A key element in the survival of nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews came from timing.
VSCompared to the fate of Jews in other European countries during the horrific years of the Nazi conquest, a high percentage of Jews in Bulgaria survived. The number of Bulgaria’s Jewish population in 1939 was 52,000. After the expulsions, 48,000 remained. and 13,000 Jews were added from the annexed territories.
Whose credit is it for the survival of the majority of Bulgarian Jews?
Various interested political interests have championed their favorite heroes in this story. In the aftermath of the war, Bulgaria was a communist state: school textbooks explained that the Communist Party had protected the Jews. When the Communists lost power in 1989, nationalists praised Bulgaria’s wartime king, Boris III, as saving his Jewish subjects by skilfully resisting German demands. Michael bar Zohar agreed, declaring the lifesaver king in his 1998 book, Beyond Hitler’s Grip.
In 2003, the US Congress advanced a more diffuse response, saying that the parliament, the king, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and the Bulgarian people as a whole were protecting their Jewish neighbors. A Bulgarian army veteran, Professor Dimitar Nadikov, recently published The Bulgarian Army and the Rescue of Bulgarian Jews – 1931-44», presenting the Bulgarian army as the heroes of this story.
According to each variation of this heartwarming story, an Axis power won a victory by saving its Jews. Everyone claims a share of the victory. As President John Kennedy said, “There is an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.”
Documentary director Jacky Comforty explores this touching story in The Stolen Narrative of Bulgarian Jews and the Holocaust, which he wrote with Michigan writer Martha Aladjem Bloomfield. Comforty traveled the world interviewing historians, political scientists, military analysts and other experts to develop an unvarnished picture of Bulgarian actions during the war.
More importantly, Comforty, the Israeli-born son of Bulgarian immigrants, interviewed his own parents and 150 Bulgarian Jews and non-Jews for their personal memories of Jewish life in Bulgaria before and during the rise of Nazism. These interviews paint a darker picture of Bulgaria.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Bulgaria contained a mixture of religious and ethnic groups who arrived as invaders, immigrants or refugees. The majority group, Eastern Orthodox Christians, lived in relative peace with Greeks, Muslim Turks, Roma, Jews and others. The Jewish population also came from different waves of immigration: as Jewish life in other countries deteriorated, the ancient Jewish community that spoke Yavanic (a Jewish language based on Greek) was joined by Ladino-speaking Jews from Spain and Portugal, and Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews from the north.
Located at a crossroads, Bulgaria experienced periods of independence but was also controlled over the centuries by the dominant Byzantine and Ottoman Empires before its liberation in 1878.
Immediately before the war, the king wanted to regain control of Macedonia (from Yugoslavia), Thrace (from Greece) and Dobrudja (from Romania), and all other territory that had belonged to the Bulgaria over the past centuries. An agreement with Nazi Germany gave him this opportunity.
As the Nazi Party grew and came to power in Germany, sympathizers in Bulgaria launched their own National Socialist movement.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, Bulgaria was officially neutral, but King Boris III had already pledged to buy German weapons and train its officers.
In March 1941, Bulgaria officially joined the Axis and allowed Germany to use its territory to attack Greece and Yugoslavia in April. The victorious Germans gave these territories to Bulgaria, which were annexed in 1941.
The Jews of these territories were first counted as part of the Jewish population of the unified kingdom, but were later denied the right to stay where they were born and not granted Bulgarian citizenship – and were expelled later.
Jews in Bulgaria
Beginning in 1941, Bulgaria instituted the classic list of Nazi anti-Jewish legislation. The new laws successively denied the Jews their rights as citizens, their occupations, their freedom of movement. They are assigned special taxes and are required to wear the yellow star, then confined to ghettos. All Jewish men between the ages of 20 and 40 were sent to Bulgarian forced labor camps. The Bulgarian government and the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs, created in 1942, planned the next step: deportations to German death camps.
On February 22, 1943, Bulgaria and Germany signed a (unique) agreement to ship 20,000 Jews from cities across Bulgaria. The deportations began on March 3. Between March 3 and March 12, the Bulgarian army, gendarmerie and special forces rounded up some 12,000 Jews from the newly annexed territories and deported them to Treblinka, where they were wiped out.
The other 8,000 Jews destined for deportation were spared thanks to the frantic efforts of the Jewish community, which managed to enlist the help of politicians and the church to delay the deportation.
Comforty details efforts by the Jewish community to intervene. Somehow, these efforts resulted in postponing—but not canceling—the transportation of Jews from within Bulgaria. They got off death trains. Dimiter Peshev, Deputy Speaker of the National Parliament in Sofia, apparently succeeded in delaying the evictions. The King and Prime Minister hit back – parliament voted to remove him from office on March 26.
Jews from newly acquired territories were deported to death camps. The Bulgarian government would not listen to calls for these Jews.
Comforty interviewed Nir Baruch, who reported that 11,363 people were deported from Macedonia, Thrace and the town of Pirot. Only 12 survived.
During negotiations with Von Ribbentrop in early April, Boris III agreed to the deportations and agreed to deport half of the remaining Jewish population. The following month, Jews from Sofia were forced to self-deport to provincial towns as a first step towards the deportations. The king’s death prevented this second part from happening.
Some credit also goes to Bulgarians who opposed anti-Semitic laws and actions. In addition to Dimiter Peshev, the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and its metropolitan bishops along with hundreds of others tried to delay or derail the murder of the Jews.
But, as Comforty’s informants made clear, a key element in the survival of nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews came from timing. On August 28, 1943, Boris III died of heart failure. Bulgaria needed to organize a new government, which was beginning to distance itself from the German war machine. Over the next year, the Russian army approached and eventually took Bulgaria.
The experience of the Jews of Bulgaria included all stages of the horror of the Holocaust up to – but usually not – the last, being murdered.
The survivors bear the scars of years of uncertainty, fear and deprivation. Historians, politicians and even the successor to the king of Bulgaria each get a few pages to explain their understanding of Bulgaria during the era of the Final Solution in Jacky Comforty and Martha Aladjem Bloomfield. The Stolen Narrative of Bulgarian Jews and the Holocaust.
To learn more about the book and the authors’ collaboration, visit www.the-stolen-narrative.org.