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September 20, 2017 2:15 pm

The Unheard Story: Bulgaria’s Rescue of 50,000 Jews During the Holocaust

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The Sofia Synagogue in Bulgaria’s capital city. Photo: Vassia Atanassova via Wikimedia Commons.

You have probably heard of “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s movie, which brought to life the story of a German member of the Nazi party who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust, by employing them in his factories in occupied Poland.

You may have also heard of the heroic rescue of the Danish Jews: With the help of the Danish government, people and resistance movement, 7,220 out of the 7,800 Jews in that country escaped the Nazis, and found salvation in Sweden.

What’s lesser known is the story of the 50,000 Jews who were saved by Bulgaria.

In his book, Beyond Hitler’s Grasp, Michael Bar-Zohar states that, “For years, Bulgaria’s Communist regime had tried to suppress the real story about [this] rescue for a very simple reason. The Bulgarian rescue had been carried out mostly by Communism’s three worst enemies: the Church, the royal court, and the pro-Fascist politicians. The Communist regime couldn’t admit that, fact because it contradicted its basic beliefs.”

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What’s even more astonishing is that these 50,000 Jews were saved while Bulgaria was actually an ally of Hitler.

Bulgaria gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Yet the newly independent state did not receive all of the territories that it desired, leaving ethnic Bulgarians outside of its newly-formed borders. In order to gain its territories back, the country allied with Germany, because Hitler promised to help Bulgaria. But that alignment came at a certain price.

The rescue of the Bulgarian Jews was preceded by a series of dark events — especially the loss of 11,000 Jews in Thrace and Macedonia, who were sent to the Nazis, despite the fact that those territories were under Bulgarian administration. This happened because Germany did not acknowledge the annexation of Thrace and Macedonia to Bulgaria. Therefore, none of the Jews living in those areas received Bulgarian citizenship or nationality, making it impossible for the Bulgarian authorities to interfere.

The deportation of the Jews from Thrace and Macedonia alerted Bulgaria to what was about to follow in its country. In March of 1943, trains arrived in Bulgaria to transport all of the Jews straight to a death camp in Treblinka. Arrests began early in the morning, as policemen gathered Jews to await their deportation. However, not a single Jew left the country.

The local Metropolitan Kiril, ordinary Bulgarian citizens and members of the parliament mobilized against the deportation, and succeeded in preventing it.

The head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church played a major role in the rescue, having arrived on the day of the deportation at the railroads where the trains were supposed to depart. Bishop Metropolitan Kiril sent a letter to the king of Bulgaria, pleading for the Jews to be saved. The church also opened its doors and provided shelter for the Bulgarian Jews.

Due to the pressure of the public outcry and the persistence of the bishop, the king canceled the deportation, leaving the trains for Treblinka entirely empty.

Yet that did not stop Hitler from continuing to demand the deportation of the Jews. Months later, he tried again, requesting that all of Bulgaria’s Jewish population be sent to Poland. In response, King Boris told the German leader that the country needed the Jews for labor; he then created labor camps where 20,000 men were sent to work — but remained in the country. The king’s skillful and quick response to Hitler’s demand prevented the second deportation of the Bulgarian Jews to the death camps.

The rescue of the Bulgarian Jews remained a long kept-secret until the end of the communist regime in 1989. Fortunately, documents that recorded details of it were only hidden and locked up — not destroyed. Historians were then able to show the world the bravery of ordinary citizens and the decisive intervention of the Orthodox Church and the king of Bulgaria during the Holocaust.

After the war ended, approximately 96% of the Jewish population in Bulgaria emigrated to Israel. The two countries have shared a special bond ever since. On a recent trip to Israel, former Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev said that, “As a relatively new country with cutting edge entrepreneurship that also boasts an ancient history, Israel is attractive to Bulgaria, which is one of the older countries in Europe, with a Jewish community whose roots date back more than 1,300 years.”

In February of 2017, President Plevneliev was given the Friends of Zion Award in recognition of the 50,000 Jews rescued during the Holocaust — and acknowledging that Israel will not forget the lives saved by Bulgaria. With all of its dark and heroic moments, the story of a country that managed to protect its entire Jewish population whilst being an ally to Hitler is one that deserves to be recognized and remembered. Israel does — hopefully the rest of the world will, too.

This article was originally published on the CAMERA blog InFocus.

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