You are on page 1of 3

Good evening.

I am here in four capacities:

1. Honorary Consul of Bulgaria to NY

2. Member of the Board of Governors of AJC

3. 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 knowledgeable in Holocaust history. So, I hope that those
here 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 the
Nazis, none of Bulgaria’s 48,000 Jews were sent to the death camps of Poland. All
survived. While many details of the story are disputed, there can be no doubt
that the bravery and the goodness of the Bulgarian people were responsible for
this extraordinary result.

For me, the story begins after the Balkan Wars and World War I, as a result of
which Bulgaria lost its province of Dobrudja to Romania and its provinces of
Thrace and Macedonia to Greece. This was a huge blow to Bulgaria’s concept of
nationhood, one not easily forgotten. So when, in 1940, Hitler gave Bulgaria’s
King Boris the ultimatum of either being conquered by German forces, or of
becoming allied with the Nazis, and very possibly having those provinces returned
to Bulgaria, Boris was left with little choice and agreed to ally with Germany.

The Bulgarians initially embraced this arrangement. Hitler immediately agreed to
return the province of Dobrudja to Bulgaria. And, after Bulgaria officially
joined the Axis coalition in 1941, Bulgaria was promised Thrace and Macedonia at
the end of the war. In the meantime, Bulgaria was given administrative control
over those provinces. Most Bulgarians were enormously pleased with these events
and hailed Boris as the Unifier King.

But, as we all know, the Nazis had an agenda wholly apart from its goals of
conquest—the elimination of the Jews, certainly at least in all territories allied
with, or occupied by, Germany. That included Bulgaria.
As a first step, in late 1940, Bulgaria was pressured to adopt the “Law for the
Defense of the Nation.” This law was modeled after the infamous Nuremberg laws,
which severely restricted property and civil rights of Jews and required them to
wear Jewish stars. But this part of the Nazi agenda was not welcomed by the
Bulgarian people. Bulgarians from all parts of the society—writers, poets,
lawyers, former ministers, the Orthodox Church, journalists, university professors
and ordinary citizens—protested this legislation. As one letter of protest put
it: “This is not a law for the nation’s defense but rather a proposal for its
infamy.” Even though the law eventually passed, the Bulgarian government realized
that 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 to
forced labor camps, many attempts to enforce the laws were met with resistance
from 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 that
Bulgaria establish a Commissariat for Jewish Relations. After training in
Germany, Alexsander Belev, a rabidly anti-Semitic Bulgarian, was appointed
Commissar--his job description included the deportation of all Jews to the death
camps of Poland.

From the government’s experience with the Law for the Defense of the Nation, Belev
knew that any attempt to deport Bulgaria’s Jews would have to be carried out in
secret or risk public outcry. So, in early 1943, Belev signed a secret agreement
with Germany, which called for Bulgaria to deport 20,000 Jews, over 11,000 from
Thrace and Macedonia, and the balance from Bulgaria itself. ////// The tragedy of
this story is that over 11,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia were deported by the
Bulgarian 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 still
needed to fulfill Belev’s quota. In utmost secrecy, deportation was set for
March 9, 1943. But word of the deportations leaked out. A delegation of non-Jews
from Kyustendil traveled at dawn to enlist the help of Dmitar Peshev, the Deputy
Speaker of Parliament. He was shocked and outraged. He immediately confronted
the powerful Nazi-sympathizing Interior Minister, who first denied the existence
of the deportation order, and then, confronted with proof of the order and
Peshev’s refusal to leave his office, finally called off the deportations. In a
drama almost unimaginable in Nazi World War II, thousands of Jews who had been
rounded up and were waiting in schools and warehouses to board trains bound for
the death camps-----were sent home.

I agree with those who believe that this decision would not have been made without
the approval of King Boris himself who was being subjected to continued pressure
from the Bulgarian church and other leaders of Bulgarian society.

When Belev and the Nazis realized that their carefully laid deportation plans had
been 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 to
deporting 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, leading
lawyers, doctors, politicians of all stripes, academicians and others joined the
outcry. Metropolitan Kyril of Plovdiv threatened to lie down on the tracks to
prevent deportations. The Holy Synod, led by Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia,
continued to pressure the King unrelentingly, both publicly and privately, to stop
any deportations.

Once again, beset with these pressures, the King felt he had no choice. Ordered
to a meeting with Hitler, the King refused Hitler’s demand that the Bulgarian Jews
be deported, claiming that he needed them to build roads. Hitler knew this was a
ruse but was not in a position to oppose the King. All able-bodied Jewish men
were sent to labor camps; and, as I said, other Jews were sent from cities to the
countryside; but no Jew was ever forced to leave Bulgaria.
After the war ended, the Jews returned to their homes, which often had been kept
for them intact by their neighbors.

WHY? Why did this small, relatively powerless nation openly defy the Nazis for
the sake of its Jewish people?

Many reasons have been advanced and debated. It is clear, for example, that the
Jews of Bulgaria lived side by side with other Bulgarians and were never treated
differently or regarded themselves as different. At the core, however, I believe
the rescue resulted from Bulgaria’s long history of oppression and its tolerance
and integration of diverse groups within its society. This tradition included the
exercise of the moral authority of the Bulgarian church.

I would like to close with an excerpt from Metropolitan Stefan’s plea to the King
in May 1943, to halt the deportation of the Jews:

“In keeping with… the spirit of which the Bulgarian people have been educated; in
keeping with the considerations and prescriptions dictated by international norms
for human life; … in keeping with the real, well-known and deep-felt tolerance
that the Bulgarian people have demonstrated with regard to the Jewish minority
historically and still demonstrate today, we implore Your Majesty to stop the
implementation of the anti-Jewish law and order its full cancellation…. [T]his
august action, Your Majesty,…will spare our country from the greatest crime and
most perfidious act – hatred towards men – and you will appear in all the strength
and magnificence of your royal power as the protector and defender of the
Bulgarian aspiration to liberty and justice, peace and love, thus preserving for
evermore the halo of Bulgarian tolerance and democratic spirit….”

The award tonight--- named in honor of the spirit of those people in Bulgaria and
in the countries of Scandinavia who rescued their neighbors during the Holocaust—
is being given to someone who is deeply deserving, and who, indeed, embodies this
very same consciousness.