Culture & Art

They sing Bulgarian songs and tell Bulgarian stories

‘My army is pro-German, my wife is Italian, my people are pro-Russian. I alone am pro-Bulgarian.’

With these words, the king of Bulgaria, Boris III, expressed his dejection concerning the international position of Bulgaria at the eve of the Second World War. Since its defeat in Great War, Bulgaria sought to change the outcomes of Versailles, regain the territories it lost in the last decades and satisfy its nationalistic claims. At the same time, Sofia was not willing to fight and declare its neutrality in the September of 1939, yet trying to keep good relations with the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. However, when Hitler decided to help Italy to win Greece, he asked the Bulgarians to facilitate the German plans. From this point to 1944, Bulgaria sided with the Axis’ power, but its troops remained in the Balkans, helping the Nazis to secure the region and send raw materials to Germany. Moreover, Bulgaria could attain its nationalistic goals, annexing some coveted territories of its neighbouring countries.

At that time, Bulgarians Jewry amounted to around fifty thousand people, mainly living in Sofia. They were Sephardic Jews, originally living in Spain until 1492, when they were expelled by the Spanish Monarchy and accepted by the Ottoman Empire, settling them throughout the Balkans. Although in the war years the government included some pro-German personalities, anti-Semitism did not take root in Bulgaria. Besides, Bulgarian Jews fought in the recent wars, even at the opening of the Sofia Synagogue in 1909 the Bulgarian Tsar was present. With the annexation of new regions between 1940 and 1941, Bulgaria added 12,000 Jews to its pre-war community, but they were not granted the Bulgarian citizenship. On 7th October 1940, the government issued an anti-Semitic law, the “Law for the Protection of the Nation”, which caused a widespread reaction among some Bulgarian known figures, such as the members of the Săbranie (the Bulgarian parliament), writers and the high clergy of the Orthodox Church.

From August 1942, a decree ordered the expulsion of Sofia’s Jews and their settlement in the provinces, pushing them away from the capital in the following months. An Adolf Eichmann’s envoy, Theodor Dannecker, arrived in Bulgaria to meet with Alexander Belev, the Bulgarian Commissioner for the Jewish Question, in order to arrange the deportation of 20,000 Jews. Despite the government and the king resistance of the previous months towards any Nazi request for deportations, they accepted the demand.

Their agreement called for the handing over of the Jews from occupied Thrace and Macedonia, but they amounted to 11,363. They were sent secretly to Treblinka, so as to avoid any public protest; only a dozen survived. However, the Nazis pretended the Bulgarians to send 8,000 more, so they could respect the agreement’s figure.

The Commission for the Jewish Question decided to send the Jews from Kyustendil (a city close to the Yugoslavian border) on 9th March 1943. Dimitar Peshev, the Vice-Chairman of the Săbranie, was from Kyustendil and when he became informed of the deportation, he debated the issue in the parliament on 8th March 1943. Peshev lost his post as deputy speaker but he obtained the support of 43 parliamentary. In the following days, a big protest in Sofia forced the king to reject the deportation’s plan. In May 1943, a project to deport the Bulgarian Jews triggered a new wave of demonstrations which prevented the Germans again to realise their plans. Therefore, in August 1943, as Richard Crampton wrote in his book, “the German minister in Sofia acknowledged in August 1943 that the Nazis would not persuade the Bulgarians to deport their Jews.”

The Bulgarian Jews survived the war. If in other countries the population was mostly indifferent to the deportations or collaborated with the Nazi authorities, the Bulgarians refused to condemn the Jews because they considered them as a part of their nation, which enjoyed the same rights of any other citizen.

In Bulgaria, the conflict ended in 1944, when the Red Army crossed the Danube and entered the country. Since 1948, 43,000 Bulgarian Jews left the country for Israel. Nowadays 2,200 still live in the Balkan country.

About The Author

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Vincenzo Ciaccio

Vincenzo Ciaccio has recently finished his Master in European History. While he was writing his Bachelor’s dissertation, he started to be interested in the Eastern Europe’s history, having later the occasion to travel to Serbia, Greece and Estonia. He likes to read historical books, graphic novels and playing video games.