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Honorary Consul of Bulgaria to NY Member of the Board of Governors of AJC My husband is a member of the Board of TTS
4. Most important, mother of our daughter born in Bulgaria—by learning about Remi’s country of birth, I fell in love with Bulgaria and its people.
I’ve been asked to briefly discuss Bulgaria’s heroic rescue of all of its 48,000 Jewish citizens during World War II. It is a story that is too little known—even by those knowledgeable in Holocaust history. So, I hope that those here who do know the history will indulge me if I recount it in my own way. The broad contours of the story are clear: Despite enormous pressure from the Nazis, none of Bulgaria’s 48,000 Jews were sent to the death camps of Poland. All survived. While many details of the story are disputed, there can be no doubt that the bravery and the goodness of the Bulgarian people were responsible for this extraordinary result. For me, the story begins after the Balkan Wars and World War I, as a result of which Bulgaria lost its province of Dobrudja to Romania and its provinces of Thrace and Macedonia to Greece. This was a huge blow to Bulgaria’s concept of nationhood, one not easily forgotten. So when, in 1940, Hitler gave Bulgaria’s King Boris the ultimatum of either being conquered by German forces, or of becoming allied with the Nazis, and very possibly having those provinces returned to Bulgaria, Boris was left with little choice and agreed to ally with Germany. The Bulgarians initially embraced this arrangement. Hitler immediately agreed to return the province of Dobrudja to Bulgaria. And, after Bulgaria officially joined the Axis coalition in 1941, Bulgaria was promised Thrace and Macedonia at the end of the war. In the meantime, Bulgaria was given administrative control over those provinces. Most Bulgarians were enormously pleased with these events and hailed Boris as the Unifier King. But, as we all know, the Nazis had an agenda wholly apart from its goals of conquest—the elimination of the Jews, certainly at least in all territories allied with, or occupied by, Germany. That included Bulgaria. As a first step, in late 1940, Bulgaria was pressured to adopt the “Law for the Defense of the Nation.” This law was modeled after the infamous Nuremberg laws, which severely restricted property and civil rights of Jews and required them to wear Jewish stars. But this part of the Nazi agenda was not welcomed by the Bulgarian people. Bulgarians from all parts of the society—writers, poets, lawyers, former ministers, the Orthodox Church, journalists, university professors and ordinary citizens—protested this legislation. As one letter of protest put it: “This is not a law for the nation’s defense but rather a proposal for its infamy.” Even though the law eventually passed, the Bulgarian government realized that solving the “Jewish question” was not going to be easy. And for a time, much to the dismay of the Nazis, the Law for the Defense of the
Nation was only minimally enforced. Even though many Jewish men were sent to forced labor camps, many attempts to enforce the laws were met with resistance from the Bulgarian people who routinely visited their Jewish friends after curfew, bringing them much needed food. Frustrated, in the fall of 1942, the Nazis forced the issue, insisting that Bulgaria establish a Commissariat for Jewish Relations. After training in Germany, Alexsander Belev, a rabidly anti-Semitic Bulgarian, was appointed Commissar--his job description included the deportation of all Jews to the death camps of Poland. From the government’s experience with the Law for the Defense of the Nation, Belev knew that any attempt to deport Bulgaria’s Jews would have to be carried out in secret or risk public outcry. So, in early 1943, Belev signed a secret agreement with Germany, which called for Bulgaria to deport 20,000 Jews, over 11,000 from Thrace and Macedonia, and the balance from Bulgaria itself. ////// The tragedy of this story is that over 11,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia were deported by the Bulgarian army to the camps of Poland….. Less than a dozen survived. Then it came time to deport the more than 8,000 Jewish citizens of Bulgaria still needed to fulfill Belev’s quota. In utmost secrecy, deportation was set for March 9, 1943. But word of the deportations leaked out. A delegation of non-Jews from Kyustendil traveled at dawn to enlist the help of Dmitar Peshev, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament. He was shocked and outraged. He immediately confronted the powerful Nazi-sympathizing Interior Minister, who first denied the existence of the deportation order, and then, confronted with proof of the order and Peshev’s refusal to leave his office, finally called off the deportations. In a drama almost unimaginable in Nazi World War II, thousands of Jews who had been rounded up and were waiting in schools and warehouses to board trains bound for the death camps-----were sent home. I agree with those who believe that this decision would not have been made without the approval of King Boris himself who was being subjected to continued pressure from the Bulgarian church and other leaders of Bulgarian society. When Belev and the Nazis realized that their carefully laid deportation plans had been cancelled, they were furious. But they had no intention of giving up. They promptly plotted new schemes to deport all of Bulgaria’s Jews. In May & June, 1943, over 20,000 Jews were sent to the countryside--- Belev’s first step to deporting them out of the country. But the opposition from all segments of Bulgarian society was simply too strong. 42 members of Parliament’s ruling party protested any deportation. Again, leading lawyers, doctors, politicians of all stripes, academicians and others joined the outcry. Metropolitan Kyril of Plovdiv threatened to lie down on the tracks to prevent deportations. The Holy Synod, led by Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia, continued to pressure the King unrelentingly, both publicly and privately, to stop any deportations. Once again, beset with these pressures, the King felt he had no choice. Ordered to a meeting with Hitler, the King refused Hitler’s demand that the Bulgarian Jews be deported, claiming that he needed them to build roads. Hitler knew this was a ruse but was not in a position to oppose the King. All able-bodied Jewish men were sent to labor camps; and, as I said, other Jews were sent from cities to the countryside; but no Jew was ever forced to leave Bulgaria.
After the war ended, the Jews returned to their homes, which often had been kept for them intact by their neighbors. WHY? Why did this small, relatively powerless nation the sake of its Jewish people? openly defy the Nazis for
Many reasons have been advanced and debated. It is clear, for example, that the Jews of Bulgaria lived side by side with other Bulgarians and were never treated differently or regarded themselves as different. At the core, however, I believe the rescue resulted from Bulgaria’s long history of oppression and its tolerance and integration of diverse groups within its society. This tradition included the exercise of the moral authority of the Bulgarian church. I would like to close with an excerpt from Metropolitan Stefan’s plea to the King in May 1943, to halt the deportation of the Jews: “In keeping with… the spirit of which the Bulgarian people have been educated; in keeping with the considerations and prescriptions dictated by international norms for human life; … in keeping with the real, well-known and deep-felt tolerance that the Bulgarian people have demonstrated with regard to the Jewish minority historically and still demonstrate today, we implore Your Majesty to stop the implementation of the anti-Jewish law and order its full cancellation…. [T]his august action, Your Majesty,…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….” The award tonight--- named in honor of the spirit of those people in Bulgaria and in the countries of Scandinavia who rescued their neighbors during the Holocaust— is being given to someone who is deeply deserving, and who, indeed, embodies this very same consciousness.