In the dark days of WW2, when the Nazi killing machine was rolling over Poland, France, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia – one country refused to abandon its Jewish citizens. Not only did Bulgaria save all of its 50,000 Bulgarian Jews, but by the end of the war their numbers rose to 52,000. Bulgaria was the only European country to save its entire Jewish population from deportation and annihilation. Yet the saving of the Bulgarian Jews is little known to the world.
Toronto based Dr.Miroslav Marinov, who was born and grew up in Bulgaria, calls it “a historical blackout”. In his new book, Holocaust Averted; Bulgarian Jews in World War 11, he explains in fascinating detail, just why and how Bulgaria, one tenth the size of Germany, was able to resist the Nazi scourge that overtook most of Europe ,in spite of the fact that it was an ally. We spoke in his book-crammed, downtown Toronto living room.
Jews have lived in the area called Bulgaria now, for millennia. Their roots go back 1300 years and includes 500 years of oppression under the Ottoman Empire. They were considered part of the Bulgarian nation, full citizens and equal to the Christians. They served in the army, held government positions. Pogroms common in Russian, never took place in this country.
But in 1941 Bulgaria joined with Japan and Italy and became an ally of Germany . King Boris 111, had little choice said Marinov. “There was no way he could oppose Hitler who threatened to invade the country if he did not join him.” The King then began a dangerous game that probably cost him his life. He pretended to comply with Hitler’s demands to protect his Jewish citizens.
When, in l940, under pressure from Germany. the first anti Jewish laws were proposed restricting the rights of the Jews, there was a massive protest from the people. Letters of protest to various officials were sent by the unions of doctors, lawyers, artists and other organizations. Parliamentarians spoke out. The powerful Bulgarian Orthodox church immediately took a stand against the new anti Jewish policies and maintained it until the end of the war.
In l942, Germany demanded the deportation of all Bulgarian Jews to Germany. “One of the King’s tactics” , said Marinov “was to delay everything so that it became unenforceable.” Doctors, dentists, and other professionals not allowed to work in the cities, were sent to villages and small towns. Boris’s major manoeuvre to avoid deportation was to assert that he needed Jewish men for labour. He then created a labour army that included thousands of Jewish men. The King declared that any decision affecting Bulgarian citizens could only be made by the Bulgarian authorities.
Hitler presented him with two options: deportation of the Jewish population or expulsion to villages and provincial towns. He chose the second. It was a clever move. “The dispersal of the Jews all over the country made the deportations much more difficult. ” observed Marinov.
Most critically, the powerful Bulgarian Orthodox Church denounced the deportation of the country’s Jews, sheltering rabbis and even baptizing some Jews to spare their lives.
And so the Jews survived. “… their living conditions were difficult . Many living in small rooms, often restricted by the local authorities in their movements. ” But, not even one was deported.
King Boris died of “heart failure”‘ shortly after returning from Germany in l943, where he met with German officials. He was 49 years old and in excellent health. It is rumoured in Bulgaria that he was poisoned.
After the war, the Communists took over. “Growing up in communist Bulgaria, the Jews were hardly ever discussed,” Marinov said. The government was anti Israel, spewing propaganda that labelled Zionism “the new form of racist discrimination”. But Zionism was a very strong element in the lives of Bulgarian Jews and, said Marinov, “they were on a collision course with the Communist regime. Most – 90% – emigrated to Israel.”
Today there are less than 2,000 Jews left in Bulgaria. “We are probably approaching the time when Jewish life in Bulgaria will be only a nice memory,” Marinov said.