SOFIA – It’s something Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has long been fond of telling the world. “The Bulgarian people managed to save 48,000 Jews. That is why the Bulgarian people deserve great respect,” he said once more in Skopje on Monday.
The story is one that is dear to the hearts of Bulgarians. Despite being an ally of the Nazis, in March 1943 a host of Bulgarians – from ordinary citizens to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and King Boris III himself – refused to allow Bulgaria’s Jews to be deported to the concentration camps.
This led the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem to proclaim a number of Bulgarians Righteous Among the Nations, including parliamentary Vice President Dimitar Peshev – who led a delegation of parliamentarians to protest the deportations – and Metropolitan Kirill (born Konstantin Markov), the Orthodox bishop who reportedly threatened to lay across train tracks to stop Holocaust trains from leaving.
But there’s also a much darker side to the story. During World War II, Bulgaria occupied parts of what is now Macedonia, Greece and Serbia. Under direction from the Nazis, Bulgarian occupying forces – including the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs (KEV), headed by noted anti-Semite Alexander Belev – helped send more than 11,000 Jews in those areas to their deaths.
Not everyone in this country of just over 7 million is fond of hearing that side of the story – and this includes some of its leading politicians. Still, as Bulgaria remembers the events of 75 years ago, it’s clear that at least one country in Eastern Europe is willing to talk about the darker sides of its Holocaust history.
No salvation in Skopje
In the capital of what is now the Republic of Macedonia on Monday, Borisov became the first Bulgarian prime minister ever to appear at the annual commemoration of the more than 7,000 Macedonian Jews who were rounded up and sent to Nazi death camps.
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On March 11, 1943, a day after the deportations from the pre-war borders of Bulgaria had been canceled thanks to the efforts of Peshev, Metropolitan Kirill and others, soldiers surrounded Skopje’s Jewish quarter in the middle of the night. The city’s almost 3,500 Jews were taken to a tobacco warehouse, where they were stripped, beaten and had their valuables stolen; one eyewitness recalled that soldiers would swipe deportees’ shoes off their feet “if they were to their liking.”
Later that month, Jews from Skopje and other Macedonian cities were herded by soldiers – under the supervision of Belev’s KEV – onto Holocaust trains at Skopje’s main train station. Along with Jews from parts of Greece and Serbia, they were shipped off to the death camps to meet their fate.
Of the 11,363 Jews who were deported, including those from Macedonia, fewer than 500 returned.
“We mourn them greatly,” said Borisov at Monday’s commemoration. “That is why we are here today. No human life should be forgotten.”
There’s still resistance in Bulgaria to criticism of what it calls the “salvation” of its Jews. But that seems to be changing, slowly.
“There are a few positive hints and some differences with respect to the ambience five years ago,” says Roumen Avramov, referring to the 70th anniversary when the Bulgarian parliament passed a unanimous – and controversial – motion absolving the country of any responsibility for the deportations.
Avramov, a permanent fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study Sofia, stresses that the “traditional position rejecting the responsibility of the Bulgarian state (and exclusively blaming the Germans) for the deportations” has become less pronounced in recent years.
“The historical evidence about the involvement of the Bulgarian authorities is commented on publicly by a somewhat greater number of voices,” Avramov, the co-author of two extensive volumes on the deportations, told Haaretz by email.
One of those “voices” is etched in stone at the Monument of Salvation, next to the Bulgarian parliament in central Sofia.
Unveiled in July 2016 in the presence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, the monument explicitly acknowledges that Jews were deported in areas administered by Bulgaria – but, as Avramov notes, stops short of accepting any Bulgarian responsibility.
“We recall this outstanding rescue and remember the more than 11,000 Jews from both Northern Greece and parts of ex-Jugoslavia [sic] under Bulgarian administration who were deported and murdered in the Treblinka death camp,” the inscription reads in part.
Other Bulgarian politicians have made statements recently acknowledging, albeit subtly, that Bulgaria played a role in the deportations of 11,000 Jews in areas it occupied.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zakharieva explicitly stated that Bulgaria governed the regions from which Jews were deported – the first Bulgarian cabinet minister ever to do so.
Nazi, not Bulgarian, crimes
But not everyone is Bulgaria is comfortable with this sort of statement, including members of Borisov’s own government. Before the prime minister’s trip to Skopje, one of the three far-right parties that supports Borisov in his coalition government, the NFSB, issued a statement demanding no apology be issued for the deportations.
If Borisov were to apologize, “Bulgaria will take the blame for crimes committed by another regime and another country – Nazi Germany,” the statement read. “We reject any attempts for Bulgaria and the whole Bulgarian people to reckon with the stigma of complicity in this horrific and cruel crime against humanity – the Holocaust,” it added.
It’s an opinion still shared by many Bulgarians. One Bulgarian news outlet reported that the social media reaction to a potential apology was extremely negative, and suggested that, were Borisov to apologize, it “would be a huge mistake” with “irreversible consequences.”
In the end, Borisov didn’t apologize in Skopje. Instead, he placed the blame for the deportations squarely on the Nazis.
“We have come to grieve and honor together with the Macedonian people those who were unable to escape the Nazi machine,” Borisov declared.
He claimed that Nazi authorities had prevented the wartime government in Bulgaria from extending Bulgarian citizenship to Macedonia’s Jews – a claim Avramov dismisses as “nonsense in breach of historical truth.”
There’s also little discussion of some of the other dark aspects of the country’s brief alliance with the Nazis, says Tom Junes, a historian and member of the Human and Social Studies Foundation Sofia.
Anti-Semitic legislation promoted by the Bulgarian government from 1940 on forced Jews to wear yellow stars on their clothing, pay heavy taxes and even forbade them from using a telephone without permission. Bulgarian Jewish men were also drafted into forced labor brigades.
“The acknowledgment of these things is absent,” says Junes.
But others are glad to see the debate slowly moving forward.
Speaking to Haaretz before a recent ceremony at the Monument of Salvation, Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff – an American rabbi who has been coming to the commemoration ceremonies in Bulgaria for the past eight years – stressed that the deportations discussion can’t ignore the reality that Bulgaria managed to prevent 48,000 Jews from being sent to their deaths.
“There’s no question that more than 11,000 Jews were deported,” says Nemitoff, adding that he’s noticed more openness in recent years to talk about the darker sides of Bulgaria’s wartime past. “But we have to acknowledge that almost 50,000 were saved. That’s something to celebrate.”
There was something else being celebrated in Skopje, even if cautiously: improved relations between the two countries. There have been long-standing tensions between the two countries – Bulgaria’s president once accused Macedonia’s former prime minister of promoting an “ideology of hate toward Bulgaria,” while Macedonians have long objected to Bulgaria’s refusal to recognize Macedonian as a separate language.
But times are changing. The two countries even recently signed a friendship treaty.
“Bulgaria has a bright history that is related to the prevention of the deportation,” Goran Sadikarijo, executive director of the Holocaust Fund and the Holocaust Memorial Center in Skopje, told Bulgaria’s BGNES news agency this week. “But the other side of the coin – the deportation from the occupied lands – should be seen too,” he added.
“The winds in Bulgaria are changing,” said Sadikarijo. “It’s no longer just about the rescue of Bulgarian Jews.”