WHY DOES 'SORRY' SEEM TO BE THE HARDEST WORD?

text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Official Bulgaria continues to eschew responsibility for Holocaust

Bulgarians at the Jewish section of Kavala cemetery in March, 2023

About 30 Bulgarians of various occupations, political opinion and public standing went to the city of Kavala in northern Greece, in March, to take part in a simple yet moving ceremony to mark the demolition of the Jewish community of northern Greece, which was effected by the Kingdom of Bulgaria when it annexed Aegean Thrace, in 1943. They included Alec Oscar, the chairman of the Shalom Organisation of Bulgarian Jews; Martin Zaimov, a political activist and former deputy chairman of the Bulgarian National Bank; Krasen Stanchev, an economist; and Manol Peykov, an activist and publisher. This was the first time Bulgarians publicly apologised for what their grandparents had done in northern Greece during the Second World War. No Bulgarian state official was in attendance.

At the same time, in Sofia, President Rumen Radev led an official delegation to mark the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews during the Second World War. He laid wreaths at the monument of Bulgaria's war-time King Boris III and his wife. The monument is placed in front of Sofia City Council. It was originally erected in Jerusalem, but was removed by order of the Supreme Court of Israel because King Boris III, a Nazi ally, is seen internationally as being responsible for the fate of 11,343 Jews sent to death from territories Bulgaria occupied.

"Never again!" – Greek officials at the monument for Kavala's Jews, March 2023

The issue of what happened to Bulgaria's Jews and how the government of King Boris acted during the Second World War is one of those hot potatoes in Bulgarian history that politicians of all shades and hues conveniently put to use whenever the attention of the public needs to be refocused from the pressing issues of the day to whatever happened in an increasingly distant past.

What are the facts?

Bulgaria was an ally of Nazi Germany because Hitler had convinced it he would bring to it territories – Macedonia, Aegean Thrace, southern Serbia – it considered its own. If he won the war.

Most Bulgarians were enthusiastic, and began to toe the Nazi line, including the proposed "solution" to the "Jewish Question." In January 1941, the Parliament voted the so-called Defence of the Nation Act that severely restricted Jewish rights and freedoms.

Bulgarian officials herd Greek Jews onto barges at the Bulgarian port of Lom at the River Danube, March 1943

Up until the beginning of 1943 the Bulgarian government prepared itself for the implementation of the Wannsee Conference guidelines to exterminate Europe's Jews. On 9 July 1942 the Bulgarian Parliament adopted legislation to enable the government to make crucial decisions without parliamentary endorsement. Most historians agree that one of the purposes of this act was to pave the way for the deportation of all of Bulgaria's Jews to Auschwitz and Treblinka. On 4 March 1943 the government started rounding up 7,122 Jews from Macedonia (now North Macedonia), 4,221 from Aegean Thrace (now Greece) and 185 from the area of Pirot (now in Serbia). These people were herded into Bulgarian State Railways cattle cars and shipped to Poland, either through Yugoslavian territory or through the Bulgarian port of Lom on the Danube. In keeping with a secret agreement with Theodor Dannecker, on 9 March 1943 Jewish families listed as "undesirable" were rounded up in Kyustendil, Dupnitsa, Gorna Dzhumaya (now Blagoevgrad), Plovdiv and Pazardzhik.

Miraculously, the trains prepared for them never departed.

King Boris III with his ally, Adolph Hitler

A few days prior to 9 March 1943, word leaked out that Aleksandar Belev, the German-trained anti-Semite who was appointed chief of the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs, was going ahead with the planned deportations. The news spread quickly and reached four MPs for Kyustendil, one of the towns whose Jews had been on the departure lists. The four consulted with Dimitar Peshev, himself from Kyustendil and deputy speaker of the National Assembly. They decided that the deportations ought to be stopped, and collectively put pressure on Interior Minister Petar Gabrovski. The trains were halted.

But in those days official orders did not travel as fast as they do today. Some provincial authorities remained unaware of the change of plans. One example was Plovdiv. On the night of 10 March 1943 Jews were already being assembled in the Jewish school. Enraged, Kiril, the Orthodox bishop of Plovdiv, stormed into the school and threatened the police that if they went ahead with the deportation he would open up his churches for Jewish refugees and would hide Jews in his own home.

The planned deportations were suspended, but Dimitar Peshev had no illusions that the decision was irreversible. On 17 March 1943 he sent a declaration to Prime Minister Bogdan Filov protesting against his anti-Jewish policies. The declaration was signed by 43 MPs from the ruling majority, which was pro-Nazi (!).

The Bulgarian Fascist newspaper carries a front-page eulogy for King Boris III. Bulgaria's post-Communists claim there was never "fascism" in the Kingdom of Bulgaria, which they claim was a "democracy"

Dimitar Peshev was sacked from his parliamentary position on 26 March 1943.

Two months later the government made a new attempt to deport the Bulgarian Jews to Nazi-occupied Poland. Aleksandar Belev had two plans. According to Plan A, all 48,000 Jews were to be shipped in one go. Plan B was more "delicate." It envisaged initially deporting 23,000 Sofia Jews to the provinces, and then rounding up everyone and shipping them to Nazi-occupied Poland. King Boris III favoured Plan B. Aleksandar Belev commissioned six ships at Lom and Somovit to carry the human cargo.

Word of the plan leaked out, and the Jews in Sofia organised mass protests culminating on 24 May 1943, the Day of Saints Cyril and Methodius – a major public holiday in Bulgaria. The Sofia Jews joined the thousands of Bulgarian students and citizens taking part in the official celebrities. The rally was so huge that the police intervened and arrested a few hundred participants, including all Sofia's rabbis as well as members of the Consistory and the Central Israelite Council. Concurrently, the Orthodox Church also intervened. Sofia's Bishop Stefan put pressure on the king to stop the planned expulsions and even instructed his priests to help any Jew who sought shelter.

The Jews of Sofia were interned to the provinces, but in June 1943 the six ships waiting on the Danube to take them upriver left empty.

In the summer of 1943 it became increasingly clear that Germany was losing the war. The main anti-Nazi opposition in Bulgaria, which was dominated by Communists, stepped up its activities. The Germans would make another attempt to force Bulgaria to deport its Jews, but this failed as well. Prime Minister Bogdan Filov himself would tell Adolph Beckerle, the German minister plenipotentiary in Sofia, that deporting the Jews was not on the agenda because of the internal as well as the external trouble it would create. At the end of August 1943 King Boris visited Hitler at his Alpine residence in Berchtesgaden, where he again refused to send Bulgarian troops to the Eastern Front.

Rewriting history: The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry and the German Hanns Seidel Foundation (!) among others celebrate an anniversary of Bulgarian-German diplomatic relations by organising an exhibition in the Bulgarian Embassy in Berlin. Pictured are King Boris on a "diplomatic" visit to the  Führerhauptquartier (sic) in Berchtesgaden. No context is provided

A few days after his return the king died in what many still see as unclear circumstances.

The country was tossed into a government crisis. Because the heir to the throne, Simeon, was a minor, a Council of Regents was formed to rule the country. All anti-Jewish measures were suspended in practice.

In the summer of 1944 almost everyone in Bulgaria realised that the pact with Nazi Germany had been a terrible mistake. The government made a number of attempts to distance itself from Berlin and join the Allies. On 3 September 1944 some anti-Jewish laws were officially annulled.

On 8 September 1944 the Red Army invaded even though two weeks previously Bulgaria had declared neutrality. On 9 September, a Communist-led coup toppled the government in Sofia and installed a leftwing Fatherland Front coalition. One of its first decisions was to repeal the Defence of the Nation Act. A few weeks later it set up the so-called People's Courts to pass judgment on those responsible for Bulgaria's involvement in the Second World War. One branch of the People's Court dealt specifically with anti-Semitism and crimes against the Jews.

Professor Alec Oscar (right), the chairman of Shalom, at the monument for Kavala's Jews, March 2023

Mainly owing to the massive Communist propaganda during the Cold War and the equally massive anti-Communist propaganda post-1989, some aspects of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews remain unexplained.

The fact is that only two powers intervened directly, with real action: the Peshev-led MPs and the Orthodox Church.

Yet theories about who did what and when still proliferate and tend to change depending on the political inclinations of whoever does the talking.

Under Communism, the mainstream theory was that the Communist Party and the clandestine Communist media played the decisive role. The Communist ideologues argued that their active support for the Jews prepared the general public for the protests against their disenfranchisement and planned deportation.

After the collapse of Communism in 1989, King Boris III and his wife were extolled as "saviours." The king, reportedly, had agreed to the Defence of the Nation Act to appease Germany, but then dawdled in order to save the Jews, the narrative went.

Another theory proposes a more practical reason for the salvation of the Jews. According to it, the king did intend to deport them, but only the "undesirable" Bolshevik element. The other Jews would be kept in Bulgaria as "essential labour" to work on roads and infrastructure: 20,000-30,000 Bulgarian workers were already employed in Germany, leading to a shortage of manpower.

One refreshing point of view is offered by Tzvetan Todorov, the French philosopher of Bulgarian origin. According to him, Bulgaria, which saved its Jews, was not very different from the other European countries, which did not. What mattered in the case of Bulgaria was a fragile chain of events that could have been broken at any time: one blunder by a politician here or there, one public figure that did not stand up at the right time, a different sentiment in the Orthodox church leadership, a more decisive king – and the whole "salvation" would have turned into annihilation.

At the present time, most Bulgarian politicians and statesmen try to avoid the controversies by claiming that the Bulgarian Jews were saved as a result of the efforts of the "whole nation."

No one is willing to accept responsibility for the deaths of the 11,343 Jews from North Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and Pirot who were sent to Poland on the day the Bulgarian Jews were saved.

Against this background, the Bulgarian visit to Kavala for the 80th anniversary of the extermination of northern Greece's Jewish community was a landmark event. It signalled that perhaps Bulgarians might be able to confront their country's history level-headedly rather than through propaganda and self-eulogy.

Significantly, any recognition of Bulgaria's role in the Holocaust will open up a plethora of other often uncomfortable questions related to this country's recent past. One of them concerns the Republic of North Macedonia, where the issue of the Bulgarian deportation of Macedonia's Jews is used for latter-day political purposes as vehemently as it is in Bulgaria proper.

Another, and even more controversial, issue would be the Bulgarian People's Court, which was mandated by the Allies after the Second World War ended. It sentenced over 2,000 real and imaginary war criminals to death, by far surpassing the death sentences handed down at the Nuremberg Trials in Germany.

In the 1990s the anti-Communist SDS, or Union of Democratic Forces, passed a bill to repeal the decisions of the People's Court. A totally new idiom was born. What under Communism was being represented as just punishment for the "national catastrophe" was now seen as an emblem of Communist repression. Those who had been billed "monarcho-fascist" suddenly emerged as the "elite of the nation" whom the Communists "decapitated." Bogdan Filov, the Bulgarian prime minister who enthusiastically supported this country's alliance with Hitler, was fully rehabilitated. His portrait now hangs in the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, a noted archaeologist. And Aleksandar Belev, the anti-Semitic commissar for Jewish affairs who supervised the transit of Greek, Macedonian and Serbian Jews, is inscribed on a wall in front of the National Palace of Culture designed to commemorate the victims of Communism. He too was a victim...

Saying sorry for the crimes committed during the Second World War, therefore, will mean admitting the mistakes of the post-Communist period as well. And for that Bulgaria is hardly prepared – as long as its president lays flowers at a monument celebrating a monarch who sent 11,343 Jews to the gas chambers.

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