How a French Jew helped thousands of immigrant Bulgarians in the direst years of the 20th century
Not all people who make a big difference in history, or attempt to make one, are ahead of great governments or armies. Sometimes, humble clerks are capable of changing the lives of thousands, or millions, just by doing their job and showing compassion to the suffering of ordinary people.
A century ago, a Jewish Frenchman did just that for Bulgaria – twice.
From 1926 to 1932, René Charron, an envoy of the Finance and Economic Research Centre in the League of Nations, helped 250,000 Bulgarian refugees from what are now Romania, Greece and Macedonia to start a new life. His idea was simple and effective. He secured an international loan and spent it on the building of new, practical and inexpensive houses, on buying livestock and updating public infrastructure.
To grasp the change that Charron wrought, you have to imagine Bulgaria after the Great War. The country had fought in three separate wars and lost two of them, dubbing them national catastrophes. The refugees arriving in Bulgaria from Aegean Thrace, Macedonia, Dobrudzha and the borderlands with the Kingdom of Yugoslavia were one of the most visible reminders of the losses. Their sad caravans carried dispirited people who had neither homes, nor work or hope. They settled where they could or where they were told by the government – on the outskirts of cities, towns and villages, including Sofia. They built shanties and struggled to survive.
The government was incapable of helping them. It could barely help itself.
On 27 November 1919, in the Neuilly-sur-Seine neighbourhood of Paris, the embittered Prime Minister Aleksandar Stamboliyski signed a humiliating peace treaty. Bulgaria lost its access to the Aegean and South Dobrudzha. Its army and police forces were severely downsized. Reparations of 2.25 billion gold francs to the victors were imposed. The annual debt payment consumed 55 percent of the state budget and, even after restructuring in 1923, it was still a considerable burden. Moreover, the government found it very difficult to obtain an international loan, as it needed the prior approval of the victors.
The League of Nations and René Charron helped change this dire situation.
That ill-fated organisation, created after the Great War with the intention of "putting an end to all war," completely failed at its original task. In certain areas, however, it really was a force for good. In 1925, for example, the League reacted quickly to the Greek invasion of Bulgaria and forced Greece to pay compensation for its "unprovoked aggression."
The next year, commissioner René Charron arrived on a mission to evaluate the gravity of the Bulgarian refugee problem. He did just that and offered his solution, an international loan. The League agreed and the money was secured.
On 22 December 1926 the Bulgarian government signed the so-called Refugee Loan for £2.4 million and additional $4.5 million from British, American, Swiss, Italian and Dutch banks. The government provided guarantees for the repayments through the excise duties on salt, spirits and soft drinks, and pledged to give 132,000 hectares of arable land to the refugees.
Much of the Refugee Loan was spent on several major infrastructure projects, including the construction of railways. About 1.6 billion leva went on housing projects. Charron himself designed five different types of a one-storey house, which were allocated depending on the livelihood of the future occupants and on the size of their families. During the programme, 10,231 houses were built all over Bulgaria, more than 6,000 of them in the southeast, where most of the refugees had settled. The houses were small but cleverly designed, airy and clean, and built from cheap and locally sourced materials. They cost between 33,000 and 64,000 leva.
The effects of the Refugee Loan extended far beyond the borders of Bulgaria. It was a clear breach of the terms of the Neuilly-sur-Seine Treaty and impinged on the exclusivity that French banks had exercised for years as the main Bulgarian creditors. In 1928, again with the support of the League of Nations, the Bulgarian government secured another major international loan.
René Charron stayed in Bulgaria, supervising the spending of the Refugee Loan, until 1932.
A Charron house in the village of Mladezhko, in the Standzha mountains
He returned for 10 days in 1936 to discuss with Bulgarian officials the country’s grain exports. Three years later he was back, to settle the details of the payment of the 1927 Refugee Loan.
He would never return to Bulgaria. Yet, he remained one of its great friends. He even tried to help it make its way out of another disastrous war, the Second World one.
By the spring of 1943, it had become clear to Bulgarian King Boris that his ally, Hitler, was going to lose the war. The ruler, who was a master of backstage politicking, started to explore options for changing sides. He took special care not to alarm German officials and spies, or anger Hitler. While the government was on its way to deport Jews from Bulgaria and Bulgarian-controlled parts of Aegean Thrace and Macedonia, Bulgarian diplomats and envoys travelled across Europe, testing the political waters.
Neutral Switzerland was a natural focus of these efforts, the perfect place where diplomats, envoys, unofficial affiliates and spies would engage in the labyrinthine ways of secret diplomacy. Allan Dulles, who would later found the CIA, was also there, collecting vital intelligence for the United States and the Allies, and actively meddling in the German resistance.
René Charron was one of Dulles's contacts. When the Bulgarian government tried to establish rapport with the Americans, they called Charron as a trusted liaison. The initial contact was reportedly made in a way fit for Le Carré thriller. On 1 January 1943, Charron wired a brief telegram to King Boris III and his wife to congratulate them for the New Year. The king wired back on 9 January. As there was no sender's address, the king asked Bulgarian diplomats in Switzerland to relay the reply in person.
In the following year and a half Charron talked to Bulgarian diplomats and envoys on several occasions, both in his personal capacity and as an unofficial agent of the Americans. In Bulgarian reports, Charron appears angry that Bulgarians dragged their feet and wasted precious time in taking themselves out of the war disaster. He also pushed them to do something to polish up their international image of a trusted Hitler ally, like for example sending humanitarian help to the starving population of Greece via the International Red Cross. In the summer of 1943 Charron relayed to King Boris a letter by Allen Dulles. We do not know what this letter said, as it ended in the state archives taken to Moscow by the Red Army following the 9 September 1944 Communist coup in Bulgaria. Bulgarian researchers are still denied access to the archive.
After the sudden death of King Boris III, on 28 August 1943, the Bulgarians continued their tentative efforts to take the country out of the war. René Charron was not happy. On 11 October, he told the Bulgarian envoy: "What is Bulgaria doing?! This is the country with the most passive political stance. You are aware and you believe that Germany will lose the war and yet you calmly, or should I say apathetically, await your destiny. Romanians, Hungarians are all here, meeting people, explaining themselves. And Bulgaria does nothing!" He even warned that Bulgaria could be bombed by the Allies. This indeed happened, in the winter, with heavy civilian casualties.
Despite the Bulgarian passivity, Charron pushed on. In the summer of 1944, when it was already painfully obvious that Bulgaria should change sides in the conflict, he organised clandestine meetings between a representative of the Bulgarian government and US and British diplomats in Cairo.
It did not work. The Red Army was approaching the Bulgarian borders. The Bulgarians, who with their cautious policies had not cut ties with the USSR throughout the war, did not want to enrage Stalin by negotiating with the Allies behind his back. The United States and Britain did not want to risk their partnership with the Soviets over Bulgaria either. The early September negotiations in Cairo were the textbook definition of "too little, too late."
On 5 September the USSR declared war on Bulgaria and three days later its troops crossed the border, meeting no resistance. On 9 September, a Soviet-backed coup overthrew the Bulgarian government.
What happened to Charron next?
Little is known about the life of this man who had such a profound effect on inter-war Bulgaria. He was born in 1894 into a Jewish family, but sources quote different years of his death – 1946 or in the 1960s, after working for a Switzerland-based Bulgarian merchant.
Was he an American spy? A telegram dated 27 February 1943, and written in code using nicknames for prominent Bulgarians such as King Boris III and the banker Atanas Burov, is in the Allen Dulles Archive. It reveals Bulgaria's uneasiness with its Nazi ally. The information reached Dulles through a source in Switzerland, disguised under the code name "492."
According to the notes in the archive, the person behind the number was a certain French national named René Charron, a Dulles informer. The same René Charron had another nick-name, "Boarman."
We will also probably never know what he was as a person. Documents show him as an outspoken man. In 1932, for example, Bulgaria threatened that it would stop repaying its international debt. The bluff, however, was not taken seriously, unlike that of Greece. The Bulgarian ambassador to Paris asked Charron why the two countries were treated so differently. "Because Greece won the war," Charron replied.
According to anecdotal evidence in Bulgaria, in 1943 Charron advised King Boris III against the planned deportation of Jews from Bulgaria and leaked shocking information about the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe in the extermination camps. The Jews from Bulgaria proper were not deported, the ones from the Bulgaria-controlled parts of Macedonia and Aegean Thrace were.
Charron failed in his efforts to take Bulgaria out of the Second World War with the least damage possible. A handful of the thousands of houses that he built still stand in places like Ahtopol on the southern Black Sea coast or the village of Mladezhko in the Strandzha. His name, however, is still remembered by the elderly generations of every town and village where his sharonski kashti, or Charron's houses, as they are colloquially known, once meant a new life for so many people. And in the town of Tsarevo, where the Strandzha meets the Black Sea, there is now a street named after the French Jew, in loving memory from the Bulgarian refugees.