Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Rescue of Bulgarian Jews was a historical event that consisted of the planned rescue of about 50,000 Jews living on Bulgarian soil during World War II. The most notable people behind the rescue were Dimitar Peshev and Exarch Stefan of Bulgaria and Kiril, Metropolitan of Plovdiv, who managed to overcome Bulgaria's pro-Nazi bureaucracy and convince the then-tsar Boris III to stand behind Bulgarian Jewry.[1] Historians are divided on whether the "eleventh hour" rescue, the halting of Holocaust trains should be considered a "remarkable act of defiance" or as a case of cynical opportunism, given that Macedonia and Thrace's Jews were indeed deported; however, it is not controversial that the "combined hostility of influential Bulgarians and the populace at large" to the anti-Semitic measures being proposed played a significant role in blocking the deportation of Bulgaria's Jews to death camps.[2] The deportations, set to take place after the arrival of the Holocaust trains on March 10, 1943, were never carried out. The rescue has been praised by public figures worldwide, including former Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Historical background[edit]

The Bulgarian government under Tsar Boris III acted, to a large extent, as a puppet to Nazi Germany. The rise of Hitler saw an increasingly radicalised Bulgaria, as it eventually adopted German antisemitic policies. Bulgaria's alliance with Germany during World War II placed the former into a position of obedience and conformity. In addition, the Bulgarian government was over-ridden with politicians that held pro-fascist and anti-democratic sentiments. Such was the case of Prime Minister Bogdan Filov, who, on October 8, 1940, marginalised the country's Jewry by passing the Law for the Protection of the Nation (Bulgarian: Zakon za Zashtita na Naciyata), which restricted the rights and activities of Jews.[3]

Another crucial figure in the antisemitic movement in Bulgaria was the head of Jewish affairs for the government Alexander Belev, who was responsible for the expulsion of over 11,000 Jews from annexed Greek area of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, and Yugoslav areas of Vardar Macedonia and Pomoravlje to the Treblinka extermination camp. He signed a secret agreement with Germany's Theodor Dannecker on 22 February 1943 that aimed to achieve an efficient and unpublicised deportation of Jews from these regions, which had been taken over by Germany but were under administration by Bulgaria. The Jews of Greek Thrace, Eastern Macedonia, and Pirot in Serbia, were rounded up the night of 3–4 March 1943. They were transported by train to Lom on the Danube, then by boats to Vienna, and again by train to the killing camp of Treblinka. By 15 March, all but about a dozen of the Jews had been murdered at Treblinka.[4]

The Bulgarian government was divided on the Jewish issue as pro-Nazi officials and those who valued collective security more, and were willing to compromise integrity, were in favour of antisemitic restrictions and laws; while the Orthodox Church, joined by progressive politicians and intellectuals, was opposed to the ongoing dehumanisation of the Jews. Nevertheless, the prevalent public opinion opposed the actions of the government. This led to internal political and social tensions that further divided people.[3][5] In January 1942, Germany outlined what it called the Final Solution to the Jewish Question at the Wannsee Conference. This included the creation of camps designed, not to house deportees, but solely to execute them as quickly as possible after they arrived. Shortly thereafter, in June 1942, a Commissariat for the Jewish Problem was created within the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior, and Alexander Belev, a notorious antisemite, was appointed its head. The Commissariat took swift action to satisfy the aims of the Nazis and promised the Germans that 20,000 Jews would be delivered to them. The plan was to deport Jews from the Bulgarian-controlled territories of Thrace and Macedonia to the Nazi extermination machine. But the Bulgarians overestimated the number of Jews living there and so were forced to come up with a plan to include approximately 8,000 Jews from Bulgaria itself.

Anti-Jewish propaganda and legislation[edit]

The beginning of anti-Jewish policies in Bulgaria could be traced back to 1939, but the escalation of those into a nationwide phenomenon was greatly contributed to by Alexander Belev and his Law for Protection of the Nation in 1940. The passing of the law by Parliament in January 1941 paved the way for the first deportations to take place in November of the same year.

Anti-Jewish propaganda gradually intensified with Bulgaria's rising economic and political dependence on Nazi Germany. This led to the introduction of anti-semitic legislation, starting with the Law for Protection of the Nation in 1940. This restricted the civil rights of Jews and was complemented by further laws, such as the establishment of a Commission on Jewish Affairs on 29 August 1942. The commission was tasked with the organisation of the expulsion of Jews and the liquidation of their property. This Act can be interpreted as the immediate precursor of the decision to deport Jews to extermination camps in March 1943.[6]

The Bulgarian government worked on the optics of their message, terming the proposed deportation as a "resettlement," but Bulgarian citizens were not convinced. Expressions of dissent grew as Bulgarians protested against any Jews being deported from Bulgarian soil, and the Bulgarian government was flooded with petitions from organisations of writers and artists, lawyers, and religious leaders, among others. Former Bulgarian diplomat and attorney Dr. Ivan Dimitrov Strogov was one of those who petitioned Tsar Boris III. His letter admonishing the government's decision to deport Bulgarian Jewry is one such that moved the tsar to communicate his own change in perspective on the matter.[7] Tsar Boris III was persuaded, after fierce and prolonged debate, to withdraw his decision to send Bulgarian Jews across the border. The anti-Nazi effort was headed by Dimitar Peshev, deputy speaker of the legislature. Metropolitans Kiril and Stefan led the protest by the religious community.[8]


Some who had previously supported deportation of Bulgarian Jews recanted and refused to co-operate when their imminent death became clear.

Bulgarian politicians, including Dimitar Peshev, were originally in favour of anti-Jewish legislation and only opposed requests for deportations of Bulgarian Jews[citation needed]. The Bulgarian government gave no protection at all to Jews living in Macedonia and Thrace. Alexander Belev, who was responsible for the Jewish problem in this region at the time, met little resistance when he sent Jews from there to the Treblinka extermination camp. Belev's actions were never scrutinised or morally questioned until he turned to Bulgarian Jewry when he could not meet the 20,000-person quota without including them. Moreover, Tsar Boris III neither acted to help Bulgarian Jews, nor showed any empathy for them[citation needed].

There was an intense national outcry. Protests were held throughout the country, with both ordinary citizens and religious leaders, including bishop Kiril of Plovdiv,[9] threatening to block the path of Holocaust trains by lying on the railroad tracks.

Under immense pressure, Boris III was dissuaded from continuing the deportations and instead assigned Jews to forced labour groups throughout the country, telling Adolf Eichmann and Adolf Hitler that Bulgaria needed them for railroad construction and other industrial work.[10]

Reception and legacy[edit]

In 2002, the Dimitar Peshev House-Museum was inaugurated in Kyustendil, Peshev's home town, to commemorate his life and actions to prevent the deportation of Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust. [11][12]

In 2013, a street intersection outside the Bulgarian embassy in Washington DC was named Dimitar Peshev Plaza.[13]

March 10, 2016 – the 73rd anniversary of the rescue – was commemorated in Bulgaria as Holocaust Memorial Day.[14]

A monument of gratitude for the rescue of Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust was dedicated in the presence of the Israeli Ambassador and other dignitaries in Bourgas, Bulgaria, 75 years after the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews and the deportation of Jews from areas of northern Greece and Yugoslavia under Bulgarian administration. [15]

The rescue of the Bulgarian Jews has been feted by some historians, including Bulgarians and Jews alike, as a remarkable act of heroic defiance, while some other historians describe it as an "eleventh hour" episode of cynical opportunism that occurred due to the desire for favourable treatment if and when the Nazis lost the war, noting the much less rosy fate of Jews in Macedonia and Thrace, while still others take a middle position.[16]


  • Bar Zohar, Michael (1998). Beyond Hitler's Grasp. The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews. Holbrook: Adams Media Corporation.
  • Boyadjieff, Christo (1989). Saving the Bulgarian Jews. Ottawa: Free Bulgarian Center.
  • Chary, Frederick B. (1972). The Bulgarian Jews and the final solution, 1940-1944. University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Cohen, David (1995). Оцеляването [The Survival]. Sofia: Shalom.
  • Nissim, Gabriele (1998). L'uomo che fermo Hitler. Milan: Mondadori.
  • Oliver, Haim (1978). We Were Saved: How the Jews in Bulgaria Were Kept from the Death Camps. Sofia: Sofia Press.
  • Todorov, Tzvetan (2001). The Fragility of Goodness. Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Rescue of Bulgarian Jewry". aishcom. Retrieved 22 May 2015.
  2. ^ Misha Glenny. The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804-1999. Pages 506-507
  3. ^ a b ""The Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews in World War II, by Rossen Vassilev."". 2010. Web. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  4. ^ ""The Fate of the Bulgarian Jews" p. 18 by Webb, Chris, and Boris Skopijet". "The German Occupation of Europe" HEART, 2008. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
  5. ^ "Berenbaum, Michael. "How Are We to Understand the Role of Bulgaria."9 Apr. 2012" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 January 2016. Retrieved 30 June 2015.
  6. ^ Marinova-Christidi, Rumyana Dimitrova. "The Fate of the Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust — the Menace, the Rescue, the Aliya" (PDF).
  7. ^ "Tamir, Vicki. Bulgaria and Her Jews: The History of a Dubious Symbiosis". Sepher-Herman Press, Inc. for Yeshiva University Press, New York: 1979. Print, p. 211-212. Retrieved 1 October 2019.
  8. ^ "Himka, John, and Joanna Michlic. "Debating the Fate of Bulgarian Jews During World War II." Bringing the Dark past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Europe" (PDF). Board of Regents of the U of Nebraska, 2013. Print, p. 118. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 October 2015. Retrieved 30 June 2015.
  9. ^ Misha Glenny. The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers 1804-1999. Page 510
  10. ^ Himka, John; Michlic, Joanna (2013). "Debating the Fate of Bulgarian Jews During World War II". Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Europe. Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. pp. 120–125. ISBN 978-0-8032-2544-2.
  11. ^ "Dimitar Peshev Museum". Information Portal to European Sites of Remembrance. Berlin, Germany: Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas. Retrieved 2019-07-31.
  12. ^ "House-Museum "Dimiter Peshev"". Regional Historical Museum. Retrieved 2019-07-31.
  13. ^ Tucker, Eric. "DC intersection renamed for Bulgarian who saved Jews".
  14. ^ Era, Ivan Dikov · in Modern; History, Other (10 March 2016). "Bulgaria Celebrates 73rd Anniversary since Rescue of Bulgarian Jews from Holocaust of Nazi Death Camps".
  15. ^ "Monument of gratitude for 1943 rescue of Bulgarian Jews unveiled in Bourgas". The Sofia Globe. 2018-04-12. Retrieved 2019-08-01.
  16. ^ Misha Glenny. The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers: 1804-1999. Page 506.

External links[edit]