Rescuing history: Bulgaria and 1943

As a descendant of Bulgarian Jews who survived the Holocaust, I am writing these words with the dedication to the memory of my great-grandparents and grandparents. During the war, some of them were evicted, others were sent to labour camps, and some became outlaws. But all survived.

Although my grandparents suffered under the 1941 Bulgarian Law for the Protection of the Nation and were forced to wear the yellow star on their lapels, they remained alive. Their family line continues with me, my sister, and our cousins and children—unlike my uncle Buko, who lived in Austria and was killed with his whole family in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

For this life, every March 10, we give thanks.

Our grandparents passed their stories on to us—but not with anger or resentment for the pain they endured. The truth is that they spoke more about the support of the Bulgarians towards them than about repression. They infused us with their love and appreciation for Bulgaria. Therefore, each year—marking the anniversary of the events—we always resort to this love in our thoughts.

Each year, Jewish organisations in Bulgaria, Israel, and worldwide endeavour to mention as many names of Bulgarian saviours of Jews as possible. We tell as many stories as possible—and many they are.

Bulgarian Jews were saved by an extraordinary combination of efforts of ordinary people, institutions, organisations, individual politicians, and public figures. The saviours are all those commendable Bulgarians who recognised evil by their innate moral compass and stood their ground facing the fascist death machine—often breaking the law, opposing the government policies of Bogdan Filov and Tsar Boris III, and risking their lives.

Bulgarian Jews were saved by what we now call civil society.

I often wonder whether we could do what they did at that time today. In all its details, this story should be told repeatedly to serve as an example and inspire by reminding us of the kind of people Bulgarians are and what miracles they can perform, even during the most brutal war developing in Europe.

The truthful narrative

If we want to speak loudly and clearly about the exceptionalism of Bulgaria during the Second World War, so that the world will hear us, we cannot but tell the story truthfully and in its entirety and not speak openly about the suffering. Recognising the suffering, the greatness of the civil society, of some of the Bulgarian politicians and intellectuals, and of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, acquires even greater weight.

That is why we cannot fail to speak and bow before the memory of 11 343 Jews from Thrace, Macedonia, and Pirot—deported to the Treblinka death camp by the Bulgarian authorities and murdered.

If we do not speak of them with bowed heads when offering our thanks for salvation, we fall among those often referred to as “historical revisionists.”

This is also the reason why—as early as February—historians Rumen Avramov, Alexander Vezenkov, and Associate Professor Stefan Dechev, sociologist Prof. Liliana Deyanova, and philosopher Professor Stiliyan Yotov called for this year’s events—marking the 80th anniversary—that the commemoration would reflect the indelible dark side of what happened. Their appeal was, in fact, a petition already supported by hundreds of other scientists, journalists, human rights activists, and public figures.

In this petition, the scientists bitterly say that “our country never willed to find the right words to describe two inseparable and at the same time polar opposite historical facts: the spared lives of the Jews from the pre-war territories of Bulgaria and the deportation to Treblinka (March 4–29, 1943) of the Jews from the lands occupied in April 1941.”

We all need to realize two things: 1) we must find a way to tell the story in its entirety, and 2) this will not overshadow the heroism of the rescue because there can be no salvation if there’s nothing to be saved from. And the documents speak clearly. During World War II in Bulgaria, two parallel policies were pursued: a policy of rescue and one of persecution.

What happened this year in the days of celebrations?

Unfortunately, this year again, we could not rise above the vanity of casting ourselves in an entirely positive role and glossing over the part of history that led to the cruel fate of 11 343 women, men, children, and babies.

The series of events began as early as November last year—organised by an initiative committee under the patronage of President Roumen Radev to mark 80 years since the rescue of Bulgarian Jews and in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. The one-sided coverage of the information in the media provoked numerous reactions from Jewish organisations from Bulgaria and Israel and individual scientists, historians, and public figures in Bulgaria.

A few days ago, the journalist and translator Emi Baruch wrote an open letter (the text may be found in Bulgarian on her Facebook page) to the president with sharp criticism against the overall National Programme of the celebrations of which he is patron—which systematically silences the part of Bulgaria’s history that led to the deaths of 11 343 people. This attitude to history, she notes, casts a shadow even on the greatness of the worthy Bulgarians, whose actions led to the saving of 50 000 lives.

The concealment of the unflattering part of the story—which provoked Emi Baruch to write her letter—is evident in the press release of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent to the media on March 9. In it, the MFA informed of the start of the official events of the national program to mark the 80th anniversary of the non-deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the Nazi concentration camps—known in history as the rescue of Bulgarian Jews.

The announcement made it clear that on March 10, President Radev would join the celebration by opening a documentary exhibition in the National Library and laying flowers in front of the memorial plaques of the saviours at the church of St. Sofia.

The choice of the location for the President’s veneration—the memorial plaques including the name of Tsar Boris III—provoked the reaction of the Organization of Bulgarian Jews in Israel “Ehud Olei Bulgaria,” who sent a letter to President Radev and the Bulgarian institutions. Mr. Ino Yitzhak (the organization’s chairman) notes they are highly alarmed by the president’s initiative because these plaques represent a long-returned gift. Placed by a group of Bulgarian Jews in the Bulgarian Forest in Israel, they were removed in 2000 following a ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court based on the conclusion of the Yad Vashem National Research Complex that the plaques presented history in a wrong and misleading way.

The letter was addressed with a sincere request to Radev not to allow the distortion of history and thus cause pain and suffering to those still alive who lived through those times. The proposal in the letter is for the event to be held gathering everyone at the Salvation Monument next to the Parliament building to mark the 80th anniversary of the Salvation of the Bulgarian Jews, as well as to bow heads in tribute to the memory of 11 343 Jews from Thrace, Macedonia, and Pirot, murdered in the death camps. The Organization of Jews in Bulgaria, “Shalom,” joined the position and invitation expressed in the letter.

Despite the invitations to the Salvation Memorial ceremony, Radev held his ceremony in front of the plaques without considering the survivors’ pleas—choosing to present in his speech Tsar Boris III as the primary savior of the Jews. The address was full of political clichés and complete disregard for the archive documents available.

Not a single Jew was sent to the death camps. Bulgarian institutions and our people reject antisemitism. Isolated and threatened by occupation, Bulgaria was forced to join the Tripartite Pact. The Bulgarians did not betray their tolerance and empathy towards the suffering. Hitler did not break the decisions of Tsar Boris not to allow the deportation of any Bulgarian citizen.”

—President Roumen Radev

At the traditional event organised by OJB Shalom and the Sofia Municipality in front of the Salvation Monument—located next to the National Assembly building—no representatives of the presidency nor those of the government were present. These institutions sent no flowers or an address. At the same time, the opening of an exhibition at the National Library took place, surprisingly, added to the commemorations programme at the last minute.

The ceremony at the monument to the 1943 prevention of the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews, near Parliament. No representatives of the Presidency or the caretaker government attended the March 10 2023 event.

What’s the purpose of distorting the historical truth?

The whole campaign is structured to build the international image of Bulgaria. It targets diplomatic missions in Bulgaria and the popularization of the story of salvation worldwide. But those in power today apparently do not know that in Europe, denying guilt for the Holocaust is called negationism and is viewed poorly on every level.

They do not realise that in addition to damaging the image of Bulgaria internationally, they are also damaging the relationships in our society from the inside—creating another element of division and disputes about whether the Jews are grateful enough for being rescued whenever they raise the question of suffering and deportation.

Are they deliberately opening another gap between the Republic of North Macedonia and us—applying historical revisionism on our side, like the one widespread there now?

I ask these questions because I observe how the story of the rescue is used most blatantly. I might be accused of national treason. But didn’t they ask difficult questions in 1943, and did people not scrutinize the decisions of the government of Bogdan Filov and Tsar Boris III? Isn’t it precisely independent critical thinking and the natural urge to do the right thing the greatest strength of Bulgarian society—both then and now?

I hope that as a society, we’ll find this strength again and oppose the nationalism rising in our country, settling in the Bulgarian parliament without any obstacles. We are obliged to follow the example of the saviors and not allow hatred, underestimation of facts, and distortion of historical truth to spread in our country. Ask questions and seek justice. Remember and never forget—both the good and the bad.

(Main photo, of President Radev on March 10 2023 at the plaques that includes the names of Boris III and Tsaritsa Joanna:

Sofia Cohen

Sofia Cohen is an expert in marketing and communications and a long-time leader of the Jewish community in Bulgaria. She is currently involved in the development of an ed-tech platform in the field of data science and is involved in causes and charitable campaigns as a member of the board of the Three Women Foundation.