29th Sep 2023


The other side of Bulgaria's Holocaust history is needed

  • King Boris III, Bulgaria's authoritarian ruler, meeting Adolf Hitler in 1941 (Photo: Wikimedia)
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With a new, pro-European Bulgarian coalition government installed in Sofia after 30 months of political instability, now is the time for a sharp U-turn in Sofia regarding Bulgaria's historical responsibility for the deportation and ultimate murder of 11,343 Jews from Bulgarian-controlled Macedonia, Thrace and the formerly Serbian district of Pirot.

The Bulgarian government must also publicly repudiate the myth, endorsed by Bulgarian president Rumen Radev, among others, that King — or Tsar — Boris III, Bulgaria's authoritarian ruler until his sudden death in August 1943, had selflessly spearheaded the salvation of 48,000 Bulgarian Jews.

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  • (Photo: World Jewish Congress)

Earlier this year, leaders of the Bulgarian Jewish community boycotted a government-organised ceremony meant to mark the 80th anniversary of the rescue of Bulgarian Jewry during the Holocaust, including a tribute to Boris and Queen Giovanna.

Dr Alexander Oscar, president of "Shalom", the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria, explained their absence from the event, saying, "Nobody from the community would have taken part in an event honouring the imaginary role of King Boris in rescuing the Bulgarian Jews and presenting a distorted history of the Holocaust."

In Bulgaria during World War II, as Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum has accurately noted, "at one and the same time … some Jews were saved, others — persecuted, and still others — deported and destroyed."

To be valid, history must be predicated on absolute, uncompromising truth, not manipulation. Eighty years ago, 48,000 Jews were not deported from Bulgaria — while 11,343 other Jews were cruelly loaded on trains bound for Treblinka where they were murdered.

These are two interdependent realities that cannot be and must not be allowed to be uncoupled.

Bulgarian prime minister Nikolay Denkov and foreign minister and deputy prime minister Mariya Gabriel, a former European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, are in a position to emulate French president Jacques Chirac who, in 1995, publicly recognized France's responsibility for the deportation of tens of thousands to Nazi-German death camps.

Bulgaria's record during World War II is complex, to say the least.

In January 1941, King Boris III, its authoritarian ruler who had been close to Adolf Hitler for some time — he had been Hitler's personal guest at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — promulgated a new measure, the Law for the Protection of the Nation.

This legislation, modelled on the Third Reich's notorious Nuremberg Laws, discriminated against and sharply marginalized Bulgaria's Jewish minority. On March 1, 1941, Bulgaria formally allied itself with Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan. The following month, after Germany and Italy's military defeat of Yugoslavia and Greece, Bulgaria assumed military and administrative control over Macedonia, Thrace and Pirot.

By a Bulgarian government decree of June 5, 1942, "All Yugoslav and Greek subjects of non-Bulgarian origin" residing in these territories acquired Bulgarian citizenship. However, Article 4 of this decree expressly excluded "persons of Jewish origin" from such Bulgarian citizenship, except for married Jewish women, presumably married to non-Jewish husbands.

Fast-forward to February 22, 1943, when the outspokenly pro-Nazi and virulently antisemitic Bulgarian commissar for Jewish questions, Alexander Belev, signed an agreement with a representative of Adolf Eichmann to deport 20,000 Jews — all the Jews living in Thrace, Macedonia and Pirot, and the balance from Bulgaria proper, often referred to as "Old" Bulgaria.

Their intended destination: Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland.

Plans for these deportations were meant to be kept secret, but at the beginning of March, news of the imminent tragedy leaked out. Two leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Metropolitans Stefan of Sofia and Kiril of Povdil, publicly interceded on behalf of Bulgaria's Jews.

Independently, Dimitâr Peshev, the deputy speaker of the Bulgarian National Assembly and a former minister of justice, did the same. Under pressure from Peshev and the two Metropolitans as well as others in Bulgarian civil society, Boris and his prime minister, Bogdan Filov, reversed course and called a halt to the deportation of Jews from "Old" Bulgaria.

So far, so good, but Boris rejected entreaties from Metropolitan Stefan to similarly halt the deportation of the Jews from Macedonia, Thrace and Pirot who had been rounded up by Bulgarian soldiers and police officers and put into cattle cars. These 11,343 Jews were duly transported to the Treblinka death camp where they were murdered.

Boris did nothing, absolutely nothing, and did not utter a single solitary word to try to save the lives of these 11,343 Jews.

That is a permanent stain on his and Bulgaria's historical record. He could, for example, have accorded these "foreign" Jews Bulgarian citizenship since it was a decree from his government that had precluded them from acquiring this citizenship. Or he could have simply ordered that they not be deported. Or he could have at least spoken out publicly on their behalf.

It is also a fact that the role played by Boris and his government in deciding not to deport the Jews from "Old" Bulgaria was reactive rather than proactive. There is no reason to believe that they would have taken any action on their own accord to save the lives of any Bulgarian Jews.

"What we choose to remember and what we choose to omit when telling our own history is a mark of wisdom, courage and dignity," Bulgarian Jewish journalist Emmy Barouh wrote on March 9, 2023, in an open letter to Bulgarian president Radev. "There is no morality to be found in the sinister arithmetic that the lives of 50,000 were 'paid for' by the lives of 11,343."

The somber reality is that King Boris III and Bulgaria have check marks on both sides of the ledger.

That 48,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved in no way diminishes the tragedy and in no way mitigates the horror of the 11,343 Jews who were sent to their death at the behest of the government of King Boris III.

And the fact that the Jews of Macedonia, Thrace and Pirot were deported to be killed takes nothing away from the equal truth that King Boris and his government acceded to the demands of others to keep the Jews of "Old" Bulgaria from suffering the same fate.

Author bio

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is the general counsel and associate executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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