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Saving Bulgaria’s Jews: Church, State, and Citizens United

November 18, 2013
by Jeremiah Lockwood [caption id=“attachment_22844” align=“alignright” width=“221”]King Boris King Boris[/caption] Once I met a Bulgarian sailor in a bar. Our conversation began with that most delicious of vulnerability-provoking questions: “You a Jew?” The overall suggestion of aggression in his bearing brought out the undertone of violence that lies in the casual probing into the definition of one’s identity by a stranger. There was a sense of chauvinistic antagonism in the little interrogation he had initiated. His attitude dovetailed neatly with the stereotypes I’ve imbibed since childhood: that eastern Europeans are uniformly anti-Semitic and are culpable, along with the Nazis, in the death of the European Jews, my family and millions more like us. His follow up question surprised me. He asked me if I spoke Hebrew. When I answered in the negative, he told me with absolute assurance that I was not a Jew if I did not speak the Jewish language. He had hereby solved my personal lifelong identity crisis with one fell swoop. I happened to be with an Israeli friend that evening who was more willing than I to pursue this line of discourse with the sailor. My Israeli friend told the Bulgarian that he understood his point and had at one time believed the same, namely that language is the key to nationhood. After a few years of living in New York, he had grown open to the idea that here it could be possible for one to hold an identity without the linguistic umbilical chord of a mother tongue for support. For both the Israeli and the Bulgarian, the idea of language as supplier of nationality was an easy idea to grasp, and the undermining of that seemingly natural linkage took a conceptual leap of faith. It was a subtle point, and they kept at the conversation for a surprisingly long time, stirring me from my initial distaste for the rough logic of the Bulgarian’s initial assertion about the veracity of my own claim of Jewishness. I am thinking about this encounter because this year marks the 70th anniversary of the “saving” of the Jews of Bulgaria, an overlooked and unique story of Jewish survival and successful resistance to the Final Solution. Looking at the history of Bulgaria’s Jews and the Holocaust has undermined my assumptions about the monolithic nature of Eastern European gentile response to Nazi fascism. In an unusual alignment of popular disapproval of anti-Jewish measures, vigorous protest from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and courageous stands by members of the Parliament, the 48,000 Jews of Bulgaria were protected from deportation to the death camps in Poland. No one element was enough to counter the demands of Germany, Bulgaria’s powerful ally during the war, but together the coalition of voices opposing deportation were able to effect a real change in government policy. As the great Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov points out in his classic text The Fragility of Goodness, evil has a powerful draw and runs an ineluctable course once it is set in motion, whereas goodness can only take root when it is buttressed on all sides by a multiplicity of opportunities. On the surface, Bulgaria, a German ally during WWII, seems like it would have been a prime candidate for having been swept up in the Final Solution. The country instituted anti-Semitic legislation and was firmly under the sway of German economic and political persuasion. Bulgarian resistance to the German-inspired laws was immediate and powerful. Much of the language used in protesting the racial laws inscribed as the 1941 “Law for the Defense of the Nation” drew its imagery from the still raw memory of Ottoman colonialism. Under the autocratic rule of the Ottomans, Bulgarians and regional minorities alike had shared in oppression and inequality before the law. The Bulgarian Writers’ Union waxed eloquent in their letter of protest: “Many times in the past our people have been subjected to persecution and humiliation. Our fathers still remember the shame of the foreign yoke . . . Should we then imitate these atrocities and follow a similar and dangerous road that will lead us to loose our place among the world’s free and civilized peoples?” In keeping with the economic limitations of early 20th-century Bulgaria, the local Jews were primarily poor folk. The German idea of the Jewish artisans and street peddlers of Sofia as being part of an international conspiracy was laughably thin. As the journalist Christo Punev remarked at the time, “The vast majority of Jews in Bulgaria are working-class people: small grain merchants, pushcart vendors, retail tradesmen, laborers and maids, all of them working for a living and all of them going hungry.” Also of great import in understanding Bulgarian resistance to the Final Solution is the centrality of language in shaping Bulgarian national identity. The patron Saints of Bulgaria are Cyril and Methodius, the Slavic brothers who created the Cyrillic alphabet in the 9th century. The introduction of this unique Slavic alphabet is conceived by Bulgarians as the turning point in the nation’s history. Preserving their language in writing allowed the Bulgar tribe to achieve a unique status as a sustainable nation — unlike the Avars and other Balkan tribes that disappeared or were assimilated into Greece or Turkey. In a deposition before the parliament, politician Todor Polyakov stated that “Bulgaria’s Jews were born here, it is here they first saw the sun, and the first language they heard was Bulgarian.” Notably, the Jews were always among the crowds each Spring celebrating the national holiday, Saint Cyril Day and Saint Methodius Day. Their patriotic celebration of the foundation of the national language might very well have spared them from being viewed as “Jews” by my sailor friend at the bar. March 10, 1943 is celebrated as the date of the salvation of the Bulgarian Jews. It was then that the deportations of Bulgarian Jews to the death camps were scheduled to begin. Theodor Dannecker, a Gestapo agent, had made a secret accord with Alexander Belev, the virulently anti-Semitic Bulgarian Commissioner for Jewish Affairs, to begin deportation of 20,000 Jews. In the aftermath of the Wannsee Convention and the implementation of the Final Solution, the Germans were flexing their muscles and putting fierce pressure on their resistant Bulgarian allies to come around to their view of the “Jewish Question.” The Bulgarians had been awarded administrative control over Macedonia and Thrace, where there was a population of 11,343 Jews. In the first week of March, the Jews of these regions were rounded up into warehouses and trains were provided. The nightmarish procession to Auschwitz began for these impoverished and unprotected Balkan Jewish villagers. Of those thousands of Jews residing in Thrace and Macedonia, only a few dozen survived the war. Although these deportations were conducted by the Bulgarian secret police in secrecy, news leaked out into Bulgaria about what had happened. The response was immediate and powerful. Stefan, the Archbishop of Sophia, had been on a journey and had accidentally come upon a transport of Macedonian Jews. He was utterly horrified, and wrote to King Boris that he must beware of God’s judgment, and proclaimed the doors of every Orthodox Church open to the Jews. The Archbishop of Kyustendil, the second largest city in Bulgaria, was even more extreme in his language, saying that he would lay down on the railroad tracks blocking the trains before he would allow the Jews of Bulgaria to be deported. [caption id=“attachment_22845” align=“alignleft” width=“200”]Dimitar Peshev Dimitar Peshev[/caption] Simultaneously, a committee of non-Jewish community leaders from Kyustendil, where Jews had begun to be arrested on March 9, arrived in the capital city of Sophia. Together with Dimitar Peshev, the deputy speaker of the parliament, the Kyustendil delegation stormed into the office of the Interior Minister Petur Gabrovski, one of the highest governmental leaders in the King’s cabinet. They demanded the immediate rescinding of the deportation order for the Jews. Amazingly, the combined influence of parliamentary influence, Church anathema, and civilian protest worked: Gabrovski agreed to stop the deportations. This sudden reversal has led to much speculation that the cancellation of the deportation orders had been planned in advance by King Boris. In this interpretation of the history, Boris is thought to have made a “devil’s bargain” whereby he sacrificed the Jews of the newly acquired territories in order to save “his” Jews, that is the Jews living within the national Bulgarian border. Clearly, Boris’ image of the Jews of Bulgaria was qualitatively different than that of the Jews of neighboring countries, and his interest in their survival was linked to his determination to insure the survival of Bulgaria as a nation. In any case, the change in policy was put in effect, and deportations were never again seriously considered. Later that year, the Germans continued diplomatic pressure on Bulgaria, including a browbeating session with King Boris by none other than Hitler himself. But by the Spring of 1943 the tide of the war was changing, and what had been inconceivable a year before, Germany’s defeat, was now a clear probability. Germany no longer had the same bargaining power it had held even a few months earlier. In May of 1943, the Jews of Sophia were relocated to villages in Bulgaria where the men were used as forced labor. This move constituted a compromise with the Germans. While the treatment of the Jews was harsh, the difference between relocation within Bulgaria and deportation to Poland is obvious. The Jews of Bulgaria survived the war against tremendous odds. No other Axis-allied nation was so successful in their protection of their Jewish population. Even the celebrated protection of the considerably smaller Danish Jewish community came at the cost of the relocation of the entire Jewish population to Sweden. In the years immediately after the war, as the Communists took over Bulgaria, almost all of the Jews of Bulgaria emigrated to Israel. The Communists effectively erased the history of the acts of courage that saved the Bulgarian Jews from the Nazis, preferring to erase any historical events that might shine favorably upon their enemy, the old monarchy. Sadly, generations of Bulgarians grew up knowing nothing of one of their nation’s great modern achievements. But perhaps some of the same mettle of character that allowed Bulgarians to stand up to fascist racism was on display in the sailor’s barroom toughness of faith in the primacy of language in defining who you are. It would seem that in his world view, whatever its limitations may be, there was room for signifiers of nationhood that can transcend religious boundaries and appeal to the ideal of human universality. This ability to look beyond ethnicity gave the Bulgarians the strength to protect the stranger in their midst and remember that they, too, were once strangers in their own land. Jeremiah Lockwood is an educator, storyteller, writer, and musician who fronts The Sway Machinery, an all-star ensemble that focuses on mining the historic Jewish Cantorial music tradition as a jumping off point for creating unique and exciting new music. The Sway Machinery released its debut album, Hidden Melodies Revealed, on JDub Records in 2009. Two years earlier, Lockwood was awarded the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists. He also composes for film and theater, and has toured extensively with Balkan Beat Box.