“At three in the morning on March tenth, the police knocked at their door. They and some of their neighbors were escorted at gunpoint to the playground of a nearby Jewish school. They all carried suitcases packed with clothes and food for a long trip. They waited at the schoolyard all day. At the end of the day, they were simply told to go home.” (“The Optimists”)
Chazal say that everything depends on mazel, even a sefer Torah in the heichal. Some sifrei Torah are read every week, others lie forgotten and are taken out maybe once or twice a year. The same applies to history. Some events are aired in everyone’s front yard, while others lie forgotten and only occasionally see the light of day. Thus, while Denmark’s saving of its 7,500 Jews is famous, another far greater story has been largely forgotten, perhaps because some of its heroes, who include allies of Nazi Germany, were less photogenic.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
Bulgaria’s close involvement with Nazi Germany was partly out of self interest and partly out of fear. Helping Germany meant more territory, while refusing to cooperate could spark a German invasion. Germany expected her allies to take her anti-Semitic policies on board, and Bulgaria cooperated – to a degree. Jews, who comprised about 0.8 percent of Bulgaria’s population, were barred from key positions and jobs, men between 20 and 40 were sent to labor camps, and 26,000 Jews were expelled from the capital, Sofia.
By January 5702/1942, Eichmann insisted that “sufficient possibilities exist for the reception of Jews from Bulgaria” and sent his emissary, Theodor Dannecker, to Sofia to help smooth the process. However, the Nazis failed to understand that, for the Bulgarians, there was no Jewish problem. Bulgaria comprised a multi-ethnic mix of Christians and Muslims for centuries and rarely oppressed its Jewish population.
Even the rising popularity of Fascism in the 5690s/1930s failed to fuel the flames of anti-Semitism. Therefore, things moved very slowly. It took six months until the Jews were forced to wear the Bulgarian version of the yellow star, which was more like a tiny badge. And the Nazis complained that bearers of the yellow star got “so many manifestations of sympathy from the misled population that they actually are proud of their sign.” By March 9, 5703/1943, it seemed that Bulgaria’s hesitation had come to its end. Countrywide, thousands of Jews were ordered from their homes and assembled at collection points to be sent to the death camps.
But the Bulgarians would not have it. Farmers promised that they would block railway tracks with their own bodies to stop trains which carried Jews. Archbishops and leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church protested. Forty-two members of Parliament, representing the entire political spectrum from left to right, complained vociferously and pointed out that the deportation contravened the constitutionally guaranteed equal rights of Bulgaria’s citizenry.
A miracle happened. King Boris III cancelled the deportation order and, by March 10, every Jew was allowed to return home. In June 5703/1943, the German ambassador wrote to Germany, disgusted that “the Bulgarians had lived for too long with peoples, like Armenians, Greeks and Gypsies, to appreciate the Jewish problem.” Another German official in Bulgaria, Karl Hoffman, complained, at the same time, that “the Jewish Question does not exist in Bulgaria in the sense that it does in Germany. The ideological and racial prerequisites for convincing the Bulgarian people of the urgent need for a solution of the Jewish Question, as in the Reich, are not to be found here.”
The chief stain on Bulgaria’s record is that over 11,000 Jews, living in Bulgarian- occupied Thrace and Macedonia, were deported to death camps. However, it is claimed that this was done by German agents, before the Bulgarians had a chance to react. During a post-war trial, the Bulgarian Minister of Propaganda, Dimo Kazassov, explained that “It was impossible to intercede because the measures were taken suddenly, surprising everybody. By the time the Bulgarian people learned about them, it was too late. The special trains were already arriving in Lom. The political influence of the Bulgarian people had not reached the newly liberated regions… the deportation was carried into effect by German agents.”
THE HEROES SUFFER
Shortly afterwards, King Boris III died, supposedly of a heart attack while on a hiking expedition. However, it is widely believed that he was poisoned by the Nazis for heroically refusing to embroil his country in a hopeless conflict with Soviet Russia.
The king’s advisor, Shtashimir Dobrovitch, later revealed what King Boris III had confided to him before his death: “His Majesty had a terrible fight with the Germans… who wanted Bulgaria to declare war on Russia and take an active part in it but the King had categorically refused.” The king told me:
“The year 1918 will not happen again! Now my hands are free. I untied them just in time. But in order to achieve this, I had to put up a terrible fight. Hitler went into a rage when I refused his demands. Screaming like a madman, he attacked me, and Bulgaria, in a torrent of accusations and threats. It was horrible. But I did not surrender one inch! He tried to frighten me but, instead, I calmly explained the situation, saying what I had to say, clearly and unequivocally, that I have decided that we should follow our own road. My hands are now free. I saved you, even if I have to pay for it!” (Quoted in “The Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews” by Nick Kalchev, 5755/1995)
As a compromise, King Boris declared war on distant Britain and America. This resulted in massive Allied bombing raids of the capital, Sofia.
After seizing Bulgaria at the end of the war, the Russians installed a Communist government and sentenced the Vice-President of the National Assembly, Dmitar Peshev, who was instrumental to saving the Jews, to fifteen years’ imprisonment (although he only served two of them.) For the next five decades, they claimed that it was the Communists who had foiled the attempt to deport the Jews. However, after the weakening of Communism, an international symposium was held in Sofia in 5755/1995, where it was concluded that the Jews were saved by multiple factors: “It was the Bulgarian people, including leading intellectuals, parliamentarians, civil servants and politicians, the Orthodox Church and the King, who were the actual saviors of the Bulgarian Jews. It was stressed that, on several occasions, King Boris III skillfully resisted the German pressures and demands. Thus, at the end of the day, not a single person from the territory of Bulgaria proper was deported to the death camps. Unfortunately, the Jews from German-occupied Macedonia and Southern Thrace could not be saved; the German army and Gestapo did not recognize any Bulgarian jurisdiction over them and they were deported swiftly to the death camps.”
Not long after the war, about 90 percent of Bulgarian Jewry moved to Israel to escape the Communist regime.
(Sources – Documentary: “The Optimists,” directed by Jacky and Lisa Comforty; “Saving the Bulgarian Jews in World War II,” by Christo Boyadjieff; “A Report on the Banality of Evil” by Hannah Arendt, Viking Press 1970. Articles: “Who Saved the Jews in Bulgaria during WWII?” and “The Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews”.)