On March 8, 1943, under the cover of night, several trains surreptitiously slipped into Bulgarian railway stations. The following evening they were to transport 8,000 Jews to the Nazi death camps in Poland. The operation, carried in utmost secrecy, followed a unique agreement signed by Theodore Dannecker, Adolf Eichmann’s personal representative in Sofia, and Alexander Belev, the Bulgarian Commissar for Jewish Questions, on February 22nd.
Two years earlier Bulgaria had signed the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan, and had become a member of the Nazi alliance. Bulgaria became a subservient ally of Hitler’s Germany. Her king, Boris III, a personal friend of Hitler, even promulgated racial laws similar to the Nuremberg anti-Jewish laws.
German troops then attacked Yugoslavia and Greece from bases in Bulgarian territory. After the conquest of these two countries, Germany tore Macedonia from Yugoslavia and Thrace from Greece, and placed them under Bulgarian administration. The Bulgarians regarded these territories as part of the new, greater Bulgaria.
In the agreement signed by Dannecker and Belev on February 22nd, 1943, Bulgaria undertook to deport to Poland 20,000 Jews: the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia and 8,000 Jews from her own territory. That was to be a first stage in the total annihilation of Bulgaria’s 49,000 Jews.
The Thracian and Macedonian Jews were deported indeed, according to the agreement; 11,343 Jews perished in Treblinka. Now was the turn of Bulgaria’s Jews. And then a strange thing happened. Four Bulgarian public activists from a small town, Kyustendil, rushed to Sofia, determined to prevent the deportation of their Jewish co-citizens. They convinced Dimiter Peshev, the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, as well as several other members of the pro-fascist majority, to oppose the deportation.
The members of Parliament threatened Interior Minister Gabrovski and Prime Minister Filov with a revolt in the House; Gabrovski and Filov hurried to the King’s palace to ask for his decision. They didn’t know that a strong pressure against the planned deportation was being brought to bear by the 10 Metropolitans, the Princes of the Bulgarian Church, who had been fighting the anti-Jewish measures of the government all along. Many other sectors of the Bulgarian society had angrily protested against the discrimination of the country’s Jews and the passage of racial laws shortly before.
King Boris had to make a decision. He was a devoted ally of Hitler; but he also was the king of the Bulgarians, and could not act against the spirit of his people. In the evening of March 9, a couple of hours before the trains were to leave, the government ordered to cancel the deportation.
Dimiter Peshev feared another attempt to deport the Jews. He therefore drafted a letter to the Prime Minister, condemning in harsh terms any new effort to dispatch Bulgaria’s Jewish citizens to Poland. The deportation, he wrote, “would brand Bulgaria with an undeserved stain, that would void all her moral standing.” He circulated his letter among the members of the Parliament majority; in a few hours, he obtained the signatures of 43 Parliament members, more than a third of the government majority.
The retaliation came immediately. Prime Minister Filov dismissed Peshev from his Parliament position. King Boris was summoned to Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” in Berchtesgaden, where he met with the Fuhrer and the Reich’s Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Von Ribbentrop bluntly asked him to immediately deport the Bulgarian Jews to Poland. The king replied that he needed the Jews for building roads and railroads.
A second attempt to deport Bulgaria’s Jews took place on May 24, and failed again. When Berlin ordered a third attempt, the Reich’s ambassador Adolf Beckerle replied by a disillusioned telegram. The Bulgarians are not going to deport their Jews, he wrote in substance. “The Bulgarian, who was raised with Armenians, Greeks and Gypsies, doesn’t see in the Jews any flaws justifying taking special measures against them.”
This third attempt was the last. Bulgaria’s Jews were not bothered anymore. On September 9, 1944, the Red Army crossed the Danube and liberated Bulgaria. Not one Bulgarian Jew had been deported. Bulgaria became the only country in the Nazi camp, whose Jewish population grew in numbers during the War.
When the State of Israel was created, almost the entire Jewish population of Bulgaria immigrated to the Jewish State. But beside their small bundles of personal belongings, Bulgaria’s Jews carried with them deep love and gratitude toward this nation, that had said “No!” to Hitler and protected them against the Nazi death machine.