Rivlin Attends Dedication of Memorial to Bulgaria's Unique Rescue of Jews During WWII

Sofia allied with Nazi Berlin during WWII and even secretly agreed to deport Jews to death camps, but when word got out, public officials took action in a unique case during the Holocaust.

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President Reuven Rivlin (right) with his Bulgarian counterpart, Rosen Plevneliev, at the dedication of a memorial on Friday, July 8, 2016 for Bulgaria's rescue of Jews during the Holocaust.
President Reuven Rivlin (right) with his Bulgarian counterpart, Rosen Plevneliev, at the dedication of a memorial on Friday, July 8, 2016 for Bulgaria's rescue of Jews during the Holocaust.Credit: Haim Zach, GPO

A memorial commemorating Bulgaria’s exceptional rescue of its Jews during the Holocaust was dedicated on Thursday in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, with President Reuven Rivlin and his Bulgarian counterpart, Rosen Plevneliev, in attendance.

The statue is comprised of two figures, which represent the Jewish people sheltering in the Bulgarian people’s shadow. It commemorates both the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews and the Bulgarian rescue. 

"History should be remembered and taught – as it is, both complicated and complex," Rivlin said.

During World War II, Bulgaria was allied with Nazi Germany. It enacted anti-Jewish laws that restricted Jewish economic and social activity and forced all Jews to wear a yellow star; some Jews were even conscripted to do forced labor.

In 1941, Germany rewarded Bulgaria for its loyalty by giving it territory it had lost during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 – parts of Greek Thrace and Yugoslavian Macedonia. Several thousand Jews lived in this territory.

Later, Bulgaria and Germany signed an agreement under which Bulgaria agreed to deport 20,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia to the death camps. But there weren’t enough Jews in those areas to fill the quota, so the Bulgarian government decided to make up the shortfall by deporting Jews from Bulgaria itself. 

As Rivlin put it, the deportation order had already been issued in Sofia, and the trains were waiting to carry the Jews to their deaths.  But then, despite the government’s efforts to keep the order a secret, the Jewish community learned about it.

The community appealed for help to the deputy speaker of the Bulgarian parliament, Dimitar Peshev, and Peshev readily acceded. He sent a letter to the Bulgarian prime minister declaring that the deportation was immoral and the Bulgarian people could not be party to it.

"Nobody dared to act this way in any other parliament in Europe of those dark and terrible days,” Rivlin said. “If they had, six million Jews – our brothers and sisters – would not have perished.”

Peshev was later recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations.

Peshev’s efforts to save the Jews were joined by two Bulgarian bishops, Stephan and Kiril. The former, who was the head of the church in Bulgaria, warned the Bulgarian king that he would order every church and monastery in the country to give shelter to the Jews. The latter threatened that he would cease to be a loyal citizen of the state. They, too, were later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

The rescue effort succeeded. Though thousands of Jews were sent to remote areas of Bulgaria, their planned deportation to the death camps was canceled.

However, more than 11,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia were sent to death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. Only a few hundred survived.

“As I stand today, along with feelings of recognition and appreciation, I cannot but bow my head in memory of those 11,343 Jews, my people, children, women and men from Macedonia and Thrace, who lived under the rule of the Bulgarians during the Second World War and who were murdered at Treblinka ... My brothers and sisters, who nobody fought for and no one tried to save,” Rivlin said. “We cannot and should not shake off the responsibility for their deaths and we must not forget their memory.”

Plevneliev said the story proved that “Even the greatest of evils can be halted by brave and active struggle. The Bulgarian public in 1943 saved not only their Jewish neighbors and friends, but themselves, they rescued tolerance and morality. We must not allow the truth to be forgotten or distorted.”

To this day, however, the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews remains a source of controversy among historians, who are divided over the size of the contribution each of the players made to the rescue. 

The memorial, designed by architect Yitzhak Lipovetsky, also includes a sign detailing the story of the rescue as well as that of the extermination. An identical memorial is slated to be inaugurated in Tel Aviv.

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