The Rescue of the 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 broadcast on C-SPAN.)
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.