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The Holocaust: “We Must Help!” The Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews

by Eric Gartman

On March 10 1943, railcars rolled into Bulgaria under orders from Adolf Eichmann, one of the key architects of “the final solution.” The cars had arrived to transport all of Bulgaria’s Jews to the death camp at Treblinka. Bulgarian policemen roused Jews from their homes beginning at three in the morning. They were taken at gunpoint to collection centers at schools and other places to await the trains. And yet, not a single Jew from Bulgaria was ever deported. What transpired was one of the most inspirational, yet least known events of the Holocaust.

Several years earlier, Bulgaria had aligned itself with Germany to escape destruction from the Nazi war machine. Bulgaria’s ruling party was pro-Fascist, and enacted anti-Semitic legislation much like the Nazis had in Germany. Known as the Law for the Defense of the Nation, these measures limited Jews’ rights, forbade intermarriage, and forced Jews to wear yellow stars, all in attempt to separate Jews from other people. But unlike the other nations of Europe, the Bulgarian populace did not accept these laws. They did not view the few thousand Jews who lived in the country as threats. Former government ministers wrote parliament a mocking letter: “Poor Bulgaria! We are seven million people, yet we so fear the treachery of 45,000 Jews who hold no positions of responsibility at the national level that we need to pass exceptional laws to protect ourselves from them 1.” Nearly all segments of Bulgarian society opposed the laws, and letters of protest poured into parliament and to King Boris.

Then, in early 1943, the government acquiesced to German demands to deport all of Bulgaria’s Jews. The German government claimed the Jews would be taken to work camps where they would be allowed to redeem themselves for their alleged crimes. The deportations were set to begin on March 10. The trains rolled into the country, ready to take their human cargo to death camps. It seemed as if Bulgaria’s Jews were doomed to the same fate as the other Jews of Europe.

Instead, virtually the entire populace united to save the Jews. Although they did not know that the final destination of the Jews would be the death camps, rumors of the Jews’ ill-treatment had reached Bulgaria. The opposition was led by the Bulgarian Church. “If we, the church, allow the Jews to be deported, we will betray our most sacred obligations,” the Reverend Boris Haralampiev, stated. “We must help!2

“The whole Bulgarian Orthodox Church will stand up for the Jews,” Bishop Metropolitan Kiril announced. Kiril sent a letter to the King of Bulgaria begging him to have pity on the Jews.

He also told the chief of police that he would not accept the government’s decision to deport the Jews, thereby implying that he would try to hinder the police’s efforts in the deportations.

When the fateful day arrived, Kiril and crowds of Bulgarians arrived at the centers and told the frightened Jews: “My children, I will not let this happen to you. I will lie down on the railroad tracks and will not let you go.” Kiril met with the King and told him his immortal soul was threatened by this action. Crowds protested across the country. Bulgarians printed out thousands of forged baptismal certificates for Jews, risking their own lives. “Whether it is one or 1,000 Jews, the Nazis can only shoot me once,” a priest who printed out a thousand certificates explained2. Farmers in the countryside threated to lie on rail tracks so the cars could not pass. Bakers in the cities hid Jews in their ovens.

Bulgaria’s political apparatus also mobilized against the deportations. Fascist politician Dimitur Peshev openly opposed the deportations and wrote a letter to the Prime Minster with 43 signatures from members of Parliament ranging from the entire political spectrum. “Such measure is unacceptable not only because these people of Bulgarian citizenship cannot be expelled outside Bulgaria, but because it would be disastrous and bring ominous consequences upon the country. It would inflict an undeserved stain on Bulgaria’s honor.” Explaining the decision to break with his own party, Peshev said. “I could not remain passive. My conscience and understanding of the grave consequences both of the people involved and for my country did not allow it.”

King Boris backed down and rescinded the order. After two months of uncertainty, Bulgaria’s frightened Jews returned to their homes, much to the dismay of the Nazis. “I am firmly convinced that the Prime Minister and the government wish and strive for a final and radical solution to the Jewish problem,” the German ambassador to Bulgaria wrote his superiors in Berlin. “However, they are hindered by the mentality of the Bulgarian people, who lack the ideological enlightenment we have.1

The Fuhrer was furious. In a meeting with King Boris, he demanded the deportation of all Bulgarian Jews: “Hitler went into a rage when I refused his demands,” the King recalled. “Screaming like a madman, he attacked me, and Bulgaria, in a torrent of accusations and threats. It was horrible. But I did not surrender one inch!3” Boris calmly told the enraged German leader Bulgaria needed the Jews for labor projects. Hitler did not believe the King, but he did not want to risk losing a wartime ally. He therefore accepted as long as all Jewish men were relocated from cities to labor camps. Some 20,000 Jews were indeed moved from the cities to the countryside, but no one was sent outside the borders. The deportations from Bulgaria never took place. As a result, Bulgaria was the only country in Eastern Europe whose Jewish population remained the same throughout the Holocaust. It was known as the “miracle of the Jewish people” among the Jews of Bulgaria, but the episode did not receive the attention it warranted.

The reason for the lack of knowledge of the heroic actions of the Bulgarian people during the war was that the Soviet government suppressed information about the rescue, not wishing to give credit to a monarchy and the church, whom the Soviets deemed enemies. Therefore, it was not until the end of communist rule in Bulgaria in 1989 that documentation was released on the matter. Unlike most citizens in occupied Europe, who did not oppose the deportation of their Jews and, in some cases, actively aided the Nazis, the Bulgarians showed bravery and humanity in standing for what they knew to be morally correct.

Source: Sandy Tolan. The Lemon Tree, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006.
Justin Moyer, “How Bulgaria Saved Its Jews.” The Washington Post. May 9 2013. The Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews” by Nick Kalchev, /1995.