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Sofia: Bulgaria's Jews during WWII

National Theatre - Copyright © by Alan Grant
National Theatre

Probably the best of recent books about Bulgaria is Richard Crampton's "Concise History of Bulgaria", updated in 2005. The distinguished historian of Eastern Europe leads the reader from the Bulgarian medieval kingdom to the Bulgarian state at the beginning of the 21st century when it stood at the doorsteps of NATO and the European Union.

More than half of the book deals with the troubled 20th century. During the Second World War, Bulgaria was allied to Nazi Germany. However, it managed to resist German pressure to deport its 50,000 strong Jewish population.

Where German and Bulgarian views and jurisdiction did clash in domestic Bulgarian affairs was over the Jewish question. In October 1941 the German minister in Sofia, Beckerle, had begun pressing for more restrictions on the Bulgarian Jews. Further measures were introduced early in 1942 with a 20 per cent levy on Jewish property, the enforcement of the wearing of the yellow star, the compulsory sale of Jewish business with the proceeds being deposited in blocked accounts, and the disbandment of almost all Jewish organisations. Yet so unpopular were these measures amongst the general population that the press was forbidden to report on them immediately but had to let out the information gradually. After yet more pressure from Beckerle the sobranie [Parliament] agreed in August 1942 to pass a bill depriving Jews in the occupied territories of their Bulgarian citizenship; it was a decision which was to cost most of those Jews their lives.

After the Wannsee conference and the decision to implement the final solution Nazi pressure intensified. A deputy of Eichmann's arrived in Sofia as assistant police attaché in the German mission with the brief to implement the next stage of the final solution. True to the agreement of the previous summer the Bulgarians did not impede the deportation in March 1943 of the Jews in the occupied lands. In the following months there was much less cooperation over the Jews with Bulgarian citizenship living in Bulgaria proper, at least 6,000 of whom the Nazis had wished to deport in the first wave of transports. The question was taken up by Dimitur Peshev, a deputy from Kiustendil where preparations were being made to concentrate the putative deportees. He drafted a petition to the king which was signed by over forty deputies from the government party; Boris then forbade the deportations. In May of the same year the persecutions were fiercely opposed by the Orthodox Church and once again no deportations took place. The protests were backed by organisations representing every section of Bulgarian life from authoritarian, pro-fascist MPs to the trade unions and the illegal communist party. In the light of such strong and united feelings in the nation the king found no difficulty in standing firm against further pressure from the Nazis. The deportations never took place and Bulgaria's fifty thousand Jews survived the war.

A Concise History of Bulgaria. Richard J. Crampton. 2005.
[pp. 171-72 / Cambridge University Press]

September 2007
Kristof Bender

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