Why Did Israel's Largest Defense Contractor Fund a Book Whitewashing Bulgarian Army's Involvement in the Holocaust?

'Dark interests have taken over our narrative,' says one member of the Bulgarian Jewish community, amid intensifying divisions over Sofia's thorny Holocaust legacy

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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King Boris III shakes Hitler's hand, in 1943.
King Boris III shakes Hitler's hand, in 1943.Credit: Heinrich Hoffmann/United States Holocaust Memorial
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The 79th anniversary of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews during World War II, marked last week, was very far from being a celebration. Shouting, swearing and mutual accusations accompanied the ceremonies, and overshadowed the day on which the deportation of 8,000 Bulgarian Jews was prevented in 1943.

“Politicians entered the discussion,” protested Dr. Moshe Mossek, the former director of the Israel National Archives who was born in Bulgaria. “There are dark interests, economic and political. They have taken over our narrative,” said film director Jacky Comforty, the son of two Bulgarian parents and who now lives in the United States.

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“People get up and shout, but they don’t have in their hand any document to justify it,” historian Prof. Michael Bar-Zohar responded to the claims, speaking with Haaretz by telephone from Sofia. He attended a meeting there at the Foreign Ministry on the issue now embroiling the Bulgarian Jewish community, and that in Israel.

At the center of all the drama is a new book: “The Bulgarian Army and the Rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews,” published in Bulgarian and English. The author, Prof. Dimitar Nedialkov, is a pilot and a retired colonel in the Bulgarian air force. “The main tool for the rescue of tens of thousands of Bulgarian Jews was the courageous Bulgarian army,” he wrote, in what he described as "a comprehensive examination of a series of dramatic events that occurred during World War II, the sole result being the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews."

But how is it possible that the Bulgarian army, responsible for hunting down and deporting thousands of Jews from the territories annexed to Bulgaria during the war, as well as overseeing the work camps to which Bulgarian Jews were sent, is now being crowned as the savior of the Jews? To understand the background for all this, we must first understand the complicated history of Bulgaria during the Holocaust, challenging the standard debate about the good and bad guys.

In 1941, the Kingdom of Bulgaria allied itself with Nazi Germany, and in return received territory from Greece, Thrace and Eastern Macedonia, and parts of Yugoslavia – which in the past had been part of Bulgaria. Later, Bulgaria adopted a racial code against its Jewish citizens, based on the German Nuremberg Laws, and deported Jewish men to labor camps inside the country.

The agreement with the Germans was for Bulgaria to deport its Jews to the death camps, but this was cancelled after internal pressure was put on King Boris III. But over 11,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia were sent by the Bulgarian authorities to die in the Nazi extermination camps in Poland. Given all this, the members of the Bulgarian Jewish community have been fighting among themselves for decades concerning their homeland – which did collaborate with the Nazis in murdering Jews, but also saved many of its own Jews.

Many questions about this chapter of history still remain. One has practical implications for today's world, too: why did Elbit Systems, a large Israel defense contractor that sells arms and equipment to the Bulgarian military, fund the publication of the book – that has the pretensions of cleansing the stain that has stuck to this same army? Elbit’s president and CEO Bezhalel Machlis passed on Haaretz’s inquiries to the company’s spokesman – who declined to comment.

Nedialkov presented his research last week at a conference organized by the Israel – Bulgaria Friendship Association, which was held in Jaffa, one of the historic strongholds of the Bulgarian Jewish community in Israel.

Nedialkov’s invitation to the conference crossed a red line, as far as Mossek was concerned, who suspended all his activities in the association. “I learned from the lecture and the book that the Bulgarian army had two main missions – to defend Bulgaria and to save its Jews,” said Mossek.

“I say that cynically, but it’s not funny at all. Suddenly a man gets up, 80 years after the events, and presents a manipulative theory that is intended to cleanse Bulgaria from responsibility. It is shameful and embarrassing that they invited such a person to this conference. There are historians and there are politicians and interested parties,” Mossek said.

Mossek also pointed an accusatory finger at the Bulgarian ambassador in Israel, Rumiana Bachvarova, who was in the audience for the conference. “They expect her to minimize Bulgaria’s responsibility, but the time has come for them to admit that they have a black page in their past, and apologize,” he added. “What is Bulgaria afraid of? Maybe a demand to pay compensation?” One audeince member interrupted his remarks, shouting “That’s your opinion.” Mossek responded “I researched the subject for 40 years and I found everything in the documents.”

Bulgarian Jews.

Bachvarova has experienced the sensitivity of the topic for herself this month. In a meeting with the chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, Dani Dayan, she presented him with a copy of Nedialkov’s book, making sure to post the photos on Twitter. Dayan realized, after the fact, that she may have tried to take advantage of him to promote the sale of the controversial book – and sent the ambassador a letter in which he said the picture could create the distorted impression that Yad Vashem approved the book's content. Dayan made clear that their meeting and photos did not signify approval of the book, the presentation of which had not been planned or known in advance.

Dayan said the book had been given to Yad Vashem historians for examination, and the preliminary findings were “worrying.” According to him, the book includes “topics and messages that are not supported by the historical facts.” Bachvarova defended the book after Dayan’s letter, calling it a “scientific publication” and saying “no one has a monopoly on the truth.”

Fighting over the issue continued in full force on social media. “The Bulgarian nursing home does not join in Mr. Mossek’s attack,” said Asher Harpaz, a retired police officer and an active member of the community of Bulgarian Jews in Israel today. “You need to read the book and look at the new documents to know the truth that the army helped in the rescue,” added Harpaz.

Rahamim Cohen, one of those who took part in the debate that developed on Facebook, was more direct: “We know the truth. Brainwashed Bolsheviks, who are motivated by Communist dogma, are not allowing the truth and the facts to confuse them. Whoever dares to express an opposing opinion, they immediately jump and attack them with curses in an attempt to shut them up,” wrote Cohen.

Yitzhak Lipovetsky Lir, the chairman of the friendship association, told Haaretz that he too had to come to Nedialkov’s defense, and said the book is based on in depth archival research – even if its title is “very bombastic.”

But Bar-Zohar disagrees and minimizes the army’s role in rescuing Bulgaria’s Jews. “I didn’t find a single document that points to the army doing something on behalf of the Jews. Bulgaria was a totalitarian dictatorship and the king had to approve every move. All the army did was carry out orders,” said Bar-Zohar.

“When they received the order to deport the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia, they carried out down to the last detail with brutality,” said Bar-Zohar. At the same time, this same army acted with “moderation” toward Bulgarian Jewish men, including his father, who were sent to the labor camps. “People there worked until 11 in the morning and then they had time to prepare the party for Friday night. On October 1, they were released for half a year, so they wouldn’t be cold during the winter.”

Bar-Zohar is convinced that the establishment of the camps was the Bulgarians’ way to prevent sending the Jews to extermination. “These camps were intended to make an impression on the Germans. The king told the Germans that he needed the Jews to build roads and railroad tracks – it was the biggest bluff of the war. The entire thing was in practice a maneuver by the Bulgarian government.”

Mossek vehemently disagrees with Bar-Zohar. “My father, who was in the camp for four years, returned completely broken for that period. Life there was very hard, humiliating and people returned from there injured [psychologically].”

King Boris III shakes Hitler's hand, in 1943.Credit: Universal Studio

Amidst this complex history, the community of Bulgarian Jews in Israel is also divided as to the king. In 1996, the Jewish National Fund inaugurated the Bulgaria Forest and placed a monument there in honor of King Boris. As a result of the harsh criticism of the move, a committee headed by former Supreme Court justice Moshe Beisky was established – and the committee recommended removing the monument. A memorial was put up in its place. One side of the memorial commemorates the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia, who the Bulgarians sent off to their deaths while the other expresses “honor and appreciation to the noble souls among the Bulgarian people who stood alongside the Jews of their land and fought successfully for their rescue during the Holocaust.”

He was not a “righteous among the nations, but a slave of Hitler and could not stand the Jews, and made unsympathetic comments about them,” said Bar-Zohar about the king. “He didn’t raise a finger to save the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia, but in the end he changed his position and ordered the cancellation of the deportation of Bulgaria’s Jews, and saved their lives.”

“The battle for the memory is still being fought and it’s possible to enlist historians for it,” said attorney Rena Shashua Hasson, a Bulgarian Holocaust survivor, last week. In a testimony at Yad Vashem, she praised the Bulgarians who saved her life.

David Cohen, a former Israeli ambassador to Bulgaria and now the chairman of the Salvador onprofit organization for the preservation of the legacy of Bulgarian Jewry, said at the conference that he hopes “we will overcome the problems” because “there are disagreements in every society.”

He has given the members of the Bulgarian Jewish community in Israel a year to calm things down – and next year will mark the 80th anniversary of the date of the rescue of the Jews. “We must do something big then,” said Cohen.

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