Bulgaria Celebrates 78th Anniversary since Rescue of Bulgarian Jews from Holocaust of Nazi Death Camps

Bulgaria Celebrates 78th Anniversary since Rescue of Bulgarian Jews from Holocaust of Nazi Death Camps

The celebration of the 78th anniversary since the Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust during World War II in 1943 took place at Dimitar Peshev’s monument in the city of Kyustendil in Western Bulgaria on March 9, 2021. Photo: BNR

Bulgaria marked on March 9-10, 2021, the 78th anniversary since the days its civil society and key government and church figures prevented the deportation of almost 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to Nazi death camps during World War II, and thus saved them from perishing in the Holocaust.

The anniversary is celebrated every year with events on March 9 and 10, the days of the first failed attempt of some pro-Nazi officials in wartime Bulgaria to deport at first part of the Bulgarian Jews to death camps established by Hitler’s Nazi Germany in Poland. March 10 is celebrated by the Jewish community in Bulgaria as Rescue Day.

The Rescue of Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust of the Nazi death camps during World War II is one of the most important events in the history of both Bulgaria and its Jewish community.

It was made possible by resistance among parts of the civil society in Bulgaria even though the Tsardom of Bulgaria (i.e. the Third Bulgarian Tsardom) had technically become allied to Hitler’s Nazi Germany as of March 1941.

The initial secret attempt for the deportation of some of the Bulgarian Jews to Nazi concentration camps in Poland was stopped the night of March 9, 1943, by then Deputy Parliament Speaker from the ruling pro-fascist majority, Dimitar Peshev (1894-1973), with a total of 43 MPs from the ruling majority joining his initiative. Dimitar Peshev Plaza in the US capital Washtington, D.C., is named after him.

Sofia Metropolitan Stefan (later Exarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church) (1878-1957) and Plovdiv Metropolitan Kiril (later Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church) (1901-1971) were other public figures instrumental in the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews.

The greatest role is attributed to Bulgaria’s monarch, Tsar Boris III (r. 1918-1943), who resisted Hitler’s pressure for the deportation of the Jews. (Learn more in the Background Infonotes below.)

Nearly 50,000 thousand Bulgarian Jews were saved from the Holocaust; unfortunately, the Bulgarian authorities were involved in the deportation of another more than 11,000 Jews from regions of Greece and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia which were part of Bulgaria’s historic territories and had been handed over to Sofia by Germany for administration but were not made part of Bulgaria. (Unlike the region of Southern Dobrudzha in today’s Northeast Bulgaria which was returned by Romania to Bulgaria in 1940 as an integral part of Bulgaria’s territory; the Jews of Southern Dobrudzha shared the fate of the rest of the Bulgarian Jews, and were saved from deportation.)

Since the deportation of the Jews from the occupied parts of Greece and Yugoslavia hand to Bulgaria for administration happened shortly before events in early March 1943, rumors about the fate of the Jews deported from these territories seem to have played a role in the resistance that led to the rescue of the Jews from Bulgaria’s recognized territories at the time.

The story of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust in the Nazi death camps is probably best told by Bulgarian-Israeli author Michael Bar-Zohar in his book “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp. The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews" and a documentary (available on YouTube) based on it. (Here a discussion of the book by its author broadcast on C-SPAN.)

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, events for the celebration of the 78th anniversary since the Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews were small-scale but were held at the monuments of Dimitar Peshev in Kyustendil and Sofia.

Every year Bulgarian Jews from Israel and their descendants honor the Bulgarian rescuers from the Holocaust by sending a special delegation to Sofia and other cities such as Plovdiv, Ruse, and Kyustendil.

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Also check out our other stories about Jewish archaeological monuments and Jewish history in Bulgaria:

First Ever Synagogue from Medieval Bulgarian Empire Discovered in Trapesitsa Fortress in Old Capital Veliko Tarnovo

First Ever Synagogue from Medieval Bulgarian Empire Discovered in Trapesitsa Fortress in Old Capital Veliko Tarnovo

Newly Restored Floor Mosaics from Antiquity Synagogue in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv Unveiled for the First Time

Newly Restored Floor Mosaics from Antiquity Synagogue in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv Unveiled for the First Time

Late Medieval Jewish Necropolis in Bulgaria’s Karnobat to Become Cultural Tourism Destination

Late Medieval Jewish Necropolis in Bulgaria’s Karnobat to Become Cultural Tourism Destination

Learn more about the Jewish archaeological monuments in Bulgaria, and the history of Bulgarian Jews in the Background Infonotes below.

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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria, among other books.

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Background Infonotes:

The Rescue of Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust of the Nazi death camps during World War II is one of the most important events in the history of both Bulgaria and its Jewish community.

After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 (1912 for some parts of today’s Bulgaria), it preserved its vibrant Jewish community. By the time of World War II, there were almost 50,000 Jews living in the country. About half of those lived in Sofia, where in 1909 they erected Europe’s third largest synagogue.

The Tsardom of Bulgaria eventually ended up allied, rather reluctantly, to Hitler’s Nazi Germany in 1941 (largely because of Mussolini’s fascist Italy’s failed attack on Greece in 1940, and the need for German troops to go through Bulgaria to aid the Italians). Again bowing to Nazi pressure, even before it joined the Tripartite Pact, in Janunary 1941, Bulgaria introduced anti-Semitic legislation in the notorious Nation Defense Act.

As an ally of Nazi Germany, it was expected to hand over its Jewish population for deportation to the Nazi death camps. As some of the Bulgarian Jews began to be rounded up by the authorities under the influence of German pressure and pro-Nazi factors in the government, in early March 1943, parts of the Bulgarian civil society rose up in their defense.

A protest movement against the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews to the Nazi death camps within the Bulgarian government was led by Deputy Parliament Speaker Dimitar Peshev (1894-1973), with a total of 43 MPs from the ruling pro-fascist majority joining his initiative. Dimitar Peshev Plaza in the US capital Washtington, D.C., is named after him. Sofia Metropolitan Stefan (later Exarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church) (1878-1957) and Plovdiv Metropolitan Kiril (later Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church) (1901-1971) were other public figures instrumental in the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews. At the end of the day, however, the greatest role is attributed to Bulgaria’s monarch, Tsar Boris III (r. 1918-1943) who resisted Hitler’s pressure for the deportation of the Jews. Taking advantage of Nazi Germany’s worsening war situation, that is, its seeming inability to dedicate resources to taking the Bulgarian Jews by force, he argued he needed them in Bulgaria to provide labor for road and railroad construction projects. Thus, almost 49,000 Bulgarian Jews were rescued.

Unfortunately, even before the events of early March 1943 leading up to the rescue of the Jews who were Bulgarian citizens, the Bulgarian authorities participated in the deportation of Jews from the regions of Vardar Macedonia, the Western Outlands (parts of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), and Aegean Thrace (part of Greece). These territories who had historically belonged to the Bulgarian national territory and had Bulgarian population were handed over to Sofia for their administration after Nazi Germany defeated and occupied Yugoslavia and Greece. They were not made part of Bulgaria (unlike the region of Southern Dobrudzha returned by Romania back to Bulgaria in 1940), and Bulgarian citizenship in them was extended only to ethnic Bulgarians but not to the local Jews and other minorities. A total of 11,343 Jews from the regions of Macedonia and Thrace had been deported to the Nazi death camps as of early 1943, and only about 300 of them survived the war. It appears that the rumors about the deportation of the Jews from the regions of Macedonia and Thrace led the Bulgarian civil society in Sofia, Plovdiv, Kyustendil and other cities to rise up to prevent the deportation of the Jews from Bulgaria proper.

The story of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust in the Nazi death camps is probably best told by Bulgarian-Israeli author Michael Bar-Zohar in his book “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp. The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews" and a documentary (watch it on YouTube) based on it. (Watch here a discussion of the book by its author.)

After World War II, in 1948, the overwhelming majority of the Bulgarian Jews immigrated to the newly established State of Israel but they and their descendants have largely preserved their connection, emotional or otherwise, to Bulgaria.

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The Jewish archaeological monuments, and the history of Jews in Bulgaria go back to the period after all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube was conquered by the Roman Empire in 46 AD.

The first archaeological monument showing the presence of Jews on Bulgaria’s historic territory is 2nd century AD inscription found on a tomb stone in the major Ancient Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus located close to the Danube River near today’s town of Gigen, Gulyantsi Municipality, Pleven District. The inscription is in Latin, and mentions the leader of the local synagogue, i.e. the archisynagogos Iose Sarcisinao. It is interpreted not just as evidence of the presence of Latin-speaking Jews in Ulpia Oescus but aslo as a testimony to the fact that they had a sizable and well organized community.

The only known ancient Jewish temple on the territory of today’s Bulgaria is the Antiquity Synagogue of ancient Philipopolis, today’s Bulgarian city of Plovdiv (also called Trimontium in the Roman period). It was built in the first half of the 3rd century AD, possibly during the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD). The ruins of the synagogue were discovered in 1981 by archaeologist Elena Kisyakova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology; in 2016, 35 years after the discoverъ, the Museum unveiled and exhibited for the first time the restored floor mosaics from the Antiquity Synagogue.

Another relevant archaeological monument is an inscription from the Ancient Roman city of Stobi (today ruins are located in the Republic of Macedonia) saying a man named Claudius Tiberius Polycharmos, converted to Judaism, and erected a synagogue as a testimony to his righteous life.

In the 6th century AD, Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea mentioned in his work “On Buildings" of a “Tower of the Jews" located east of the Roman and Byzantine fort of Dorticum whose ruins are found today near the town of Vrav, Vidin District, in Northwest Bulgaria.

There is little data about the presence of Jews in the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD). In contrast, the presence of Jewish population in the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) is better known. It is believed that while all of Bulgaria was part of Byzantium between 1018 and 1185, a number of Romaniote Jews settled in the Bulgarian regions.

They established the well-known medieval Jewish Quarter of the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). According to one of the hypotheses, it was located on the southern slope of the Trapesitsa Hill Fortress (one of the two citadels of Tarnovgrad, together with the Tsarevets Hill Fortress); however, this hypothesis has been disputed, and the precise location remains uncertain. Tarnovgrad’s Jewish Quarter had a necropolis but neither the quarter, nor the necropolis have been excavated by archaeologists yet.

The earliest known Jewish book, “Lekach-tov", from Bulgaria’s historic territory appealed in 1093 AD; it was written by the rabbi of Ohrid (today in the Republic of Macedonia). A medieval chronicle from 1185 AD, known as Benjamin’s Chronicle, mentions the Jewish communities in the Bulgarian lands (then still part of the Byzantine Empire).

During the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire, the Jewish communities are known to have had residential quarters in a number of major Bulgarian cities: Veliko Tarnovo, Vidin, Plovdiv, Sofia, Ohrid, Bitola, Pleven, Odrin (Adrianople; Edirne), Kostur (Kastoria).

A better known fact in Bulgarian medieval history is the second marriage of the last Tsar of the entire Second Bulgarian Empire, Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371) to a Jewish woman named Sarah, who converted to Orthodox Christianity under the name Theodora.

Sarah-Theodora gave birth to Tsar Ivan Shishman (r. 1371-1395), the last ruler of Tarnovgrad and the core of the medieval Bulgarian Empire who was named heir to the throne even though he was Ivan Alexander’s youngest son. The more logical heir, Ivan Alexander’s surviving son from an earlier marriage (he had lost two other elder sons in battles with the Ottoman Turks), Tsar Ivan Sratsimir (r. 1371-1396), was given the city of Vidin and established his own Vidin Tsardom. The division of what had been left of the Second Bulgarian Empire (other Bulgarian feudal lords also seceded in the geographic regions of Dobrudzha, Macedonia, and Thrace) between Ivan Shishman and Ivan Sratsimir, who were often in conflict with one another, is often cited as one of the major reasons for Bulgaria’s conquest by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century.

The largest settlement of Jews in Bulgaria occurred during the Ottoman period (known in Bulgarian history as the Ottoman Yoke – 1396-1878/1912). Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula settled in the Balkans after they were chased away by Spain in 1492. Subsequently, the Sephardic Jews made up over 90% of the Bulgarian Jewish population. Some Ashkenazi Jews from Central Europe also settled in Bulgaria during the Ottoman period.

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