In a few days, a meeting to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the deportation of Jews from Bulgarian-occupied Greece will take place at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris.
For many, this will be one minor tragedy amidst a multitude during the Holocaust. For some, the deportations may register momentarily about a country of which we know little. For others who have read a little about the mass murder of mainly Sephardi Jews in the Balkans by the Nazis, some will recall “good King Boris III”, Tsar of all the Bulgarians, who protected the Jews and confronted the exterminators.
The Jewish National Fund in Los Angeles raised money in 1996 to inaugurate a Bulgaria Forest in Israel in honour of King Boris. The US Congress praised Boris for his good deeds. The reality of this episode in Jewish history is, however, more complex and darker.
Last month, a conference about Bulgaria in World War II was held at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and many of the participants painted a different picture of Boris and Bulgaria, a country allied to Germany in both world wars. The Bulgarian ambassador to Israel, Rumiana Bachvarova, was noticeably absent, though she sent greetings to the gathering.
Many Jews of Bulgarian origin in Israel and abroad have increasingly challenged the official wisdom that Boris was a benevolent monarch and that all Bulgarians were righteous gentiles. Many in the English-speaking world had hitherto believed that Bulgaria, like Denmark, had protected its Jews from reaching the Nazi extermination camps.
The US documentary filmmaker Jacky Comforty, who is of Bulgarian-Jewish origin, and oral historian Martha Aladjem Bloomfield, tell a different story. The title of their book, The Stolen Narrative of the Bulgarian Jews and the Holocaust, says it all. They have campaigned to present a different narrative of what happened in Bulgaria and Greece all those years ago.
Last year, a conference of the Israel-Bulgaria Friendship Association, held in Jaffa, erupted in controversy. Moshe Mossek, the former head of the Israel State Archives, was incensed by the official, simplified version of history — his father had spent four years in a Bulgarian hard-labour camp and had returned “completely broken”.
While the issue of apparent Bulgarian betrayal has been bubbling for several years, it was the publication in 2022 of The Bulgarian Army and the Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews by Dimitar Nedialkov, a retired colonel in the Bulgarian air force, that ignited challenges to the positive image of King Boris. The book also promoted the “courageous army” as the saviour of Bulgaria’s Jews.
This was the same Bulgarian army that was responsible for the deportation of 11,343 Greek Jews from Bulgarian-occupied Greece. They were taken to Varna on the Black Sea and transported along the Danube to Vienna, where the Gestapo was waiting. From there, most made their last journey to Treblinka.
What really infuriated Mossek and other Bulgarian Jews in Israel was that Elbit Systems had paid for the book’s publication. Elbit is an Israeli contractor that has sold arms and equipment to the Bulgarian military. Ambassador Bachvarova blindly promoted the book as part of her diplomatic duty while Elbit’s CEO, Bezhalel Machlis, maintained an embarrassed silence. Both believed that they were working in the national interest of their respective countries — but history has come back to bite them.
Bulgaria was deeply disillusioned by its loss of territory to Greece, Serbia, Romania and the Ottoman Empire in the Second Balkan War in 1913. It consequently allied itself with the Kaiser’s Germany in World War I in the hope of regaining lost territory and creating a new Christian Byzantium. For two years it occupied Kavala in Greece, which was home to a large Sephardi community, the descendants of Jews expelled by Catholic Spain in 1492. Thousands of Greeks were killed by the Bulgarians in World War I and many were expelled in an exercise of ethnic cleansing. Bulgaria, however, was the first of the Axis powers to capitulate in September 1918.
By the eve of World War II, King Boris firmly harnessed national aspirations to the Nazi war machine in the hope of recreating a Greater Bulgaria. Boris felt close to Germany as he belonged to the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha— as did the British royal family.
At the outbreak of war in September 1939, non-Bulgarian Jews were deported. By January 1941, Bulgaria had introduced a raft of anti-Jewish laws: Jews were removed from the armed forces; mixed marriages were banned; Jews with Bulgarian names were forced to revert to their original ones; there was an expropriation of Jewish property and a quota system for Jewish students wishing to enter university.
All this before a formal alliance with Hitler in March 1941.
In the same month, Boris allowed the Nazis to cross into Bulgaria to attack Greece. Shortly afterwards, he approved the wearing of the yellow star by Bulgarian Jews. The Bulgarians also assisted in the German occupation of Serbia in which nearly 20,000 Jews lost their lives. A Jewish Commissariat was established in August 1942.
In January 1943, SS Hauptsturmführer Theodor Dannecker, an underling of Adolf Eichmann, visited Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, to supervise the deportation of Bulgarian Jews. By early February, a formal agreement was signed with Alexander Belev, the head of the Jewish Commissariat.
‘Boris cared little for his Jewish citizens and was willing to sacrifice them in the national interest. As he commented in a telegram to German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in June 1943: “The great damage to humanity throughout the generations is caused by the Jewish spirit of profiteering”’
What Boris did not count on was the determined opposition of the Bulgarian clergy — notably Patriarchs Stefan of Sofia and Kirill of Plovdiv — the Bulgarian intelligentsia and many parliamentarians.
King Boris refused to listen to the pleas of Charles Redhart, a diplomat of neutral Switzerland, to stop the deportations. In contrast to Boris’s approach, Bulgarian clergy rushed to be present at round ups of Jews awaiting deportation and guarded by Bulgarian police — and used their influence to secure the release of Jews.
In May 1943, a march attended by both Jews and non-Jews protesting the planned deportations, and led by rabbis Daniel Zion and Asher Hananel, started out from a Sofia synagogue. The astonished police soon pounced on the demonstrators but arrested only Jews. Bulgarian Jews also reacted by joining the resistance. It is estimated that up to 10% of all Bulgarian partisans were Jewish.
Under public pressure, King Boris’s plan to deport Bulgaria’s Jews en masse fell apart. He had caved in but as Hitler’s loyal ally, he effected a compromise which was to conscript thousands of Bulgarian Jews into forced labour battalions and send them to hard-regime camps.
Thousands of Bulgarian Jews survived because people of goodwill stood up to King Boris.
The myth that depicts Boris as “a saviour of the Jews”, forged later by both monarchists and communists in Bulgaria during the 1990s to advance political agendas — and accepted by many Jewish communities — is being dismantled.
In an era of post-truth, while there are different interpretations of events in Jewish history, it remains important to recognise when history is being bent to serve political and business needs.
Plus61j 23 June 2023