The facts appear to be clear-cut. Despite Bulgaria’s alliance with Germany during World War Two, its 48,000 Jewish citizens were not deported to the Nazi death camps. That said, 11,343 Jews from the Bulgarian-controlled territories of Macedonia, Serbia, and Thrace were ‘cruelly loaded on trains bound for Treblinka, where they were murdered.’ In the aftermath of these two parallel Holocaust storylines, many questions have been raised. Who rescued the Jews of Bulgaria? And, who is responsible for the deaths of the Jews from Bulgarian territories? The answers are not as simple as they may seem, and in fact, can be quite controversial.
These questions and more are raised in Bulgaria, the Jews, and the Holocaust: On the Origins of a Heroic Narrative by Nadège Ragaru, translated by Victoria Baena and David A. Rich (University of Rochester Press, October 2023). Originally published in French in 2020, this book is an exhaustive archival investigation into how the survival of Bulgarian Jewry emerged as the primary narrative of Bulgaria’s Holocaust years, while the deportations and deaths of Macedonian, Serbian, and Greek Jews were blamed solely on Nazi Germany.
As recently as January 2023, 80 years after those deportations and murders, the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture issued a statement praising ‘the significant role of the Bulgarian state, its institutions, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and the Bulgarian people for this unprecedented act in Europe in one of the darkest years of our continent, when the Bulgarian people and state demonstrated tolerance, empathy, but also will and courage to save their Jewish fellow citizens.’
Yes, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, many brave politicians, and the Bulgarian people in general can claim credit for saving Bulgarian Jews, but, as the author points out, the Bulgarian state and its institutions were directly responsible for policing the occupied territories, for rounding up the Jews living there, and for sending them to their deaths in the concentration camps.
To prove this argument, the author presents an eclectic mix of rarely considered evidence. She first explores the Bulgarian People’s Courts, set up following the war’s end to prosecute representatives of the pro-Nazi governing elite responsible for anti-Jewish persecutions. Then the author turns to the Cold War partnership of Bulgaria and East Germany within the framework of a film coproduction.
The author next considers just ‘a few minutes of documentary footage that contains the only recorded images of Jewish deportation from the occupied territories.’ These images play into the story promoted by the Bulgarian socialist regime in the 1960s and 1970s, which glorified the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews. The following chapter focuses on the 1990s and the changing memory of the Holocaust in the post-Communist period. In a chapter devoted to the years between 2000 and 2010, the author explores the ‘Jews’ engagement in memory politics, and their contribution to greater awareness of how timely a discussion of Bulgaria’s co-responsibility in Jewish persecution in the ‘new’ and ‘old’ kingdoms may be.’
This is not easy reading, and to be clear, this is not a history of Bulgaria during World War Two. Bulgaria, the Jews, and the Holocaust uniquely presents the Jewish wartime experience with a consideration of the political, legal, historical, artistic and memorial aspects from the changing decades of post-war Bulgaria. Ultimately, as noted by the publisher, the author ‘restores Jewish voices to the story of their own wartime suffering’.
The book, exhaustive in depth and scope, annotated with sources in multiple languages showing the meticulousness of the author’s research, will appeal primarily to historians interested in the varied archival materials presented on its pages.
Dr. Nadège Ragaru is a Research Professor at the Centres d’études internationales (CERI), in Paris, France.
Bulgaria, the Jews, and the Holocaust: On the Origins of a Heroic Narrative is available in Open access.