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The Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust

In March-May 1943 – a period when Jews across Europe were subjected to total extermination in the Nazi camps – the Bulgarian people, politicians and civic leaders through a series of resolute actions succeeded in protecting their 50, 000 Jewish compatriots from deportation to the death camps. Bulgaria was the only country in Europe to increase its Jewish population during WW-II. This happened despite Nazi pressure and the fact that Bulgaria was officially an ally of Hitler Germany from March 1941 until September 1944.

Despite the anti-Jewish legislation and the heavy restrictions of the rights of the Jewish population adopted by the Bulgarian government and Parliament in 1941-1942, anti-Semitism was never morally accepted by the Bulgarian society. King Boris III and the majority of the Members of Parliament only reluctantly followed Hitler’s official policy, resisting the implementation of the anti-Jewish legislation and regulations in their entirety.

As a result of Nazi pressure, in February 1943 a secret agreement on the deportation of 20, 000 Jews to Germany from Aegean Thrace and Macedonia /territories administered by Bulgaria at that time/ and eventually also up to 8, 000 Jews from the old Bulgarian territories, was signed between Hitler’s special envoy Theodor Dannecker and the Bulgarian Commissar on Jewish Affairs Alexander Belev. The plan was to start the secret deportation of Jews by cargo trains in the first days of March 1943.

Due to the prompt public reaction and the resolute intervention of a group of active citizens, church leaders and politicians, led by the Deputy Speaker of the Bulgarian National Assembly Dimitar Peshev, the Minister of Interior Nikola Gabrovski was forced on 9 March 1943 to cancel the deportation orders for the Jews from several Bulgarian cities. The trains, which had been waiting to be loaded with Bulgarian Jews and sent to the concentration camps in Poland, did not depart.

Unfortunately, about 12, 000 Jews from Aegean Thrace and Macedonia, who did not have at that time Bulgarian citizenship and had been already driven out of their homes by the special forces of the Jewish Commissariat, could not be saved and were deported through Bulgarian territory to Germany. The horrible sight of train compositions packed with Jews from Thrace and Macedonia crossing Bulgarian territory had a tremendous impact on public opinion in Bulgaria and strengthened even more the popular resistance against deportation.

Later in March 1943, 43 members of the Bulgarian Parliament from the ruling majority, led by the Deputy Speaker Dimitar Peshev, addressed a bold and decisive letter to the then Prime Minister Bogdan Filov, in which they called a possible deportation of the Jews an “inadmissible act” with “grave moral and political consequences” for the country.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church played a crucial part in mobilizing public support against the deportation and exerting its influence on the government. Metropolitans Stefan in Sofia and Kiril in Plovdiv actively contributed to the campaign against state discrimination of the Jews.

The broad popular and civil movement in defense of the Bulgarian Jews culminated in May 1943 when the plan of deportation was finally aborted. King Boris III played a decisive role in this decision by not ceding to Hitler’s increasing pressure and not allowing the deportation to happen. The King resisted Hitler’s demands with the argument that the Bulgarian Jews were needed as a workforce in Bulgaria. At the end of May 1943 about, 20 000 Jews from the capital Sofia, were sent to work-camps in the countryside, where they were assigned heavy labor duties and lived in miserable conditions, but still survived.

Many other political and professional organizations and groups of intellectuals joined actively in this national effort. The credit as a whole belongs to the Bulgarian people who showed courage and strength in defending their Jewish fellow countrymen. Bulgarians today feel proud of the courage of their predecessors to save from deportation and death nearly 50, 000 Bulgarian Jews.

Source: Cup & Cross Ministries International