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Bulgarian Heroism - Individual and Collective - Trumped Official Anti-Semitism

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Summer 2004

During World War II, Bulgarians sought to preserve their national reputation by protecting their Jewish population. Because of this national pride and a feeling of fraternity with the largely assimilated Bulgarian Jews, the entire Bulgarian Jewish community managed to survive World War II. Despite all of Bulgaria’s embarrassments - the alliance with Nazi Germany, military aid to the Nazi war effort, and even Bulgarian soldiers involvement in the holocaust in the Balkans - the Bulgarian people can be proud that when the call came to turn on their Jewish brothers, they said “No,” and by thus doing, saved the entire community.  

Without a doubt, Bulgaria’s national reputation emerged from World War II with a deep stain. Bulgarian soldiers and policemen rounded up and dispatched more than 11,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia to Nazi death camps. Not only did the Bulgarians do the Germans’ dirty work, they did it brutally, beating and abusing the downtrodden Jews headed to their deaths.  

However, despite repeated pressure from Nazi Germany and from internal right-wing elements, Bulgarians managed to resist calls to turn on their countrymen. The efforts of Bulgarians of all stripes ultimately put enough pressure on the weak king to delay and eventually call off the plans for deportation. Bulgaria deserves no beatification for its World War II role, but the tremendous support from so many Bulgarians that saved this Jewish community is a story of heroism and brotherhood that is worth remembering.  

Bulgaria’s Ancient Jewish Community  

The community was comprised mainly of Sephardic Jews who had settled there after the Spanish Inquisition. Bulgaria never had Jewish ghettos. This integration was a key difference between Bulgaria and the rest of Eastern Europe. Bulgaria’s Jews lived there comfortably for centuries - free from the pogroms, persecutions, and expulsions that were common in other parts of Eastern Europe. Anti-Semitism did exist, but it was never as harsh or powerful as it was in Bulgaria’s neighbors.  

According to a 1934 census, there were 48,400 Bulgarian Jews, making up 0.8 percent of the country’s population. The overwhelming majority of them lived in cities, and about half of them lived in Sofia.  

Zionism was a powerful force among Bulgarian Jews, but they did not allow this sentiment to interfere with their patriotism. After all, Jewish history in Bulgaria stretched back many centuries. The first Jews settled in Bulgaria in A.D. 70, after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. The Jews arrived before the Slavs and the Bulgars, according to Michael Bar-Zohar, author of “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews.”  

Bar-Zohar writes, “Jewish merchants and craftsmen had been enticed by the trade potential of the country and the tolerance of the local population. These favorable conditions didn’t change when the Slavs moved into the Balkans in the sixth century, followed by the Bulgar warrior tribes that emerged from the plains of Central Asia.” One example of this tolerance is that in the 14th century Bulgaria had a Jewish queen.  

Centuries of Coexistence  

Jacky Comforty, who produced the 2001 documentary “The Optimists: The Story of the Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust,” partly attributes the rescue of the Jews to the centuries of peaceful coexistence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Bulgaria. For 500 years the Bulgarians also faced a common enemy in the Turks, as together they chafed under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.  

Jews, like all Bulgarians, had hard lives. They were largely poor, working as artisans and laborers, and they lived alongside Christian and Muslim Bulgarians. Most Jews were blue-collar workers, with only a few working as doctors, engineers, lawyers and dentists. Because of their economic equality, other Bulgarians regarded them as equals and there was little tension.  

Without a separate language, distinct clothes, skullcaps, beards or side locks, Jews were largely indistinguishable from other Bulgarians. Bar-Zohar writes that Jews “felt a deep sense of belonging, passionately loved the country, and were ready to fight and die for it.”  

Bulgaria also had a very progressive government. In 1879, after Bulgaria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, the state adopted one of the most progressive constitutions in Europe, in which the Jews were granted full equality. This fact notwithstanding, Jews were largely excluded from politics and when Peter Gabe, a Jew was elected to the Bulgarian Parliament, the Sobranie, refused to recognize the election, and he was replaced with a Christian.  

Jews showed their love for country by volunteering for the Balkan Wars and World War I. After the war with Serbia, Prince Alexander Battenberg, decorated David Mizrahi, the commander of one of the Jewish Legions, and saluted his soldiers as “genuine heirs of the Maccabean spirit.” Jews served both as enlisted and officers and rose as high as the rank of colonel.  

Law for the Defense of the Nation  

Despite this widespread acceptance, the Bulgarian parliament passed anti-semitic legislation similar to Germany’s Nuremberg laws. The Law for the Defense of the Nation was introduced on October 7, 1940, and officially published Jan. 23, 1941. It depicted the Jews as the greatest enemy to the Bulgarian nation. A key difference between the Bulgarian and German legislation is that Jews were defined by their religion, not their blood.  

The legislation placed wide ranging restrictions on Jews, including barring them from voting or running for office, serving in a public capacity or in the Bulgarian army, or being employed by the state. Bulgarians were not allowed to adopt Jewish children, and Jews became ineligible for Bulgarian citizenship. Bulgarians and Jews could not marry or live together, and Jews could not employ Bulgarian domestic help.  

But this law was not codified amid enthusiasm or even passive acceptance. Rather, much of Bulgarian society rallied behind the Jews, warning that anti-Semitism would stain Bulgaria’s reputation.  

On October 22, 1940, the Bulgarian Writers’ Union issued a protest statement to the prime minister and the chairman of the National Assembly: Signed by 21 writers, including most of the most prominent writers of the time, it said,”We are very surprised, and even embarrassed, by the fact that it has been deemed necessary to devise such a law when our nation is not being threatened or attacked by anyone. In our opinion, such a law will be very harmful to our people. Our legislature must not approve a law that will enslave one part of Bulgaria’s citizens, and leave a black page in our modem history.”  

Lawyers’ Union  

In a similar tone, the Governing Board of the Bulgarian Lawyers’ Union issued a statement on the same day to the chairman of the National Assembly: “Not only are these measures unjustified, they also contradict the free and democratic spirit of the Bulgarian people, who, in all the long years of the Ottoman yoke and its miseries, misfortunes, and injustices, never considered the Jews their enemies or oppressors.”  

Several hundred non-Jewish citizens from Sofia wrote to the speaker of the house in the Bulgarian parliament, “This law and others like it are putting an end to our popular and constitutional freedoms, for which our forefathers shed their blood. ... We most vigorously protest against the passing of this bill, which is anti-national.”  

A group of Plovdiv tobacco workers sent a cable to the Parliament, “The Law for the Defense of the Nation ... is an attempt to deny the daily bread from our Jewish colleagues. The patriotic Jewish tobacco workers, who work at our side ... deserve a more humane treatment.”  

Shoemakers sent their own telegraph, “The Bulgarian workers have always stood against the maltreatment of the weak and defenseless.” Tailors, peddlers, bakers, textile workers, technicians, carpenters, food workers, and students all dispatched furious telegrams to the house speaker and the cabinet ministers. Residents of the Losenetz district in Sofia wrote that 8 percent of the soldiers killed in Bulgaria’s wars were Jewish.  

Violent Resistance  

Summing up the Bulgarian reaction to the law, journalist Dimo Kazasov wrote in his diary, “The bill met with violent resistance from the Bulgarian people, whose spirit of tolerance could not silently accept the anti-Semitism that the new Bulgarian racists were trying to graft onto a land watered with the blood of thousands of men and women who had fought for complete equality among peoples. The Bulgarians knew full well what it meant to be enslaved, oppressed, and denied all rights; they could not wish these oppressive social conditions on others or remain indifferent to this shameful law that put a stain on our history, our traditions, and our struggles. And so with protests and petitions the people rose up against the cannibalism of the Nazi campaign.”  

Kazasov continued: “The social strata that were openly opposed to the law included the workers, peasants, tradesmen, the progressive sector of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie, the Church, and the intelligentsia. The social strata who supported it were the predatory commercial and industrial bourgeosie, the vindictive Germanophile intelligentsia, and the lumpen proletariat.”  

Other anti-Semitic groups that backed the legislation included the Federation of Bulgarian Reserve Officers, the Federation of Bulgarian Noncommissioned Officers, the war invalids, the pharmacists union and the merchants union (both of which stood to benefit from the law), and the Bulgarian Students’ Union, which called for Jews to cease playing such a large role in the country’s economy.  

Despite the opposition, the law passed, and it did not only get support from fascists and anti-Semites. Many Bulgarians were worried about antagonizing Germany and they felt passing anti-Semitic legislation was a small price to pay. Though a friend of the Jews, Parliament Deputy Speaker Dimiter Peshev supported the law.  

Peshev explained his position and that of like-minded deputies: “The interest of [our] policy with Germany, policy from which we expected the achievement of basic national and political goals, could justify certain temporary restrictive measures against the Jews, if they could help that policy. Nobody, though, agreed or admitted that these measures could become permanent, or that they would take the dimensions and form applied by the Germans.”  

Tripartite Pact and More Anti-Semitic Legislation  

The Law for the Defense of Nation was published just a few weeks before King Boris traveled to Germany in November 1940 to meet with Hitler and sign the Tripartite Pact. With this pact, Bulgaria would begin to feel increasing external pressure to pass more and more anti-Semitic measures. One restriction that shortly followed the signing of the pact was that on May 1, 1941, all Jewish men between the ages of 20 and 40 were compelled to serve in army labor units.  

The Jews were barred from the military after a long, honorable record of military service. Trying to adjust to the new situation, the official Jewish newspaper declared: “Those who defend our borders and those who plough the land, build roads or erect bridges - they all serve the motherland ... True, in the recent past the Jews, together with their Bulgarian colleagues, spilled their blood on the battlefields ... They now will apply all their physical and spiritual forces in order to fulfill with honor and truthfulness the labor tasks they will be ordered to accomplish.”  

In the summer of 1941 more restrictions were applied to the Jews. Bulgaria bowed to German requests to expel Jews who were foreign nationals, and she removed her protection from Bulgarian Jews living abroad. Bulgaria also enforced some of the financial measures in the Law for the Defense of Nation, imposing taxes of 20 to 25 percent on Jewish property. Some Jewish businesses along with all Jewish-owned radio sets and automobiles were confiscated. Jews also had to obey a curfew from 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.  

Despite these increasing restrictions, Tzvetan Todorov, author of “The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria’s Jews Survived the Holocaust,” notes, “The administration took considerable liberties in applying these orders; the king and his ministers alike maintained cordial relations with prominent members of the Jewish community, and Bulgarian consulates abroad continued to issue visas to Jews who requested them.”  

But the Germans were growing impatient with Bulgaria. Walter Schellenberg, chief of the Reichsicherheitshauptamt espionage, reported back to Germany’s foreign ministry that the high political spheres in Bulgaria believe that the anti-Semitic measures had gone too far. He reported that many of the law’s provisions had not been enforced. He then listed government officials and members of the royal court who had Jewish connections, mixed marriages, or blood relations with Jews.  

Thrace and Macedonia  

Under the Tripartite Pact, Bulgaria annexed Dobrudja from Romania, Thrace from Greece, and Macedonia from Yugoslavia. The final status of Macedonia and Thrace was to be decided after the war, while Dobrudja became Bulgarian territory. Bulgarian troops were dispatched to all three territories, relieving the burden on German soldiers.  

On Feb. 22, 1943, Alexander Belev, the Bulgarian Commissar for Jewish Questions signed an agreement with German envoy Theodore Dannecker authorizing the deportation of twenty thousand Jews.  

Two weeks later, on March 4, 1943, Bulgarian police and soldiers brutally rounded up the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace. No German forces were involved. The Bulgarian forces beat and abused the downtrodden Jews. They robbed them of all their possessions, conducted violent physical searches, and rape was not uncommon. In all, more than 11,000 Jews of Bulgarian occupied Thrace and Macedonia were rounded up and deported to Poland. Nearly all were killed.  

Gideon Hausner, the prosecuting attorney at the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial, wrote, “Bulgaria has the distinction of being the only country that signed a written contract to supply Jews to Germany, undertook to pay for their transport, and stipulated that she would never and under no circumstances request their return.”  

These communities were isolated from Bulgaria proper and therefore could not benefit from the largely egalitarian feelings that existed there. Bar-Zohar writes, “They were a forgotten community: They had no protectors, no friends in the political circles in Bulgaria, and no connections with the Bulgarian elites. They were not regarded as Bulgarians, and even their contacts with the Bulgarian Jews were limited.”  

The Germans insisted that the Jews in Thrace and Macedonia belonged to them. However, Bulgarian resolve to protect them might have made a difference as it did when the Italians protected Yugoslav Jews.  

As the miserable cargo traveled across Bulgaria, Bulgarian Jews became aware of the plight of their coreligionists. The terrible tragedy suffered by the Thracian and Macedonian Jews raised awareness in Bulgaria proper about what might befall the Jews there.  

Focus on Bulgaria  

After the operations in Macedonia and Thrace, the Bulgarian anti-semites and German envoys turned their attention to the Jews within Bulgaria’s borders. At first it looked like they would suffer the same fate.  

However, when the same methods were employed in Bulgaria as in other European countries, the Bulgarian Jews appealed to their fellow citizens, and they found that their cries did not fall on deaf ears.  

When the Jews from Kyustendil discovered they were slated to be deported, they decided to form a delegation of non-Jews to go to Sofia to lobby on their behalf The member of parliament from Kyustendil, Peter Mikhalev, agreed to be part of the delegation. An attorney and former district governor of the region, Mikhalev said action was necessary “to prevent the tragic fate of a thousand of our co-citizens. The deportation means their death. In no case should we allow their departure from the town.” Mikhalev told the governor, “Until you hear from me, you will not allow the police to cooperate [with the Commissariat for Jewish Questions], and without the police the deportation of the Jews will not be possible.”  

The delegation met with Dimiter Peshev, the other Kyustendil member of parliament. Although he had voted for the Law for the Defense of the Nation, Peshev was no anti-Semite, and he would prove it through his strong advocacy for the Jews at this time.  

Peshev, with the delegation, marched to the office of Interior Minister Peter Gabrovski. Gabrovski was openly anti-Semitic and Belev’s patron, but he was still wary of the deportation plans, fearing that the Bulgarian people would oppose them. For this reason, he insisted that they be kept secret, and he was concerned when the word got out. Gabrovski canceled the deportation orders, in part because of Peshev and the Kyustendil delegation.  

Peshev Letter  

After the deportation orders were canceled, Peshev did not end his efforts. He rallied his fellow deputies and on March 19, 1943, he and 42 of his colleagues sent a letter protesting the government’s policy toward the Jews. It stated: “The use of exceptional and cruel measures, measures that may expose the government and the entire nation to accusations of mass murder, are unwarranted and excessive. The consequences of this policy would be particularly grave for the government, but they would weigh upon the Bulgarian people as well. These consequences can be easily foreseen, and for this reason the policy is inadmissible. We cannot share any responsibility for it whatsoever. Good government requires basic legal principles, just as life requires air to breathe. The honor of Bulgaria is not just a matter of sentiment, it is also and above all a matter of policy. It is of immense political capital and no one has the right to jeopardize it without good reasons approved by the whole nation.”  

Peshev knew that he could sign up many members of the opposition, but he worried that the leaders of the government would dismiss their opinions. For this reason, he only sought the signatures of members of the majority and two opposition deputies with reputations as strong supporters of Bulgaria’s relationship with Germany. He wanted to be sure it could not be written off as a political ploy.  

Peshev later recalled how his colleagues viewed his letter. “Many deputies, I noticed, seemed to be relieved to sign it; one could sense the degree to which they had been troubled, the great dismay they had felt in the face of recent events, and the profound awareness they had of their responsibilities. I remember a remark made by the deputy from Breznik, A. Simov, immediately after affixing his signature. ‘Bulgaria’s honor is safe,’ he said. His words captured the feelings and the convictions of many in that company who disapproved of a situation that they had not foreseen and that had taken them by surprise.”  

Peshev’s role was a heroic and important one. But Peshev was only one part of a larger effort that leveraged many different Bulgarian communities, from the common man, to the politicians, to the church leaders, and finally to the king himself  

Role of the Church  

The church, which was an extremely important institution in Bulgarian society did not stay on the sidelines of this issue. Some of the church’s most prominent leaders got involved and helped lead the opposition to the deportation efforts.  

Although the deportation orders were canceled on March 9, not all authorities received this information before they began rounding up the Jews on the morning of March 10. Cyril, the metropolitan of Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city, recalled his experience: “On the night of 9 March, at 3:00 a.m., between 1500 and 1600 Jews were arrested in Plovdiv. They were assembled in a schoolhouse and were to be sent to Poland, like the Jews from the new territories of Thrace and Macedonia. I learned of this later in the day. I did not know exactly what was happening and assumed that Jews all over the country had been arrested overnight. A special train was supposed to arrive at the station to take them away. There was widespread indignation among the public. All I could do was act in accordance with the decisions and instructions of the Holy Synod and follow the voice of my conscience. I sent a telegram to His Majesty the King, begging him in God’s name to have pity on these unfortunate people.”7  

Cyril then met with the police chief’s assistant and urged him “to let the government know that I, who until now have always been loyal towards the government, now reserved the right to act with a free hand in this matter and heed only the dictates of my conscience. Then I received the delegation of baptized Jews. I calmed them, telling them that if they were in danger, they could take asylum in my house. Now we will see whether [the authorities] will come to seek them there. In acting thus, I was following the example of the first Christians, who not only rescued their own but also took up collections among themselves to buy the freedom of foreign-born Christian slaves. I was informed subsequently that an order had been given, around noon, to free the prisoners; it was received with great joy.”  

Voice of Conscience  

Metropolitan Stefan of Sofis recalled how he opposed the assault on the Jews: “We stood resolutely beside the cruelly persecuted Jewish community, heeding only the voice of our conscience as prescribed by our faith and the obligations imposed by our civic freedom. Acting from our position of authority within the Church, we addressed many messages to the public, to the government, and to our head of state, urging that the deportation of the Jews to Poland be stopped and that those who had already been deported to the concentration camps be returned to their homes.”  

Speaking on May 24, a Bulgarian holiday celebrating Saint Kyril and Saint Methodius, Stefan spoke before a huge crowd in Sofia that included the ministers of government. He said, “This year our celebration is flawed by the persecution undertaken against the Jews. [This celebration] is not according to tradition, because the Jewish students are absent. I send from this high place an appeal to the state authorities to not enslave the freedom-loving, democratic and friendly Bulgarian spirit. . . to foreign indoctrination, influences, and orders.. . . In this holiday of our great teachers I beg those who steer the ship of our state, to remove any policy of estrangement, division and persecution.”  

The church leaders, who had a good relationship with the king and held a great deal of influence with the Bulgarian people, took institutional and personal risks by attempting to protect the Jews. The actions of the church must be seen as one of the critical elements in the positive outcome of this crisis.  

Assessing the role of the church, Bar-Zohar writes, “The Church stood firm against the government’s policy. There is no doubt that in the entire history of the Holocaust, the Bulgarian church stood high above any other Pravoslav, Protestant, or Catholic church, in her bold and unyielding struggle to rescue the Jews.”  

Role of the King  

King Boris was known as a friend of the Jews, but he had quietly acquiesced to the deportation of the Thracian and Macedonian Jews. The king believed that it was not his responsibility, and defined it as “deportation from Hitler’s military command.” Boris also maintained an alliance with Nazi Germany and presided over the passage of anti-Semitic legislation. But when it came to the Jews living in Bulgaria proper, Boris was a force for good.  

Historians describe Boris as weak and nonconfrontational. When a controversial decision had to be made, he disappeared to a country home or delayed having to take action. But with the Bulgarian Jews, Boris decided that deporting them would harm Bulgaria’s reputation and therefore it was not in the national interest.  

Todorov writes that the king’s “actions were guided by self-interest, or rather, by what he saw as Bulgaria’s interests; for someone like Boris, who identified completely with his country, the two were indistinguishable. What motivated him was national interest as he understood it, not humanitarian principles. Small countries have to come to terms with great ones. Hitler had the power; thus some of his demands had to be accepted. The king did manage to keep Bulgaria’s soldiers out of the fray (the army’s occupation of the promised lands of Thrace and Macedonia notwithstanding). But when it came to turning over the Jews, as Hitler, Himmler, and Ribbentrop demanded, it was necessary to yield somewhat here in order to gain elsewhere; in other words, to deport the Jews from the occupied territories but not those from ‘old Bulgaria’; to expel the Jews from Sofia but not from Bulgaria.”  

Church Speaks Out  

The heads of the Bulgarian church sent a letter to the king criticizing the government policy, and urging the king to stop the implementation of anti-semitic legislation. They wrote, “Through this august action, Your Majesty, you will dispel the suspicion that Bulgaria is a prisoner of Hitler’s anti-European policy, you will spare our country from the greatest crime and most perfidious act - hatred towards men - and you will appear in all the strength and magnificence of your royal power as the protector and defender of the Bulgarian aspiration to liberty and justice, peace and love, thus preserving for evermore the halo of Bulgarian tolerance and democratic spirit.”  

In response to the letter, on April 15, the king invited them to the palace in Vrana. He spoke angrily to them, spewing much of the anti-Semitic propaganda that was characteristic of the government in power. He said, “This [Jewish] spirit has been creating everywhere hatred, loss of faith, moral degradation, and treason. This spirit of profiteering and negation has created and creates, in peoples and societies, unrest, divisions, conflicts, wars, and troubles. The present world cataclysm has been, to a large extent, caused by this spirit.” He did add as a caveat that the measures would be taken so that as few of the Jews as possible would suffer.  

Some historians dismiss such comments as those of a leader, whose palace was full of German spies and who was desperate to avoid reports that he was not committed to the German cause. Others say that his comments should be taken at face value: Boris may have been an anti-Semite, but he deplored the attempts to murder the Jews, in part because this would damage Bulgaria’s reputation.  

Decisive Role  

Despite Boris’s long inaction on the plight of the Jews, he appears to have played a decisive role in putting an end to Bulgarian plans to deport the Jews. He stopped kowtowing to the Germans, and insisted Bulgaria could not afford to deport the Jews because Jewish men were serving a vital role in road building projects. This task for the Jews was by no means easy and stories of abuse by Bulgarian guards were not uncommon, but the alternative was deportation to Poland. Boris said that he followed this course of action “in order to avoid the sending of the Jews from the old boundaries to Poland.” Boris believed that he could not entirely oppose the Germans and decided that instead of deporting the Jews to Poland, he would isolate them from the rest of Bulgarian society.  

Bar-Zohar writes, “Peshev’s eleventh-hour initiative, combined with the staunch struggle of the Church and the intellectual elites, had shaken the king and made him come to his senses. It had torn him from his meek obedience to the Germans. It had showed him that the Bulgarian society, and even his most loyal and devoted followers in the Sobranie, couldn’t accept such treatment of the Jews.” After a meeting with Ribbentrop in which the Germans renewed demands for the Bulgarian Jews, the king said to Prime Minister Bogdan Filov and Gabrovski on April 13, 1943, “We must mobilize the able [Jewish] men in labor units and thus avoid the deportation of the Jews from the old boundaries to Poland.” Boris thought that by carrying out this action he would avoid a direct conflict with the Germans, something he desperately wanted to do because he feared they would depose him.  

Describing the attitudes in Bulgaria, Beckerle said, “I am convinced that the Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet desire and aspire to a final and total solution of the Jewish question. But they are tied by the mentality of the Bulgarian people, that lacks the ideological enlightenment that we have. The Bulgarian, who was raised with Armenians, Greeks and Gypsies, doesn’t see in the Jews any flaws justifying taking special measures against them.”  

National Reputation  

Beckerle also commented on Bulgarians’ interest in their national reputation. “Bulgaria doesn’t want to take upon herself the reputation of being the champion of the anti-Jewish hatred.”  

The tense relationship with Germany continued, and in June, 1943, Boris was summoned by Hitler. Bar-Zohar writes, “The main reason for Boris’s invitation to the Eagle’s Nest was to confirm his continuing loyalty to Germany, as his refusal to deport the Jews on May 20 could indicate a wavering of his support. It appears that Germany looked upon Bulgaria’s treatment of the Jews as a barometer of her loyalty.”  

On August 14, Boris was summoned by Hitler. He had a stormy meeting with Hitler, von Ribbentrop and German generals in which the Nazis pressured Boris to declare war on the Soviet Union and commit troops. But Boris refused, determined not to make the same mistakes of his father in World War I, in which Bulgaria fought on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary with disastrous results  

Two weeks later, on August 28, Boris died. The cause of his death is not clear, though at the time there was widespread speculation that he was poisoned by the Germans because of his reluctance to give in to German demands including not only the deportation of the Jews, but also his refusal to send troops to German occupied territories. The Germans also feared that Bulgaria might seek a separate peace with the allies. It is still not entirely clear how he died, though poisoning continues to be a likely suspect.  

Expulsion from Sofia  

Although the Bulgarian Jews won a reprieve from deportation to German death camps, they still had to face domestic anti-Semitism. Thousands of Jewish men had already been drafted into labor camps. And in the spring in which the Jews escaped deportation to Germany, on May 26, 19,153 Jews were deported from Sofia to the provinces.  

Tsvyatko Boboshevski and Damyan Velchev, members of the extra-parliamentary, non-Communist opposition, described what happened: “Two days ago, the Commisariat for Jewish Questions ordered residents of Sofia who are of Jewish origin to prepare their most essential personal effects, to draw up and submit an inventory of their personal property, and to present themselves, together with their families, in three days at specified hours at Sofia station; from there they are to be sent to a destination of unknown origin where they face possible execution. This mass deportation of Bulgarian citizens who enjoy the same rights as all others and who are guilty of no crime has been condemned by the great majority of Bulgarians and aroused their compassion. In subjecting our innocent fellow citizens to this cruel and pitiless measure, not only are we squandering a vast moral capital of which our generous and tolerant people had every right to be proud, we are also harming Bulgaria’s reputation in the eyes of the world and compromising its future national interests.”  

The Jews did not face execution or particularly cruel treatment after their expulsion. That is not to say that life was easy or that they did not continue to face the anti-Semitism that had been characteristic of Bulgaria’s wartime regime, but in Bulgaria they remained safe from the holocaust.  


As few stories are, the Bulgarian one is neither absolutely good nor absolutely evil. It falls into a gray area. Still in the context of World War II, there were few countries that even managed to make it into this gray area. Bulgaria ranks with Denmark and Italy as nations that managed to rescue substantial portions of their Jewish population. Like Italy, it must bear the shame of having been allied with Nazi Germany and aided in some parts of the holocaust. However, Bulgaria can be proud that it managed to save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews.  

Beckerle realized that the Bulgarians, even those in high positions, were not anti-Semitic. He reported to Berlin: “The Bulgarian society doesn’t understand the real meaning of the Jewish question. Beside the few rich Jews in Bulgaria there are many poor people, who make their living as workers and artisans. Partly raised together with Greeks, Armenians, Turks and Gypsies, the average Bulgarian doesn’t understand the meaning of the struggle against the Jews, the more so as the racial question is totally foreign to him.”  

The story remains obscure, in part because it was buried during the Cold War. The communists tried to claim credit, while hiding the heroism of three of their greatest foes: the church, the royal court, and fascist politicians. Only after the fall of communism did the documents necessary to tell this story become available.  

After the war, most Bulgarian Jews eventually made their way to Israel. But they did not forget Bulgaria, maintaining the musical and culinary customs that were born in that country. Bulgarian immigrants to Israel also pooled their resources to provide pensions for some of the non-Jewish heroes who helped rescue them during the war, but suffered in poverty under communism.  

The story of Bulgaria shows that the horrors that happened to the Jews in most European countries were not an unavoidable conclusion. Something could have been done. Bulgarians, unable to accept that their Jewish countrymen would be deported to death camps, rose up and signed petitions, held rallies and pressured politicians. And they succeeded in saving their Jewish community from a certain death in German concentration camps.  

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.