In March 1943, Nazi Germany demanded of its Bulgarian allies that it deport the country’s 48,000 Jews. For months, the Nazis and their Bulgarian collaborators had discussed the means for the transfer of Bulgarian Jews to the death camps that already had taken the lives of millions of other European Jews. Two years before, the Sofia government adopted the anti-Semitic Law for the Defense of the Nation, which foreshadowed the ultimate decision to deport Bulgaria’s Jews.
Indeed, there was even a Bulgarian Commissar for Jewish Affairs, Alexander Belev, who had been in place for precisely this kind of operation. The plans included the deportation of more than 11,000 Jews from Northern Greece and Yugoslavia, areas under Bulgarian military administration. Jews in both places were forced to wear the yellow star, and many young men in the Bulgarian community served in forced labor details.
For those Jews inside Bulgaria’s borders, the plans for their round-up and demise were thwarted by an unlikely coalition of leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, members of parliament, intellectuals and everyday citizens, whose sense of justice and revulsion over the notion of sending their neighbors to their deaths was unacceptable.
The reaction of the Church leadership set it apart from religious figures elsewhere in Europe, who either through indifference, self-interest or outright anti-Semitism turned away, or were complicit as Jewish community after community was destroyed.
Led by the metropolitans (prelates) of Sofia and Plovdiv, Stefan and Kyril, the church leadership – not all in agreement at the outset – came to the conclusion that it must deplore the deportation orders. First, they agreed on protecting the few hundred Jews in the country who had converted to Bulgarian Orthodoxy (many thinking it would save their lives), but that grew into a campaign to speak out for the entire endangered community.
In a letter to the government on May 4, 1943, the Holy Synod noted that “Our people, by its soul and conscience, but its mentality and conviction, cannot bear lawlessness, repression and atrocity against anyone. Our human, as well as our Christian conscience is embarrassed. Hence, the Holy Synod is asked spiritedly from many sides – by good and loyal Bulgarian public figures, by well-known people of culture and patriots, by Bulgarian mothers – to insist on justice and humane attitude for the Jewish minority in the country.” The Synod met with both King Boris III and with the prime minister to convey its opposition to the deportation orders.
Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia denounced Hitler from the pulpit, calling him “the miserable and insane Fuhrer.” Metropolitan Klement of Stara Zagora insisted “we cannot stay indifferent to the fate of the persecuted Jewish minority because we would be condemned by God…”
In the secular realm, the protests against the deportation orders were led by Dimitar Peshev, the deputy speaker of Bulgaria’s National Assembly. Peshev, who came from the small provincial city of Kyustendil, was moved by the deportation of Jews from Bulgarian-administered areas outside the country and by reports of Jews in his home town being told to gather their belongings in anticipation of round-ups by the authorities. His tenacity and persistence in pressing government leaders – the prime minister refused to meet with him – was a key element in arousing public opinion about the planned deportations.
On the people-to-people level, many Bulgarians had close relations with their Jewish neighbors. Fifteen years ago, I was in Kyustendil for the 60th anniversary commemoration of the rescue of Bulgarian Jewry. Following the program, which was held in the town square, an elderly woman ran up to the then-Bulgarian foreign minister, and quickly engaged him in animated conversation. She then did the same with an Israeli government representative, who had also participated in the program. Curious, I asked both what the conversation was all about. The woman, I was told, had Jewish classmates who had left for Israel after the war, and now, she wanted to know if anyone could help her track them down. For nearly 60 years she had no one to ask, and this commemoration, with its attendees from Israel, gave her the opportunity to find her friends.
The deportation orders were never carried out. The exasperated German Ambassador Adolf Beckerle, in a cable to Berlin, wrote: “The Bulgarian government, despite its efforts in relation to the final solution of the Jews, is attached to the mentality of the Bulgarian population…this one, does not find any drawbacks in the Jews, that would justify actions against them.”
The role of Bulgaria’s King Boris III in the deportation story has been subject to much speculation, but it is clear that the pressure to resist the demands from Berlin came from outside his circle.
Ironically, Belev, who was ultimately dismissed from his job near the end of the war, fled to Kyustendil, where he was captured and ultimately shot on the way to Sofia to be tried.
Peshev, whose friendship for the Jewish community eventually earned him the honor of being among the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, was tried by the post-war Communist government, charged with collaboration with the Germans. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and released after serving a brief time.
Tragically, for the Jews of Northern Greece and Yugoslavia, there was no similar rescue effort. Many actually had relatives in Bulgaria, who were powerless to save them. Most were deported across Bulgarian territory, to Auschwitz and Treblinka.
At a time when defiance in any form ran tremendous risks, those who helped the Jewish community – the Orthodox Church, Peshev and those who joined him and friends and neighbors who found it unconscionable that fellow Bulgarians would be sent to their deaths – stood their ground. In a demonstration of both conscience and justice, these courageous human beings stood apart in a continent bereft of moral principles.
In that, 75 years later, there is an object lesson for us today.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President and CEO