May 7, 2004
The little country that defied Hitler
ANNA LEVY SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH BULLETIN
At the time of the most horrific episode of human persecution and
annihilation recorded in human history, when, in Europe, Adolf Hitler
was trying to solve the "Jewish problem" by getting rid
of Jewish people, one little country right in the middle of it said,
The unique story of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews the largest
and most dramatic rescue during the Second World War is well
known in Europe and in Israel, but here in Vancouver, seems unknown.
At that time in Bulgaria, there were approximately 50,000 Jews,
all of whom survived the war. Not a single Jew was deported to the
death camps in Poland.
How is this possible and to whom should the credit go? Together
with the Bulgarian King Boris III, today one man heads every historian's
list Dimitar Peshev, deputy speaker of the National Assembly,
a man gifted with an exceptional nature and morals. He possessed
both the integrity and the power to effectively intervene in these
events. He may not have been the only person to have helped the
Jews, but he was the only one to have spearheaded a legal, parliamentary
action in their defence. Yet one other fact distinguished this little
country from other European countries there was mass support
for the Jews in just about every level of society, from the workers,
writers and lawyers unions, the intelligentsia and powerful individuals,
to the higher levels of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox
Among the various appeals, those of the Bulgarian Church were particularly
important. Metropolitan Stefan (from the capital Sofia) was
the most outspoken. Despite opposition and threats, he announced
that the door of every Bulgarian church and monastery would be opened
to the Jews.
Another courageous and passionate church leader was Kiril, Metropolitan
of Plovdiv. When the round up and detention in the schools of the
Jews began, he threatened that, if a train loaded with Jews tried
to leave the city, he would lie across the railroad tracks. This
civil disobedience was fully supported by the Bulgarian Orthodox
Church in every major city in the country.
On Jan. 2, 1943, SS Haupsturmfuhrer Theodore Dannecker, the specialist
on the Jewish question arrived in Sofia, having been assigned by
Adolf Eichmann. King Boris found himself under impossible pressure.
On the one hand, he had to act according to national interests,
i.e., to agree to the deportation; on the other hand, he had no
desire to participate in this madness. King Boris was described
as shy and weak of character, yet he was well liked abroad. Concerning
the deportation, the king tried to avoid confrontation with the
Germans by saying "OK, we will do it, but later, not now."
He created a lot of work for the Jews in the country, sending all
Jewish men between the ages of 20 and 40 to build and enlarge roads
all over the country. It was a humiliating law that forced the Jews
to do this work and, as a result, many of them became communists.
Only later, when the horrific truth had been unveiled, did they
realized that King Boris' actions actually saved their lives.
On Feb. 22, an official agreement was signed authorizing the deportation
of 20,000 Jews. The people in charge were Alexander Belev, the director
of the commissariat for the Jewish questions (KEV), and the minister
of internal affairs, Peter Grabrovsky. The agreement was to involve
only the deportation of the Jewish people from Macedonia and Thrace
newly occupied German territories, over which Bulgaria had
been given only administrative rights. However, as historians have
pointed out, these territories had no more than 12,000 Jews, so
the remaining 8,000 had to be taken from the Bulgarian borders to
meet the deportation number of 20,000.
King Boris was deeply distressed by these events, but he believed
that he had no legal authority over the Thracian and Macedonian
Jews. They weren't Bulgarian citizens and therefore subject to the
Bulgarian Constitution. It is not clear if he was aware that 8,000
Bulgarians were also included in the deportation order. This shameful
agreement was prepared behind closed doors and it was unconstitutional.
Only a leak from the main office of KEV (from secretary Liliana
Panica) at the last moment revealed the decision made by Belev and
a few others.
The roundup was supposed to start on March 9, 1943. When word reached
Peshev, he could not believe it; such decisions had to pass through
Parliament. In his own words: "There was no doubt in my mind
about what was going to happen.... And I decided to do all in my
power to prevent what ... was going to shame Bulgaria in the eyes
of the world and brand her with a stain she didn't deserve."
(Michael Bar-Zohar, Beyond Hitler's Grasp: The Heroic Rescue
of Bulgaria's Jews, 1998) Later the same day, a delegation was
assembled and after considerable pressure, Gabrovsky revealed the
agreement that had been made with the Germans. The members of Parliament
insisted that he cancel the deportation immediately, and they made
it clear that they were not going to leave his office before their
demands were satisfied. Gabrovsky gave in and made a few calls.
The deportation was cancelled, but the orders did not reach all
Bulgaria's cities on time. On March 10, the police rounded up several
hundred Jews in Plovdiv, Bulgaria's second largest city. Tragic
scenes took place. From this time came the most famous reports about
Kiril, who not only threatened to lie in front of the train, but
totally disobeyed police orders. Defying the guards, he climbed
the fence and jumped into the Jewish group to protect them.
It was clear to everyone that the order for the cancellation did
not come from Gabrovsky a report sent by the German embassy
to Berlin implied that it had come from King Boris. Peshev won a
battle, but not the war.
When he had learned about the agreement between Belev and Dannecker,
he was revolted: "This agreement had been concluded by an incompetent
official and was contradictory to the constitution, to regular laws
and to basic morality and humanity...." (Beyond Hitler's
Grasp) Any initiative to prevent future surprises had to involve
a group of Parliament members. Thus, Peshev created his now-famous
letter of protest to Parliament and the prime minister, collecting
43 signatures of members of the majority to support it. This letter
relied strongly on the Bulgarian constitution, which, for example,
stated, "Every slave becomes a free man the moments he steps
on Bulgarian soil."
The prime minister was furious this was a rebellion. He was
opposed by more than a third of his own pro-government majority.
When he realized that Peshev was the initiator, he started a long
and sorrowful diplomatic battle against him. The result was devastating
for Peshev; he was removed as deputy speaker and, even though he
was still a member of Parliament, he was a broken, deeply hurt man.
But fundamentally, the victory was Peshev's. The deportation was
interrupted and would not resume. Peshev had suffered personal humiliation
but knew that the price was worth it. In the Europe of 1943, under
Nazi control, he was probably the only statesman to have been able
to stand up to such infamy, to stop the persecution of Jews.
And to describe Bulgarian people for their heroic actions, I will
use the words of the top German ambassador, Adolf-Heinz Beckerle,
who wrote in 1943: "The Bulgarian society doesn't understand
the real meaning of the Jewish question.... I am convinced that
the prime minister and the entire cabinet desire and aspire to a
final and total solution of the Jewish question. But they are tied
by the mentality of the Bulgarian people, that lacks the ideological
enlightenment that we have...." (Beyond Hitler's Grasp)
Looking back to the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews, one comes to realize
that no one individual could have brought it about. The people were
opposed to the anti-Semitic measures, but a community is powerless
without leaders in this case, the metropolitans, deputies
and politicians who were ready to accept the risks.
I can only say for myself how proud and fortunate I feel to come
from this society where I have never encountered any anti-Semitic
feelings. I would like to offer this little consolation to my fellow
Jews in Vancouver, especially in light of recent anti-Semitic events
Anna Levy is a musician, a pianist with a doctoral degree
from the Moscow Conservatory. She came to Canada from Bulgaria in
1993, after marrying her Canadian husband.