Bulgaria’s Pride In Rescue Of Jews During Holocaust Ignores Murder Of Thousands
Bulgaria’s president together with the country’s most prominent church dignitaries participated in a ceremony last Friday marking the 80th anniversary of the country’s rescue of its 48,000 Jews from the Nazis during WWII.
An official Jewish presence was markedly absent from the group as it marched from Bulgaria’s national library to the capital’s oldest church, where they lay flowers on a memorial to Tsar Boris III, who led the country during the Holocaust until his death in 1943.
Jewish community leaders were invited only at the last possible minute, according to Alexander Oscar, president of The Organization of Bulgarian Jews.
“I would not have attended in any event,” Oscar told JTA. “And I think no one else from the local Jewish community would have either. This would mean taking part in an event honoring the imaginary role of King Boris in rescuing the Bulgarian Jews, and presenting a distorted history of the Holocaust.”
Local Jewish leaders marked the anniversary in other ways, noted the article. Earlier in the week, some traveled to Kavala, Greece, for a ceremony at the site where Bulgarian soldiers deported thousands of Jews to Treblinka in 1943. They also held their own ceremony at a different monument in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria, commemorating both the rescue and the murder of the Jews in Bulgarian-occupied regions.
They were joined by public figures including Sofia’s mayor and Bulgaria’s foreign minister, Nikolay Milkov, and its prosecutor general.
Sofia mayor Yordanka Fandukova said that 80 years ago, the Bulgarians of the time had remained faithful to the values of humanity and had written “one of the most honorable chapters in our national history.”
“Today we bow to their courage and bravery. Many of their names are not known, but they are alive in the hearts of the saved nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews (who were not deported). We should not forget those who were not saved – 11,343 Jews from Aegean Thrace and Macedonia. We humbly bow our heads before their suffering and destruction.”
Bought with Jewish Blood
No one challenges the fact that humanitarian members of Bulgaria’s wartime parliament led by Dimitar Peshev, and backed by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and prominent Bulgarians, successfully pressured King Boris to halt the deportation of 50,000 Jews from “Old” Bulgaria to Nazi death camps in Poland.
But it is clear that Boris was no humanitarian who had a sudden change of heart. He headed a fascist government and signed an alliance with Nazi Germany after Hitler promised him a deal he couldn’t refuse: the return of territories Bulgaria lost in 1913-1919, which now belonged to Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece.
The deal was clinched with the promise of Jewish blood.
The return of the first of these conquered provinces, southern Dobrudzha, came with a condition: that Boris would accede to Hitler’s demand to deport 20,000 Bulgarian Jews to death camps in Poland. Bulgaria’s king agreed, intending to sacrifice the Jews from newly occupied Thrace and Macedonia (renamed “New Bulgaria”), as well as from parts of Serbia.
Meanwhile, the territories promised by Hitler were turned over to Bulgaria’s government who immediately occupied these lands. The changing of the borders was celebrated as a national triumph, and King Boris III was lauded as “the unifying king.”
The Bulgarian persecutions against the Jews in “Old Bulgaria” began with oppressive racial laws, patterned after the infamous Nuremberg laws of 1935. One of the first measures was The Protection of the Nation Act, adopted on December 24, 1940. It took away almost all civil rights from the 48,000 Jews living in Bulgaria proper.
This law barred Jews from being able to vote, stand for office and join the armed forces. Jews were forced to list their real estate and sell to the state, at “special” prices, any agricultural land they owned. In addition, Jews were banned from owning private companies while Jews in the “permitted” professions had to abide by quotas.
Bulgaria Prepares for the Final Solution
The situation for Bulgarian Jews vastly deteriorated with the passage of a new Citizenship Act that applied to all Bulgarian lands. Jews were now deprived of the right to become Bulgarian nationals, which cleared the way for their subsequent deportation as “stateless persons.”
On February 22, 1943, Aleksandar Belev, the Bulgarian Commissar for Jewish Affairs, and SS chief Theodor Dannecker, Adolf Eichmann’s representative to Bulgaria, signed a confidential agreement for the deportation of 20,000 Jews from the New Lands. As there were only about 12,000 Jews there, the remaining 8,000 were to be collected from Old Bulgaria, with the communities in Kyustendil and Plovdiv targeted first.
The Jews were evicted from their homes, ghettoized and systematically stripped of their property in preparation for deportation. The actual transport to Treblinka and Auschwitz—the final “nail in the coffin”—was halted only at the last hour.
The fate of the Jews in “New Bulgaria” followed a similar route but there was no last minute reprieve.
First the Bulgarian regime under King Boris shut down all avenues of their industry or commerce. All existing Jewish businesses had three months to transfer ownership to non-Jews or sell their assets and close down. These forced “sales” made under extreme duress were wholesale extortion.
Fearing for their lives, Jews fled by the thousands from New Bulgaria to Salonika and to other locations in the German and Italian zones, where repressive policies against them were not yet instituted.
In Thrace and Macedonia, (New Bulgaria), the persecutions quickly escalated. In late 1941, Boris enforced a law that barred Jews from certain areas of the important city of Monastir in Macedonia. Jews who lived in the more prosperous part of the city were forced to move to a poorer part of town located near the traditional Jewish quarter, and this area became the ghetto.
In March 1943, over 7,000 Sephardic Jews from the towns of Skopje, Bitola, and Stip were forcibly assembled at the Tobacco Monopoly in Skopje, where several buildings had been hastily converted into a primitive transit camp. The Jews were penned inside between eleven and eighteen days before being deported by train in three transports between March 22 and 29, 1943, courtesy of the Bulgarian State Railways.
Almost all were taken to Treblinka where they were gassed to death. Some met their end in Auschwitz. Among the deportees, there are only 12 known survivors.
While giving King Boris credit for not sending Bulgarian Jews to their death, the current government, by its silence about the annihilated Sephardic communities, absolves and whitewashes him for these appalling crimes, critics say.
Once a Source of Pride, “New Bulgaria” Expunged from Memory
“New Bulgaria,” where these crimes took place, was once a source of pride to Bulgarians. After Hitler rewarded Boris by granting him sovereignty over Thrace and Macedonia, these territories were swiftly Bulgarianized. Government infrastructure, civic administration, institutes of higher learning, educational system, religious bodies and culture in Thrace and Macedonis all became legally Bulgarian.
Between 1941-1942, “New” Bulgaria had 2,035 new teachers—teaching in Bulgarian, using Bulgarian language textbooks, writes History News Network. To put an official imprimatur on the creation of New Bulgaria, the government printed and issued nearly seven million commemorative postage stamps in 1941, touting its “recovery” of Macedonia.
Yet today, when it comes to the topic of the 11 and a half thousands Jews from Thrace and Macedonia brutally deported by Bulgarian forces to Treblinka, Bulgarian authorities don’t seem to recall very much about the era of the once vaunted “unified Bulgaria.”
It’s as if the “New Bulgaria” of the war years has nothing to do with them.
“We should not forget those who were not saved – 11,343 Jews from Aegean Thrace and Macedonia. We humbly bow our heads before their suffering and destruction,” intoned Sofia’s mayor, offering no hint of who was responsible for orchestrating the annihilation of these innocent souls.
The Israeli ambassador, too, played along with the historical “amnesia.”
“We stand here today to pay tribute and respect on behalf of those who were saved, to their brave rescuers, while remembering the 11,343 victims from Thrace, Macedonia and the town of Pirot who perished in the Nazi death camps,” Israeli ambassador Yoram Elron said.
As if they just happened to land up in death camps where they perished. That’s how it goes in war.
Cover-up For Poor Human Rights Record
Until it finally gained EU membership status in 2007, Bulgaria’s poor human rights record as reported by the U.S. State Department posed a barrier to its acceptance. To counter this shabby image on the world stage, Bulgaria began a public relations campaign about its humanitarian conduct during the Holocaust, and how the country under King Boris saved 50,000 Jews.
The Bulgarians do not discuss “New” Bulgaria, the eleven and a half thousand men, women and children the government deported or the devastation done to these historic communities.
No mention is made of how members of the “Commissariat for Jewish Affairs” which had been established to institute anti-Jewish legislation in Bulgaria, broke into Jewish homes in “New Bulgaria” and hauled out their inhabitants.
No mention of the Jews of the Thracian cities of Kavala, Drama, Komotini, Seres, Xanthi and Alexandroupolis, who were dragged from their beds at midnight in sub-freezing conditions, forced to walk for many miles, being whipped by troops.
Not a word about how many wretched souls died along the way from cold, malnutrition and beatings; how they were placed in tobacco warehouses and later locked inside freight trains as human cattle for the dreaded trip to Treblinka, where they were all murdered.
‘Seventy Years of Whitewashing’
The destruction of Macedonian Jews began in the early morning of Thursday, March 11, 1943, recounts historian Shelomo Alfassa, author of “Seventy Years of Whitewashing: The Bulgarian Government and its Interaction With Jews During the Holocaust.”
“In Monastir, Skopje and Stip, where there were small populations of Sephardic Jews, several hundred police and soldiers, as well as cart drivers with carts, gathered at municipal police stations at 2 a.m. to receive instructions for the eviction of the Jews and their belongings. In Monastir, the Bulgarian military established a blockade around the city to prevent escapes.”
The roundups began before dawn. Groups of Bulgarian forces fanned out into the ghetto to pound on doors, ordering the residents to leave their homes in one hour. The Jews were told that they were being transferred to other parts of Bulgaria and that after the war they would be returned to their homes, but this did little to ease the terror and cruelty of the massive eviction.
Advance rumors of this action convinced a female survivor known as “Kolonomos” to hide. That night, she and four others clustered together in a shop, and listened with pounding hearts to what was happening to their community. Kolonomos, whose testimonial is archived at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, later wrote:
“At dawn we heard the bedlam of police on galloping horses and the clatter of carts. Then came a wave of deafening shouts, the crying of many people, of babies and women. Bulgarians police shouting “Move! Move! Quick!” The prayers, moans, curses, crying pierced our hearts… They were taking all the Jews, old and young, not just the youths who could work…. A river of people passed alongside us in our hiding place.”
At around 7 a.m., the Jews were forced to walk to the railroad station. There a train was waiting to transport them to neighboring Skopje where they would be kept at a detention center established at the state tobacco warehouse known as Monopol, which was adjacent to a railroad.
Last Train from Monastir, Macedonia
Survivor Albert Sarfati was scheduled to board the third transport. In his memoirs, he described the heartrending scene:
“Each train wagon carried between 60 and 70 people with all their baggage. The people came out of the building carrying their belongings on their backs. Everyone was carrying things, from the oldest person to the youngest. With bowed heads, all approached the black train.
“In front of each wagon stood a German and a Bulgarian policeman checking off a list. It was impossible to sit down in the freight cars. As soon as the ‘livestock’ had been loaded into a car, it was locked and sealed. Only heads were visible through the small windows…
“Police waved their machine guns toward the windows in our building to keep us from watching. The train was ready and left about eleven o’clock. Hands were waving goodbye from the small wagon windows as all of us in the building wept….”
“The last train carried around 2,400 Jews, ninety percent from Monastir. The Jews began boarding the freight cars at 6 a.m. on March 29 and by noon the train was full. The departure of this train for the killing center at Treblinka marked the final destruction of the Monastir Jewish community.”
– Last Century of a Sephardic Community: The Jews of Monastir, 1839-1943, Mark Cohen
Bulgarian Scholars Call on Leaders to Acknowledge Country’s Crimes Against Jews
In the post-war era, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was still about 50,000, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But unlike in most communist countries, the government allowed Jews to emigrate in large numbers and in fact encouraged them to do so. Rather than live under communism, the vast majority of Bulgarian Jews departed for Israel in the late 1940s.
The country’s Jewish population today numbers between 3,000 and 6,000.
Following last week’s ceremonies, a group of Bulgarian scholars, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have circulated their own appeal, calling on Bulgarian leaders to acknowledge the crimes against Jews under the country’s rule during the Holocaust.
“Our state never tried to find the appropriate language to mark two inseparable and yet antithetical historical facts: the rescue of “Old Bulgarian” Jews and the deportation of “New Bulgarian” Jews to Treblinka from lands occupied in April 1941,” the appeal, quoted by JTA, reads.
“The Bulgarian state should acknowledge publicly and unconditionally its responsibility by apologizing for the persecutions and deportations of Jews during World War II.”
In a swipe at the self-promotional nature of the government’s ceremonies, the petition added, “It is a matter of basic decency that emphasizing the salvation should be done by those who were saved—not the savior. Here, exactly the opposite occurs: Bulgarians are engaging in self-glorification and inviting the Jewish community to pay them eternal gratitude.”
Young Albert Sarfati who survived the war chronicled the dreadful experience of being herded in cattle wagons to Skopje, Macedonia, and imprisoned there for a week and a half until the Jews were deported. His eyewitness account is archived with other survivor testimonials in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and in Yad Vashem.
“They loaded us into cattle wagons, fifty to sixty people per wagon, including luggage. There wasn’t enough space for everyone, children crying and shrieking … a woman in one wagon giving birth… words can’t describe the wretchedness. We reached Skopje at midnight. They opened the wagons and in the darkness pushed us into two large buildings.
“Stumbling over one another in the darkness, dragging our luggage and continuously being beaten by the Bulgarian soldiers, the children, the aged and infirm tried to squeeze into the building. When the sun rose, we realized we were in Skopje in the building of the Tobacco Monopoly (Monopol) and that all the Jews of Macedonia had been rounded up that same day.”
For the next 11 days the Monastir Jews, together with Jews from Skopje and Stip, approximately 7,215 in all, lived in crowded, filthy, freezing conditions in four warehouses at Monopol. There was little food and few blankets and the Jews were continually searched, beaten and humiliated.
One survivor, Elena Leon Ishakh, a doctor from Monastir who was released from Monopol to work for the Bulgarians, left this description of the nightmare at Monopol:
“Hunger tormented the imprisoned Jews… Only on the fifth day did the camp authorities set up a kitchen, but for over 7,000 of us there only a few stoves. Food was distributed once daily and consisted of 250 grams of bread and plain, watery beans or rice… Food was doled out starting at eleven in the morning, and the last ones were fed around five in the evening. They also gave us smoked meat, but it was so bad that, despite our hunger, we couldn’t eat it…
“Under the pretext of searching us to find hidden money, gold, or foreign currency, they sadistically forced us to undress… In some cases they even took away baby diapers… If anything was found on somebody, he was cruelly beaten.”
Nico Pardo, one of the few who managed to escape from the detention center described the Jews’ despair in Monopol:
“We were plunged into shock and depression, not knowing what awaited us. The dreadful treatment from the Bulgarians made us doubt the promises about being taken to a Bulgarian work camp. Here and there some of the youth whispered about an uprising and mass escape but there was almost no prospect of it succeeding.
“The yard was surrounded by a wooden fence and behind that, a barbed wire fence. At each of the four corners there was a sentry with a machine gun and other armed guards patrolling the yard. We had no idea of what the Bulgarians were planning…the worst possible fate did not occur to us, and that prevented suicidal acts like an uprising from being carried out.”
On the morning of March 22, 1943, some 2,300 Macedonian Jews from Monopol were forced to board a train consisting of 40 cattle cars,” writes historian Alfassa, based on survivor accounts.
“Families journeyed together, and the transport included at least 134 small children no more than four years old, and at least 194 children between the ages of four and 10. The journey typically took six days, and during this entire time the Jews were locked day and night in the cattle or freight cars. Some died during each transport; the presence of these corpses was unbearable.”
The train arrived at Treblinka six days later on March 28 at 7 a.m. There are no known survivors from this transport.