With the July 18, 2012 terrorist attack against Israelis in the city of Burgas, the Bulgarian government found itself the subject of praise, as a result of their overused half-truth-that they protected their nation’s Jewish population during the Holocaust. The following day, Fox News extolled Bulgaria’s record, noting that last week’s bombing was the first such attack in the nation’s history, and making sure to mention how the Bulgarians “saved” Jews during WWII. This is an often repeated statement, erroneous at its core.
The contemporary media often reports how “Bulgaria became the only Nazi-allied country in World War II to protect its entire Jewish population” or that “Bulgaria saved all of its Jews from the death camps.” While ultimately individuals of the Bulgarian government, the public, and the clergy, did in fact take laudable actions which halted the deportation of a certain 50,000 Jews from parts of Bulgaria to German death camps in Poland, there is no reason why the Bulgarian government should not discuss the 13,000 Jews they dispossessed, imprisoned, and deported from land they were occupying as their own during the war.
“There is no reason why the Bulgarian government should not discuss the 13,000 Jews they dispossessed, imprisoned, and deported…”
Here are the facts. On March 1, 1941, Bulgaria entered into a pact with the Axis powers and participated in the German-led attack on Yugoslavia and Greece. As a reward from Adolf Hitler, Bulgaria received most of the Balkan area known as Thrace and Macedonia. Stating that Thrace and Macedonia were their ancient Bulgarian lands, they proudly declared the territory “New” or “United Bulgaria” and, within one month, initiated a colossal national campaign of Bulgarization that ended with Bulgaria deporting all of the area’s 13,000 Jews.
The Jewish communities of Yugoslavian Thrace and Greek Macedonia were made up mostly of Spanish-speaking Jews, descendants of refugees expelled from Spain in 1492. In March 1943, the Jews of the cities of Kavala, Drama, Komotini, Seres, Xanthi and Alexandroupolis, were dragged from their beds at midnight, barely dressed, in sub-freezing conditions and placed into warehouses in their respective cities. No mention is made of how the Bulgarian military established a blockade around the cities to prevent escapes. Bulgarian officials broke into Jewish homes and hauled out their inhabitants. No word is uttered about how the Jews were forced to walk, for many miles, being whipped by troops; nor how many Jews died along the way from cold, malnutrition or beatings. Nor, how they were placed in tobacco warehouses, raped, and later locked inside freight trains as human cattle for the dreaded trip to Treblinka-many dying en route. The Jews of Monastir were locked in ghettos, their property looted and stolen by Bulgarian policemen, who checked house by house, to ensure that all the family members had left and all valuables were confiscated.
In all, over 13,000 Jewish people, husbands, wives, grandparents, sons, daughters, cousins, aunts and uncles, all deported to Treblinka where they were murdered in German gas chambers.
In the eyes of the Parliament at Sofia, Thrace and Macedonia became legitimately and completely Bulgarian. The governmental organization in Thrace and Macedonia, its infrastructure, civic administration, general educational system, institutes of higher learning, religious bodies, economy, and culture became wholly and legally Bulgarian. The government was extremely proud of this, and established and funded patriotic organizations in Macedonia to show the people and tell the world that Macedonia was their own. They formed cultural and charitable organizations in their beloved United Bulgaria, and commissioned, printed and issued, nearly seven million commemorative postage stamps in 1941, recalling the “recovery” of Macedonia. Yet today, when it comes to discussing how 13,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia were deported by Bulgarian police officers and soldiers to Treblinka where they were killed-Bulgaria remains silent. They don’t even mention the phrase United Bulgaria. What they do-is go on international cable news networks and laud themselves for not killing 50,000 Jews.
The deaths of 13,000 Jews occurred with the direct participation and knowledge of the Bulgarian government-in alliance and volunteer partnership with Nazi Germany. The Bulgarian government was the perpetrator in the deportation of 98 percent of Macedonia’s Jews-none survived.
An added disgrace is that until it finally gained membership status in 2007, Bulgaria sought to be accepted into the European Union, but its poor human rights record often presented a problem. Prior to their acceptance, the U.S. State Department reported that Bulgaria continued to have “problems in several areas” such as: Law enforcement officers beating and mistreating suspects, prison inmates, and minorities, along with arbitrary arrest and detention; problems of accountability persisted and inhibited government attempts to address police abuse; restrictions on freedom of the press; government restricted freedom of religion for some religious groups; societal discrimination and harassment of non-traditional religious minorities persisted; societal violence and discrimination against women.
To counter this, on the world stage, on more than one occasion, Bulgaria shamefully revisited the claim that it had “saved” 50,000 Jews, and that Bulgaria was “humanitarian,” and that it would keep up its “respect for human life and human dignity.” On at least one occasion, ex-president Peter Stoyanov said that the Jews’ rescue from deportation was “the best answer to the constantly asked question, ‘What have you contributed to European civilization?’ ”
Now, with the bombing attack on Israelis tourists visiting Bulgaria, the Bulgarians are again shamelessly basking in the glory of the half-truth story, that because they elected not to kill 50,000 Jews-they “saved” them and have always been friends to the Jewish people.
By Shelomo Alfassa
Shelomo Alfassa is an historian and outspoken advocate for Jewish causes both local and international, he is based at the Center for Jewish History in NYC. He is the author of several books, including: “Shameful Behavior: Bulgaria and the Holocaust.” Note: Sixteen ‘Alfassa’ family members were deported by Bulgaria and killed by the Germans during the Holocaust.