SO MANY, SO FEW

by Anthony Georgieff, Dimana Trankova

When asked about the sources of their national pride, most educated Bulgarians don't have to think too long: "The salvation of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust" is usually one of the top three answers.

Bulgaria, they will assert, stands unique in Europe and the world in that it did not allow its Jewish citizens to be transported to extermination in the Nazi death camps. Christians, Jews, Muslims and Gypsies lived in peace and harmony, they will add, reinstating the Bulgarians' "proverbial" hospitality and tolerance. Your Bulgarian in the street will probably omit to mention the Bulgarian State Railways cattle cars that brought over 11,000 Jews to Treblinka and Auschwitz from the then Bulgaria-administered territories of Aegean Thrace and Vardar Macedonia. Any question likely to arise will not be about the fact of the rescue, but about who should be credited for it.

As leaders and political systems changed in Eastern Europe's post-Communist years, so did the answers to this question. Initially, the Communist school textbooks claimed that it had been the Communist Party and its leading functionaries who were personally to be lauded for the heroic deed. With the fall of Communism in 1989, perceptions and attitudes changed. The regal figure of Bulgaria's King Boris III, a war-time ally of Hitler, emerged. It was because of his cunning policy of procrastination and his manoeuvring that not one Jew was sent to certain death, the story went. But it would soon transpire that things in Bulgaria's recent history were not so black-and-white. The name of Dimitar Peshev, the 1940s deputy speaker of parliament, came to the fore. Ignored and largely forgotten under Communism, Peshev now shone as a valiant citizen who not only stood against the government's intention to make Bulgaria Judenfrei, but was the organiser of a popular movement to prevent what had seemed like an accomplished deed.

These theories, of course, conflicted with each other, and Bulgaria's post-Communist leaders settled for the least controversial option. It was the Bulgarian people as a whole, they claimed, it was the Bulgarian nation as such that rose up and saved its Jews. It was a nation of selfless Raoul Wallenbergs and not a single Maurice Papon.

But can virtue, the other side of crime, be collectivised? Is it not individuals who are to be held responsible for whatever good or evil happens?

Any reflection on these questions will evoke other questions. If the Kingdom of Bulgaria of The Axis is to be credited with saving about 48,000 Jews from the gas chambers, why were there so few Jews left in the People's Republic of Bulgaria of the Warsaw Pact? If so many Jews had lived in these lands over the centuries, why are there so few reminders of them? What happened to their synagogues, cemeteries, neighbourhoods and communal properties? What happened to the individual people who once had a life here?

This guide aims to help anyone with an interest in Jewish history in Eastern Europe and the Balkans arrive at their own conclusions. It is designed to be a journey through both territory and time: illuminating the historical backgrounds while directing the reader along the paths of topography. Many of the monuments described in this book are hard to find and in various stages of disrepair. Unless a traveller knows where exactly he is going and what he is seeking, they can easily be overlooked; but once discovered, they will open up gateways to a rich and fascinating, if largely forgotten, part of Europe's Jewish heritage.

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.

  • COMMENTING RULES

    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

WHO WAS LYUDMILA ZHIVKOVA?
Her father's daughter who imposed her own mediocrity on Bulgaria's culture? Or a forbearing politician who revived interest in Bulgaria's past and placed the country on the world map? Or a quirky mystic? Or a benefactor to the arts?

CATHOLIC BULGARIA
In 1199, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to Bulgarian King Kaloyan to offer an union.

RHODOPE IN FULL BLOSSOM
The Rhodope mountains have an aura of an enchanted place no matter whether you visit in summer, autumn or winter. But in springtime there is something in the Bulgarian south that makes you feel more relaxed, almost above the ground.

BIZARRE BULGARIA
There are many ways to categorise and promote Bulgaria's heritage: traditional towns and villages, Thracian rock sanctuaries, nature, sun and fun on the seaside, and so on and so forth.

KARLOVO
Karlovo is one of those places where size does not equal importance.

SILENCE OF SHARDS
Pavlikeni, a town in north-central Bulgaria, is hardly famous for its attractions, and yet this small, quiet place is the home of one of the most interesting ancient Roman sites in Bulgaria: a villa rustica, or a rural villa, with an incredibly well-preserv

BULGARIAN EASTER
How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

BULGARIA'S TOP 10 SMALL TOWNS
Small-town Bulgaria is a diverse place. Some of the towns are well known to tourists while others are largely neglected by outsiders.

BORDER ZONE VILLAGE
Of the many villages in Bulgaria that can be labeled "a hidden treasure," few can compete with Matochina. Its old houses are scattered on the rolling hills of Bulgaria's southeast, overlooked by a mediaeval fortress.

WHO WAS GEO MILEV?
Poet who lost an eye in the Great War, changed Bulgarian literature - and was assassinated for his beliefs

SEEING DEVIL IN DEVIL'S BRIDGE
In previous times, when information signs of who had built what were yet to appear on buildings of interest, people liberally filled the gaps with their imagination.

URBEX BG, PART 2
If anything defines the modern Bulgarian landscape, it is the abundance of recent ruins left from the time when Communism collapsed and the free market filled the void left by planned economy.