I met Professor Michael Bar-Zohar for the first time in Brussels, in the European Parliament, in 2011. I participated in the launch of his book dedicated to the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews during the Second World War. As a MEP, as well as being a Member of the Committee of Culture and Media, I was also actively involved in the Delegation for Friendship with Israel, so the problems of Israel and the Jews are not unfamiliar to me. Moreover, in my native Plovdiv I grew up with Jewish friends, for whom I have always had the warmest feelings.
I had certainly known of Professor Bar-Zohar’s book even before meeting him in the European Parliament, as it is one of the very few books on this subject that honestly and accurately tells one of the most heavily suppressed stories from the Second World War as only a witness can.
The rescue of the Bulgarian Jews by the Bulgarian intellectual elite and the Bulgarian people is indeed among one of the most incredible stories of recent times. It is a story that awaits its Spielberg to tell it to the world. It is more significant and more dramatic than Schindler’s famous story. It is so heroic and shocking, that once heard everyone feels awkward talking about it. In my view, rescuing nearly fifty thousand Bulgarian Jews under the watchful eyes of the German army was a desperate heroic act, which no other European country can boast of, which is one of the reasons it is not widely publicised.
What actually happened in 1943?
On March 1, 1941, in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Bogdan Filov, together with the German and Italian Foreign Ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Count Galeazzo Ciano signed the Tripartite Pact, which turned Bulgaria into an ally of Germany and Italy during the Second World War. There were basically two reasons for signing this contract. The first was the Neuilly Treaty signed twenty years earlier at the end the First World War. It separated vast territories from Bulgaria, inhabited by large numbers of Bulgarians. This unfair treaty filled the Bulgarians with anger and resentment and they were ready to fight to rectify this injustice. In the 1940s, in the European political ferment, the only possible ally in the Bulgarian cause was Germany, since the Soviet Union unreservedly supported Yugoslavia, while England protected Greece.
The second reason was that at that time the German army had occupied half of Europe and was waiting on the banks of the Danube, asking the Bulgarian government (as noted in Prime Minister Bogdan Filov’s diary) whether to advance as allies or enemies.
It is clear that in this situation even the Bulgarian King, Boris II, who was continually maneouvering and scheming, had no choice. Moreover, the Bulgarian people felt extremely warmly towards Germany because the previous year Germany had returned South Dobrudja to Bulgaria, an area that had been captured by the Romanians twenty years earlier. The Bulgarians rejoiced and were expecting the same thing to happen with Western Thrace and Macedonia.
Signing the treaty in the Belvedere Palace, both the government and the king hoped to be able to maneouvre up to the last minute around the issue of sending Bulgarian troops to the Eastern Front against Russia in pursuance of operation Barbarossa. They hoped that as an ally they would only have to contribute logistical backup and military presence on the Balkans. This was an extremely difficult task as the pressure from Germany was huge. It should be noted, however, that Bulgarian diplomacy managed the situation brilliantly, Bulgaria never declared war on the Soviet Union and no Bulgarian soldier was sent to the Eastern Front.
The second problem, which caused a breach between the Bulgarians and the Germans, was the Jewish question. In fact, while everyone knew that the dialogue with the Germans about the Eastern Front would be very tough, nobody thought that the Jewish question would become so acute. In Bulgaria, as well as all over Europe, Hitler’s hatred for the Jews (and his use of it as part of his ideology) was well-known, but there was almost no information about the death camps, and if there was some, the public’s attitude somehow was that it was of concern to Germans and German Jews, which Bulgaria should have nothing to do with. Moreover, Bulgarians and Jews had been living in harmony for centuries.
The reality, however, was quite different. As early as the end of 1940, immediately after the return of Dobrudja, the preparation of the Law for the Protection of the Nation began under German pressure. The main instigators of this law were the Interior Minister, Petar Gabrovski, and the Commissioner for Jewish Affairs, Alexander Belev. Both were pro-German, and probably two of the few real fascists in Bulgaria. In consultation with Germany, the Bulgarian anti-Jewish law was drafted. It deprived the Jews of a number of basic democratic rights in a brutal and uncivilized fashion. The King signed this bill into law in January 1941. The majority of the Bulgarian MPs, who were pro-German, also voted for it. It is very important to note that most MPs were pro-German, not because they were fascists or loved Germany, but because they were led by patriotic feelings and were convinced that an alliance with Hitler would bring about Bulgarian national unification. They did not share Hitler’s belief in Aryan superiority, nor the anti-semitism central to fascism.
The proof is the fact that a large number of MPs, who backed the Nation Protection Act in 1941, in 1943 defended the Jews passionately, and, ultimately, with the outstanding support of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, managed to save them.
In this drama, new to Bulgarian society, there were several important events and characters. What was happening? In February 1943, German Plenipotentiary, Teodor Danecker, and the Commissar for Jewish Affairs, Alexander Belev, signed a detailed agreement about the surrender of the Jews to the Germans and their transfer to extermination camps in Poland. This had to be done in top secret and very well organized. The agreement, of course, was coordinated with the Interior Minister Gabrovski, Prime Minister Filov and the King.
The plan looked brilliant, but it could not predict human factors. Many brilliant plans in history have failed owing to either intentional or unintentional actions of their executors. In this case, these were carried out completely consciously, and the main participants appeared like the characters in an ancient Greek drama.
I think that the incredible Lily Panitsa should be mentioned first. She was an attractive and intelligent young woman who was the secretary to the ubiquitous Alexander Belev and his most trusted assistant. She was not only his devoted helper, but she was also in love with her boss. However, having typed the infamous Danecker-Belev agreement, she could not morally accept this inhuman action against the Jews. Lily Panitsa met and informed the leaders of the Jewish community, disclosing even the deportation dates – March 10 and 11. Thus the Bulgarian Jews learned about the overwhelming danger to them, and managed to alert the public.
After September 9, 1944 Lily Panitsa was repeatedly arrested by the Communist militia and subjected to torture and harassment for months.
The noble and tragic figure of the Deputy Speaker of the Bulgarian Parliament, Dimitar Peshev, should be mentioned next chronologically, but not in terms of importance. Peshev was an educated lawyer, intellectual, democrat, admirer of the French Revolution, and ardent patriot. During these events Peshev was a member of the pro-German majority and deputy chairman of the National Assembly. It should be noted that he was a proud and independent Bulgarian who was ready to stand up for his democratic principles, regardless of parties, authorities, and the price he would pay, which turned out to be extremely high.
The first time when Peshev demonstrated a strong political will was five years earlier, while he was the Minister of Justice. Damyan Velchev, the leader of the Zveno circle, and an anti-monarchist of a left-wing persuasion was sentenced to death for anti-state activities. His life was in the hands of the Justice Minister who had to send an order for the sentence to be carried out. Peshev liked neither Damyan Velchev nor his cause. However, he did not allow his execution, as he knew that this sentence was politically motivated. He carried the court sentence in his jacket pocket for several days until he found a way to persuade the King to pardon him. The King did pardon him, albeit reluctantly. The verdict provoked a heated public debate, and Boris II could not pretend that he did not know about it. Thus, Peshev attracted the hostile attitude of the King and far-right circles in the country.
To quote from Professor Bar-Zohar’s book “If we are tempted to try and determine the exact moment when Peshev became historically significant, that was on the late morning of March 9, when . . . he entered the Office of the Interior Minister Gabrovski.”
Shocked by the news from Kyustendil about the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews and the railway carriages standing ready, Peshev, accompanied by a dozen lawmakers and prominent citizens, went to see the Interior Minister, Gabrovski, and caused an unprecedented political furore thus putting heavy pressure on the minister.
In the end, the Interior Minister was forced to cancel the deportation and, according to Professor Bar-Zohar, at 17.30, he told the delegation led by Peshev: “You can now calm down the citizens of Kyustendil.”
Rejoicing, the whole delegation rushed to call their relatives and friends that they had been saved. Some researchers believe that a telephone conversation with the King, who at that time was out of Sofia, might have helped making the decision, but there is no evidence of that.
However, that was not the end of the deportation saga. Several months later, under strong German pressure, a second attempt was made, in May, to send Bulgarian Jews to the death camps. But then Peshev, the entire Bulgarian society, as well as the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, were fully aware of what was happening and were much better prepared.
For the second time Peshev used the tactics, which worked when Damyan Velchev was rescued from the gallows. He initiated a parliamentary petition to save the Jews. In two days forty-three MPs signed the petition. Peshev explicitly insisted that they should be only MPs from the government majority. The reason was that the petition should not be seen as an anti-government act. In this declaration, the deportation was strongly condemned, and made public so that neither the government nor the King could disavow it. This infuriated both Prime Minister Filov and the King, as their initial intentions had been disclosed, and no one could feign ignorance of it.
The Declaration of MPs probably played a decisive role in the fate of the Jews, but it also decided Dimitar Peshev’s fate as a politician. He was now considered an enemy to all. In his diary, Bogdan Filov writes:“The King agrees to censure Peshev and thus to disarm him once and for all.” Both the majority and the King not only voted for his removal as Deputy Chairman of Parliament, but, to discredit him morally, rumours were spread that he was taking money from the Jews to protect them. Of course, this was an ugly defamation. But then, as in our time, defamation worked. So Peshev was“disposed of”by his own men.
It was even more paradoxical that a year later, when the Soviet Army had already occupied Bulgaria and the Bulgarian Communists had come to power with its help, new charges were filed against Dimitar Peshev. He faced the People’s Court organised by the Communists and was accused of pro-Nazi acts. The entire Bulgarian political elite was facing this court. All forty-three MPs who had signed the petition for the rescue of the Jews also had to face this court. Twenty of them were sentenced to death, and Peshev got “only 15 years in prison”. In defense of Peshev, his lawyer – the honest Yosif Yasharov (himself a Jew), pointed out two main arguments. First, Peshev saved fifty thousand Jews, and second, he saved Damyan Velchev, who had previously been sentenced to death as a communist. At that time he was the Minister for War. It is not clear which of the two arguments prevailed in saving Peshev. It is clear though, that Damyan Velchev refused to come to the trial and put in a good word about his rescuer. It is also clear that the first two lawyers invited to defend him – the Jewish Nissim Mevorah and David Lidzhi – refused to do so for fear of the new communist powers. It is also clear that the brilliant lawyer Yosif Jasharov, just over a year after Peshev’s trial, was struck off the list of lawyers as a reactionary. This was the price one pays for being a decent person. All the participants in this process paid the price of dignity, as no one loved people who had their own moral standards, before or during communism. Such people are extremely embarrassing because they are bigger than their time.
The part that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church had in this story cannot be omitted. At a time when in Europe the Pope and the Catholic Church were quiet about the beginning of the savage persecution of Jews, the Bulgarian Church, without any reservations, stood on the side of the persecuted. At the forefront of this movement there were two spiritual leaders – the Sofia Archbishop, Stephen, and the Bishop of Plovdiv, Kiril. They firmly defended the Jews, both in their sermons and in open political actions, such as writing letters and petitions against the government and the King. The wording of the telegram which the independently-minded Archbishop Stephan sent to the king on the terrible May 25, when the Jews were gathered and prepared for deportation for the second time, would remain forever etched in history. The King was conveniently out of Sofia again. Stephen wrote threateningly, “Do not expel them, lest you be expelled. By whatever standard you measure things, you will be measured, too. Know, Boris, that for your deeds, God watches from heaven.” I would like to personally thank the author for having discovered and published this lost telegram, which is so important for Bulgarian history.
At that time, in Plovdiv, the charismatic Bishop, Kiril, was seen to jump (not a very priestly act) over the school fence where the Plovdiv Jews were held. He mixed with them and said, “Wherever you go, I go, too.” These are the words worthy of a great Christian and spiritual leader. Professor Bar-Zohar writes, “There is no doubt that throughout the history of the Holocaust, the Bulgarian Church stood far above any other Orthodox, Protestant or Catholic church in its bold and unwavering struggle to save the Jews.”
So, Bulgarian society has always been friendly and sympathetic towards Bulgarian Jews. Lawyers, writers, workers’ organizations and craft organizations were involved in their rescue. They all wrote letters of protest and appeals for support of their fellow Jews. These letters were not politically motivated, but only written out of humanitarian and civilian feelings. Ordinary people hid their Jewish friends in their houses and were not afraid of the consequences.
It might be that the Bulgarian King Boris also sympathized with the Jews – there were a lot of Jews in his circle. While this is quite possible, there is no direct evidence of it. Rather, the King was directly related to the anti-Jewish Law for the Protection of the Nation and the anti-Semitic speech to the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Church, when the bishops pressed him to cancel the deportation of the Jews from Bulgaria. But we humans tend to believe in miracles, even more so if these miracles have been performed not by people like us, but by a king or a prince.
So I wish the readers to read this story with their minds and hearts, magnificently told by its author, Michael Bar-Zohar, because it is very important for our own self-assessment as Bulgarians and Europeans.
The Pygmalion Foundation has published this book without any external aid. The Foundation does not seek any historical or other benefit. It is only the belief that worthy stories must be told.