SOFIA – Some of Europe’s most notorious neo-Nazis and far-right extremists plan to march through Sofia next week to honor a man one international Jewish leader calls “the leading Bulgarian promoter of the Holocaust.”
Bulgarian far-right extremists have organized the so-called Lukov March every year since 2003 to honor Hristo Lukov, a Bulgarian general who led the pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions and was assassinated by Communist partisans in February 1943. The march regularly includes sympathizers from neo-Nazi and violent extremist groups across Europe.
But this year’s version is different. Just weeks after the Lukov March, Bulgaria will commemorate the rescue of its almost 50,000 Jews from the hands of the Nazis – while also remembering the 11,000 Jews in Bulgarian-occupied parts of Greece and Yugoslavia who were sent to their deaths. The march will also take place as Bulgaria, one of the European Union’s newest members, chairs the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU for the first time.
It’s why local Jewish community groups and activists have spearheaded an international effort, including a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures, to ban the march and stop Sofia’s streets from becoming an international neo-Nazi meet and greet.
The Lukov March is organized by the Bulgarian National Union, a far-right ultranationalist party that sees itself as the continuation of Lukov’s Union of Bulgarian National Legions. Clad in black, carrying torches and silent except for chants of Lukov’s praises, several hundred marchers tromp through the capital’s streets every February to lay wreaths at the pro-Nazi general’s former home. Even though Sofia’s mayor has tried to ban the march, appeals by the organizers mean the neo-Nazis and extremists keep marching on.
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“Every year we’re doing the same thing to try to stop this ugly, neo-Nazi manifestation from occurring,” Alexander Oscar, the head of the Shalom Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria, told Haaretz in Sofia. Oscar also warns that, in recent years, his organization has observed an increase in anti-Semitic language and incidents in the country.
Contradictory Holocaust history
Before World War II, Bulgaria was home to almost 50,000 Jews, and almost 10 percent of Sofia’s population was Jewish. But as the country allied with the Nazis, the Nazi German leadership pressured Bulgaria’s leaders to deport the country’s Jews.
Finally, in March 1943, Bulgaria’s King Boris III refused to let the country’s Jews be sent to their deaths. After the war most left for Israel; today there are barely 2,000 Jews in Bulgaria and only two functioning synagogues.
Still, like other countries in eastern Europe, Bulgaria continues to wrestle with its contradictory Holocaust history. While the rescue of 50,000 Jews is a matter of national pride, the deportations of 11,000 Jews in Bulgarian-occupied parts of Greece and Yugoslavia, who were murdered in Treblinka in Nazi-occupied Poland, remain a matter of shame. Last month Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva was the first Bulgarian cabinet minister to acknowledge that Bulgaria governed the areas from which Jews were deported to their deaths.
The Lukov March’s supporters insist they’re merely hosting a patriotic event to honor a man they see as a Bulgarian hero. It seems not all of their supporters and international friends got the memo.
Last year’s march won a rave review on neo-Nazi hate forum Stormfront, a website the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center once dubbed “murder capital of the internet.” A commenter there gushed about how “wonderful” it was to see neo-Nazis gathering to fight “race mixing, foreign domination and globalism.”
Some comments on the Lukov March’s Facebook page are even less subtle. One commenter refers to Bulgaria’s communist period as a time of “Zionist occupation.” Another, using a derogatory term in Bulgarian for a Jew, proudly proclaims hatred of Jews “with or without the Lukov March.”
“There wouldn’t be a Lukov March if the Jews hadn’t killed the great General Lukov,” the user continues, referring to the Jewish background of one of Lukov’s assassins, Violeta Yakova – a point that Lukov March organizers were keen to point out in a piece on their website attacking the march’s opponents.
The march’s guests of honor from abroad also have a long history of anti-Semitic statements. French extremist Yvan Benedetti was kicked out of France’s far-right National Front after telling an interviewer he was “anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish.” Nordic Resistance Movement members once hosted Russian extremist Stanislav Vorobyov, who told the group that Muslim immigration to Europe was part of a Jewish conspiracy. The 64 Counties Youth Movement, a Hungarian far-right movement, was investigated by Hungarian authorities in 2004 when an article in its newspaper urged Hungarians to “take back our country” and “stolen fortunes” from Jews, accusing them of “sucking our blood, getting rich off our blood.”
As the Lukov March organizers themselves told Haaretz in an email, all of these groups will be attending this year’s march with “big delegations.”
It’s why Oscar, the head of the Shalom Organization, has helped lead an effort to finally stop the Lukov March. Working with World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer, Oscar and other activists launched an international petition to stop the march. Last week, Singer and Oscar delivered the petition, with almost 200,000 signatures, to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
“The Lukov March isn’t just an act against Jews,” Oscar said. “It’s an act against democracy and against the Bulgarian people.”
For Krassimir Kanev, the head of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the increased international focus on Bulgaria as it presides over the Council of the EU is a chance to make more people outside Bulgaria aware of the Lukov March.
Kanev also notes that one of the march’s former biggest boosters – the United Patriots, a coalition of three far-right parties whose members have marched in previous years – appears to have backed off from supporting the event. One of the three parties in the coalition has reportedly asked its members not to take part.
“They’re much more silent this year,” says Kanev, noting that the United Patriots are a junior partner in Borisov’s coalition government.
Still, there’s little hope this year’s march will be stopped. While Sofia Mayor Yordana Fandakova has repeatedly tried to ban the Lukov March, the courts have sided with the march’s organizers, saying she has no right to ban the event. It’s why, even with the increased international effort to stop the march, the organizers are as confident as ever.
“We plan to carry through the march,” the organizers said, “like every year before.”