Facts about the Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust

According to the last pre-war census of 1934, there were 48,398 Jews in Bulgaria.

Decree of Tsar Boris III on the adoption of the Law for the Protection of the Nation
Decree of Tsar Boris III on the adoption of the Law for the Protection of the Nation

On December 24, 1940, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted the so-called Law for Protection of the Nation (published on January 21, 1941). This law envisioned measures such as limiting the rights of the Jews, depriving them of property, banning them from exercising certain professions and from marrying non-Jews.

Well before the adoption of the law, many protest letters were sent to the Parliament by citizens from different electoral districts in Sofia and Plovdiv, by members of different professional guilds (including the guilds of writers, lawyers, doctors and artists). There were also protests by the Bulgarian Jewish community and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. A number of members of the Bulgarian Parliament, including former Prime Minister Nikola Mushanov, spoke publicly against the adoption of the law.

Despite these protests, the law was not revoked and was being fully enforced almost until the end of the war. One of its articles stipulated that all male Jews aged 20 to 46 should be sent to labor camps; as a result, from the beginning of 1941 to September, 1944, the great majority of Jewish men who were of working age were sent to the so called “Jewish labor groups”. These men did maintenance work on roads and railways as well as construction work on municipal building sites; they also worked on draining flooded areas and correcting river beds. The working and living conditions were extremely hard, with high production quotas, bad food, mass outbreaks of malaria, lack of medical services, harsh treatment and abuse from most of the supervising staff.

Митрополит Стефан / Bishop Stephen
Bishop Stephen

On March 1, 1941, Bulgaria joined the Axis powers. On January 20, 1942, at the Gestapo headquarters, a conference on “the final solution to the Jewish problem” took place. On August 29, 1942, the Bulgarian government set up the Commission on Jewish Issues, which was to deal with “the solution to the Jewish problem”. Alexander Belev, the newly appointed commissioner, signed a two-state treaty with Theodor Dannecker, the adviser to the German Police Attaché on Jewish issues. According to this treaty, 20,000 Jews were to be deported from Bulgaria. The Bulgarian government ratified the treaty and issued seven decrees related to its implementation. The deportation plan included all 11,343 Jews in Bulgaria’s newly acquired territories, Aegean Thrace and Vardar Macedonia. This number was to be supplemented with “undesirable Jews” from the old territories – all those who were socially active, prominent leaders of the Jewish community, possessed some wealth, or had been involved in seditious activities.

Цар Борис Трети / Tsar Boris III
Tsar Boris III

Despite the attempts on behalf of England, and later USA, Spain and other countries, to intervene in favor of the Bulgarian Jews, the government proceeded with the deportation. The Jews from Aegean Thrace were taken from their homes on March 4 and after being kept for two weeks in the tobacco storehouses in Dupnitza and Gorna Djumaya were sent away on March 18 and 19 via the Bulgarian port of Lom for Vienna and from there to the death camp in Treblinka. From the 4,221 Thracian Jews who were deported, only 100 survived till the end of the war. The Jews from Vardar Macedonia were taken from their homes on March 11 in Skopie and between March 22 and March 29 were sent via Kachanik to Treblinka. From the 7,122 Macedonian Jews who were deported, only 200 survived. Hundreds of people in the old territories of Bulgaria saw the cattle wagons with the deported Jews. One of them was Stefan, the Bishop of Sofia. Deeply grieved, he sent a cable to King Boris with an appeal to relieve their unbearable conditions and not to send them to Poland. Elin Pelin, the prominent Bulgarian writer, also interceded with the king to cancel the deportation but no action was taken in response to those appeals.

Димитър Пешев / Dimitar Peshev
Dimitar Peshev

In the meantime, the preparation for deporting Jews from the old territories was advancing. All the Jews from Dupnitza were placed under house arrest, the Jews in Kyustendil and in Plovdiv were locked in the local Jewish school buildings and on March 10, an order was issued for arresting the Jews in Sofia.

The Minister of Interior, P. Gabrovski, expressly insisted that the whole operation related to the deportation of the Jews be kept secret from the public, and even from the Parliament. This was possible thanks to a law, by which the Cabinet of Ministers had authorized the Commission on Jewish Issues to single-handedly determine the government’s policy in regards to the Jews. Under this law, the Commission was authorized to issue decrees on “Jewish issues” that had the force of laws without being voted on by the Parliament.

Митрополит Кирил / Bishop Kiril
Bishop Kiril

As many Bulgarians witnessed the deportation of the Jews from the old territories as well as the preparation for the deportation of the Jews from the old territories, a number of initiatives were started in order to stop the deportation. A protest delegation from the town of Kyustendil arrived at Sofia on March 8, 1943 and demanded a meeting with Dimitar Peshev, the Vice Chairman of the Parliament. The members of the delegation informed Peshev about what was happening in their town and demanded a meeting with Prime Minister Bogdan Filov.

Filov refused to receive the delegation. However, thanks to their intervention, Minister of Interior P. Gabrovski cancelled the deportation of the Jews from Kyustendil and they were released. In the town of Dupnitza, the Jews were also released after massive protests from their Bulgarian fellow citizens. Kiril, the Bishop of Plovdiv, intervened in favor of the Jews from the city of Plovdiv, who were locked in the local Jewish school (according to Kiril, there were about 1,500-1,600 Jews there). In other Bulgarian towns, there were protests against the deportation by Members of Parliament, local bishops of the Orthodox Church and many ordinary citizens.

Протестно изложение подписано от 43-ма народни представители от правителственото мнозинство / A protest statement signed by 43 MPs from the government majority
A protest statement signed by 43 MPs from the government majority

In the meantime, Vice Chairman of Parliament Peshev had prepared a protest statement addressed to Prime Minister Filov. The protest statement was against the plan to deport the Jews outside of the country. It was handed to the Prime Minister on March 17, 1943 and was signed by 43 MPs from the ruling majority. This protest statement was interpreted as criticism of the government’s overall policy, and as a result, Prime Minister Filov demanded that the Parliament vote on a motion of confidence in the government. After the extremely humiliating voting procedure, in which the Prime Minister questioned one by one the MPs who have signed the protest statement, as to whether they continued to support the statement, only 30 of them remained faithful to their original position. Filov succeeded in obtaining a confidence vote from the 114 majority MPs who were present. This confidence vote was on the overall policy of the government, including the policy in regards to “the Jewish question”.

On March 26, 1943, Dimitar Peshev received a non-confidence vote and was dismissed from his position as Vice Chairman of Parliament. Meanwhile the Jews from Aegean Thrace and Vardar Macedonia were deported outside of the country, and those from the old territories were only “temporarily” rescued.

By the beginning of May 1943, Belev had prepared a new plan for the Commission on Jewish Issues: “To banish all Jews from the country” and to send them to the eastern parts of Germany. The number of Jews to be exiled from Sofia was 25,000, and from the provinces, 23,000; their transportation was to take place through the Danube ports of Lom and Somovit.

Belev suggested that Minister Gabrovski accept one of two options: “A” – to deport all the Jews to the eastern parts of Germany or “B” – to deport first the Jews from Sofia to the provinces. Belev himself supported plan “A”. However, as Hoffman, the Police Attaché to the German Legation in Sofia, writes, the “A” option was made more difficult by the “lack of enough police forces who could carry out the operation”. When, on May 20, Gabrovski announced the two plans to King Boris, the latter decided to choose option “B” and hence plan “A” was abandoned.

On May 21, 1943, the Cabinet of Ministers adopted a decree, which concerned the deportation of the Jews from Sofia to the provinces with the exception of those married to non-Jews, the civil workers, those converted to Christianity, and those suffering from infectious diseases. On May 23, the Commission began to distribute announcements regarding the expatriation. From Belev’s report to Minister Gabrovski it was clear that the purpose of the deportation was “the temporary settlement of the Jews in camps and their subsequent hand-over to the German authorities”.

The deportation of the Sofia Jews caused a new wave of protest letters, demonstrations and civil unrest. On May 24, 1943, using the occasion of the national holiday, (the day commemorating the creation of the Bulgarian alphabet), several thousand people – both Jews and non-Jews – organized a procession that was planned to culminate in a protest meeting before the King’s palace. However, at Vazrajdane Square, the crowd was met by mounted and infantry police; the participants in the demonstration (mostly women, elderly and youth) were dispersed and about 400 of them were arrested. 120 Jews of those people were sent to the temporary concentration camps in Somovit.

Meanwhile, a lot of Jews had flocked to the Bishop’s residence in Sofia. Among them were the Chief Rabbi, Dr Asher Hananel, and Rabbi Daniel Zion. They informed the Bishop of Sofia, Stefan about the persecution and the arrests. After his unsuccessful attempts to contact King Boris, the Bishop set out to lead a prayer service at the Alexander Nevski Square. Before the multitude of people who were gathered there, Stefan spoke against the deportation of the Sofia Jews and took a strong stand in defense of the Bulgarian Jewish community as a whole. A number of protest letters from MPs, former ministers, public figures, intellectuals and spiritual leaders followed suit. A protest letter to the King was sent also by the United Evangelical Churches in Bulgaria. In their letter, the Bulgarian Evangelical leaders wrote, “Christian conscience has begun to speak out about all these things in boldness and without fear”. However, regardless of all those protests, the Sofia Jews were deported from the capital to the provinces.

In his report to the Central Directorate of Imperial Security, the German Police Attaché Hoffman wrote that “immediately after the emptying out of their homes, the household possessions of the Sofia Jews were put out for an auction sale. Their homes were rented out. Settling the Jews in the provinces … is only a temporary measure because the school buildings can be used only during the school vacations”.

Despite the opposition on the part of the wide Bulgarian public, the government continued to make preparations for the final solution to the Jewish question. A strictly confidential letter of July 1, 1943 was sent by the Ministry of Interior to the regional directors. The Ministry was concerned because after the Jews had been removed from Sofia, their supervision became more difficult. Therefore, in the letter it was ordered to once again intern the already displaced Jews to a smaller number of towns “close to a railway line in order to facilitate their deportation”.

In the period between May 24, 1943 and August 15, 1943, the political and military course of events took a dramatic turn, as the Axis Powers suffered some major defeats from the Allied Forces. This led to very significant changes, both internationally and domestically. On August 15, 1943, Germany’s Central Directorate of Imperial Security made a third attempt to pressure the Bulgarian government for “a final solution to the Jewish problem”. The answer of the Bulgarian authorities was that the moment was not suitable but there was going to be a final solution to the Jewish problem in Bulgaria as soon as “the German army starts advancing again and as the enemy’s demoralizing propaganda dies down”.

On August 27, 1943, King Boris died. In mid-September, 1943, Filov’s government resigned. In October, 1943, Belev, the head of the Commission on Jewish Issues resigned as well. These political changes, however, did not lead to a significant relief in the condition of the Bulgarian Jews. There were only minor improvements in this regard – a lifting of the ban for Jews to pass through certain streets and to visit public institutions; also, the Jews were no longer obligated to wear yellow David’s stars. The greater majority of men aged 20 – 46 remained in the labor camps until the end of the war. Certain articles from the Law for Protection of the Nation were revoked but the Jews were not restored to their previous places of residence, nor did they receive back their property, nor were they able to work the type of work they chose.

As it could be seen from the text above, during World War II, the Jews in Bulgaria were discriminated against, repressed and forced to live in extremely hard conditions. Nevertheless, none of the Jews who were Bulgarian citizens and were living in Bulgaria proper during that time were deported or given over to death.

In the face of the Bulgarian government’s policy against the Jews and the pressure from Germany for the “final solution to the Jewish problem”, the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews became possible thanks to the active intervention of people from all walks of life – civic and professional associations, Members of Parliament, former ministers, public figures, intellectuals, and not the least, thanks to the strong solidarity and support for the Jews shown by the leadership of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

“The Bulgarians do not find in the Jews any shortcomings, which would justify any particular measures against them”, writes Bekerle, the German Minister Plenipotentiary in Sofia. He kept emphasizing this point over and over again in his reports to the German government until the end of the war. In his view, in Bulgaria “there were neither ideological, nor racial prerequisites necessary for the presenting of the Jewish question before the Bulgarian people as urgent and needing solution, as it was the case in the Reich”. The German representatives kept pointing out that the Bulgarian public does not understand the true significance of the Jewish problem.

(This material is based on texts from The Survival, A Compilation of Documents 1940-1944, Compiler: David Cohen, Shalom Publishing Center, Sofia, 1995.)