Sofia: Double-Faced Bulgaria

Published by Humanity in Action in 2013, Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue examines the different ways that European countries and the United States responded to the Holocaust. This anthology was created as part of “Civil Society: Reactions to the Holocaust, a series of events in Copenhagen commemorating the 70th anniversary of the flight and deportation of Danish Jews in October 1943.


“Can virtue, the other side of crime, be collectivized? Is it not individuals who are to be held responsible for whatever good or evil happens?”

When asked about the sources of their national pride, most educated Bulgarians do not have to think too long: “The salvation of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust” is one of the top three answers. Bulgaria, they will assert, stands unique in Europe, with the exception of Denmark, in that it did not allow its Jewish citizens to be transported to extermination in the Nazi death camps. Christians, Jews, Muslims and Gypsies lived in peace and harmony, they will add, reinstating the Bulgarians’ “proverbial” hospitality and tolerance. Your Bulgarian in the street will probably omit to mention the Bulgarian State Railways cattle cars that brought 11,343 Jews to Treblinka and Auschwitz from the then Bulgaria-administered territories of Aegean Thrace, Macedonia and southern Serbia. Any question likely to arise will not be about the fact of the rescue, but about who should be credited for it.

As leaders and political systems changed in Eastern Europe’s post-Communist years, so did the answers to this question. Initially, the Communist school textbooks claimed that it had been the Communist Party and its leading functionaries who were to be lauded personally for the heroic deed. With the fall of Communism in 1989, perceptions and attitudes changed. The regal figure of Bulgaria’s King Boris III, a war-time ally of Hitler, emerged. It was because of his cunning policies of delays and real as well as simulated reluctance to comply that the Germans were outmaneuvered and no single Jew was sent to certain death, the story went.

But it would soon transpire that things in Bulgaria’s recent history were not so black-and-white. The name of Dimitar Peshev, the 1940s deputy speaker of parliament, came to the fore. Ignored and largely forgotten under Communism, Peshev now shone as a valiant citizen who not only stood against the government’s intention to make Bulgaria Judenfrei, but was the organizer of a popular movement to prevent what had seemed like an accomplished deed.

These theories, of course, conflicted with each other, and Bulgaria’s post- Communist leaders settled for the least controversial option. It was the Bulgarian people as a whole, they claimed, it was the Bulgarian nation as such that rose up and saved its Jews. It was a nation of selfless Raoul Wallenbergs and not a single Vidkun Quisling.

But can virtue, the other side of crime, be collectivized? Is it not individuals who are to be held responsible for whatever good or evil happens?

Any reflection on these questions will prompt other questions.

If the Kingdom of Bulgaria of The Axis is to be credited with saving about 48,000 Jews from the gas chambers, why were there so few Jews left in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria when it was a member of the Warsaw Pact?

If Bulgaria did not “occupy” but just “administered” (the term being officially used by the Bulgarian establishment in 2013) what is now the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, northern Greece and parts of southern Serbia around Pirot, is Bulgaria to be held responsible for the 11,343 Jews the Bulgarian troops and police did deport – using Bulgarian State Railways and through Bulgarian territory – to Nazi concentration camps?

Is the one fact, the non-deportation in “Old Bulgaria,” enough to make up for the other, the brutal rounding-up and the shipment of 11,343 people in the “New Lands” to death?

Would any admittance of the latter somehow tarnish, denigrate or belittle the former?

What matters more? The rescues or the deaths?

Of course, these questions are impossible to answer as they come down to a very basic thing that can have no answer: the price of human life. Are a dozen Jews from Plovdiv more expensive than a single Jew from Bitola? Or was it vice versa?

As in 2013 Bulgaria celebrates with great pomp and at a significant cost the 70th anniversary of the non-deportation of Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, the question of the responsibility for the 11,343 remains open. The massive Communist propaganda in 1944-1989 and the reluctance of Bulgaria’s current politicians to address the issue in its complexity have led to a bizarre situation where many Bulgarians still tend to see the world in stock terms. It is either-or: you are either with us, or you are against us; you are either a victim, or a victimizer, and you can’t be both at the same time – this kind of thinking goes.

Yet, the case of Bulgaria – as life itself – defies clear-cut categorizations. Bulgaria was partly a rescuer, but also a perpetrator; it was both an ally to and a bystander of Nazi Germany; it was part savior, part murderer.

In fact, the refusal of the Bulgarian establishment to admit any responsibility for what the Kingdom of Bulgaria did in Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and southern Serbia while focusing exclusively on the positive event of the rescue has little to do with Jews, Jewish affairs, the Second World War or the Holocaust. Its explanation must be sought in current political sentiments, psychological attitudes, patriotism as well as real or contrived definitions of “national pride.” To understand in its entirety the complexity of this slightly schizophrenic situation one needs to consider the historical circumstances long before and long after the Second World War years. These must be seen in context because the non-deportation of the Jews in Bulgaria and the rounding-up of Jews from Macedonia, Greece and southern Serbia (in modern Bulgaria referred to as The Western Outlands) are but details in the larger picture of life in the Balkans.

To begin with, there is the history. What is now Aegean Thrace (Greece), the area around Pirot in southern Serbia and first and foremost the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia is a Bulgarian legitimate heartland, the Bulgarians believe. Those were stripped away from Bulgaria owing to vicious neighbors, hypocritical Great Powers and an unlucky turn of events. These territories were at the core of the “Bulgarian Question” in the period 1878- 1944. Bulgaria entered various alliances and counter alliances, and fought three wars, to make them its own. To Bulgarians, Macedonia is what the modern German province of Schleswig-Holstein is to Danes – ethnically, historically and culturally one’s own ilk. But unlike the Danish and German governments, both the Bulgarian and the Macedonian governments feel very uneasy about it.

Then there is the interpretation of history. In the worst Balkan tradition, modern Bulgaria, as well as other Balkan countries, continue to use history in order to “prove” preconceived beliefs and notions, rather than to dispel myths and establish historical truth. This is why in the preceding paragraphs the emphasis is put on politicians speaking out about history rather than balanced historians doing this themselves.

The picture becomes even more obfuscated with the timing of events and occurrences, the justification and explanation of political, social and military actions and first and foremost with the singular Bulgarian way of defining human concepts such as honor, suffering and mercy.

Owing to the self-imposed isolation under Communism, these events, occurrences and dates are not very well-known internationally.

Bulgaria is an ancient land, first founded in 681 AD, but the modern state dates back to just 1877-1878, when Bulgaria gained independence as a result of a Russo-Ottoman imperial war.

On March 3, 1878 the Treaty of San Stefano was signed. In effect it was an armistice between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. It granted Bulgaria large territories populated mainly by ethnic Bulgarians, including Aegean Thrace, what is now the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, and parts of southern Serbia. The Treaty of San Stefano is perceived as the apex of the Bulgarian struggle for national independence. March 3 is celebrated as the Republic of Bulgaria’s national day.

On July 13, 1878, the Treaty of Berlin, masterminded by the Great Powers, allocated much smaller territories to the new country. In fact, it split Bulgaria in two, the independent Principality of Bulgaria (now northern Bulgaria and the Sofia region), and the Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia (now Bulgaria south of the Balkan range). Macedonia, Aegean Thrace, and southern Serbia were not included. The Treaty of Berlin is still seen by the Bulgarians as a dismemberment of their new country, a “diktat” by the Great Powers fearing a powerful, Russia-friendly Slavonic state in the Balkans.

Significantly, at the insistence of the Great Powers, the Treaty of Berlin included clauses to protect minority, including Jewish rights.

Balkan Jews went to bed in the Ottoman Empire but woke up in completely new and increasingly nationalist countries that were sometimes fiercely opposed to one another over territories, religion and minorities. However, the overwhelming majority of Jews adapted quickly to their new homelands and become loyal citizens. In 1880, a chief rabbi was elected to represent the Jewish community to Bulgarian authorities.

The Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia united in 1885, and in 1908 Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria unilaterally declared full independence from the Ottoman Empire, becoming king. At that time antisemitism was already present, mainly in the form of propaganda as exemplified by a number of openly antisemitic newspapers. But there was no anti-Jewish violence and Bulgaria never experienced anything nearing the Russian or Romanian pogroms.

On September 9, 1909 King Ferdinand attended the dedication of the Sofia Central Synagogue.

In 1912-1913 Bulgaria fought in the Balkan Wars. In the First Balkan War Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro were opposed to the Ottomans. Bulgaria made significant territorial conquests, but failed to gain Macedonia. In the second, Greece, Serbia, Romania and the Ottoman Empire fought against Bulgaria. As a result, Bulgaria lost most of the land it had conquered, including southern Dobrudzha, but did keep parts of Aegean Thrace. This was Bulgaria’s “First National Catastrophe.”

In 1915-1918, Bulgaria entered the First World War on the side of Germany, mainly in the hope of “regaining” Macedonia. The First World War was a complete disaster for Bulgaria and ended in the “Second National Catastrophe.” King Ferdinand abdicated and left the country.

In total, 7,000-8,000 Jewish men were conscripted in the Bulgarian Army in the war with Serbia of 1885, the Balkan wars and the First World War. Of those 952 died.

At the end of the Great War in 1919, the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine humiliated Bulgaria. Dobrudzha, Aegean Thrace and the Western Outlands were lost; demilitarization was ordered; and Bulgaria got to pay heavy reparations. The treaty guaranteed the rights of national minorities, Jews included.

Modeled on the famous Fridtjof Nansen plan, in  1922  ethnic Turks were relocated from Greece and Bulgaria to the Republic of Turkey; ethnic Greeks moved from Turkey and Bulgaria into Greece; and ethnic Bulgarians moved from Greece and Turkey into Bulgaria. Poverty was rampant, thousands died in transit. In Bulgaria, the government divided Jewish representa- tion between a religious entity, represented by the chief rabbi, and a secular one, the Central Consistory and its branches in cities with Jewish communities.

In 1924, an increasing number of Jews started emigrating to British Palestine, establishing the Bet Hanan colony and a Bulgarian kibbutz in Haifa. Until 1948, about 7,000 Bulgarian Jews emigrated to Palestine.

In 1934, an outspokenly nationalist government was installed in Sofia. The first serious repercussions against Jews started. Schooling in Ladino in Jewish school was toned down, and anti-Jewish discrimination at the workplace began.

Bulgaria was becoming increasingly dependent economically on Germany. Many Bulgarians were enthusiastic about Hitler’s rise to power. The government prepared for an alliance with Nazi Germany, mainly because of its hopes to regain Macedonia, Aegean Thrace, Dobrudzha and the Western Outlands.

In  the  following  year,  King  Boris  III  assumed  authoritarian  powers. The  country  was  still  a  parliamentary  democracy  with  competing political parties and elections, but the king had the final say in many affairs. This political  setup  remained in  effect until  Boris’s death  in 1943. From 1937 to 1944, the international Zionist movement organized the escape of 18,000 central and east European Jews to British Palestine. Many Jewish refugees left via Black Sea ports in Bulgaria and Romania.

On 9 September 1940, Jews gathered inside the Central Sofia Synagogue applauded what at the time seemed the best news of the year. Two days previously, Romania, under the Hitler-imposed Treaty of Craiova, had returned southern Dobrudzha to the Kingdom of Bulgaria.

But just a month later the Bulgarian Jews started to get cold feet. The National Assembly in Sofia began debating the draft of the Protection of the Nation Act.

At that time, Bulgaria wasn’t even a part of The Axis. It was still undecided which side to back in the Second World War. The memories of the territories and populations it had lost were still fresh and painful. King Boris III, applying his notorious ability to procrastinate, was trying to play for time.

However, the countries already involved in the war needed Bulgaria as it straddled the roads to Greece and Turkey and could provide a strategic passage through the Balkans to anyone who persuaded it to join on their side.

Popular sentiment inside Bulgaria was at best contentious. Some segments of the opposition insisted on neutrality, while others backed an alli- ance with Britain.

The links with Germany proved too strong. During the interwar period, Bulgaria’s economy had entangled itself in an intricate relationship with Germany. Revanchist feelings were high in both Bulgaria  and  Germany. King Boris feared any deviation from Germany would bring on Bolshevism – even though at that time Nazi Germany and the USSR were allies. The government was also pro-German. Bogdan Filov, an archaeologist who had been appointed prime minister in February 1940, was German-educated and subscribed to a number of German academic societies.

Germany succeeded in convincing Bulgaria that if it joined The Axis, it would be rewarded with most of the territories lost in 1913-1919, which now belonged to Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece.

The return of southern Dobrudzha in 1940 finally did the trick. To put it figuratively, it was the carrot that persuaded Bulgaria’s politicians to back the Reich.

On 1 March 1941 Bulgaria joined The Axis. The Germans were quick to respond. With German blessing, Bulgarian troops marched unopposed into Yugoslavia and northern Greece on April 19 and 20, 1941. Bulgaria was granted the right to administer the territories it considered its own. The changing of the borders was celebrated as a national triumph, and King Boris III was lauded as “the unifying king.”

Bulgarian Jews living in Palestine had declared their loyalty to Bulgaria by promising to return and enroll in the Bulgarian Army if they were summoned.

However, Bulgaria’s politicians would soon discover that the carrot had a stick attached to it, and that friendship with Nazi Germany would bear a heavy price. The national economy became almost totally dependent on that of Germany and, significantly, Bulgaria would also have to tackle the “Jewish Question.”

The Protection of the Nation Act was one of a number of steps in this direction. Adopted on December 24, 1940, in spite of protests by intellectuals, and enforced on January 24, 1941, it took away almost all civil rights from the 48,000 Jews living in Bulgaria proper.

Closely modeled on the infamous Nuremberg laws, it barred Jews from being able to vote, stand for office and join the armed forces. Jews were forced to list their real estate and sell to the state, at “special” prices, any agricultural land they owned. Jewish property was levied with a special, one- off tax amounting to up to 25 percent of its value. Jews were banned from owning private companies in some sectors, for example publishing and the media, while Jews with “free” professions were given local quotas.

Things took a turn for the worse for the Jews in 1942.

On June 10, 1942, a new Citizenship Act was passed. It applied to all Bulgarian lands, including the occupied territories. Significantly, Jews there were  deprived  of  the  opportunity  to  become  Bulgarian  nationals, which paved the way for their subsequent deportation as “stateless.”

On August 29, Aleksandar Belev, the chief of the newly-formed Commissariat for Jewish Affairs under the Interior Ministry, was given a mandate to enforce the new restrictions against the Jews. These included, but were not limited to, Jews having to wear yellow Star of David badges; Jewish homes being signposted; and Jewish products being marked as such. To add insult to injury, Jews were banned from adding “-ov” or “-ev” (the standard Bulgarian family name-forming suffix) to their last names, and they were not allowed to take on any name except those on a list approved by the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs.

The August 19, 1942 decree  ordered Jews to  terminate, within  three days, any kind of economic activity they conducted. Factories were told to fire Jewish workers first. The Jewish communities in the Old Lands were instructed to prepare for the deportation of all Jews within their jurisdiction. The property of any deported Jew would be nationalized. As they were not Bulgarian citizens, the Jews in the New Lands were ordered to cease all economic activity and liquidate their assets. Jewish men in Bulgaria-proper were rounded up, mobilized into “labor groups” and made to work on state projects at a pittance.

In May 1943 all the Jews in Sofia, approximately 23,000 people, were interned in the provinces.“Offenders” of the anti-Jewish legislation were sent to two labor camps, one in Pleven in northern Bulgaria and another near the village of Somovit, on the Danube. Forced Jewish labor was used mainly in road construction.

On February 22, 1943, Aleksandar Belev and SS Hauptschturmführer Theodor Dannecker, Adolf Eichmann’s representative to Bulgaria, signed a confidential agreement for the deportation of 20,000 Jews from the New Lands. As there were only about 12,000 Jews there, the remaining 8,000 were to be collected from Old Bulgaria, with the communities in Kyustendil and Plovdiv targeted first. Bulgaria was preparing itself for the Final Solution.

In the meantime, the country had become one of the gateways through which Jews fleeing persecution in Europe departed for Palestine. From 1939 onwards, using Turkey’s neutrality, ships with Bulgarian crew or using Bulgarian ports sent to Palestine thousands of Jews from Europe. This, however, was a dangerous affair – there were sudden storms; the danger of Soviet or German submarines; and the British ban on vessels entering Haifa without a permit. On December 12, 1941, The Salvador sank with 352 Bulgarian Jews, Jews from other countries who had been living in Bulgaria and Jews bearing non-Bulgarian passports. On 24 February 1942, with 760 Jews and all-Bulgarian crew, The Struma was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine and capsized in the Black Sea. All aboard perished.

There is no precise data, but it is believed that in 1942-1943 about 2,000 Jewish children made it to Palestine from Bulgaria. Many of them were given shelter in Bulgaria.

On March 26, 1943, shortly after the first thwarted attempt to deport the Bulgarian Jews, Berlin ordered its Sofia Embassy to immediately halt Jewish emigration from Bulgaria. The army and the heads of the Interior Ministry obeyed and demanded that each transit visa be coordinated with them. Some Foreign Ministry officials looked the other way. They continued to issue visas for Jews and at least 400 Jews from Romania, Italy, France and elsewhere left Europe in this way.

March 1943 was a terrifying month for the Jewish communities in Aegean Thrace, Macedonia and southern Serbia. Bulgarian troops and police rounded up and shipped 11,343 Jews from the New Lands to death in Treblinka and Auschwitz. The majority of those were shipped in Bulgarian State Railways cattle cars from Greece, Macedonia and Serbia to the Bulgarian port of Lom on the Danube. From there they were loaded onto barges upriver and alighted in Vienna. Northbound German trains were waiting for them there.

The Bulgarians made no pretense that they had no intention of formally incorporating the New Lands into Bulgaria-proper once the war was over. They installed a fully-functioning Bulgarian administration there, with Bulgarian police, civil service and schools. Bulgarian became the official lan- guage. The Bulgarian soldiers and police in the occupied territories were no angels, and at times resorted to unnecessary cruelty in dealing with Greeks, Albanians, Macedonians and Jews.

Against the background of this dramatic story, how could Bulgaria spare 48,000 Jews in Bulgaria-proper from the Nazi gas chambers? What were the main driving forces behind this indisputable act of courage and valour, in the case of Bulgaria, and of terror and viciousness in the case of the territories it occupied?

First, the historical facts. A few days prior to March 9, 1943, Lilyana Panitsa, the personal assistant to Aleksandar Belev, told some friends in the Central Consistory about the planned deportations. The news spread quickly and reached four MPs for Kyustendil, one of the towns whose Jews had been on the departure lists. The four consulted with Dimitar Peshev, the deputy speaker of parliament and a member of the ruling majority. Peshev was himself from Kyustendil. Collectively, they put pressure on Petar Gabrovski, the Interior Minister, to postpone the deportations.

But in those days official orders did not travel as fast as they do today. Some provincial authorities remained unaware of the change of plans. In Plovdiv, on the night of March 10, 1943, Jews were rounded up in the Jewish school. Enraged, Kiril, the Orthodox bishop of Plovdiv, marched into the school and threatened the police that if they went ahead with the deportation he would open up his churches for Jewish refugees and would hide Jews in his own home.

On March 19, Dimitar Peshev presented Prime Minster Bogdan Filov with a petition against the deportations signed by 43 MPs. On the following day two MPs withdrew their signatures.

On March 22, the Holy Synod objected to the deportations and requested a more humane implementation of the Protection of the Nation Act.

On March 26, Peshev was fired from his position in parliament.

In a April 15, meeting with the Holy Synod King Boris declared Jews were a “danger to civilization.”

On May 20, Interior Minister Gabrovski presented the king with two plans for action. Plan A envisaged the deportation of all Jews from Old Bulgaria to Poland, and Plan B was resettlement of Sofia Jews to the provinces. Fearing a political backlash at home, the king settles for Plan B.

May 24, a major Bulgarian holiday, saw a massive Jewish protest against the resettlement policies. In the following melee with the police, Bishop Stefan of Sofia sheltered Rabbi Daniel Zion in his house. King Boris was nowhere to be seen as he was on holiday in his mountain retreat.

The king died in August 1943, at a time when it became increasingly clear that Germany was losing the war. Anti-Jewish measures were no longer on the agenda. In the summer of 1944, as Bulgaria became desperate to switch sides in the face of the Soviet push westwards, antisemitic legislation was relaxed.

On September 5, 1944, the Soviet Union invaded Bulgaria, and on September 9 the leftist Fatherland Front stormed Sofia, toppled the government and installed its own regime. This was the beginning of Communism in Bulgaria.

Regardless of the many theories about who did what to save Bulgaria’s Jews, the fact remains that only two powers intervened directly, with real actions: the Peshev-led MPs and the Orthodox Church. These theories differ depending on the political inclinations of whoever does the talking.

Under Communism, the mainstream theory was that the Communist Party and the clandestine Communist media played the decisive role. The Communist ideologues argued that their active support for the Jews prepared the general public for the protests against the Jews’ disenfranchisement and planned deportation.

After the collapse of Communism in 1989, King Boris III and his wife, Queen Giovanna, were extolled as “saviors.” The king, reportedly, had agreed to the Protection of the Nation Act to appease Germany, but then dawdled in order to save the Jews.

Yet another “savior” was Petar Danov, according to a more esoteric hypothesis. A mystic and the founder of a religious sect, Danov allegedly held sway over the superstitious king. When he learned of the planned deportations in 1943, Danov is said to have told the king that if a single Jew left, the royal dynasty would be rendered heirless. The king was scared, and stopped the  deportations.

Another theory proposes a more practical reason for the non-deportation of the Jews. According to it, the king did intend to turn them in, but only the “undesirable” Bolshevik element. The other Jews would be kept in Bulgaria as “essential labor” to work on roads and infrastructure: 20,000-30,000 Bulgarian workers were already employed in Germany, leading to a shortage of manpower.

One refreshing point of view is offered by Tzvetan Todorov, the French philosopher of Bulgarian origin. According to him, Bulgaria was not very different from the other European countries that did not save their Jews. What did save the Jews in Bulgaria was a fragile chain of events that could have been broken at any time: one blunder by a politician here or there, one public figure that did not stand up at the right time, a different sentiment in the Orthodox church leadership, a less crafty king – and the whole “salvation” would have turned into a journey of death.

Tzvetanov’s thinking, indicating that the Bulgarians were less than noble during the Second World War, can be corroborated by the number of Righteous Among the Nations as promulgated by the Yad Vashem Remembrance Authority. According to its current lists, Bulgaria has 20 righteous. In comparison, Serbia has 131, and Greece has 313. Italy, a main German ally, has 524. Even Albania has 69.

At the present time, most Bulgarian politicians and statesmen  try  to avoid the controversies by claiming that the Bulgarian Jews were saved as a result of the efforts of the “whole nation.”

The usual explanation for the deaths of the 11,343 from Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and Pirot who were sent to Poland when the Bulgarian Jews were rescued comes down to a verbal sleight-of-hand: Aegean Thrace, Macedonia and southern Serbia were just “administered,” not occupied.

When the Communists took over on September 9, 1944, they organized mass show trials of real and supposed war criminals. The death sentences handed down on government, parliamentary, military and civil service officials outnumbered those in Nuremberg. Aleksandar Belev tried to flee the country, but was caught and was either shot or committed suicide. Petar Gabrovski was sentenced to death and executed. Dimitar Peshev received 15 years in jail on charges of “fascism and antisemitism.” Prominent Communist Jewish lawyers refused to defend him. Peshev was released after 13 months and died in poverty in Sofia in 1973. Twenty of the 43 MPs who signed the Peshev petition were sentenced to death. Lilyana Panitsa was also tried, but acquitted. She died at the age of 31, probably as a result of torture by the People’s Militia.

Following the 1946 referendum that abolished the monarchy, King Simeon II and his family were exiled to Spain. Simeon Saxe-Coburg- Gotha returned to Bulgaria in the 1990s as a private citizen and became prime minister in 2001-2005.

His bodyguard, Boyko Borisov, whom the former king had promoted to a top police job, has been prime minister of Bulgaria since 2009.

Having survived the war and being faced with the prospect of life in a hardline Communist country, about 38,000 of Bulgaria’s Jews decided to emigrate to the newly-founded state of Israel. In the next four decades those who stayed would become a “model minority,” causing no political trouble.

Jewish life rapidly declined in the 1950s-1980s. The Central Consistory was disbanded, to be replaced by a cultural organization. Jews were gradually stripped of minority rights. Dozens of synagogues were either abandoned or turned into sports or storage facilities. Some still lie in ruins. Jewish cemeteries were either destroyed, “moved” to new locations or abandoned.

Internationally, Bulgaria was toeing the Soviet line with great fervor. It broke diplomatic relations with Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967, and relations exacerbated further following the 1973 Yom Kipur War.

In 1973, Bulgaria’s Communist rulers voiced their desire to put forward the name of Todor Zhivkov, the general secretary of the Communist Party and a low-ranking partisan in the war years, for the Nobel Peace Prize over his imaginary role in rescuing the Bulgarian Jews. In 1986 the government commissioned a feature film to credit Zhivkov with “saving” the Bulgarian Jews.

The Communists had managed to rid Bulgaria of its civil society. In 1984-1985 the government went ahead with a plan to forcibly Bulgarianize the country’s largest minority, the Turks. The general public was at best indifferent to the repercussions that included the forcible name-changing of 800,000 Turks, the destruction of mosques and cemeteries, and the banning of the Turkish language.

Nothing like the massive response of the Bulgarian civil society to the antisemitic actions of the previous generation followed.

Todor Zhivkov was dethroned in an intra-party coup on 10 November 1989. Bulgaria started its painful attempt to democratize itself. Some Jews, especially younger ones, started a new wave of Jewish emigration, mainly to seek better lives in the West.

In 1990, the Shalom Jewish Organization was set up as the heir of the Central Consistory. It got most of the former Jewish communal properties back. Diplomatic relations with Israel were reestablished.

In 2000, to honor the war-time king and his alleged role in the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews, Bulgaria placed a monument to him and Queen Giovanna in a forest near Jerusalem. Following protests, the monument was removed. It was shipped back to Bulgaria and can now be seen in front of the Sofia City Council, next to a church.

The 1990s and 2000s saw a rebirth of antisemitism. There have been a number of attacks on Jewish properties, including the vandalizing of cemeteries. The Jewish cemetery in Kyustendil, for example, was vandalized on seven different occasions, and the home of Shalom in Burgas was unsuccessfully set on fire. The Sofia Central Synagogue was burgled. In the 2000s, extremist political leaders have taken up antisemitism as their cause célèbre. Bulgarian publishers freely publish antisemitic literature by Hitler, Goebbels, Jürgen Graf and Henry Ford, and these books can be found in most Bulgarian bookshops and street stalls. The authorities have done little if anything to curtail their distribution, nor have they properly investigated the spraying of Jewish graves with swastikas in Shumen and elsewhere.

The use of the Nazi swastika is widespread – from street gangs spraying it onto Gypsy homes and Turkish mosques, to football fans asserting their membership of a team, to anti-Communists pitching it against still widespread Red Army symbolism. The authorities usually consider it vandalism with no particular political meaning. Swastikas have been sprayed onto Jewish graves and can be seen in Central Sofia accompanied by the words “Juden Raus.”

Then comes the issue of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Relations between Sofia and Skopje are at best uneasy. Macedonia declared independence in 1991 and Bulgaria became the first country to recognize it. But recognition was conditional. Macedonia’s name and its political independence were fine, but Bulgaria refused to recognize its language, history and the existence of a Macedonian nation. (Greece recognizes the sovereignty of the state, its language and its nation, but refuses to recognize the name, which coincides with the name of a northern Greek province. Both Bulgaria and Greece make often completely justified claims that the current Republic of Macedonia usurps Greek and Bulgarian history as its own.)

In 2008, Macedonia opened a Holocaust Museum in Skopje. Most Bulgarian mainstream politicians and historians dismissed it as propaganda and distorted history.

In 2012, a Macedonian feature film, The Third Half, about the Bulgarian occupation in the 1940s and the treatment of the Macedonian Jews by the Bulgarians, infuriated Bulgaria. It was officially protested. Speaking at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov asserted: “There are certain circles in the world who want to distort, to interpret and to comment on history. Yet I think that Bulgaria is a country that saved all of its Jews under Hitler, thanks to the whole Bulgarian nation.”

Several months later Bulgarian producers began a TV soap about the 1943 rescue of Bulgarian Jews. The series is somewhat clumsily entitled The Ungiven.

A former foreign minister, who is Jewish himself, told the media Bulgaria as a nation ought to be given the Nobel Peace Prize for its rescue of the Jews in 1943.

The central issue of this article, why Bulgaria was double-faced in its treatment of the Jews during the Second World War and why its politicians, 70 years after the dramatic events of the 1940s, are so reluctant to come to terms with the country’s past, becomes easier to decipher against the backdrop of the personalities, events and circumstances described above. The reasons for both the chest-thumping and the refusal to admit guilt are mainly psychological.

For one, the Bulgarian national mentality rests on several tenets. Some are readily propagated: Bulgaria’s “traditional” tolerance and “proverbial” hospitality. Others are taboos. One of them is suffering, a defining concept in the Balkans, where nations still quarrel with each other over who suffered more under the Turks, under the Communists, under its neighbors, under the Great Powers, under the European Union, under the International Monetary Fund, under Angela Merkel or under an unremittingly unfavorable fate. Another is the absolute predilection to vilify anyone or anything else but oneself and one’s own actions for everything that’s gone wrong.

Similar attitudes seem to exist west of the border, in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. There is little doubt that the striking theme park of statues being funded by the Macedonian government in Central Skopje is supposed to boost the modern Macedonians’ national identity. Similarly, the Bulgarian war-time occupation of Macedonia and especially the fate of the Macedonian Jews is used as a building block in the history and mentality of the former Yugoslav republic.

Forty-five years of hardline Communism have taught at least several generations of Bulgarians and Macedonians to see the world in black-and-white rather than to explore the nuances and draw their own conclusions. Thinking, rather then memorizing dates and names, has not been on the Bulgarian school agenda for a long time.

What is more important is that unlike other former Warsaw Pact countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Bulgaria never managed to properly “de-Communize” itself. Former Communists and Secret Police functionaries have been (and in some instances still are) in charge of politics, social life and the economy. Decommunization is a complicated and painful process that will not produce black-and-white results and conclusions. Official Bulgaria so far prefers to forget, rather than to analyze so that it avoids repetitions. Like East Germany in the early 1950s, which infamously declared it had nothing to do with either Nazism or the Holocaust as those had been the deeds of West Germany’s “vile capitalists,” Bulgaria now finds it very uncomfortable to admit that what it did in Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and southern Serbia was morally wrong if historically inevitable.

One possible explanation is that many Bulgarians, having being brought up with the theory that the non-deportation of about 48,000 Bulgarian Jews was unique in Europe and one of the noblest events in Europe’s history, fear that any admission of guilt over the 11,343 deportees will tarnish the much grander event of the rescue.

The sentiment is easy to grab by cunning politicians who would go to any length to capitalize on “national pride” as a building block for a country’s national identity. The job becomes even easier in the case of Bulgaria, where the Feel-Good Factor is notoriously very low. Bulgaria remains the poorest EU state, it is currently in the grips of an economic and moral crisis, and Bulgarians can hardly find a thing to pride themselves on in their country’s recent development. Why not give them something to be proud about in the past, the more distant and more spectacular, the better? Cynical, but true – Bulgarians usually vote with their feet, because they feel nothing depends on them. Yet they are ready to take up a fight if a Bulgarian Medieval king, or the Turks, are mentioned.

Furthermore, an event such as the non-deportation of Bulgarian Jews may be used to justify current ethnic tensions and strong-handed treatment of minorities, by feeding the ever-lasting “traditional tolerance” myth.

This type of attitude may suit current political ambitions and increasingly extremist public sentiments, as exemplified by a political declaration adopted unanimously by the Bulgarian parliament in March 2013. The carefully worded document reiterates the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews and does express regret over the fate of the 11,343. But it blankly refuses to even hint at any responsibility of the Bulgarians for what they did in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and northern Greece. Analyzed carefully and in detail, the declaration indicates just one thing: that the Bulgarian establishment is set to milk the “rescue” for as long as possible while it attempts to boost the feeling of national pride and justify its disrespect for the country’s civil society citing the actions of noble Bulgarians 70 years ago.

In the long run this stance is of course counterproductive.

The Bulgarians clearly need a lesson in what the Germans call Bewältigung der Vergangenheit, facing and coming to terms with one’s own past. What makes Bulgaria interesting is that it did not, indeed, kill about 48,000 of its Jewish citizens. This is beyond any doubt an honorable event, especially when seen against the backdrop of some of the darkest years in human history. However, it did turn in 11,343 people whom it had occupied and deprived of citizenship rights. This is the other side of the coin. The good cannot completely atone for the evil, but insisting that the evil was never committed does tarnish the image the Bulgarians are so hard trying to project both domestically and to the outside world.

Unless the Bulgarians come to terms with that, they are bound to be unable to build the Western-type of civil society that they so eagerly sought after the collapse of Communism and that saved their Jews during the Second World War.

Fact box

Jews in Bulgaria in 1939: estimated around 48,000.

Jews in administered territories: estimated about 12,000. Jews in Bulgaria in 1945: 49,172.

Jews in Bulgaria now: 1,162 (2011 census results). Shalom has 6,000 members.

Jews in Greece, Serbia and Macedonia now: about 6,500. There are about 5,500 in Greece; 787 in Serbia; and 200 in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

Non-Bulgarian Jews allowed to emigrate through Bulgaria in 1939-1945: Over 10,000.

NB. A variety of sources cite different numbers for different communities. The numbers given above have gained currency, but there is an explicit disclaimer about their accurateness.

Further Reading

In English:

Ani Avtova and Victor Melamed (Eds), Antisemitic Manifestations in Bulgaria 2009-2010, Sofia, Shalom Organization of Bulgarian Jews, 2011.

Anthony Georgieff and Dimana Trankova, A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria, Sofia, Vagabond Media, 2011, ISBN 978-954-92306-3-5.

Emmy Barouh (Ed), Jews in the Bulgarian Lands, Sofia, International Cen- tre for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations, 2001, ISBN 954- 8872-35-8.

Gale Stokes, The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, USA, Oxford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-19-506645-6.

Jamila Andjela Kolomonos, Monastir Without Jews: Recollections of a Jewish Partisan in Macedonia, New York, Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture, 2008, ISBN 978-1-886857-09-4.

Loise Kone and Roula Kone, Jewish-Greek Communities: Little Beloved Homes, The Ladies of the Jewish Community in Volos, Greece, 2006.

Michael Bar-Zohar, Beyond Hitler’s Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews, USA, Adams Media Corporation, 1998, ISBN 978-1580620604.

Michael Berenbaum, The Jews in Macedonia During WWII, Skopje, Holocaust Fund from the Jews of Macedonia, ISBN 978-608-65129-5-8.

Misha Glenny, The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, London, Granta Books, 2001, ISBN 978-1-862-07073-8.

R. J. Crampton, A Concise History of Bulgaria, Cambridge University Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0-521-61637-9.

Robert Harvey, Comrades: The Rise and Fall of World Communism, London, John Murray Publishers, 2003, ISBN 0-7195-6174-7.

Robert Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, London, Papermac, 1994, ISBN 0-333-63283-4.

Shelomo Alfassa, Shameful Behavior: Bulgaria and the Holocaust, Judaic Studies Academic Paper Series, New York, 2011, ISBN 978-1-257- 95257-1.

Tzvetan Todorov, Voices From the Gulag: Life and Death in Communist Bulgaria, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-271-01961-1.

Tzvetan Todorov: The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria’s Jews Survived the Holocaust, Princeton University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-691-11564-8.

Yitzchak Mais (Ed), Macedonian Chronicle: The Story of Sephardic Jews in the Balkans, Skopje, Holocaust Fund from the Jews of Macedonia, 2011, ISBN 978-608-65129-3-4.

In Italian:

Gabrielle Nissim, L’uomo che fermò Hitler. La storia di Dimitar Pesev che salvò gli ebrei di una nazione intera, Milan, Mondadori Publishers, 1999, ISBN  9788804473312

In Bulgarian:

Albena Taneva (Ed), Bulgarian-Jewish Relations on the Threshold of the 21st Century, Sofia, Jewish Studies Center, Sofia University.

Albena Taneva and Vanya Gezenko (Eds), Voices in Support of Civil Society: Holy Synod Protocols on the Jewish Question (1940-1944), Sofia, Gal-Ico Jewish Studies Center, Sofia University, 2002, ISBN 954-768- 004-8.

David Coen, The Jews in Bulgaria 1978-1949, Sofia, Fakel-Leonidovi Publishers, 2008, ISBN  978-954-411-148-9.

Isak Moskona, Language, Everyday Life and Spirituality of Balkan Jews, Sofia, Shalom Publishers, 2004, ISBN 954-8200-22-8.

Samuil Arditi, The Man Who Cheated Hitler: King Boris III, Persecutor or Friend of Bulgaria’s Jews?, Ruse, Avangard Print, ISBN 978-954-337-050-4.

Stoyan Raychevski, Bulgarians and Jews Through the Centuries, Sofia, Bulgarian Bestseller Publishers, 2008, ISBN 978-954-463-021-8.

Stoyan Raychevski, Synagogues and Jewish Cultural Heritage in Bulgaria, Sofia, Bulgarian Bestseller Publishers, 2009, ISBN 978-954-463-074-4.

Ulrich Büchsenschütz and Ivo Georgiev, Bulgarian Minority Policies, Sofia, International Center for Minority Studies and  Intercultural  Relations, 2000.


•     •     • 

About the Author

Anthony Georgieff A writer and journalist who has worked for the BBC/World Service in London; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich and in Prague; and for a variety of Danish and Bulgarian media. His books include a novel, Vienna (2001), as well as non-fiction works Hidden Treasures of Bulgaria (2005), East of Constantinople/Travels in Unknown Turkey (2008), Jewish Bulgaria (2011), A Guide to Ottoman Bulgaria (2011), and The Turks of Bulgaria (2012).


Georgieff, Anthony. "Sofia: Double-faced Bulgaria." In Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue, edited by Anders Jerichow and Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke, 56-74. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2013.

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