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Bulgaria Marks Uneasy Anniversary of Jewish Community’s Rescue in WWII

Bulgaria is marking 80 years ago since its King ordered a halt to Jewish deportations to Nazi camps, saving 50,000 lives – but the country’s heroic reputation for its defiance of Hitler is coming under fire.

Lawyer, Speaker of Parliament and Minister of Justice Dimitar Peshev, one of the major figures to oppose the deportation of Bulgarian Jews. Photo: Bulgarian National Television.

On March 9, Bulgaria marks the 80th anniversary of the rescue of 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from threatened deportation to Nazi Germany during World War II – but members of the Jewish community complain that the memory of the thousands of Jews who perished nevertheless is disregarded. 

The day commemorates King Boris III of Bulgaria’s decision to stop deportations to Nazi concentration camps under pressure from parliament, local intellectuals and the Orthodox Church.

The ruling on March 9 1943 was made despite Bulgaria being an ally to Nazi Germany in the war, over the promise of border enlargement, and despite previously enacting the anti-Semitic Law for Protection of the Nation. 

This led to a dispute with Nazi Germany, as well as internal political tensions in Bulgaria. Later the same year, on 28 August, King Boris died unexpectedly after returning in Sofia from a heated meeting with Adolf Hitler on August 8, with his death prompting much speculation.

Numerous commemorative events, including marches, exhibitions, screenings of documentary movies and historical conferences will take place in various towns on Thursday under the patronage of President Rumen Radev.

But Bulgaria’s benign version of those events from World War II has been challenged, as over 11,000 Jews from the Bulgarian-occupied zone in present-day North Macedonia were sent to the concentration camps in the first days of March 1943, before King Boris halted further deportations.

Some argue that the silence around those who were handed over to German custody casts a shadow over the heroism of those who worked for the rescue.

“The names of all 11,343 people put into sealed wagons and deported to Treblinka by the Bulgarian police and army are known. The manner in which the Bulgarian soldiers and officers treated them on behalf of the state and under the Bulgarian flag is also known. The astonishing cruelty in the last days of their lives is documented. The indifference to the tragedy of those whose last life was spent under the control of the Bulgarian army and police shows a particular moral bankruptcy,” Bulgarian journalist of Jewish ancestry Emmy Barouh wrote on Thursday in an open letter to President Radev. She also expressed fears that the anniversary might be “used for political purposes”.

“There is no morality to be found in the sinister arithmetic that the lives of 50,000 [Jews in Bulgaria proper] were ‘paid for’ by the lives of 11,343,” added Barouh. 

To this day, the figure of King Boris has remained divisive because of Bulgaria’s and North Macedonia’s very different perspectives about his political conduct.

The naming of a Bulgarian cultural club in North Macedonia after him caused protests there, while in January the club’s secretary was physically attacked, reigniting disputes between the two countries. 

King Boris’s high reputation in Bulgaria led to the rise of his son Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Simeon II), exiled in Spain during the Communist era, in local politics. He became Prime Minister from 2001 to 2005. 

However, his popularity declined. This paved the way for the rise of the GERB party, led by Simeon’s former bodyguard Boyko Borissov, later a three-time Prime Minister.

In the years after the war, most Bulgarian Jews relocated to Israel. But the Sofia Synagogue remains the biggest in the Southeast Europe and a stable community centre. 

The 80th anniversary was marked by the European Parliament, with EP President Roberta Metsola stating that “today people know how even in Europe’s darkest hours, there was light glimmering in Bulgaria.”

Source: Balkan Insight