text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

The fact is that about 48,000 Jews in Bulgaria proper were spared the Nazi gas chambers and 11,343 Jews from the Bulgarian-administered territories in Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and southern Serbia were not

stars worn by bulgarian jews.jpg

While the details of the latter seem to be well-known at least internationally, the reasons for and the exact sequence of events leading up to the former remain, at best, contentious.

Up until the beginning of 1943 the Bulgarian Government was preparing itself for the implementation of the Wannsee Conference guidelines to exterminate Europe's Jews.

In July 1942 the Bulgarian Parliament adopted legislation to enable the government to make crucial decisions without parliamentary endorsement. Most historians agree that one of the purposes of this act was to pave the way for the deportation of all of Bulgaria's Jews to Auschwitz and Treblinka. In early March 1943 the government started rounding up 7,122 Jews from Macedonia, 4,221 from Thrace and 185 from the area of Pirot, now in Serbia. These people were herded into Bulgarian State Railways cattle-cars and shipped to Poland, either through Yugoslavian territory or through the Bulgarian port of Lom on the Danube. In keeping with a secret agreement with Theodor Dannecker, on 9 March 1943 Jewish families listed as "undesirable" were rounded up in Kyustendil, Dupnitsa, Gorna Dzhumaya (now Blagoevgrad), Plovdiv and Pazardzhik. Miraculously, the trains prepared for them never departed.

Dimitar Peshev monument

The petition to Prime Minister Bogdan Filov to halt the planned deportations of Bulgarian Jews was signed by 43 MPs led by Dimitar Peshev, the deputy speaker of parliament. Pictured A bust of Dimitar Peshev in his native Kyustendil

A few days prior to 9 March 1943, Lilyana Panitsa, the personal assistant to Aleksandar Belev, the head of the Jewish Affairs Commissariat, told some Jewish friends about the planned deportations. The news spread quickly and reached four MPs for Kyustendil, one of the towns whose Jews had been on the departure lists. The four consulted with Dimitar Peshev, himself from Kyustendil and deputy speaker of the National Assembly. They decided that the deportations ought to be stopped, and collectively put pressure on Interior Minister Petar Gabrovski. The trains were halted.

But in those days official orders did not travel as fast as they do today. Some provincial authorities remained unaware of the changed plans. One example was Plovdiv. On the night of 10 March 1943 Jews were already being assembled in the Jewish school. Enraged, Kiril, the Orthodox bishop of Plovdiv, stormed into the school and threatened the police that if they went ahead with the deportation he would open up his churches for Jewish refugees and would hide Jews in his own home.

The planned deportations were halted, but Dimitar Peshev had no illusions that the decision was final. On 17 March 1943 he sent a declaration to Prime Minister Bogdan Filov protesting against his anti-Jewish policies. The declaration was signed by 43 MPs from the ruling majority.

Dimitar Peshev was sacked from his parliamentary position on 26 March 1943. Two months later the government made a new attempt to deport the Bulgarian Jews to Nazi-occupied Poland. Aleksandar Belev had two plans. According to Plan A, all 48,000 Jews were to be shipped in one go. Plan B was more "delicate." It envisaged initially deporting 23,000 Sofia Jews to the provinces, and then rounding up everyone and shipping them to Poland. King Boris favoured Plan B. Aleksandar Belev commissioned six ships at Lom and Somovit to carry the human cargo.

Word of the plan leaked out, and the Jews in Sofia organised mass protests culminating on 24 May 1943, the Day of Saints Cyril and Methodius – a major public holiday in Bulgaria. The Sofia Jews joined the thousands of Bulgarian students and citizens taking part in the official celebrities. The rally was so huge that the police intervened and arrested a few hundred participants, including all Sofia's rabbis and members of the Consistory and the Supreme Israelite Council. Concurrently, the Orthodox Church also intervened. Sofia's Bishop Stefan put pressure on the king to stop the planned expulsions and even instructed his priests to help any Jew who sought shelter.

The Jews of Sofia were indeed deported to the provinces, but in June 1943 the six ships waiting on the Danube to take them to Central Europe left empty.

In the summer of 1943 it became increasingly clear that Germany was losing the war. The main anti-Nazi opposition in Bulgaria, which was dominated by Communists, stepped up its activities. The Germans would make another attempt to force Bulgaria to deport its Jews, but this failed as well. Prime Minister Bogdan Filov himself would tell Adolph Beckerle, the German minister plenipotentiary in Sofia, that deporting the Jews was not on the agenda because of the internal as well as the external trouble it would create.

At the end of August 1943 King Boris III visited Hitler at his Alpine residence in Berchtesgaden, where he again refused to send Bulgarian troops to the Eastern Front. A few days after his return the king died in what many still see as unclear circumstances. The country was tossed into a government crisis. Because the heir to the throne, Simeon, was a minor, a Council of Regents was formed to rule the country. All anti-Jewish measures were suspended in practice.

In the summer of 1944 almost everyone in Bulgaria realised that the pact with Nazi Germany had been a terrible mistake. The government made a number of attempts to distance itself from Germany and join the Allies. On 3 September 1944 some anti-Jewish laws were officially annulled.

On 7 September 1944 the Red Army invaded even though two days previously Bulgaria had declared neutrality. On 9 September, a Communist-led coup toppled the government in Sofia and installed a leftwing Fatherland Front coalition. One of its first decisions was to repeal the Protection of the Nation Act.

King Boris rescue of Bulgarian Jews memorial

In the early 2000s the Bulgarian government installed a plaque in Jerusalem to honour the alleged role of war-time King Boris III in the rescue operation. Following protests by the families of Holocaust survivors, the plaques were removed. They can now be seen in front of Sofia City Council on Moskovska Street

Mainly owing to the massive Communist propaganda during the Cold War and the lack of proper records, some aspects of the salvation of the Bulgarian Jews remain unexplained. While the fact is that only two powers that intervened directly, with real action, were the Peshev-led MPs and the Orthodox Church, theories about who did what and when still proliferate and tend to change depending on one's political inclinations.

Under Communism, the mainstream theory was that the Communist Party and the clandestine Communist media played the decisive role. The Communist ideologues argued that their active support for the Jews prepared the general public for the protests against Jewish disenfranchisement and planned deportation.

After the collapse of Communism in 1989, King Boris III and his wife, Queen Yoanna, were extolled as "saviours." The king, reportedly, had agreed to the Protection of the Nation Act to appease Germany, but then procrastinated in order to save the Jews.

Yet another "saviour" was Petar Danov, according to a more esoteric hypothesis. A mystic and the founder of a religious sect, Danov allegedly held sway over the superstitious king. When he learned of the planned deportations in 1943, Danov is said to have told the king that if a single Jew left, the royal dynasty would be rendered heirless. The king was scared, and stopped the deportations.

Another theory proposes a more practical reason for the salvation of the Jews. According to it, the king did intend to deport them, but only the "undesirable" Bolshevik element. The other Jews would be kept in Bulgaria as "essential labour" to work on roads and infrastructure as 20,000-30,000 Bulgarian workers were already employed in Germany, leading to a shortage of manpower.

One refreshing point of view is offered by Tzvetan Todorov, the French philosopher of Bulgarian origin. According to him, Bulgaria was not very different from the other European countries that did not save their Jews. What did save the Jews in Bulgaria was a fragile chain of events that could have been broken at any time: one blunder by a politician here or there, one public figure that did not stand up at the right time, a different sentiment in the Orthodox church leadership, a less crafty king – and the whole "salvation" would have turned into deportation.

At the present time, most Bulgarian politicians and statesmen try to avoid the controversies by claiming that the Bulgarian Jews were saved as a result of the efforts of the "whole nation."

No one is willing to accept responsibility for the deaths of the 11,343 from Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and southern Serbia, who were sent to Poland on the day the Bulgarian Jews were saved.

When the Communists took over on 9 September 1944 they organised mass show trials of real and imagined war criminals, which resulted in executions whose number by far surpasses the death sentences handed down at the Nuremberg Trials. The war-time regents were shot. Alexander Belev tried to flee the country, but was caught near Sofia and was either shot or committed suicide. Petar Gabrovski was sentenced to death and executed. The so-called People's Court sentenced Dimitar Peshev to 15 years in jail on charges of "fascism and antisemitism." Peshev was released after 13 months and died in poverty in 1973. In 1997 he was declared an honorary citizen of Israel, and his name is in the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. Lilyana Panitsa was also tried by the People's Court, but acquitted. She died at the age of 30, probably as the result of torture by the People's Militia.

King Simeon II and his family were exiled to Spain. Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha returned to Bulgaria in the 1990s as a private citizen and became prime minister in 2001-2005.


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