Remembering the Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews

By Sharon Nazarian | Senior Vice President for International Affairs
  • March 12, 2018
Rescue of Bulgarian Jews

The Bulgarian people defied their Nazi-allied government during the Holocaust and saved Bulgaria’s Jewish community of almost 50,000 people. Their heroic actions 75 years ago show the power of standing up and standing together.

The collective rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews comprised many acts of heroism. Bulgarian Orthodox church leaders campaigned among the people and protested the government. Dimitar Peshev, Deputy Chairman of the National Assembly, gathered support among parliamentarians and argued against deportation with the very officials tasked to send Jews to Nazi death camps in Poland. Bulgarian families in the countryside hid Jews and shared their scarce food.

We mark their heroism today, because on March 10, 1943, thousands of Jews who had been rounded up for deportation were freed from concentration centers. In the face of widespread protests, the government had rescinded its deportation order the day before. That same month, however, Bulgarian authorities deported 11,343 Jews from parts of Greece and Yugoslavia, occupied by the Bulgarian Army. While we celebrate the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews, we mourn and commemorate those whom Bulgaria sent to their death in Treblinka.

We rightfully applaud those who stand up against injustice today in our prosperous and free societies. Imagine the courage it took to do so in wartime and under a Nazi-allied government. In Nazi-occupied Europe, thousands of individuals – the Righteous Among the Nations – saved Jewish lives. Only in Bulgaria and Denmark, though, did the populations mobilize broadly to save their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust.

ADL chose to highlight the inspiring story of Bulgaria at our 100th anniversary celebration in 2013, whose theme was “Imagine a world without hate.” We invited only one head of state to address our Centennial Gala, Bulgaria’s President Rosen Plevneliev.

Introducing President Plevneliev, ADL National Director Abe Foxman said, “Bulgaria represents the idea, to the highest degree, that nations can rise against evil, even when chaos is reigning around them. What Bulgaria did to protect its Jews in the face of the vast moral breakdown during the Nazi onslaught is, in my view, what the work of ADL is all about.”

In his remarks, President Plevneliev spoke with great pride of the “professionals, intellectuals, workers, political, social, and spiritual leaders, [who] all came together in a common drive to rescue their Jewish compatriots. … Ordinary Bulgarian citizens, people from all walks of life, placed their own lives at risk to peacefully, yet firmly, stand up for their fellow Bulgarians and forge a ‘human shield’ to protect their Jewish classmates, friends, and neighbors. We, Bulgarians, made it clear that it is within the power of the civil society and ordinary people to change history; that through unwavering determination and resolute resistance even the worst of evils may be averted. Seventy years ago the Bulgarian society saved not just its Jewish population, it also saved itself.”

Everyone should know the story of the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews – especially Bulgarians. ADL contributed to that goal almost 20 years ago by having 30,000 copies of “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp,” a book about the rescue, translated into Bulgarian to be distributed to Bulgarian schools.

We count on the lessons of the rescue having been learned over the years, both broadly and deeply. Far-right extremist parties received increased support in last year’s election and hundreds of their supporters marched last month through the streets of Sofia with torches.

We are confident, though, that the vast majority of Bulgarian society will always reject hate.

Bulgaria’s heritage of religious harmony is embodied by having Europe’s largest Sephardi synagogue, a historic Orthodox church, an imposing Catholic cathedral, and an ornate, domed mosque all within a one block radius in its capital.

Bulgaria’s greatest heritage, though, is the rescue of its Jewish community. Its legacy is both an example of moral courage for all of us and the hundreds of thousands of Jews alive today, descended from those saved by the Bulgarian people.