Salvation of Bulgarian Jews

During W.W.II


By Johnny Chung

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In reviewing this nation's history one can identify its contribution to the world during W.W.II. Last March 8, 1994 Bulgarians were commemorating the saving of Bulgarian Jews during W.W.II. The aspect that is remarkable, is the fact that they were an ally to Nazi Germany. The proud fact is that even so, they were one of the few in Europe to protect its Jewish community against such a strong force.

In 1939 Bulgaria was ruled by a Fascist king Boris III. Because of its economic dependence and close relations with Germany, Bulgaria ascertained to govern Thrace and Macedonia. These two areas had approximately 12,000 Jewish inhabitants. Due to Nazi Germany's hatred of Jews an agreement was signed with Boris to send 20,000 Jews to Germany. Boris consenting to the plan moved the 12,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia to Germany, but this number was still short of the 20,000. Approximately 8,000 still needed to be found to fulfill the plan. The departure of 8,000 Bulgarian Jews began. But due to the distress of some members of the Bulgarian Parliament and other popular figures led to the protests. Pelin who was the President of the Bulgarian Writers Association wrote: "The conscience of the Bulgarian people hangs in the balance. The stain cast on our people by the expulsion of our Jewish fellow citizens will not be erased for generations to come." With this in mind of the Bulgarian people, protests arose resulting in the freeing of the arrested Jews, annulling the remainder of the plan.
This event can show the mentality of the Bulgarian people. Being an ally of Nazi Germany and economically dependent, they stood up for their belief in humanity and an inter-ethnic nation, proud of their citizens despite their background. Their efforts can be seen as an example for many nations to follow, a cry that was heard, was "Long live Bulgaria, homeland for all its children!"

UNESCO Courier, July 1994. The rescue of the Bulgarian Jews in 1943, Pg. 64.


By Angela Buck

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Bulgaria was only a country of eight million during the terror of the Nazis in all of Europe. These eight million individuals were also members of various ethnic groups, such as, Armenians, Greeks, Gypsies, Turks, Slavs, and Jews. This was, to the fullest extent of the word, a multi-national state. With this in mind, it is rather amazing to think that in 1943 Bulgaria succeeded in saving it’s 48,000 Jews from dying in the concentration camps of World War II. While this event has been celebrated and commended by various humanitarian organizations, much controversy still surrounds the actual facts of the event and those individuals involved, particularly the Bulgarian king at that time, King Boris III.
Before 1943, the situation in Bulgaria was rather different than most other Eastern European states. Typically there was a general feeling of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe even before World War II, in contrast, Bulgaria has been noted to have been much more tolerant of Jews, particularly compared to Hungary and Rumania. Possibly this can be contributed to the way in which the Jews were perceived at that time. It has been noted that the Jewish community in Bulgaria advanced greatly in their society since the late 1800’s. They acquired high-standing positions, such as Director of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Justice, and Director of Academy of Fine Arts during World War II. Unlike other Eastern European societies in which Jewish ghettos were giving Jewish citizens a "bad" name, there were virtually no ghettos in Bulgaria or bad examples of Jewish citizenship to be found. The Jews were extended the exact same rights of every other citizen of Bulgaria. This Jewish setting is important to understand in trying to comprehend the general outpour of emotion and support for the Jews when Germany tried to declare the inferiority of the Jews and implement laws to show this inferiority.
Besides this differing view of the Jews, Bulgaria should have had no other reason to not comply with Germany and her demands. To avoid a war, Bulgaria submitted to Germany. She knew that Germany only wanted Bulgaria as a passageway, a go between to the rest of Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Black Sea. If she agreed to giving Germany this access, she was allowed to keep her sovereignty. Besides sovereignty and peace, Bulgaria also acquired territory through this alliance with Germany, from the states of Greece, Rumania, and Yugoslavia.
But, in essence, she did not comply with Germany when it came to the question of eliminating Bulgaria’s 48,000 Jews. King Boris III, the Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian society, and in some regards, the underground communist parties each played a significant role in saving the Jews. When the Jews were forced to wear the Jewish star, to label them, the people only took sympathy on them. The Jewish community, itself, denied this demand by often refusing to wear it. When all the Jews were instructed to leave Sofia, King Boris sent them to the rural areas instead of the concentration camps, stating to the German government that they were needed to build roads for Bulgaria. This merely complicated the scenario for the Germans, by spreading them out instead of concentrating them. The Orthodox Church also committed themselves to the Jews by petitioning to the King and Parliament to save the Jews. In their argument, they recounted two main points of the Bulgarian constitution. They cited Article 57, which declares equal treatment of all Bulgarian citizens and Article 61, which gives freedom to all slaves on Bulgarian soil. Of course, this legislation needed to ultimately be passed by the King, but they were responsible for building up the pressure. Another group mentioned were the underground communists who often backed the many protests displayed by the citizens of Bulgaria against the treatment of the Jews and the request for their deportation.
This struggle for the Jews lasted for four years until the constant reports of German officials back to Hitler of Bulgaria’s resistance culminated to the rage of Hitler and an official meeting between himself and King Boris III. In this meeting in August 1943, at Wolfschanze, Feuhrer’s headquarters, Hitler was reported as being angry and insistent on the deportation of the Jews. Yet, it is also noted that King Boris persisted and simply denied Hitler the right to take the Jews. His "no" was respected, and the Jews were saved. Everyone backed this declaration. The Bulgarian Queen, Queen Giovanna, (daughter of the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel) supported the Jewish cause by issuing passports and transit visas to Italy for Jews of foreign nationality. King Boris also issued transit visas, but to Palestine. The commoners of Bulgarian society, specifically, the farmers were said to have lied down on the railroads to prevent the Jews from being taken on the trains. The Jews were saved.
Yet despite the success of Bulgarian resistance, there has been much controversy surrounding the facts of this historic event and those involved. Why? After the communists took over Bulgaria, there was very little access to information and archives. The communist propaganda was also very strong and tried to give all the credit to the communist parties—there were obviously more groups involved. Besides the communist deterrent to the truth of this matter, there was the aftermath of the Jewish crisis within Europe which created a general feeling against any leader during World War II under which Jewish suffering occurred. For this reason, many Jewish survivors and sympathizers stated that King Boris III was a fascist and not an icon of Jewish freedom. This denunciation of King Boris III’s recognition as being the savior of the Jews was further supported with the propaganda that he could have saved the 11,000 Jews of Macedonia and Thrace that were taken and killed.
What is the truth? There has been much evidence against each of these accusations and proclamations. Examples have already been cited that the communist party was not the sole liberator of the Jews. In defense for the character of King Boris III, there is plenty of information. Obviously, if reports are on file of consistent resistance to Germany’s demands on the Jewish community by King Boris III, he must not have been too much of a totalitarian. These constant reports and the ultimate rejection to Hitler’s request were not to have been taken lightly by the most brutal and strong force within Europe at that time. He had a lot at stake. King Boris has been recorded as to have openly stated that the Jews were good citizens and they were being treated inhumanely. He has also been reported as having said after his meeting with Hitler that he would probably pay for what he had done. Ironically, he died a few days after the meeting. This is suspected to have been murder. With regards to the Thracian and Macedonian Jews, it is generally agreed upon that Boris could not have stopped this. Nazi officials have been quoted as saying that by the time he had found out about this, the Jews were already on the trains and it was too late. It is also vital to note that at that time, the Jews did not have Bulgarian citizenship when Thrace and Macedonia were not parts of Bulgaria. Legally he had no clout.
After King Boris III died, both the citizens and Parliament continued to support the Jews. Six thousand Jews were to be deported soon after his death, but it never happened. Eventually, German officials declared the situation hopeless and left them alone. In 1944, the Red Army took over and threw out the anti-Semitic laws. Around 90% of the Bulgarian Jews immigrated to Israel after the war and proceeded to achieve prominent status in Israeli society. Recently, the actions of the Bulgarian citizens during World War II and King Boris III are being recognized as some of the most courageous and humanitarian acts the world has ever witnessed. Yet, despite the enormous amount of support around the world that the Jews are receiving, there has been a newly found anti-Semitic movement in Bulgaria in the past few years. One can only hope that the Bulgarian citizens can remember the way in which they rallied together to save the Jews and realize the wonderful impact it has had for the advancement of Jews around the world.

1. Arendt, Hannah. (The Viking Press, 1970). "Eichman in Jerusalem, a report on the banality of evil." Text provided on USENET by George Baloglou.

2. Kalchev, Nick. "Who Saved the Jews in Bulgaria during WWII?" Distributed on 02/02/1995 12:18 by (+359 2) 543 347 RFE Sofia Bureau. Text provided by USENET by Luben Boyanov and Peter Yovchev was put into HTML format on March 14,1995 by Plamen Bliznakov.

3. Kalchev, Nick. "The Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews: ‘Had The King Not Done It We Wouldn’t Be Here

4. Now . . ." Sofia-Munich. Text was put into HTML format on July 25, 1995 by Plamen Bliznakov.

5. Jones, Gareth. "Jews fondly remember Bulgaria’s wartime protection." Reuters. Copyright 1995, Reuter’s News Service. Text was put into HTML format on May 15, 1995 by Plamen Bliznakov for ‘fair use only.’

6. Boyadjieff, Christo. "Saving the Bulgarian Jews in World War II."

7. Gilbert, Martin. "The Holocaust." Holt, Reinhart & Winston, !985.

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