.

At a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial, Israeli ambassador Yoram Elron said: “Eighty years ago, Bulgaria gave the world a remarkable lesson in humanity and compassion and wrote a glorious page in the history books. A page that describes the noble deeds of the brave Bulgarians, the Righteous of the Nations, ready to risk their lives to save their Jewish compatriots.

“The Bulgarians unequivocally showed that the dignity of human life is the highest value. Indeed, it is well known that tolerance and respect for different ethnicities and religions are among the greatest virtues of the people of Bulgaria,” Elron said.

“The rescue of the Bulgarian Jews creates a unique and special bond between the peoples of Bulgaria and Israel. The Bulgarian Jews, saved in the Second World War, immigrated to Israel after its founding and they themselves, as well as their children and grandchildren, form a living bridge between our two countries,” he said.

“We stand here today to pay tribute and respect on behalf of those who were saved, to their brave rescuers, while remembering the 11 343 victims from Aegean Thrace, Vardar Macedonia and the town of Pirot who perished in the Nazi death camps,” Elron said.

Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova said that 80 years ago, the Bulgarians of the time had remained faithful to the values of humanity and had written “one of the most honorable chapters in our national history”.

“Today we bow to their courage and bravery. Many of their names are not known, but they are alive in the hearts of the saved nearly 50 000 Bulgarian Jews (who were not deported).

“We should not forget those who were not saved – 11 343 Jews from Aegean Thrace and Macedonia. We humbly bow our heads before their suffering and destruction,” Fandukova said.

The president of the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria Shalom, Professor Alexander Oscar, told the ceremony: “More and more we are seeing attempts to ‘privatise’, or rather, ‘nationalise”, the act of the rescue, by attributing the merits to the state, in the person of Tsar Boris III, and including the government of Bogdan Filov, and not the honorable people who risked their lives to help their brothers and sisters of Jewish origin”.

In the morning, an exhibition related to the prevention of the deportations of the Bulgarian Jews was opened at the Cyril and Methodius National Library.

Addressing the opening, President Roumen Radev said that the Bulgarians had not betrayed their tolerance and sympathy for those suffering.

According to Radev, “Hitler did not break the decision of Tsar Boris not to allow the deportation of any Bulgarian subject outside the borders of Bulgaria.

“In those incredible days of trial, the Bulgarian people and state withstood an incredible test of enormous historical value, as they did not allow a single Bulgarian Jew to perish in the death camps or to be killed in Bulgaria,” Radev said.

Later, Radev took part in a procession, accompanied by Boris’s son Simeon Saxe-Coburg and members of the current caretaker government, to lay wreaths at memorials near St Sofia church. These memorials are dedicated to Boris III, Tsaritsa Joanna, Bulgarian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Stefan, and Dimitar Peshev, who as deputy speaker of the 25th National Assembly played a key role in resistance to the plan to deport the Bulgarian Jews.

The plagues used to stand in Jerusalem but were removed after a few months because of objections.

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, recognises Stefan and Peshev as among Bulgaria’s 20 Righteous Among the Nations – meaning, non-Jews who acted to help Jews during the Holocaust.

Boris III is not recognised as Righteous Among the Nations.

(Photo: Israeli embassy)

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