The Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews during World War II

Naomi Martinez Ms. Hawe Period 6 December 17, 2007

Martinez 2 Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazis rounded up and exterminated six million Jews across all of Europe (Dowswell 1). But one small country, Bulgaria, managed to defy Hitler and save all 50,000 of its Jews. Bulgaria had originally allied with Germany because Hitler had promised King Boris III of Bulgaria land that had been lost by Boris’s father following World War I (Galabova 1). But when King Boris signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany, he was not fully aware that allying with Hitler meant he would have to bow to all of Hitler’s commands, including the Final Solution: executing all of Europe’s Jews. Unlike most other countries in Europe, in Bulgaria, the Jews were fully integrated into their society; when the Nazis attempted to deport them, many non- Jewish members of Bulgarian society in the Parliament, church and community at large, tried to stop the deportations. It was King Boris, however, who took the final initiative to save the Jews. King Boris allied with Germany because Hitler promised to return Bulgarian territory, but when Hitler came for the Jews, Boris realized he had not fully understood the consequences of his decision, and defying Hitler, he saved the Jews by inventing the excuse that he needed the Jews to build roads in Bulgaria. During World War II, Bulgaria’s main goal was to stay out of the war altogether. Referring to Bulgaria’s position during the war, King Boris said “When the horses start kicking each other in the stable, the donkey gets hurt” (Bar-Zohar 19). King Boris truly believed that since Bulgaria was such a small country, it would get crushed. Boris was indecisive to begin with, and many Bulgarians believed he was easily influenced by others, and viewed him as “a puppet in the hands of the politicians and the military who ruled Bulgaria under the appearance of a parliamentary regime” (Bar-Zohar 14).

Martinez 3 As the war progressed, however, King Boris knew he would have to ally with either the Soviet Union or Germany, or otherwise face invasion from both countries. Bulgaria was ethnically closer to the Soviet Union. However, Boris had strong reservations about allying with a communist government. Bogdan Filov and Peter Gabrovski, high ranking Bulgarian cabinet ministers, who were completely opposed to a Bulgarian-Soviet alliance, developed a plan to “begin a newspaper campaign against the communists,” to influence public opinion against a Bulgarian -Soviet alliance (Todorov 85). The Soviets were also not as economically powerful as Germany, who controlled most of Bulgaria’s exports and imports, crucial to Bulgaria’s economy. If trade were eliminated with Germany, this would greatly hurt Bulgaria’s economy. Germany also supplied Bulgaria with arms and weapons (Chary 12). In spite of the economic benefit and powerful German military, Boris remained reluctant to ally with Germany for a long time. Even as time began to run out, King Boris procrastinated, because he cared very much about his people and the future of Bulgaria. When he finally decided to ally with Germany, King Boris remained very upset. That night he and Filov were having an argument and Filov remembers, “At first the king said he preferred to abdicate or throw ourselves in Russian arms, even if we would become ‘bolshevized’ by that. He was a Republican king; he cared about his people” (Bar-Zohar 42). Even when King Boris knew he had no choice and it came time to finalize the treaty with Hitler, he delayed the signing of the Tripartite Pact three times (Bar-Zohar 42). But eventually King Boris did sign, and he did so because Hitler had offered him something he desperately wanted; the territories of Thrace and Macedonia. Following

Martinez 4 Bulgaria’s defeat in World War I, King Boris’s father had lost these lands and King Boris desperately wanted to recover them to reunify Bulgaria. The Soviet Union could not make Bulgaria the same offer and this was the deciding factor for Boris. At the time though, King Boris did not realize that allying with Hitler meant Bulgaria would be forced to send the Jews to their deaths. As much as King Boris wanted that land, even after the signing, he remained conflicted because he did not want to subject Bulgaria to German fascism. “King Boris III, was a democrat at heart and an enlightened ruler…who had nothing in common with people like Mussolini and Hitler” (Bar-Zohar 17). On the day of the signing, King Boris was dejected about allying with Germany. But the next day, when German troops marched into Bulgaria and the people understood that Bulgaria was to be reunified, they cheered King Boris as a hero. In only a short time, and without violence, King Boris had achieved Bulgaria’s territorial dreams. As a leader, King Boris had a hard time taking action. When the bill, “Law for the Defense of the Nation” (ZZN), an anti-Jewish bill, was first established by parliament, he was not in favor of it. King Boris did not agree to pass it, but he did not take decisive action to stop it, and it was passed. (Chary 44). When King Boris signed the Tripartite Pact, Filov was the one who originally convinced King Boris to sign, telling him, “The Germans don’t want to meddle in our internal affairs” (Bar-Zohar 263). King Boris did not truly believe that signing the pact meant he would be forced to deport Bulgaria’s Jews. The Jews of Bulgaria had a very special relationship with the country’s nonJewish citizens. The Bulgarian people were among the least anti-Semitic in Europe.

Martinez 5 “They never considered themselves superior because of their religion or origin. They would be the first to ridicule any idea of racial supremacy” (Bar-Zohar 260). When defending his country’s Jews, King Boris told a German minister, “They absolutely do not play the same role as Jews in other countries” (Bar-Zohar 261). Indeed the situation of the Bulgarian Jews was unique, for no other country supported their Jews quite like Bulgaria. Even before World War II and Hitler, Jews in other countries were never as wellintegrated into their society as the Bulgarian Jews. In Eastern Europe, Jews had to assimilate into the society if they were to be accepted. In Poland, Jews were sent to live in ghettos even before the rise of Hitler. In Romania, racial laws against the Jews were established pre-Hitler as well (Barnavi 226). One of the reasons for the unique relationship between the Jews and Bulgaria was because Jews had inhabited Bulgaria for almost 2000 years. “There is significant evidence of Jewish habitation in the area since at least the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E” (Haskell 72-73). Intermarriage was not uncommon and Christian King Ivan Aleksandur married the Jewess Sarah in the fourteenth century (Haskell 73). During the reign of the Ottoman Empire, from 1389-1878, Bulgaria was ruled by the Turks. During this epoch, anti-Semitism was rampant throughout Europe. But in Bulgaria, Turkish rulers welcomed and appreciated the Jews. “...the Jews were generally respected and valued, and were granted relative autonomy in the running of their affairs” (Haskell 77). So when expulsions occurred in Europe during this time, many Jews fled to Bulgaria since it was considered a safe haven (Haskell 77).

Martinez 6 Even in the twentieth century, the Bulgarian Jews remained well integrated into the Bulgarian society. The Jews “ran their own communities, schools, and banks, levied their own taxes and conducted their own affairs” (Haskell 131). Bulgaria wrote a constitution stating that everyone was equal regardless of religion or ethnicity (Tamir 162). The Jews could practice their religion and still be accepted by Bulgarian society. Jewish men fought willingly for Bulgaria in World War I, considering themselves Bulgarians more than Jews. Even the Bulgarian church was open to religious freedom because although the orthodox church had its religion, they were open to other religions as well, and sometimes, the Jews would go to church on Easter, and the church leaders would go to the synagogue on religious Jewish holidays (Tamir 160- 161). Boris had a very strong relationship with the Jews. “His clothiers, dentists, and court suppliers were Jews. He had even nicknamed the head of the royal chancery, Paul Grouer, ‘the Jewish consul’ because of his many Jewish friends” (Bar-Zohar 24). On Jewish holidays, King Boris would send telegrams to leaders of the Jewish community. King Boris III was very well liked by the Jews who found him an “amicable figure who never failed to exhibit civility and propriety towards the community by taking notice of Jewish holidays” (Tamir 160). King Boris was not only liked by the Jews but was also liked by his subjects who described him as, “Democratic, sincere and unassuming” (Tamir 160). In 1935, Germany passed the Nuremberg laws. These laws limited the rights of German Jews. The Nuremberg laws prohibited Jews from government service, limited the number of Jews accepted into universities, and took away the citizenship of Jews.

Martinez 7 In 1940, Bulgarian Interior Minister Peter Gabrovski presented a bill to Parliament known as the Law for the Defense of the Nation (ZZN). Like the Nuremberg laws, the ZZN limited the rights of the Bulgarian Jews. Under the ZZN, Bulgarian Jews could not hold public office, serve in the Bulgarian army, or own businesses (Bar-Zohar 28). The ZZN was later expanded to curtail the freedom of the Jews, by Alexander Belev, who was head of “Commissariat for Jewish Questions” (KEV). Like Gabrovski, Belev was pro- German and anti-Jewish. Many Bulgarians were shocked by the ZZN and there was an “angry, unprecedented public outcry” from several hundred non- Jewish Bulgarian citizens (BarZohar 31). Many people sent protest letters, telegrams, and petitions trying to convince King Boris to reject the bill. Although King Boris was described as someone who “was a modest and able man who retained the loyalty and respect of the people until the end” (Tamir 160), Boris himself did not claim to be a leader. In fact, he often stated that he would not sign the decrees imposed on him. But as always, as he did with the ZZN, he would give in and sign the bills to avoid a fight (Bar-Zohar 15). In 1943, Bulgaria signed a top-secret agreement with Germany, called the Final Solution, to deport the Jews of Thrace, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. The only people that knew about it in Bulgaria were Gabrovski and Belev, who had made all the arrangements for the deportation of the Jews. Box cars were to be sent to Bulgaria, and the Jews were to be loaded and taken away (Chary 69). However in March of 1943, just before the deportations were scheduled to occur, Liliana Panitsa, who was Belev’s secretary, found out about the secret deportations and warned the Jews. The leaders of the Jewish

Martinez 8 community went to Dimitar Peshev, speaker of Parliament, for assistance in stopping the deportations (Bar- Zohar 83). Peshev sent a letter of protest to King Boris that included 42 signatures from the members of parliament, protesting the deportation of the Jews (Todorov 10). Other important figures, such as former Prime Minister Nikola Mushanov and Professor Petko Stainov, wrote letters to King Boris pleading with him to not let the Jews be deported. On March 9, 1943, all types of Jews around Bulgaria were rounded up and taken to train stations. This included, “women, widows, families with young children, helpless old people, and commissioned and non commissioned officers” (Todorov 104). They sat at the train stations all day, terrified. But the following day at noon, they were told to go home. Even though many sectors of the Bulgarian society protested the deportation of the Jews, King Boris was the only one who could have stopped it. “Peshev and his fellow deputy’s actions could not have stopped the deportations, had Boris, who held Supreme Court, not wanted it carried out” (Haskell 19). Although the order came from Gabrovski, it would not have been possible for him to make that decision by himself. A government report sent to Berlin said that, “the Interior Minister had received instructions from the highest place to stop the planned deportation of the Jews” (Bar-Zohar 128).The only person that had more power than Gabrovski was King Boris. This was his first defiance of Hitler. Even though Bulgaria had a parliament, the final decision was up to Boris. Boris gave a speech expressing that he wanted to protect the Jews and how he felt it was his responsibility. He said, “I will not let anything bad happen to the Jews, because I want

Martinez 9 them to be safe” (Haskell 19). In a diary entry by Bogdan Filov on March 15, Filov wrote that he had an audience with the Boris from 4:30 to 6: 30 P.M. that same day and that Boris told him that he was against the deportations (Filov 86). Gabrovski and Belev were furious and still wanted to exterminate the Jews, so they immediately made plans for a second deportation, this time hoping to expel all 50,000 of Bulgaria’s Jews. Liliana Panitsa continued to warn the Jews about Belev’s plans. The new plans called for the deportations to start in May of 1943 (Bar- Zohar 106). During this time, King Boris was heavily influenced by members of the church who may have given him the courage to stand up to Hitler. The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian church had written in a letter about the Law for the Defense of the Nation, “The proposed law contains measures that can not be just or useful for the defense of the nation. All men and all peoples must defend their rights and protect themselves from danger, but this just aspiration must not serve as a pretext for injustice and violence towards others” (Todorov 55-56). Bishop Stefan had also written in a letter to King Boris, “Do not persecute so that you yourself will not be persecuted. God will keep watch over your actions. If the persecution over the Jews continues, I shall open the door of all Bulgarian churches to them” (Galabova 3). These letters greatly influenced King Boris and so he decided to take action. One of the few small things he did was give a speech to the cabinet, where he criticized the ill treatment of the Jews (King Boris 102). On May 21, Jews began receiving deportation orders, and on May 24, they were sent to train stations and put on trains. The trains started to move and the Jews were filled with panic for they thought that this would surely be the end. But when the trains reached the very border of Bulgaria, unexpectedly, they halted. The explanation was that

Martinez 10 Gabrovski had stopped the deportations, under the “Personal initiative” of King Boris III (Galabova 3). From March 10, 1943, until his death on August 28 of that year, King Boris held firm to the position that the Jews were not to be deported. During this time, King Boris was fully aware there was a plot to deport the Jews. At the end of March, 1943, King Boris was summoned to meet with Hitler, who was upset at the first set of failed deportations. Although Hitler did not address the deportations, Von Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, did, and he was very angry. Ribbentrop insisted that King Boris hand over the Jews (Chary 142). King Boris knew that he had to come up with a reason to object to the deportations. So he cleverly thought up the excuse that he needed the Jews in labor camps in Bulgaria to build roads. At the end of the meeting, it was agreed that “the Bulgarian Jews were not to be deported for King Boris had insisted that the Jews were needed for various laboring tasks including road maintenance”(Tamir 7). This act of bravery displayed by King Boris saved all 50,000 Jews of Bulgaria. Once King Boris stood up to Hitler the first time, he then developed the courage to stand up to his own ministers and stop the second set of deportations. King Boris’s rescue of the Bulgarian Jews has had a huge impact in history, because Bulgaria was the only country that saved all of its Jews from being sent to Hitler’s death camps. Even though Hitler managed to kill six million Jews from all of Europe during World War II, Bulgaria not only saved all its Jews but inspired many countries after them to stand up for themselves.

Martinez 11 Works Cited Primary: Chary, Fredrick B. The Bulgarian Jews and the Final Solution. United States: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972. Filov, Bogdan. “Bogdan Filov’s Diary.” The Fragility of Goodness. Ed. Todorov Tzvetan. New Jersey: Princeton University, 1999. King Boris. “Speech.” The Fragility of Goodness. Ed. Todorov Tzvetan. New Jersey: Princeton University, 1999. Todorov, Tzvetan The Fragility of Goodness .New Jersey: Princeton University, 1999.

Secondary: Barnavi, Eli. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People. United States: Hachette Litterature, 1992. Bar-Zohar, Michael. Beyond Hitler’s Grasp. Holbrook: Adams Media Corporation, 1998. Dowswell, Paul. Second World War. London: Usborne Publishing Ltd, 2005. Galabova, Gayla. Jews in Bulgaria during World War II. New York: American Jewish Committee, 2006. Haskell, Guy H. Form Sofia to Jaffa: The Jews of Bulgaria and Israel Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994. Tamir,. Vicki. Bulgaria and her Jews. New York: Sepher-Hermon Press Inc., 1979

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful