Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews

One of the first things I learned about Bulgaria when my wife and I went to live there for two years was that the country’s Jews were spared the horrors of the Holocaust. Despite the fact that Bulgaria sided with the Nazis and that its government passed anti-Jewish legislation and planned for mass deportations, its entire community of 50,000 Jewish citizens survived World War II intact.

How exactly did it come to be that the Jews of Bulgaria were saved?

According to A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria, the mainstream theory promoted by the Communist government after the war was that the Communist Party and media played the decisive role in “preparing the general public for the protests against the Jews’ disenfranchisement and planned deportation.”
The book states that “at the present time, most Bulgarian politicians and statement try to avoid the controversies by claiming that the Bulgarian Jews were saved as a result of the efforts of ‘the whole nation.’”
Certainly all elements of the nation played a role. King Boris III, who sided with the Germans primarily in efforts to regain Bulgarian territories, refused to hand over his country’s Jews just as he resisted the German demand that he launch a military campaign against the Soviet Union. The Bulgarian Orthodox church took a stand on behalf of its Jewish neighbors and Bulgarian politicians stood up bravely to oppose the pro-German ministers who sought to appease the Nazis’ demands to deport the Jews.
In the book Beyond Hitler’s Grasp, Michael Bar-Zohar details the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews in dramatic fashion, almost like a suspense thriller. In fact Bar Zohar, who was born in Bulgaria and served in the Knesset between 1981 – 1992, has written many spy novels and this true story comes across sounding almost like a work of fiction.
Bar-Zohar relates that in March 1943, camps had already been prepared for the country’s Jews and empty freight trains awaited their mission to transport the Jews to the east. At the last minute, a warning reached local politicians in the town of Kyustendil and they set off as a small delegation to Sofia to confront the Interior Minister and protest the plan. The deportation was delayed, but the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews was not yet ensured.
Bar-Zohar explains that for most Bulgarians, the Jews were just like everyone else in the country. The Germans, who came to promote their Final Solution, discovered that in Bulgaria there was no problem that needed solving. In his book, written in 1998, Bar-Zohar points out the unique rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews, the largest and most dramatic rescue during World War II, is a story that is almost completely unknown.
In the years after the war, most of Bulgaria’s Jewish community made aliyah and moved to Israel. Today there are some 6,000 Jews living in Bulgaria. Bulgaria and Israel share a special relationship and Israelis of Bulgarian extract regularly visit their former homeland.
Two years of living in Bulgaria proved to me that the country remains remarkably free of anti-Semitism. At no time did I hesitate telling Bulgarians that I was Jewish, or that I came from Israel. The replies I heard were ones of welcome.
I was proud to live, even for a short time, in a country that refused to turn its Jews over to the Nazis. The heroism of Bulgaria’s citizens deserves to be shared with the world.

For further reading: What Happened to Macedonia's Jews during the Holocaust?

Picture: Sofia Synagogue


  1. I had no idea Bulgaria was able to save its Jewish population. Thanks for sharing this, Ellis.

  2. Not many are aware of this amazing true story.

  3. Mr Shuman: I am now reading -- and enjoying -- "The Virtual Kibbutz," and found -- and enjoyed -- your blog as a result of googling you. This evening, I read your blogpost on the Jews of Bulgaria.

    Perhaps you are already aware of Tzvetan Todorov's book "The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust." The author traces the chain of fortuitous events that led to the survival of the contry's Jewish population. He finds not so many heroes, and posits that the happy outcome could have been very different if one or more circumstances been different (e.g., a less wily king, or a differently comprised church leadership).

  4. Thanks for alerting me to that book! I agree with the author's summary of how easily the outcome could have been very different.

  5. So interesting. I, as, well, didn't know that about Bulgaria. Great article.

  6. It's incredible that this happened. It's also incredible that I never learned about this in school. What amazes me is the fact that Bulgarians agreed collectively that this was the right choice. What kept the Nazi's from enforcing their edict?

  7. An amazing and encouraging story. Thank you for sharing this with us!

  8. This is really fascinating, and inspiring. Now I'm interested to read the book!

  9. I visited Sofia in April 1970 as a student and met with the head of the Jewish Community at that time. He told me of the story that you relate of the saving of Bulgaria's native Jewish population, but also told me that Jewish refugees without Bulgarian citizenship were turned over to the Nazis.

  10. I would like to recommend the book The Man Who Stopped Hitler by Gabriele Nissim to those who are interested in additional information. The book focuses on Dimitar Peshev who was the driving force behind the successful rescue of the Bulgarian Jews.

    By the way, also the Jews in Albania, most of them refugees, were saved. Not as a result of governmental policy, but as a result of the besa, the traditional word of honor and hospitality of the Albanians. Hundreds of Albanians (mostly Muslims) were hiding Jews in their homes during the war, at an incredible risk for themselves and their families.

  11. It is one of the fantastic act in the history of humanity. Hats of to Bulgarian citizens. Very few people in the world know about it. Thanks to Ellis.