The Unknown Rescue
Before the war, 48,000 Jews lived in Bulgaria. After the Nazi defeat, there were 49,000. Here’s the seldom-told story
Plovdiv, Bulgaria — Albert Alkalai put on his raincoat, the one with the small yellow Jewish star on the lapel, left his family’s house and walked to work a quarter-mile away in the central square at 8 a.m. on March 10, 1943.
The morning was sunny. “A little bit chilly, as in March,” Alkalai remembers.
He was 19, an out-of-work accountant, a Jew working with “special permission” that morning. The store where he was employed by a sympathetic Bulgarian was shuttered, closed like the other businesses on the street. “It gave a hint something unusual was going on,” he says.
Then Alkalai saw some young Jews, friends, rushing around with bags of clothing. They told him why – police had rounded up hundreds of Jewish families in the early hours, bringing them to the courtyard of the Jewish school. At the railroad station, empty cars were waiting to take the Jews to Poland, to their death in concentration camps. March 10 was the beginning of what the Nazis, Bulgaria’s ally during World War II, hoped would be the end of Bulgarian Jewry.
But it didn’t happen.
Little known in the West, certainly less then the Danish rescue of its 8,000 Jews, the story of Bulgaria and its Jewish population is among the most dramatic tales of the Holocaust.
Historians still disagree over the relative roles played by King Boris III, members of the country’s fascist government, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Bulgarian people. But one fact is beyond dispute — before the war, 48,000 Jews lived in Bulgaria; after the war, the figure was 49,000.
Though some Jews died as member of partisan units in Bulgaria, not one Jew in “Old Bulgaria” — the part that did not include the territories annexed after Bulgaria joined the Axis alliance — was killed because he or she was Jewish.
“The Bulgarian Jews became the only Jewish community in the Nazi sphere of influence whose numbers increased during World War II,” Michael Bar-Zohar writes in “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews” (Adams Media Corp., 1998).
“I was an eyewitness,” says Alkalai, 76, a pensioneer still living here in his hometown in west-central Bulgaria.
For the 6,000 Jews in the Balkan land today, the rescue by their countrymen is a defining moment in their 2,000-year history. March 10 is celebrated as a minor Purim, with annual commemorations. Since the fall of communism in late 1989, Plovdiv’s Jews have erected a menorah-shaped monument in the center of the country’s second-largest city, and the Jews of Sofia, the capital, dedicated a smaller plaque near the parliament building.
A larger sculpture, a pair of obelisks sponsored by the government, are to go up next year outside the Jewish community center in Sofia.
Bulgarian Jews in Israel and at a Sephardic synagogue in Los Angeles mark the rescue each year, and several major Jewish organizations — including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress — have recognized Bulgaria’s wartime effort in recent years.
There is a Bulgarian forest planted by the Jewish National Fund in Israel, a Bulgarian square in a Jerusalem neighborhood and a garden named for King Boris at the Migdal Ohr campus in northern Israel.
But the story of Bulgaria in World War II has received little recognition in the wider Jewish community. One example, Mordecai Paldiel’s classic book, “The Path of the Righetous: Gentile Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust,” devoted only one paragraph to the subject.
“People know Denmark, says the Sofia-born Bar-Zohar. “Bulgaria nobody knows about.”
Bar-Zohar, who lives in Tel Aviv and serves as adjunct professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., was in Bulgaria last week to conduct interviews for a documentary he is producing on the rescue.
His interest in the topic began after he read a 1993 New York Times article about the rescue in Denmark. He sent a letter to the Times about the Bulgarian experience.
“Do you have proof?” the Times asked.
“Of course,” he told them. “I’m living proof.”
His family was among the 45,000 Bulgarian Jews who made aliyah in the first few years after the Jewish state was created.
Bar-Zohar, who used once-sealed Bulgarian archives and Yad Vashem records for his research, started giving public speeches on his work. “That is a wonderful story,” listeners would tell him. “Such a pity it is not true.”
He hears those comments “even today,” he says.
His book, which paints King Boris as an indecisive monarch who allowed the Nazis to deport some 11,000 Jews from Yugoslavian Macedonia and Greek Thrace, the annexed territories, is controversial among other experts for its positive portrayal of the king’s role in the spring of 1943.
Until March 9-10, the king meekly followed Nazi dictates, Bar-Zohar says. After that date he protected his Jews. “This expressed the national spirit of the Bulgarians.”
This is the story.
The Sacrifice of the Jews
In December 1940, to placate Germany, in whose economic and military shadow Bulgaria lay, the Bulgarian parliament passed the Law for the Defense of the Nation, patterned after the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws. It barred Jews from citizenship, public office, army service, ownership of property and intermarriage. Jewish participation in commerce, industry and the professions was limited.
The law also established a Commissariat for the Jewish Problem, headed by Alexander Belev, a Bulgarian anti-Semite.
Bulgaria signed the Tripartite Pact in March 1941, joining the Axis coalition. It declared “symbolic war” on the United States and England. Boris, from the Saxe-Coburg line of German royalty, refused to commit troops to the war but allowed German soldiers free passage.
As an ally of Germany, Bulgaria was not occupied by German soldiers and was allowed a degree of autonomy in internal affairs.
Through its officials in Sofia, and in occasional meetings between Boris and Adolf Hitler, the Nazis kept constant pressure on Bulgaria to participate in the Final Solution. The king, true to his character, would procrastinate, disappearing when crucial decisions were required.
The Jewish star was imposed in 1942. The Jews wore it arbitrarily at first, later as a matter of pride.
Then labor camps and concentration camps were established in the countryside. Although rations were meager, treatment at the hands of Bulgarian officers was usually benign.
In early 1943, Belev and Theodor Dennecker, the Third Reich’s special adviser on Jewish affairs, signed a secret agreement for the “Deportation of the first batch of 20,000 Jews to the East German territories.” The pact called for the shipping of 11,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia to Poland, and another 8,000-plus from Bulgaria’s old borders. The rest of Bulgaria’s Jews were to be deported a few months later.
Boris, with no jurisdiction over the annexed lands, approved the agreement, sacrificing the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia.
They were deported in the beginning of March. Only 12 survived the Holocaust.
The Compassionate Church
The initial roundups in Bulgaria proper were to begin March 9. In Kyustendil, on the western border, word leaked out to Jewish leaders. By then, the Jews knew what happened in Thrace and Macedonia.
“We knew about Treblinka,” says Viktoria Levi, now a resident of a Jewish home for the elderly in Sofia.
A delegation of Kyustendil Jews approached Ditimar Peshev, vice chairman of the parliament. Initially disbelieving, he eventually confirmed the Jews’ report. He took a few fellow parliamentarians to Sofia, where he confronted Interior Minister Peter Gabrovski, who was responsible for the deportations. Peshev threatened to expose the scheme, certain to enrage the Bulgarian public.
Gabrovski agreed to postpone the deportations. Over the next day he sent telegrams announcing his decision to the roundup centers.
Peshev also sent a letter protesting the deportation plan, signed by 42 other members of the parliament, to Prime Minister Bogdan Filov. Similar letters were sent by prominent groups of writers, lawyers, physicians and army officers.
Bishop Stefan, leader of the Orthodox Church in Sofia, went to King Boris and told him, “If the persecution against the Jews continues, I shall open the doors of all Bulgarian churches to them and then we shall see who can drive them out.”
His counterpart in Plovdiv, Bishop Kyril, also sent a telegram — he threatened to lie down on the railroad tracks to block the deportations and to take up arms against the government.
On the morning of March 10, Albert Alkalai quickly returned to his family home, told his parents about the overnight deportations and went back to town to see how his married sister was faring. At the main park across from police headquarters he spotted a policeman on horseback and ducked behind some shrubs.
Hidden there for hours, he watched Bishop Kyril enter the police station then walk, escorted by another bishop and five police officers, to the Jewish school where the rounded-up Jews were kept.
Against the police wishes Bishop Kyril scaled the fence and went inside. He told the frightened Jews, Alkalai later learned, “Wherever you go, I will go with you.”
“These are words that are known in this country,” Alkalai says.
Later he heard a loud “hurrah” and the strains of a Bulgarian hymn from the direction of the school. The telegram ordering the Jews’ release had arrived.
The freed Jews ran back home, shouting in Ladino, “Ja mos salvaron” — we were saved.
Alkalai’s sister, it turned out, had not been arrested. His parents opened a jar of scarce jam to share with neighbors who came over that day to celebrate.
“It was a tradition to treat people with something sweet when something good happens,” Alkalai says.
Nazi pressure on Boris continued. In May he received two options — deport the Jews out of Bulgaria, or deport them to the interior, where they could be easily gathered for deportation to their eventual fates.
Boris chose the second option. He was stalling, hoping the Jews would be spread out in the countryside and harder to locate, Bar-Zohar says.
Nearly 20,000 Jews were deported from Sofia, living in cramped apartments and makeshift dwellings and labor camps.
As the war in Russia turned against Germany, and recognition of the Bulgarians’ lack of sympathy for anti-Jewish measures increased, the pressure on Bulgaria waned.
Adolf-Heinz Beckerle, the German ambassador in Sofia, wrote his superiors in Berlin in June: “The Bulgarian people … lack the ideological conceptions that we have. Having grown up among Turks, Jews, Armenians, the Bulgarian people have not observed in the Jews faults which would warrant … special measures against them.”
The Red Army entered Bulgaria in September 1944, ending the threat against the Jews.
‘Good Guys Standing Up
To Bad Guys’
“Who saved the Jews? That is the main question,” says Viktor Baruch, a Jewish writer in Sofia and expert on the rescue.
Most Bulgarian Jews — reflected in the language in the Sofia and Plovdiv memorials — give credit to “the Bulgarian people.”
King Boris, who must accept responsibility for the deaths of the Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, played a crucial role in keeping the Bulgarian Jews out of Nazi hands, most authorities agree.
“Boris was in control of the government, and little transpired without his approval,” Guy Haskell writes in “From Sofia to Jaffa: The Jews of Bulgaria and Israel” (Wayne State University Press, 1994).
During communist times, the role of Boris was downplayed. Books and documentaries focused attention on wartime communists, especially Todor Zhivkov, the country’s longtime leader.
Why was the rescue largely unknown?
“The Bulgarians are extremely inept at public relations,” Bar-Zohar says. And, he adds, the West was reluctant to praise the predecessors of Eastern Europe’s most hardl-ine, doctrinaire communist country. “Bulgaria had a very unpleasant reputation.”
Bulgaria’s post-communist government stresses the rescue at every opportunity with Western leaders for its symbolic and economic benefits.
“Every politician in Bulgaria is trying to use it for their own purposes,” Baruch says. “Everyone is using the Jews.”
Bulgarian leaders, says Nansen Bexar, a Jewish member of the parliament, feel the rescue story will make “investors from the West … more eager to come here.”
Why was Bulgaria different?
The country, says President Petar Stoyanov, understands persecution after being under foreign rule — Turkish and Byzantine — for most of the last 700 years.
There is little tradition of anti-Semitism in Bulgaria, where Jews found haven for centuries, though Vicki Tamir, author of “Bulgaria and Her Jews: The History of a Dubious Symbiosis” (Sepher-Hermon Press, 1979), strongly disagrees with this common claim.
“The story should be told,” Bar-Zohar says. “It is the story of the good guys standing up to the bad guys and winning.”
Thirteen Bulgarians, including Peshev and people who assisted Jews in the annexed terrttories, were honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem.
Peshev, censored and removed from the parliament after his action in 1943, lived with his nieces in Sofia, a bachelor and semi-recluse, until his death in 1973. Gabriele Nissim, an author in Italy, is conducting a personal campaign to honor Peshev through a biography and international commemorations.
Prime Minister Filov was executed after the war in the Soviet Union.
The body of Alexander Belev, who headed the Commissariat for the Jewish Problem, was found in 1944 outside of Kyustendil.
Adold-Heinz Beckerle, the German ambassador in Sofia, spent 11 years in a Soviet forced labor camp.
Theodor Dennecker, the Third Reich’s special adviser on Jewish affairs, committed suicide in 1945.
Stefan, the leader of the Orthodox Church in Sofia, and Bishop Kyril both served as exarch, head of the Bulgarian national church, and are buried side by side in a monestary near Plovdiv.
King Boris died, under mysterious circumstances, in August 1943.
Albert Alkalai, who stayed in Bulgaria, worked in an electrical laboratory.
After March 10, 1943, he says, “The curfew went on, the labor camps went on, the work prohibitions went on.” The Jews of Plovdiv, rescued from one roundup, lived with the fear “this could happen again.”
A memorial ceremony, “to express gratitude to the Bulgarian people,” takes place here each year, originally at the synagogue or the Jewish community building, in recent years at the memorial sculpture.
Alkalai gave the keynote speech this year. “A little speech,” he says.
“I said, ‘The help the Bulgarian people were ready to offer will never be forgotten. The help was the expression of long-lasting Bulgarian friendship, which will never be forgotten.’ ”