Who saved the Jews of Bulgaria from the Nazis?
During the Nazi occupation in World War Two, alongside Denmark and Finland, Bulgaria successfully prevented the deportation of its Jewish population. As Bulgaria became more closely allied with Germany, the Nazis gave orders to organise the deportation of Jews from the region. Although plans were partially fulfilled, following civil and political pressure, the majority of Bulgaria’s Jews were saved from the Nazi concentration camps. This act of defiance has catalysed a debate over who or what force was most significant in disobeying the Nazis and saving Bulgaria’s Jews.
By the late 1930s, Bulgaria was under growing pressure from the Nazis. The state was a trading partner with Germany and was in receipt of German arms. The Bulgarian state had to decide between cooperation with, or invasion by, Hitler. Eventually an agreement was signed allowing the Nazis military passage to Greece and Yugoslavia in exchange for the Bulgarian occupation of lost territories in Macedonia and Western Thrace. This agreement meant that Bulgaria was expected to follow Nazi economic, foreign and domestic policy.
Gradually, Bulgaria became ‘irrevocably tied’ to Germany and the state was forced to adopt anti-Semitic policy. This began with the 1940 ‘Law for the Defence of the Nation’, which deprived Jews of their civil rights and permitted the acquisition of Jewish businesses and property. Policy was formalised in 1943 with the creation of the Commissariat of Jewish Affairs. The Nazis sent Theodor Dannecker, an official from the Sicherheitsdienst (Nazi intelligence service), to organise Jewish deportation plans, which were eventually finalised in February 1943. This saw the initial deportation of 12,000 Jews outside of Bulgaria proper, in occupied Thrace and Macedonia, which was tragically completed in March 1943.
Within a few days, one thousand Jews living in the town of Kyustendil, near Sofia, were ordered to gather together their personal possessions. Families were instructed to leave their homes and prepare themselves for the journey by train to the camps of Western Europe. However, the scheme was met with disgust within Bulgaria and members of the public, politicians and clergy immediately pressed to have the transportation cancelled. As Michael Bar-Zohar has highlighted, Orthodox Metropolitans, particularly Stefan of Sofia, swiftly organised petitions and protests which served to cement civil opposition to the plans. Similarly, writing in the 1970s, Haim Oliver emphasised the role of Bulgarian communists and members of the public. He argued that the Communist Party vociferously opposed the deportations through dissident radio broadcasts and the distribution of pamphlets.
Dimitar Peshev, the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, lobbied to halt the deportations and created a petition opposing the plans which was signed by fellow politicians. As Frederick Chary has emphasised, Peshev took the first crucial political step in the defiance of Nazi policy. Following burgeoning opposition to the policy, King Boris forced the deportation to be cancelled in April 1943. Tzvetan Todorov has emphasised that as the ‘supreme power’ in Bulgaria, only King Boris could conclusively oppose Nazi policy. Boris was summoned to Germany and obstinately informed Hitler that Bulgaria would not deport its Jews and refused to agree to declare war against the Soviet Union. Hitler was outraged but King Boris was persistent and eventually satiated the Nazis by claiming the Jews would be put into Bulgarian labour colonies. King Boris died weeks later in August 1943 in suspicious circumstances of apparent heart failure. However, the allies had started to gain the upper hand in the war and Bulgaria’s Jews were never deported.
Over time, various historians and politicians have sought to examine and emphasise which force was most important in saving Bulgaria’s Jews. The Communist Party claimed that underground Communists had heroically fought against the Nazi directives and saved the Jews. Others argued that the public were the most influential force in effecting the reversal of policy by protesting through appeals, leaflets, letters and statements. The role of the Orthodox Church was also accentuated for its active opposition to anti-Semitic legislation through petitions and protests.
Ultimately, however, it is understood that Deputy Speaker Peshev who initially stood up and lobbied against the Nazi policy and King Boris who used his absolute authority as King were most important in the vetoing of the deportation. With the groundswell of civil, political and religious opposition, Peshev and King Boris were roused to refuse to fulfill the Nazi scheme. As Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov proudly stated years later: the Bulgarian people ensured ‘the lives of the Jews were saved from the bestial clutches of the Hitlerite butchers.’ Although King Boris and Bulgaria could have fought harder and prevented the transportation of the 12,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, their efforts meant that 48,000 people were saved from the Nazi Final Solution.
About the author:
After studying my BA in English Literature and History at the University of Leeds, I am currently studying for my MA in History at SSEES, UCL. For my dissertation I am looking at Hewlett Johnson, the Red Dean of Canterbury, and his role as a Soviet sympathiser and propagator of the Communist cause in Britain.