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.
High 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.