March 18, 1943, was the first day of a two-day operation by Bulgarian authorities to deport the Jews of Thrace to German death camps.
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Bulgaria is often praised – and rightly so – for having succeeded in saving its more than 45,000 Jewish citizens from deportation, thus allowing them to survive the Holocaust. What is sometimes forgotten, though, is that there were another approximately 15,000 Jews who came under Bulgarian control earlier in World War II, and who were not given citizenship. When Nazi Germany demanded that they be turned over, the Bulgarian government readily agreed.
When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, after World War II, Thrace, a region in the east Balkan peninsula, was split between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. When Germany invaded the area in April 1941, with the assistance of Bulgaria, which had joined the Axis the preceding month, it invited the Bulgarians to annex both the part of Thrace it did not already possess and also Macedonia, formerly part of Yugoslavia.
With those territories came their Jewish populations, which numbered about 8,000 in Macedonia, and 5,000-6,000 in Thrace. In the autumn of 1942, when the non-Jewish residents of these same territories were granted citizenship, the Jews were not.
Rounding up to 20,000
What followed were gradually worsening sanctions against the Jews. Initially, limitations were placed on their ability to do business with non-Jews, and to travel. Then they were required to register their property and pay special levies to the state. Eventually they were required to wear a Star of David on their clothing.
Deportations were the final step. In January of 1943, senior SS official Theodor Dannecker arrived in Bulgaria to demand and oversee the process. The Bulgarian government did not resist the order to expel 20,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia. And when it became clear that the total living in the territories did not exceed 14,000, Bulgaria’s commissioner for Jewish affairs, Aleksander Belev, suggested throwing in another 6,000 Jews from “old Bulgaria,” to being the total up to 20,000. An agreement to that effect was signed with the Germans on February 22.
The roundups in Thrace began on March 4, 1943, with the arrest of 4,000 Jews, who were taken to internment camps at Dupnitsa and Gorna-Dzumaya, both in southwest Bulgaria. Two weeks later, on March 18 and 19, joined by another 226 Jews from the Yugoslavian town of Pirot, which had also come under Bulgarian control, they began an arduous, week-long journey to Treblinka. There, all who had survived the trip (there were reports that one of the ships that transported them on the one of the journey’s stages sank) were murdered upon arrival.
On May 9, an additional 1,162 Thracian Jews were brought to Auschwitz, where they too were gassed.
The Bulgarians also arrested and deported some 7,000 Jews from Macedonia. They too were taken by the Germans and transported to Treblinka, where they were killed.
Bulgarian society saves its own Jews
A more heartening part of the story involves the additional 6,000 Jewish citizens whom the Bulgarians had agreed to turn over to the Nazis. There was something of a tacit refusal on the part of Bulgarian society to betray the Jews, beginning with King Boris and the church, to the country’s general population, and extending through the National Assembly – 43 of whose deputies were organized by the parliament’s deputy chairman, Dimitar Peshov, to sign a letter pressing the government not to deport them.
At one point, the German ambassador to the country noted this weakness, lamenting how “the average Bulgarian,” having been “raised partly among Greeks, Armenians, Gypsies and Turks does not fathom the significance of the fight against the Jews.”
After a period of procrastination, the king decided to send some 20,000 of the 25,000 Jews living in Sofia, the capital, to the countryside. There, the males among them were impressed into forced labor. Most of their property back home was also confiscated. Nonetheless, not one of them, nor any of the rest of Bulgaria’s total Jewish population of 48,000, was turned over to the Germans.