A request by the Bulgarian Embassy to name a Washington intersection after a favorite native son – a man credited with helping save the country's Jewish population from deportation – has gotten tangled up in a broader debate about whether the nation is accurately accounting for the actions of its leaders during the Holocaust.
A tense exchange between the embassy and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has played out behind the scenes as the D.C. Council prepares to consider honoring Dimitar Peshev this month. The debate underscores not only the complexities of Holocaust history but also the difficulty countries can face reconciling the heroic deeds of an individual during World War II with the record of a nation as a whole. It also comes as historians and Jewish organizations continue encouraging nations to take unvarnished stock of their actions in Nazi-era Europe.
"You have to tell both sides and people have to understand, try to understand, what the complexity is. That's why it's critical," said Frederick Chary, a retired professor of Bulgarian history at Indiana University-Northwest.
The issue arose in December when the embassy asked the D.C. Council to name an intersection for Peshev in a letter that put a favorable spin on Bulgarian treatment of Jews during World War II. The Holocaust museum, invited by the Council to review the letter's accuracy, said the wording of the embassy's request – along with a recent declaration by Bulgaria's Parliament – glossed over a more checkered history.
As vice president of the Parliament, Peshev publicized a secret deportation order that would have sent tens of thousands of Jews of Bulgarian origin to German death camps in Poland. He circulated a protest petition among fellow legislators in 1943 as clergymen, students and others united in support of the Jewish population. The deportations were suspended and King Boris III sent Jews to labor camps in the country but refused to turn them over to the Nazis, saying he needed them as construction workers.
The rescue story has won Bulgaria praise as the rare European country to buck Nazi demands, and Peshev is recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, as "Righteous Among the Nations."
The D.C. museum says it doesn't quarrel with recognizing Peshev or question his historical significance, but says any honor must be placed in larger context. It has objected in particular to the letter's characterization of Bulgaria as a "Nazi-occupied country" and to the assertion that no Bulgarian Jews were deported to death camps. The museum and other historians say the letter obscures the reality that Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany and that 11,343 Jews were deported from Macedonia and northern Greece – territories then under Bulgarian control.
"The callous and devious attempts to distort the history of Bulgarian Jewry is insulting to the victims of the Holocaust and is damaging to the image of Bulgaria, which, until recently, was perceived as a country which approached correctly the dark shadows of its past," Radu Ioanid, director of the museum's international archival programs division, wrote in April to the chairwoman of Bulgaria's National Assembly and to Bulgaria's U.S. ambassador, Elena Poptodorova.
The museum sent separate correspondence to the D.C. Council stressing the complexities of Bulgaria's history.
Poptodorova says she was insulted by the museum's "very rude" response to the embassy's letter, which she says she signed but did not herself write. She said she's always acknowledged the painful side of Bulgaria's history and is tremendously moved by the Holocaust. During an interview at the embassy, she wiped away tears as she spoke of Jewish children being herded onto boxcars to face certain death.
"I feel Jewish," she explained, "every time I talk on this subject."
She said that although her country had a Holocaust-era record of which it could be proud, her goal was to honor the deeds of one man – not the entire government.
"It all has to do with Dimitar Peshev – full stop," she said. "No apologies made, no attempts to resolve bigger matters."
The tone of the museum's letter to the embassy was triggered by a March ceremony in which the Bulgarian Parliament, commemorating the 70th anniversary of protests that halted the deportations, expressed regret but not responsibility while acknowledging for the first time that more than 11,000 Jews from areas under Bulgarian control were deported to Nazi death camps. The Parliament also said the government was powerless to stop those deportations, a statement that fell short of the full acceptance the museum and other organizations had hoped for.
Museum officials said they were concerned because the embassy's letter included some of the same incomplete or misleading assertions.
"If part of the effort being made was to factually tell the truth about what happened in Bulgaria, the museum would absolutely endorse that," said Paul Shapiro, director of the museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. He said the concern arose from the possibility that naming a street for a deserving man might be used to distort history.
Neil Glick, a Washington real estate agent who approached the embassy about honoring Peshev after traveling to the country in the 1990s and researching his story, said he had a major role in drafting the request and accepted responsibility for any misstatements in it. But he said the museum was wrong to let the letter's content overshadow Peshev's actions.
"Don't blame Peshev for the bad deeds of others," he said. "Let's honor Peshev for the great deeds that he accomplished – and that's all I want to do because he was the catalyst."
There's no question Bulgaria's history is complicated.
Peshev's own party enacted discriminatory legislation that imposed a special tax on Jews, who were also required to wear yellow stars on their clothing. The Claims Conference, which seeks restitution for Jewish Holocaust victims, issued a 2004 report saying many Bulgarian Jews were sent to labor camps, where they performed railroad and construction work under grueling physical conditions. The Bulgarians were "heroic rescuers, cruel persecutors and brutal killers" all at once, said Michael Berenbaum, professor of Jewish studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
Besides Bulgaria, other countries have grappled in the last decade with their Holocaust histories.
After years of denial, for instance, Romania's government in 2004 acknowledged that its pro-Nazi authorities were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews and Gypsies in World War II. Norway's prime minister made a similar apology last year. In Hungary, though, Holocaust museum officials have raised concerns that the country is reviving interest in fascism.
The D.C. Council plans to consider the request for "Dimitar Peshev Plaza," which would be located outside the embassy, at a May 28 hearing.
"To me, the focus here is whether Dimitar Peshev should be honored with a ceremonial street naming, not about the rhetoric that the Bulgarian Embassy may have used or the rhetoric of the Holocaust museum," said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.
Poptodorova, the ambassador, said she was surprised at the emotional response to what she had considered a simple request.
"Maybe when we move a little bit forward, we will be less personal, less passionate – like something that happened not 70 years ago but 170 years."