Russia Under Fire After Claiming Credit for Saving Bulgaria’s Jews From Holocaust

Two allies involved in war of words after Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman says Red Army saved 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from Nazi death camps, which Bulgarian president calls 'deep ignorance of history'

The Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia, which was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti on October 31, 2017, triggering a war of words between Moscow and Bulgaria.
Michael Colborne

Russia and Bulgaria have become embroiled in a diplomatic spat over who was responsible for saving some 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust during World War II.

The incident started when the Monument to the Soviet Army in central Sofia was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti on October 31. Two days later, a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson chastised Bulgaria and said it was the Soviet Red Army, not Bulgarians, who saved the country’s Jewish community in 1943.

“Vandals (I have no other name for them) attacked the monument just a week ago, but they have outdone themselves by putting anti-Semitic slogans on the monument,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “This is especially cynical considering that during World War II our soldiers prevented the deportation of Jews from Bulgaria and saved some 50,000 people from imminent death.

“What is particularly appalling here is not even the act of vandalism itself, but that those who committed it are absolutely ignorant about their own history. This is particularly chilling,” Zakharova added.

The rescue of Bulgarian Jews from Nazi death camps is a point of national pride for many Bulgarians. In March 1943, Boris III, the king of Nazi-allied Bulgaria, refused to allow Bulgaria’s Jews to be deported to the camps, thanks in part to pressure from Bulgarian politicians and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Zakharova’s statement last Thursday prompted a harsh reaction from Bulgarian officials. Bulgaria’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying that “when representatives of the Bulgarian political, economic and intellectual elite wrote protest letters in defense of the Bulgarian Jews, and senior hierarchs of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood with the Jews gathered for deportation the Red Army was thousands of kilometers away from the borders of Bulgaria.”

Bulgarian politicians, including figures generally seen as friendly toward Russia, were no less displeased by Zakharova’s statement.

President Rumen Radev, elected last year with the support of the pro-Kremlin Bulgarian Socialist Party, told reporters on Saturday that Zakharova’s statement “either shows a deep ignorance of history, or is an attempt at provocation.”

Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, speaking during the UN General Assembly in New York, September 20, 2017.
Seth Wenig/AP

Even Krasimir Karakachanov, the pro-Kremlin defense minister and leader of the far-right Bulgarian National Movement, suggested that Zakharova’s comments were a “historical scandal.”

“Bulgaria saved its Jews – the Red Army killed them,” he declared.

On Sunday, the Sofia Globe reported that, following the Bulgarian politicians’ response, the Russian Embassy in Sofia posted an opinion by Mikhail Myagkov, the scientific director of the Russian Military Historical Society, on its Facebook page. He declared that the Russian foreign ministry was “absolutely correct” in saying that the Red Army had averted the deportation of the Jews from Bulgaria.

The reaction on Bulgarian social media to Zakharova’s statement was harsh, demonstrating how attached Bulgarians are to the story of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews.

“You bastards!” wrote one Facebook user, while others used even stronger language to accuse the Kremlin of “misrepresenting history.”

Others referenced the sinking of MV Struma in 1942, when a Soviet submarine sunk a barely seaworthy ship carrying almost 800 Jewish refugees – including some from Bulgaria – trying to reach British Mandatory Palestine. There was only one survivor.

“Bulgaria saved its Jews,” wrote one Bulgarian on Facebook. “The Red Army killed them.”

“Russian ‘comrades,’ learn your shameful Bolshevik history and all its mass crimes,” the user added. “Don’t falsify Bulgarian history!”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the inauguration of the memorial commemorating the Bulgarian Jews saved by other Bulgarians during World War II, July 2016.
Haim Zach/GPO

Such comments underscore how important the story of the rescue of the Jews is to Bulgarian identity, said Boriana Dimitrova from Alpha Research, a Bulgarian marketing and social research agency.

Zakharova’s statement had been “almost unanimously considered as provocative and humiliating” in Bulgaria, Dimitrova explained, in an email to Haaretz. She added it demonstrated what many in Bulgaria feel is a patronizing attitude from Moscow toward their country, its history and even its independence.

Still, the diplomatic spat over Zakharova’s statement is unlikely to have a serious impact on Bulgaria-Russia relations.

“It is a ripple and won’t have long-term consequences,” Bulgarian political scientist Dr. Dimitar Bechev told Haaretz by email.

Bechev, the author of a recent book on Russia’s ambitions in the Balkans, noted that Bulgarians tend to hold extremely positive views of Russia. “Periodic wars of words over historical memory don’t seem to change that,” he said.

Tom Junes, a historian and member of a nongovernmental think tank in Sofia, suggested that matters most critical to the relationship between the two countries will not change – including Russia’s heavy economic footprint in Bulgaria’s energy sector. However, Junes suggests there could be a “heightening of the rhetoric,” with further wars of words likely.

But Junes and others worry that these spats get in the way of the debate Bulgaria and other countries need to have about their complicated histories and their current relations with national minorities.

“The overreaction to Zakharova’s statement legitimizes the far-right,” Junes told Haaretz. A coalition of far-right parties has been a junior partner in Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s government since May, and has brought with it a history of harsh rhetoric and even violence directed at Bulgaria’s Roma and ethnic Turkish minorities.

“It’s part of a spectacle in which the government tries to downplay its far-right element and promote a myth about tolerance,” said Junes.

Common Bulgarian stories about the rescue of the Jews obscure darker realities. The Shoah Research Center at Yad Vashem notes that “for hundreds of years, there was almost no anti-Semitism in Bulgaria. This changed during the 1930s, when certain political groups began expressing anti-Jewish sentiments. In late 1940, a pro-German government passed Bulgaria’s first anti-Jewish legislation. These laws were vigorously protested by many Bulgarians, but to no avail.”

Bulgaria’s Jews were victims of discriminatory legislation – including being forced to wear yellow stars – under a Nazi-allied regime that did nothing to prevent 11,000 Jews in Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia, Thrace and part of Serbia from being sent to their deaths.

“The historical debate we should have isn’t happening,” Junes concluded.