Bulgarian Rescue of the Jews

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Good evening. I am here in four capacities: 1. 2. 3. Honorary Consul of Bulgaria to NY Member of the Board of Governors of AJC My husband is a member of the Board of TTS 4. Most important, mother of our daughter born in Bulgaria—by learning about Remi’s country of birth, I fell in love with Bulgaria and its people. I’ve been asked to briefly discuss Bulgaria’s heroic rescue of all of its 48,000 Jewish citizens during World War II. It is a story that is too little known—even by those knowledgea
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  Good evening.I am here in four capacities:1. Honorary Consul of Bulgaria to NY2. Member of the Board of Governors of AJC3. My husband is a member of the Board of TTS4. Most important, mother of our daughter born in Bulgaria—by learning aboutRemi’s country of birth, I fell in love with Bulgaria and its people.I’ve been asked to briefly discuss Bulgaria’s heroic rescue of all of its48,000 Jewish citizens during World War II. It is a story that is too littleknown—even by those knowledgeable in Holocaust history. So, I hope that thosehere who do know the history will indulge me if I recount it in my own way.The broad contours of the story are clear: Despite enormous pressure from theNazis, none of Bulgaria’s 48,000 Jews were sent to the death camps of Poland. Allsurvived. While many details of the story are disputed, there can be no doubtthat the bravery and the goodness of the Bulgarian people were responsible forthis extraordinary result.For me, the story begins after the Balkan Wars and World War I, as a result ofwhich Bulgaria lost its province of Dobrudja to Romania and its provinces ofThrace and Macedonia to Greece. This was a huge blow to Bulgaria’s concept ofnationhood, one not easily forgotten. So when, in 1940, Hitler gave Bulgaria’sKing Boris the ultimatum of either being conquered by German forces, or ofbecoming allied with the Nazis, and very possibly having those provinces returnedto Bulgaria, Boris was left with little choice and agreed to ally with Germany.The Bulgarians initially embraced this arrangement. Hitler immediately agreed toreturn the province of Dobrudja to Bulgaria. And, after Bulgaria officiallyjoined the Axis coalition in 1941, Bulgaria was promised Thrace and Macedonia atthe end of the war. In the meantime, Bulgaria was given administrative controlover those provinces. Most Bulgarians were enormously pleased with these eventsand hailed Boris as the Unifier King.But, as we all know, the Nazis had an agenda wholly apart from its goals ofconquest—the elimination of the Jews, certainly at least in all territories alliedwith, or occupied by, Germany. That included Bulgaria.As a first step, in late 1940, Bulgaria was pressured to adopt the “Law for theDefense of the Nation.” This law was modeled after the infamous Nuremberg laws,which severely restricted property and civil rights of Jews and required them towear Jewish stars. But this part of the Nazi agenda was not welcomed by theBulgarian people. Bulgarians from all parts of the society—writers, poets,lawyers, former ministers, the Orthodox Church, journalists, university professorsand ordinary citizens—protested this legislation. As one letter of protest putit: “This is not a law for the nation’s defense but rather a proposal for itsinfamy.” Even though the law eventually passed, the Bulgarian government realizedthat solving the “Jewish question” was not going to be easy.And for a time, much to the dismay of the Nazis, the Law for the Defense of the  Nation was only minimally enforced. Even though many Jewish men were sent toforced labor camps, many attempts to enforce the laws were met with resistancefrom the Bulgarian people who routinely visited their Jewish friends after curfew,bringing them much needed food.Frustrated, in the fall of 1942, the Nazis forced the issue, insisting thatBulgaria establish a Commissariat for Jewish Relations. After training inGermany, Alexsander Belev, a rabidly anti-Semitic Bulgarian, was appointedCommissar--his job description included the deportation of all Jews to the deathcamps of Poland.From the government’s experience with the Law for the Defense of the Nation, Belevknew that any attempt to deport Bulgaria’s Jews would have to be carried out insecret or risk public outcry. So, in early 1943, Belev signed a secret agreementwith Germany, which called for Bulgaria to deport 20,000 Jews, over 11,000 fromThrace and Macedonia, and the balance from Bulgaria itself. ////// The tragedy ofthis story is that over 11,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia were deported by theBulgarian army to the camps of Poland….. Less than a dozen survived.Then it came time to deport the more than 8,000 Jewish citizens of Bulgaria stillneeded to fulfill Belev’s quota. In utmost secrecy, deportation was set forMarch 9, 1943. But word of the deportations leaked out. A delegation of non-Jewsfrom Kyustendil traveled at dawn to enlist the help of Dmitar Peshev, the DeputySpeaker of Parliament. He was shocked and outraged. He immediately confrontedthe powerful Nazi-sympathizing Interior Minister, who first denied the existenceof the deportation order, and then, confronted with proof of the order andPeshev’s refusal to leave his office, finally called off the deportations. In adrama almost unimaginable in Nazi World War II, thousands of Jews who had beenrounded up and were waiting in schools and warehouses to board trains bound forthe death camps-----were sent home.I agree with those who believe that this decision would not have been made withoutthe approval of King Boris himself who was being subjected to continued pressurefrom the Bulgarian church and other leaders of Bulgarian society.When Belev and the Nazis realized that their carefully laid deportation plans hadbeen cancelled, they were furious. But they had no intention of giving up.They promptly plotted new schemes to deport all of Bulgaria’s Jews. In May &June, 1943, over 20,000 Jews were sent to the countryside--- Belev’s first step todeporting them out of the country.But the opposition from all segments of Bulgarian society was simply too strong.42 members of Parliament’s ruling party protested any deportation. Again, leadinglawyers, doctors, politicians of all stripes, academicians and others joined theoutcry. Metropolitan Kyril of Plovdiv threatened to lie down on the tracks toprevent deportations. The Holy Synod, led by Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia,continued to pressure the King unrelentingly, both publicly and privately, to stopany deportations.Once again, beset with these pressures, the King felt he had no choice. Orderedto a meeting with Hitler, the King refused Hitler’s demand that the Bulgarian Jewsbe deported, claiming that he needed them to build roads. Hitler knew this was aruse but was not in a position to oppose the King. All able-bodied Jewish menwere sent to labor camps; and, as I said, other Jews were sent from cities to thecountryside; but no Jew was ever forced to leave Bulgaria.  After the war ended, the Jews returned to their homes, which often had been keptfor them intact by their neighbors.WHY? Why did this small, relatively powerless nation openly defy the Nazis forthe sake of its Jewish people?Many reasons have been advanced and debated. It is clear, for example, that theJews of Bulgaria lived side by side with other Bulgarians and were never treateddifferently or regarded themselves as different. At the core, however, I believethe rescue resulted from Bulgaria’s long history of oppression and its toleranceand integration of diverse groups within its society. This tradition included theexercise of the moral authority of the Bulgarian church.I would like to close with an excerpt from Metropolitan Stefan’s plea to the Kingin May 1943, to halt the deportation of the Jews:“In keeping with… the spirit of which the Bulgarian people have been educated; inkeeping with the considerations and prescriptions dictated by international normsfor human life; … in keeping with the real, well-known and deep-felt tolerancethat the Bulgarian people have demonstrated with regard to the Jewish minorityhistorically and still demonstrate today, we implore Your Majesty to stop theimplementation of the anti-Jewish law and order its full cancellation…. [T]hisaugust action, Your Majesty,…will spare our country from the greatest crime andmost perfidious act – hatred towards men – and you will appear in all the strengthand magnificence of your royal power as the protector and defender of theBulgarian aspiration to liberty and justice, peace and love, thus preserving forevermore the halo of Bulgarian tolerance and democratic spirit….”The award tonight--- named in honor of the spirit of those people in Bulgaria andin the countries of Scandinavia who rescued their neighbors during the Holocaust—is being given to someone who is deeply deserving, and who, indeed, embodies thisvery same consciousness.
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