Sixty-five years ago last week, in a simple act of decency, Bulgaria’s 48,000 Jews were saved from deportation and certain death in Nazi concentration camps.
How this singular act of heroism took place can be explained only by the broad involvement of Bulgarians at every level of society who joined the effort. Members of parliament, physicians, lawyers, the leadership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens were the heroes of this story. Their example should be looked upon today in a world increasingly infected by intolerance and bigotry.
In 1943, the Kingdom of Bulgaria was an ally of the Third Reich, which supported its claims to a "Greater Bulgaria," including lands in Macedonia and Thrace. As the war churned, the Nazi killing machine by that time had murdered millions of Jews. Though not under Nazi occupation, the Bulgarians established a special office for "The Jewish Problem," and as early as 1940 adopted sweeping anti-Semitic legislation — the infamous "Law for the Defense of the Nation," which established forced labor camps and imposed the wearing of the yellow star.
When the Nazi ambassador to Bulgaria, Adolf Heinz Beckerle, demanded the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to death camps in Poland, it must have been a foregone conclusion in Berlin that his demand would be heeded. Indeed, the commissariat for Jewish affairs drew up plans that included rounding up Jews and designating points from where the deportations would take place.
Ordinary Bulgarians already had a chilling inkling of what was to come. More than 11,000 Macedonian and Thracian Jews living under Bulgarian military occupation had been herded into cattle cars and deported to the camps on trains that traveled through Bulgarian territory. Bulgarians surely must have seen the utter suffering of the victims and concluded the same could occur inside the country’s prewar borders.
Word spread quickly about the deportation plans, motivating a campaign of defiance so swift and so effective that it surprised the authorities. Though led at first by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Dimitar Peshev, it spread to nearly every sector of society. The Bulgarian church was among the most active in defending the Jewish minority, with Metropolitan Kliment of Stara Zagora explaining that "we cannot stay indifferent to the fate of the persecuted Jewish minority because we would be condemned by God."
In cities and towns across Bulgaria, citizens worked to upend the racist Nazi dictates. Ultimately the orders were never carried out, prompting Beckerle to cable back to Berlin, "But they are tied by the mentality of the Bulgarian people that lacks the ideological enlightenment that we have. The Bulgarian, who was raised with Armenians, Greeks, and Gypsies, doesn’t see in the Jews any flaws justifying taking special measures against them."
Certainly there are many stories of individual heroism by non-Jews to save Jews during the Holocaust, but nowhere was such a broad base of the population part of an entire community’s rescue. At a time when wartime collaborators elsewhere in Europe competed with each other to join in the persecution of the Jews, many Bulgarians were lining up to reject that very persecution. Where some European churches were either complicit in this tragedy, or at best passive, the Bulgarian church leadership provided a moral underpinning to the effort to stop the deportations.
The Bulgarian rescue story, like that of the Danes, highlights what might have been elsewhere in Europe. Bulgarians, horrified by the thought that their friends and neighbors might be taken from their midst and sent to an uncertain future, took matters into their own hands by refusing to comply with a racist decree. Others, like Peshev, who saw the inherent evil of Nazism and its pursuit of its helpless victims, rallied to defend a community he saw not only as a Jewish minority but as Bulgarian.
Indeed, maybe that is the secret of the success of the rescue in Bulgaria — that Jews were not seen as aliens in society but rather an organic part of it.
In their collective act of defiance, the Bulgarian people demonstrated that it is possible to stand up to the worst form of evil. They did it under the most difficult and harrowing of circumstances.
Each generation unfortunately brings new tests to the fore. Today it is the killing in Darfur; tomorrow it can be somewhere else. The lessons of 1943 are as relevant today as they were then in a distant land and at the darkest moment in modern history.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.