The Holocaust Encyclopedia
Walter Laqueur, Editor
Judith Tydor Baumel, Associate Editor
Yale University Press. New Haven and London. 2001
. . .
Bulgaria The survival of Bulgarian Jewry—despite Bulgaria's pro-Nazi regime and the physical presence of German troops on Bulgarian soil—represents a unique chapter in European Jewish history during the World War II era. At the start of the war Bulgaria's
Jewish population numbered approximately 48,000, with some 60 percent residing in the capital, Sofia. Mainly Sefardim, the Jews constituted less than 1 percent of the total population. Generally speaking, the attitude of Bulgarians toward Jews was tolerant, even friendly, and Jews enjoyed equal rights anchored in the constitution promulgated with the state's founding in 1878. Against this background the Jews of Bulgaria achieved economic, social, and cultural integration in the life of the state over several decades. Concurrently, Bulgarian Jewry was recognized as an autonomous national entity with its own independent communal administration.
The majority of Bulgarian Jews were employed as small businessmen, artisans, clerks, and laborers. Although Jewish representation in the free professions was on the rise, it did not account for more than 5 percent of the total number of wage earners. The Jewish moneyed class was limited to a handful of industrialists, bankers, and exporters who made a significant contribution to the development of Bulgarian industry and commerce.
The Zionist movement comprised the prime public force, and its representatives controlled communal organizations on both the local and the national level. It democratized the conduct of communal affairs, laid the foundation for Hebrew education, promoted Zionist youth groups, encouraged aliyah (emigration to Palestine), and fortified the link with the Jews in Palestine and the Diaspora.
In short, Bulgaria's Jewish community possessed many outstanding characteristics: an extensive system of Hebrew education; communal autonomy; close economic, cultural, and social ties to Bulgarian society; and an active communal life of a secular Zionist nature, which was clearly reflected in the Jewish press.
Internal political developments, the growing power of fascist organizations, and the prevailing pro-Nazi trends within Bulgarian governmental policy shattered this peaceful existence. One of the government's
first anti-Jewish measures, enacted in September 1939, was the swift expulsion of 4,000 Jews who were foreign nationals. Barred from entering neighboring countries, those expelled were forced to seek refuge elsewhere. The majority sailed to Palestine as illegal immigrants, reaching its shores in barely seaworthy vessels.
The penetration of race theory and Nazi ideology created fertile ground for anti-Jewish legislation and for a campaign aimed at delegitimating Jews in Bulgarian eyes. Anti-Jewish legislation was ratified by parliament at the initiative of the Bulgarian cabinet and King Boris III even before Bulgaria's enlistment in the Axis Powers on 1 March 1941.
This legislation, the Law for the Protection of the Nation, which went into effect on 23 January 1941, stripped the Jews of their basic individual and communal rights. Jews, Jewish homes, and Jewish businesses had to be marked with the Star of David, which made them a visible target. The Commissariat for Jewish Questions (Komisarstvo za Evreiskite Vuprosi), which was responsible for overseeing all Jewish affairs and for implementing the Bulgarian government's anti-Jewish policy, was established in 1942. Its head, Aleksander Belev, maintained direct contact with the German regime via the SD (security police). Jews were issued special identity cards and required to change any "non- Jewish-sounding" names. Furthermore, they were stripped of the right to belong to unions, to hold public office, and to attend institutions of higher learning.
Jews were barred from private employment as well as from serving in any public, municipal, or governmental capacit y. All Jewish organizations, schools, theaters, cinemas, publishing houses, restaurants, and hotels had to be disbanded. Shopping was restricted to special stores. Intermarriage with non-Jews was outlawed, as was Jewish employment of Bulgarian workers. The Jews were confined to their residential areas and could not move without police permission. They were also required to declare their property, and their financial holdings were placed in sealed accounts. Released from army service, all Jewish males between the ages of 20 and 40 were sent to forced labor camps, where they paved roads and built bridges under harsh conditions and heavy guard, and without pay. These labor conscripts were released every winter and drafted again each spring.
Jews were denied access to a long list of professions, and a numerus clausus (quota) was instituted, limiting Jewish participation in all areas of the economy to their proportional representation in the general population. All others had to liquidate their businesses. As Jews were concentrated in certain sectors of the economy, this decree deprived thousands of breadwinners of their jobs without providing alternative means of gainful employment.
The Law for the Protection of the Nation divested the Jews of their property, livelihood, civil rights, and personal security. It also damaged their standing in the eyes of the Bulgarian population: Jews were characterized as enemies of the state and its national values, as manipulators bent on destroying its economy. The law was an attempt to undermine the foundations of the Bulgarian Jewish presence among a people to whom these Jews had demonstrated their loyalty during peacetime and wartime alike. Several factors contributed to the enactment of this anti-Jewish law: the Bulgarian leadership's antisemitic views, political advantage to be gained front a preferential relationship with Nazi Germany, and economic profit from divesting the Jews of their property and jobs.
The government's anti-Jewish policy and measures triggered manifestations of sympathy for the Jewish plight and protests against the antisemitic propaganda that cast aspersion on Jewish loyalty to the state. A variety of organizations, institutions, and individuals registered their opposition. The antifascist underground distributed leaflets denouncing the government's anti-Jewish policy, and its radio station exhorted the nation to oppose the discriminatory legislation and to support the Jews. Associations of workers, clerks, and artisans addressed telegrams of protest to parliament. Important professional associations, including the bar and the medical societies, issued strongly worded protests against the anti-Jewish legislation. Statesmen and public figures, like Khristo Punev and Dimo Kazasov, published pointed letters opposing the government's anti-semitic campaign. Parliamentarians, in particular Petko Stainov and Nikola Mushanov, courageously struggled to block the passage of anti-Jewish legislation. The metropolitans of the Bulgarian Orthodox church openly condemned the anti-Jewish legislation. Retired generals spoke out against the aspersions cast on Jews who had fought under their command, calling attention to the several hundred Bulgarian Jewish soldiers and officers who had lost their lives in the Balkan campaigns and World War I. Especially compelling was the public protest by 21 leading writers calling for public opinion
to militate against the contemptible anti-Jewish policy that dishonored Bulgaria.
Advocates of the government's policy launched their own campaign urging the government to persevere, even to accelerate its anti-Jewish program forthwith. Government backers aired their views in the press, in manifestos, at meetings, and through telegrams endorsing the government's policy. They also inflicted physical harm on Jews and Jewish communal property, especially synagogues. The opponents of the anti-Jewish measures marshaled legal, moral, national, religious, educational, and historical rationales in support of their arguments. They contended that the government's policy was immoral on humanitarian grounds, contravened the constitution, and was politically and economically damaging as well. They argued further that it ran counter to the national tradition of tolerance toward minorities and represented capitulation to German pressure.
The impressive number of manifestos, essays, letters, telegrams, and memorandums addressed to the king, the prime minister, and the speaker of parliament by individuals and associations throughout Bulgaria almost certainly had a cumulative effect. Nonetheless, the likelihood that these protests and condemnations of the government's anti-Jewish policy would either halt its intention to enact the legislation or even mitigate its provisions was slight. Indeed, the government's parliamentary majority approved the anti-Jewish legislation. The deciding factor was the Bulgarian government's unyielding determination to pass the Law for the Protection of the Nation even before signing a treaty with Nazi Germany.
Within the Bulgarian Jewish community, power was concentrated in the hands of two groups: the Jewish Consistory (Zentralna Konsistoria), the officially recognized representative Jewish body, which also provided for individual and communal needs in the national, educational, religious, and social spheres; and the Zionist movement, the leading force among Bulgarian Jewry, whose members controlled local Jewish institutions as well as the nationwide Consistory. The speed with which the Bulgarian government adopted Nazi policy toward the Jews took the Jewish community and its leadership by surprise and undermined its feeling of security. Fear of impending events now became a feature of Jewish lives.
The rapidly deteriorating situation in 1939 and 1940 generated an intense debate in the Jewish community concerning the question of what the future held for Bulgarian Jewry and the preparatory steps that should be taken. Three distinct responses emerged:
Faith anil hope. Those who relied on the traditional Bulgarian toleration of Jews believed that reason, justice, and morality would triumph over hatred, injustice, and discrimination. Faith and hope that evil would dissipate like a passing cloud provided a temporary refuge from the gathering storm. The Consistory adopted a cautious policy aimed at preventing panic within the Jewish community. The communal institutions continued to function, thereby ensuring the continuity of Jewish life, Hebrew education, and assistance to the stream of Central European refugees passing through Bulgaria en route to Palestine. At the same time the Consistory directed its main efforts to the struggle against the growing tide of antisemitism and the regime's anti-Jewish policy.
Aliyah and rescue. Supporters of this option argued that, given the steadily worsening conditions and the threat of ultimate destruction in light of the collective fate of European Jewry, it was essential to press for the organization of mass emigration to Palestine, even by illegal means. Bulgarian Jewry, with its long-standing Zionist affinities, was ripe for mass aliyah, they contended. Time was running out; a defensive posture in response to the regime's policy was inadequate. Rather, the organization of wholesale rescue was now the supreme priority.
The struggle against fascism. Some believed that Jews should join forces with Bulgarian antifascists, as equal participants in the momentous struggle that in their opinion overrode Jewish national aspirations. This argument was voiced by young Jewish Communists, as well as by graduates of the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair, Maccabi, and Betar youth groups who had despaired of ever reaching Palestine. Several hundred Jewish youths joined the ranks of the Bulgarian underground, primarily on an individual basis; a minority formed Jewish underground cells. They distributed leaflets and carried out acts of sabotage. Dozens of these young Jews fought in the ranks of the Bulgarian partisans.
The Jewish leadership was charged with formulating a clear-cut policy. Was the time ripe to set mass emigration to Palestine in motion, or was there a chance that Jewish life could continue on Bulgarian soil? The leaders faced a serious dilemma: in the absence of an assured means of mass escape from Bulgaria, was it preferable to issue a public warning of the danger,
thereby sowing despair, or was it perhaps more politic to continue unobtrusive efforts to combat the anti- Jewish decrees, suppressing their own apprehensions in the hope that circumstances would improve?
Despite the setbacks suffered in 1939 and 1940, the majority of the Consistory's members continued to adhere to the belief that a stance of circumspection on their part, coupled with the help of Bulgarian sympathizers, would suffice to check the regime's anti-Jewish policy. The Jewish leadership's campaign among the Bulgarian people was intended to provide a convincing answer to the antisemitic crusade in the press, to maintain Jewish pride, and to strengthen the Jews' allies among the Bulgarian public. Jews contributed to the Jewish and Bulgarian press, and influential Bulgarians who detested the wave of antisemitism spoke out in their defense. Nonetheless, as vigorous as this propaganda campaign was, it did not succeed in stemming the rising tide of government-supported antisemitism.
In addition to these activities aimed at the populace, the Jewish leadership launched a broad-based campaign directed mainly at the Bulgarian regime—the king, the cabinet, and the parliament—and at influential public figures, with an eye to soliciting their backing. Consistory members, together with Zionist leaders, contacted politicians, church officials, and institutional and organizational executives, as well as influential personal friends, apprising them of the dangers facing Bulgarian Jewry.
Consistory-prepared memorandums were forwarded to cabinet ministers and members of parliament during the course of the parliamentary debate on the anti- Jewish legislation. These documents, with their extensive historical, statistical, legal, and economic data, buttressed the stance of the many Bulgarians who sympathized with the Jews and objected to the regime's anti-Jewish policy. But the anti-Jewish legislation could not be blocked. The Consistory's efforts were a last-ditch attempt to forestall a worsening of the Jewish status.
On the other hand, by mid-1940 the heads of the Zionist Federation had come to the realization that they had to support a concerted effort to organize mass aliyah. Nonetheless, their insistent demands to the Jewish Agency in Palestine for additional permits over and above their set quota of certificates were ignored, and their plans to initiate illegal mass emigration failed as well.
The only members of the Jewish communal leadership who consistently adhered to the idea of mass aliyah were the youth movements. Efforts to obtain certificates having failed, in 1939 and 1940 hundreds of youth movement members entered Palestine illegally. This illegal immigration was held up as an exemplar that constituted the only available means of implementing the Zionist ideal.
The Jews' growing sense of fear and vulnerability in the face of events enhanced Jewish aspirations to leave Bulgaria for Palestine by all and any means—legally, in possession of a certificate, or illegally, conveyed by means of unseaworthy vessels. But the Jewish leadership was unable to guarantee even illegal immigration, known as Aliyah B. The sole project promoting Aliyah B, a private initiative by Baruch Confino, came under criticism from the Zionist Federation for its failure to ensure the immigrants' safety.
Owing to the force of changing circumstances, as well as the escalating number of applicants, it now became clear that aliyah was the primary item on the Bulgarian Jewish community's agenda. In November 1940 a tripartite program was instituted, which provided for assistance to Jewish immigrants passing through Bulgaria en route to Palestine, prevention of extortion of excessive fees from immigrants by private entrepreneurs for aliyah, and the establishment of a communal framework for the implementation of mass aliyah. The Bulgarian Zionist Federation was compelled to abandon its long-standing policy of selective aliyah, which had given precedence to veteran Zionists and youth group members with prior training. Because of the situation the federation was now forced to endorse mass immigration even though it was viewed as less compatible with the needs of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine).
Events unfolded rapidly, leaving the Jewish community little time for extended deliberations. In December 1940 the chairman of the federation, Albert Romano, relayed to the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem reports on two disasters that had befallen Bulgarian Jewry: the death of 230 Jews on board the Salvador when the ship sank in a storm and the passage of the Law for the Protection of the Nation. Romano then in quired, "What about certificates?" and concluded on a note of despair: "You know what must be done, and deliverance is the Lord's."
Political events put an end to the attempts to organize mass aliyah. Several hundred Jews managed to board the Dorian 2 at the eleventh hour on 1 March
1941, the very day that German troops entered Bulgaria. Shortly thereafter the ports were closed, and emigration ceased almost entirely.
The shift from a policy of faith and hope to one of aliyah and rescue, which occurred just as the Bulgarian borders were being sealed, raises doubts regarding the Jewish leadership's ability to gauge the situation accurately. Evidently, the call for mass aliyah and Aliyah B escalated precisely at a time when the practical opportunities for their implementation were nearly exhausted.
Bulgaria's enlistment in the Axis Powers on 1 March 1941 precipitated a radical change in the Jewish status. The Bulgarian government's pro-Nazi policy, coupled with German pressure to "solve the Jewish question" within its borders, completely undermined Bulgarian Jewry's social, economic, and legal standing.
If from 1939 to 1941 the Bulgarian regime's strategy was to deprive Jews of their statutory rights, after March 1941 its objective was their physical removal from Bulgaria's borders to German jurisdiction. On 25 June 1942 parliament enacted a law "authorizing the government to formulate and implement a solution to the Jewish problem." This task devolved on the Commissariat for Jewish Questions, established in August 1942, which was chaired by the antisemite Aleksander Belev. Charged with enforcing the Law for the Protection of the Nation and with overseeing all Jewish affairs, this agency also carried out secret negotiations with Germany to transport Bulgarian Jews to Polish death camps.
The official rationale for deportation was primarily grounded in realpolitik. The expulsion of Bulgarian Jewry was portrayed as congruent with the political- ideological line that would further enhance Bulgaria's relations with Nazi Germany, thereby enabling its full integration into the constellation of Axis Powers. In addition, opportunistic motives played a role. Certain circles supported the anti-Jewish policy in hopes of benefiting economically from the appropriation of Jewish property, homes, and bank accounts.
In February 1943 Bulgaria and Germany signed an agreement stipulating the deportation of Bulgarian Jewry to camps in Poland. Initially Bulgaria was to deliver 20,000 Jews to the Germans. The plan's first step called for the "purification" of the Bulgarian occupied territories of Thrace and Macedonia (awarded to Bulgaria for its participation in the German attack on Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941). As the number of Jews in Thrace and Macedonia fell short of the projected total, the difference was to be offset by the deportation of 9,000 Bulgarian Jews. In March 1943 Bulgarian police rounded up the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia at night and placed them in detention camps under extremely harsh conditions. Their property and their houses were confiscated prior to their deportation in the later part of the month. Sealed trains transported 11,384 Jews, mainly via the Danube River, to death camps, from which almost none returned.
On 9 March the round up began within Bulgaria itself of the 9,000 Jews slated for deportation to Polish camps. Although planned to the last detail, the final implementation of this operation was delayed when the deportees were already partly concentrated at schools and train stations. The suspension followed an intense struggle involving Jews and Bulgarians alike.
News of the fate of Thracian and Macedonian Jewry, along with rumors of the impending deportation of Bulgarian Jewry and Jewish pleas to their Bulgarian friends, sparked a vigorous public reaction. A delegation of Bulgarian and Macedonian officials from the town of Kyustendil, with the collaboration of the deputy speaker of parliament, Dimitur Pesliev, and 43 coalition and opposition parliamentarians, presented a strongly worded protest to the government demanding that the order be rescinded. Thanks to the lobbying by parliamentary representatives, the intervention of public figures with influence on the regime, and the unequivocal opposition of the Bulgarian Orthodox church, the deportation order was canceled, on the very day of its planned execution.
Germany and its Bulgarian backers continued to press for the implementation of the Final Solution in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian regime enacted punitive measures, including the harsh internment of the Bulgarian Jewish leadership in the Somivit concentration camp in May 1943.
In late May and early June 1943 Sofia's 25,000 Jews were given three days' notice to pack bags (up to a 20- kilogram limit) and to abandon their homes, property, and jobs, in preparation for exile. They were resettled in the provinces under humiliatingly impoverished conditions. Despite their own difficulties, the small provincial Jewish communities absorbed the exiles and tried to provide for their needs. Hebrew schools continued to function, soup kitchens were opened, and local Jews housed the refugees. Food and jobs were proffered
by the local Bulgarian population, both urban and rural, in defiance of regulations.
The Jewish situation took a further turn for the worse in the latter half of 1943, when complete ghettoization was imposed in conjunction with an almost total curfew. Free contact with the Bulgarian population was restricted, food supplies were reduced, and employment opportunities dried up.
The attempt to deport Bulgarian Jewry to concentration camps in Poland aroused such strong opposition on the part of influential circles in Bulgaria that the proposed consignment of Bulgarian Jews to extermination camps was halted. What can explain this phenomenon, given the minimal effect of public opinion on government policy? There was no free press in Bulgaria, and all printed matter was strictly censored. Political organization was outlawed, and life proceeded under close police scrutiny. The regime was highly centralized, fully endorsed by the king, and unencumbered by parliament, which lacked authority. In such a political climate extra-establishment protests exercise minimal influence on government decisions.
Of all the organizations that protested against and took steps to prevent the deportation of Bulgarian Jewry in 1943, only two succeeded in directly exerting their influence on the king and the government. One was a group of parliamentarians led by Deputy Speaker Peshev, which created a storm of protest in the house; in turn parliament pressured and threatened the interior minister into canceling the deportation order. The other was the Holy Synod, the supreme body of the Bulgarian Orthodox church. Using its power base among the faithful to exert its influence on the king and his advisers, the synod courageously intervened at crucial moments, thereby preventing the deportation of Bulgarian Jewry.
This observation is in no way meant to detract from other individual, group, and organizational efforts to prevent the persecution and expulsion of Bulgarian Jewry. Nonetheless, the political reality in Bulgaria from 1939 to 1943 dictated the restriction of effective intervention to such persons as parliamentarians and church leaders, who exercised direct influence on the king and the government.
Overt expressions of protest by Bulgarian citizens against the government's anti-Jewish policies contributed substantially to the resilience of the Bulgarian Jews. Although their lives were threatened by the regime, Bulgarian Jews drew strength from the support of outstanding figures, prestigious organizations, and ordinary citizens. The majority of the Bulgarian people accepted neither the fate of their Jewish citizens nor the government's damaging policy with equanimity. The Bulgarian public reaction was a major factor in the survival of Bulgarian Jewry.
The pro-German Bulgarian regime was ousted on 9 September 1944. A coalition government dominated by the Communist Fatherland Front took over the reins of power, declared war on Germany, and began to safeguard the new regime. This change instilled fresh hope in the Jews, as the government canceled all discriminatory legislation and made promises to restore Jewish property, homes, and businesses to their owners. Sofia's Jews were allowed to return to the capital. Their impoverishment and impaired status notwithstanding, the Bulgarian Jews had nonetheless escaped total destruction.
Immediately after the ouster of the old regime, intensive steps were taken to renew Jewish communal life. The Jewish Communists now administered communal institutions and Hebrew schools, dispossessing the Zionists, who had been in control for decades. Nevertheless, the various Zionist trends and youth movements did not refrain from reestablishing their organizations or from engaging in broad educational and ideological activity.
Aliyah became a practical issue for Zionists and anti-Zionists alike. The question of whether Bulgarian Jews should direct their energies toward Zionism and immigration to Palestine or toward rehabilitation in Bulgaria demanded an unequivocal answer.
The Jewish Communist camp made every effort to suppress Zionist activity and to discourage mass aliyah. Still, the inclination toward aliyah remained strong. With the reversal of the Soviet Union's attitude toward the founding of a Jewish state, government-approved mass aliyah from Bulgaria became practical, regardless of the opposition by Jewish Communists.
On 9 September 1944 approximately 50,000 Jews remained in Bulgaria. By 1952 some 45,000 had emigrated to Israel. Was this exodus a mass flight or an expulsion? It appears that Bulgarian Jewry chose aliyah of its own volition, not owing to lack of an alternative. The fact that almost the entire Bulgarian Jewish community emigrated to Palestine/Israel, and that this movement took place both before and after the declaration of a Jewish state in 1948, serves to pinpoint the nature of this aliyah. It was motivated neither by the
desire to flee an inhospitable country, nor by the yearning for an idealized land flowing with milk and honey. Rather, its driving force was the ideal of aliyah itself.
Did the course of events during World War II predispose Bulgarian Jewry to make aliyah as a group? Although some of the factors that determined Bulgarian Jewry's almost total commitment to aliyah are rooted in long-term historical processes and the community's long-standing Zionist orientation and accomplishments, others are intrinsically related to its early postwar experiences. Some have to do with the nature of the new Communist regime and to its failure to effect the rapid economic rehabilitation of the Jewish community. Others lie in the Zionist sympathies of European Jewry as a whole in the wake of wartime atrocities, and in the impact of the struggle to promote aliyah and settlement and to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.
Significant weight must also be given to factors specifically related to wartime experiences. The wholesale extermination of European Jewry, and the traumatic deportation of Thracian and Macedonian Jewry to death camps in particular, undermined the Bulgarian Jews' sense of security and their belief in the possibility of a continued Jewish existence in Bulgaria. The expulsion of Sofia's 25,000 Jews to the provinces also had a lasting negative effect. Upon their return to the capital after 15 months of physical uncertainty and economic deprivation, they no longer comprised an economically strong and confident community, having been stripped of their property, housing, permanent jobs, household goods, and even clothing. Efforts by the Jewish Communist leadership at rapid rehabilitation (with the generous assistance of international Jewish organizations) met with only minimal success, and in the perception of many Jews a firm basis for the reconstitution of Jewish life in the capital was lacking. When aliyah became a possibility, the overwhelming response was immediate readiness to move. What is more, during the postwar period there was an increase in overt expressions of antisemitism and social tensions between Bulgarians and Jews against the background of competition for jobs, failure to restore Jewish property, and exclusion of Jews from public office. The replacement of the pro-Nazi regime by a Communist one failed to bring improvement, a development that profoundly disappointed the Jews and intensified their desire to immigrate to Palestine in order to begin a new life among Jews.
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