How the Jewish Population of Bulgaria Was Saved From the Nazis
by Daniel S. Mariaschin
Eighty years ago this month, courageous voices in Axis-allied Bulgaria accomplished the near-impossible: the nullification of orders to deport its 48,000 Jews to certain death in concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Europe.
It is an unlikely story, given that the mix of individuals involved in this effort had little in common, save for their concern about the welfare of Bulgarian Jewry: Members of parliament, lawyers, the leadership of the Orthodox Church, and ordinary citizens, acted as a critical mass in effectuating the rescue of the community.
Bulgaria in 1940 had drawn close to Nazi Germany, its economy having become dependent upon Berlin. The Third Reich needed transit routes to Greece and Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria was the obvious answer to reaching that objective. Relations with Germany came with many strings attached, including discriminatory laws against Jews, adopted in the Bulgarian parliament in late 1940 as the “Law for the Defense of the Nation.” The law imposed a long list of prejudicial provisions, including wearing the yellow star, restrictions in employment and numerous quotas in education and other fields, and prohibitions against holding office and voting. Particularly insidious was the establishment of forced labor units, which were often subject to harsh treatment.
All of this was to be carried out by a Commissariat on Jewish Issues, led by Alexander Belev.
Much credit for rousing public opinion in response to these anti-Jewish edicts is given, rightfully, to the Deputy Speaker of the Bulgarian Parliament, Dimitar Peshev, who himself had voted for the legislation and who represented the provincial town of Kyustendil. Berlin incessantly pressed to deport not only Jews in Bulgaria, but also those in Macedonia and Thrace under Bulgarian military administration.
The first orders handed down in February 1943 were to deport the Jews of Kyustendil, which put Peshev into action as the public face of opposition to both the government’s dictates and to Belev’s designs on the Jewish community. Peshev is said to have personally demanded of both the prime minister and the minister of interior that the deportation order be rescinded. His outspoken campaign rallied many others to his side, and on March 9, 1943, the deportation was cancelled.
For his trouble, Peshev was ostracized and censured by parliament. And while the entire Jewish community of nearly 50,000 people inside Bulgaria’s internationally recognized borders were spared, 11,323 Jews under Bulgarian administration were ultimately deported from Macedonia and Thrace, most to the Nazi death camp at Treblinka.
Peshev’s efforts to confront the pro-Nazi government in Sofia were not the only activity underway to save Bulgaria’s Jews. Two leading figures of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s 11-member Holy Synod — Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia, who headed the Church, and Metropolitan Kiril of Plovdiv — led their own initiative, which began with consideration of saving the few hundred Bulgarian Jews who had converted to Christianity, and then to a full-fledged campaign to protect the entire community.
While church bodies elsewhere in Nazi occupied or allied Europe either collaborated with Berlin or simply looked the other way, the Bulgarian Church, in language and deed way ahead of its time, reasoned that its institutional (and personal) conscience could simply not allow its fellow citizens to be rounded up and sent off to be killed.
Metropolitan Stefan had denounced Hitler from the pulpit as “the miserable and insane Fuhrer,” and stated that, “there is no Jewish problem in Bulgaria.” Both he and Metropolitan Kiril repeatedly urged Bulgaria’s King Boris to repeal the harsh restrictions on the Jewish community, and the deportation orders.
Metropolitan Kliment of Stara Zagora, said, “we cannot stay indifferent to the fate of the persecuted Jewish minority because we would be condemned by God.” He also stated, “If today we are being asked from different directions where the Church was to take its stand of this question, tomorrow when this problem will be discussed during more peaceful times, we would be blamed for not speaking up.”
In 2005, B’nai B’rith supported the translation and publication of the minutes of the Holy Synod’s intense discussions about the deportation and how to confront it, by Sofia University’s Center for Jewish Studies. The book, “The Power of Civil Society in a Time of Genocide: Proceedings of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church on the Rescue of Jews in Bulgaria 1940-1944,” should be required reading for those seeking inspiration in the battle for human rights in these still-early years of the 21st century.
There are too few examples of courage, compassion, and action to protect and save Jews in Europe in both the lead-up to, and during the Holocaust. There are, of course, many individuals, like Peshev, Metropolitan Stefan, and Metropolitan Kiril, who are honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for their personal acts of humanity and bravery. Albania, Bulgaria, and Denmark stand out as a small, select group when we think of entire communities that survived the onslaught against the Jewish people in Europe, wholly, or nearly intact. Seventy-eight years after the end of the Holocaust, that circle of honor will sadly not grow larger.
Over the decades, there has been an ongoing debate about who was actually responsible for the rescue, or as others call it, the salvation, of Bulgarian Jewry. Knowing what we do today about the intentions of operatives like Belev and others higher up to do the Nazis bidding to rid the country of its Jews, we can appreciate even more such acts of courage demonstrated by Peshev and the Orthodox Church leadership.
I believe there is a third, indispensable element: ordinary Bulgarian citizens. Jews were their neighbors, and their shoemakers, tailors, teachers, doctors, and pharmacists. Maybe it is Bulgaria’s history of having been crisscrossed by migrations over centuries that made tolerance more than just a slogan. Not all, but many simply would not accept the idea that Bulgarian Jews, their fellow citizens, would be no more.
Twenty years ago, in Kyustendil, I attended a ceremony marking the anniversary of the rescue. In the town square, after a number of speeches by government representatives and other dignitaries, the program concluded. A woman, then perhaps in her seventies, rushed to the podium and was speaking animatedly to Bulgaria’s foreign minister, and then to the deputy ambassador of Israel. It caught my eye and I asked what was going on. The woman, the Israeli representative told me, had Jewish friends growing up in the town, and they left for Israel after the war. Could they possibly help her find them? For 60 years, she had been thinking of those classmates.
Do nations and peoples learn from such examples? Seemingly not. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to cite them, to remember and to hand them down to succeeding generations. Surely, amongst them, are a Peshev or a Metropolitan Stefan or a Metropolitan Kiril. And for that, no effort can be too great.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International. As the organization’s top executive officer, Mariaschin directs and supervises B’nai B’rith programs, activities and staff around the world.