In Bulgaria a study was published recently by Prof. Dimitar Nedialkov, a retired lieutenant colonel in the country’s air force, titled “The Bulgarian Army and the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews.” In his book Nedialkov presents a delusional thesis, according to which the fascist Bulgarian army was the main factor in the survival of Bulgaria’s Jews during the Holocaust.
To our great surprise and regret, the book’s publication, in Bulgarian and English, was funded by the Israeli company Elbit Systems.
The book puts forth two main arguments. The first is that the deportation of the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia to the extermination camps, from the provinces that Germany annexed to Bulgaria, was carried out by the Germans, and the Bulgarian administration in the occupied territories could not have prevented it.
This argument is altogether unfounded. The Jews of Thrace and Macedonia were arrested and deported by the Bulgarian authorities, and sent to their deaths by the Bulgarian army and police. The Jews were handed over to the Gestapo in Vienna and transported to the Treblinka extermination camp. Was Bulgaria interested in protecting the Jewish population in its territories? All the facts indicate that the Bulgarian government did not spare the lives of the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia and acted resolutely to expel them.
The Bulgarian government, on its own initiative, denied Bulgarian citizenship to the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia. It left them, as early as April 1941, with the status of “enemy citizens.” In so doing, it abandoned them to their fate, long before any pressure was exerted on it by Germany. As is well known, the Wannsee Conference, which discussed the plan to exterminate Europe’s Jews, took place only in January 1942.
The deportation of the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia to their deaths, together with 8,000 Jews from Bulgaria itself, was planned by the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs in Sofia following a one-of-a-kind agreement between Bulgaria and Germany on the first transport of 20,000 Jews.
The deportation operation was carried out solely by the Bulgarian civilian authorities through the Bulgarian army and police. Bulgaria organized and paid – with the money of the Jews – for the trains from Skopje in Macedonia and the ships from the port of Lom that brought Thrace’s Jews to their deaths.
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The claim that Bulgaria is not responsible for expelling the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia and delivering them to Germany is nothing but an attempt to deny the involvement of its government, its king and the army in planning and executing the plan to deport them for extermination.
A turbid wave of historical distortion on this issue is sweeping the public and media in Bulgaria. We in Israel must not help these destructive trends to take root in Bulgarian public opinion.
The second argument in the book concerns the rescue of Bulgarian Jews. The author crowns the Bulgarian army as “the savior of the Jews from extermination.”
Although he says there were others who acted toward this end, the main actor, he claims, was the army, which by recruiting the men for forced labor prevented the deportation. Was that in fact the case?
The Bulgarian army was the most loyal component in the king’s government, which since the rise of the Nazis to power pursued a policy of tightening economic, military and ideological ties with Germany. The army and the pro-fascist organizations in Bulgaria enabled the government to pass the anti-Jewish legislation, including the recruitment of Jewish men for forced labor.
No other national minority in Bulgaria was recruited to forced labor. Jewish men aged 20-40 (and later on, even as old as 60) were recruited from 1941-44, working each year from early spring to the beginning of winter.
The forced labor harmed the health of men, their livelihoods, their dignity and their families, who were left without a means of subsistence.
The camps were ruled by a regime of terror, with execrable sanitation and a shortage of food and medical care. The work was grueling and sometimes humiliating. The Jews, who for years had demonstrated endless devotion and loyalty to the kingdom of Bulgaria in all its wars, were expelled from the army and subjected to shameful exploitation for four years.
The work camps were not intended to save the Jews from deportation to Germany. In 1941 Germany did not demand the surrender of the Jews, and yet the Jews were recruited to take advantage of their labor and offend their dignity, as part of their delegitimization in the eyes of the public.
The Bulgarian army was brutal toward the forced laborers. The dozens of written and oral testimonies given at the People’s Trials held in Sofia in the winter of 1945 testify to this. Many additional testimonies about the suffering, humiliation and terror, the arduous work, beatings and punishments by Bulgarian soldiers and officers in the camps, are preserved at Yad Vashem.
The Bulgarian army contributed nothing to the rescue of Bulgarian Jews.
The Jews of Bulgaria survived during the war thanks to the daring and courageous involvement of various civil and political elements that opposed the antisemitic policies of the king and his fascist government.
We wonder how it is that a respected Israeli company like Elbit Systems came to fund the book’s publication and why it did not first consult with Yad Vashem and historians of the Holocaust. By contributing toward the book’s publication, the company lent a hand to the falsification of history, minimized Bulgaria’s responsibility for the suffering of its Jews and absolved it of its decisive role in exterminating their brethren in the territories annexed to it.
Shlomo Shealtiel holds a PhD from Tel Aviv University and is a scholar of Bulgarian Jewry.
Moshe Mossek holds a PhD from the University of London and is a former chief archivist of Israel.