The Bulgarians were nominally a German ally in World War II. The NAZIs had forced them to join the Axis. In fact the Bulgariansanted nothing more than to stay out of the War. The Bulgarians under King Boris III were one of the few people in NAZI-dominated Europe to defy Hitler on the Jews. They refused repeated NAZI demands that the Bulgarian Jews be handed over for deportation to the death camps in Poland. And this was at the height of NAZI power. Bulgaria's 48,000 Jews were thus saved. Nor was there any widespread anti-Semitism that facilitated the Holocaust in other countries. The Bulgarian Army did, however, cooperate with the tragic round up and transport of Jews in the northern area of Greece and southern Yugoslavia (Macedonia) that they occupied (1941). It is unclear to what extent if any, Bulgarian civil authorities were involved.
Bulgaria was liberated from the Turks by the Russians in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78). Jews were not perceuted during the ceturies of contol by the Ottomon Turks. After liberation from the Ottomons this situation did not change significanl. Most intances of nti-Semitism originated from foreign influences. Here the most important was the Russian trops who helped liberate Bulgaria. The Russians introduce the old legends about Jewish ritual murders of Christian children (on the eve of Passover). Accusations were made in various towns: Pazardjik (1884), Vratza (1890), Lom (1903), and Kustendil in (1904). In these towns, the accusations were dismissed after the Jews involved proved that the accusations were false. The Jewish commuinity in Bulgaria was free from any legal persecuted and as a result developed as an important part of the country's social and economic life. Iindividual Jews obtained important positions. Most Bulgarians treated the Jews as equals. Prominent Jews included: Professor Yossif Fadenchecht (Minister of Justice), Yossef Herbst ( Director of the Press at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Boris Schatz (Director of the Academy of Fine Arts), and Dora Gabe (a popular poetess). [Boyadjieff]
Bulgaria had an operatinh Parliamentary democracy. It was a respected institution in the country and worked closely with King Boris. The Prime Miniter was Bogdan Filov who was thoroughly intimidated by the NAZIs and willing to do their bidding. Filov was not, however, a dictator and had to deal with an elected NatinalmAssembly. Deputy Speaker, Dimitar Peshev, was willing to stand up to the NAZIs if possible. The King could demand action from Filov, but only if he had parlimentary support. On the Jewish issue, this was esspecially difficult becuse of the potential of German military intervention. Thus for the King to intervene successfully the NAZIs Germans would have that to be convinced that opposition to delay the transports were the result of a public protests from influential circles which could not be ignored. [Boyadjieff] Here the Bulgarians must have been playing for time, knowing that if the NAZIs won the War, there would be no resisting them. The King's influence has been debated. The NAZIs came to distrust him. The Communists who took over after the War were anxious to discredit him. Some historians are convinced, however, that the King's roll was crucial. One historian writes, "During the entire WWII the King (Boris III) had to deal with a colossus who, in a short space of time, made the whole of Europe tremble, Adolf Hitler. Boris' main task was to convince the Germans, and particularly Hitler, that he was their ally and friend, a most faithful one. .... In this game of chess the King used people around him as his pawns, such were the Prime Minister Bogdan Filov and the Minister of the interior, Petur Gabrovski. Neither of them understood the Royal tactics. .... They were entirely trusted by the Nazis and could never admit that the King was capable of betraying the Germans. Boris needed exactly such specimens as collaborators." [Boyadjieff]
The Bulagarian monarchs have come from German families, despite the fact that Bulagria was in large part created by the Russian Tsars in their wars with the Ottoman Turks.
The Bulgarian Fascist movement was the Ratnizi. Unlike the situation in other Balkan countries, the Fascist Ratnizi had few adherents and relatively little political influence. There was, however, considerable right-wing feeling in Bulgaria and King Boris was concerned throughout the 1930s that they might seize power. The rise of the NAZIs in Germany put the King in a difficult position. The Bulgarian right wing was not as vriulently anti-Senitic as right-wing partiesin many other European countries, but under NAZI influence this increased over time.
King Boris was opposed to joining the Axis. He reportedly even considered abdicating so as not to be responsible for it. When finally forced by Hitler, right-wing trends. He managed to delay Bulgaria's participation in the Axis for a short period. He also succeeded in negotiating favorable conditions. While the NAZIs were granted permission to cross Bulgarian territory, it was only to trasit and only on esignated routes. Bulgaria was to preserve its sovereignty. Hitler finally forced the Bulgarians to join the Axis. Despite its reluctance, there were even benefits for the Bulgarians. We are not sure why Hitler rewarded the Bulgarians in this way. It may have been an accudent of geography and Hitler's desire to show the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece as a unified Axis action rather than another unilateral German invasion. The Bulgarians were allowed to occupy Thrace and Macedonia as part of the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia and Thrace (April 1941). (Bulgarian annexation, however, was never scantioned by Hitler. Bulgarians continued to be reluctant participants in the Axis. Bulgaria refuse to declare war on the Soviet Union after the NAZI invasion (June 22, 1941). Bulgaria never committed its army to the campaign against the Soviet Union, unlike other Axis satellites like Hungary and Romania. The Bulgarians never even sent a token expeditionary force of "volunteers" to the Eastern front (like Spain). There has because of religious and ethnic ties been an association between Russia and Bulgarian. The Russians were seen as liberarors in Bulgaria and few Bulgarians wanted to go to war against Russia--even Soviet Russia.
Bulgaria and Denmark were the only European countries that succeeded in preserving their Jewish communities. One historian writes, "The entire country presented a united front to the Nazis; from the King to the Communists, the Bulgarians did everything possible to protect their Jews." [Oschlies] For the Bulgarians it was somewhat easier than in Denmark which was occupied by the NAZIs it was somewhat easier, but still a matter of great courage. Although not occupied by the NAZIs there were substantially more Jews in Bulgaria and there was no neighboring country willing to take in the Jews like Sweden did for Denmark. President Stoyanov in 1998 stated "What happened then should not be seen as a miracle. My nation did what any decent nation, human being, man or woman, would have done in those circumstances." The President under states the bravery of the Bulgarian people. Many in Europe dnot only did much less, but actively supported the NAZI genocide. There appears to have been two major reasons that Bulgarian Jews were saved. First, anti-semitism was not as wide-spread in Bulgaria as in other European countries. Second, Bulgaria served a useful purpse for Hitler. It served to secure the NAZI southern flank in case the Allies managed to bring Turkey into the War. Thus Hitler was not moved to force the issue, assuming that after the NAZI victory in the War he would have his way. Given the realtively small number of Jews in Bulgaria
Hitler had forced the countries of the Bakans to join the Axis. Those countries which defied him like Yugoslavia and Greece suffered terrible consequences. While forced to join the Axis. Bulgarian resources were made avilable to the NAZIs. King Boris III while forced into the Axis drew the line at commiting Bulgarian troops to the invasion of the Soviet Union. Although the full details are not known, the King apparently intervened personally. King Borris' family was of German origins--the Coburg dynasty. He was personally to the anti-Semitic measures implemented by the Government, but at first considered it hopeless because of the NAZI military power. NAZI agents were present everywhere in the country. Once popular resistance to deportation developed, however, the King intervned. The NAZIs were apparently convinced that the King was apparently behind the resistance to their demands that the country's Jews be handed over to them. The king was asasinated and almost certainly NAZI intelligence agents were responsible. [Arendt]
The Bulgarian Government under German pressure introduced anti-Semitic measures (January 1941). Jews were banned from businesses and professions. Jewish real estate and other property was confiscated. Adult men were banned from normal military service and drafted to build roads instead. The NAZIs were, howevr, not at all satsfied with Bulgaria's anti-Jewish program. what came out of the Bulgarian parliament. The Bulgarians banned Jews from the military and instead drafted 6,000 able-bodied Jewish men for forced labor. They were used for road constuction. NAZI officials began reporting evasion and procrastination. [Kuper, p. 128-129.] Their bigest objection was that baptized Jews were regardless of the date of their conversion exempted. The NAZI anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws defined Jews racially upon ancestry. This meant that even people who had been Christians for several generations suddenly were classified as Jews. Soon large numbers of Jews converted, at least legally. About 5,000 Jews received special privileges. [Arendt]
Bulgaria occupied Thrace and Macedonia as part of the NAZI-ordered invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece (April 1941). Fascist Italy had earlier unsuccessfully invaded Greece.) Following NAZI demands, the Bulgarian army occupying Thrace and Macedonia rounded up and deported Jews in the occupied area. About 15,000 Jews were deported, although the mounts varies somewhat from source to source. There was no resistance from the local population which was widely anti-semitic. At the time, the Bulgarians involved probably did not fully understand what deportment and "resettlement in the East" meant. [Arendt] After the War there was an investigation of the actions against the Jews, including the deportments by a People's Court (1945). Minister of Propaganda Dimo Kazassov answered a question by a defense attorney. 'Could the Bulgarian people have intervened to save the Thracian and Macedonian Jews?'. Kazassof replied, 'It was impossible to intercede because the measures were taken suddenly, surprising everybody. When the Bulgarian people learned about them, it was too late; the special trains were already arriving in Lom. The political influence of the Bulgarian people had not reached the newly liberated regions'. Defense Attorney: 'Whose was the initiative for this deportation?'. Kazassof added that the Bulgarian authorities took no initiative in these actions which were carried out by German officials. [Boyadjieff]
Adolf Eichmann appears to have realized from an early point that arranging the arrest and deportatiom Bulgarian Jews was going to be more difficult than in other NAZI-influenced countries. Eichmann wrote to the Foreign Office that 'sufficient possibilities exist for the reception of Jews from Bulgaria' (January 1942). This was at a time when the death camps in Poland were not yet operational or even fully constructed. Eichmann dispatched one of his SS staff members, Theodor Dannecker, from Paris to Sofia as an 'adviser'. At the same time other offices were being informed that facilities for the reception of Jews were not yet available. Nor were German Jews within the Reich being deported. Apparently Eichmann concluded that the best approach was to quickly deport the Bulgarian Jews before opposition to the action could be organized. The German Embassy in Sofia was ordered to press the issue. [Arendt] At the time, NAZI Germany was at the height of its power and demands from the Germans had to be taken very seriously. What the Bulgarians had going for them was the rlatively small number of Jews in the country. And that Eichmann was preparing to kill Jews in the millions so Bulgaria was not high on his agenda. And Bulgaria in the southern Balkans was not a hugely strategic country. Intervening there would require a substantial diversion of militry asstts at a time that the War was being settled for to the east on the Volga.
The Bulgarian Government at German insistance began rounding up and interning Jews in Bulgaria itself. This was similar to the pattern in other Axis satellite nations. It looked likely as the interments progressed that deportations would also be ordered and Bulgarian Jews would suffer the same fate as those in other counties. .
The Bulgarian Government actually ordered that deportations from Bulgaria proper to begin. This was a Government order, not a measure orderd by Parliament. The legislation of 1940 and 41 had resulted in some protests from professional organizations, from the Subranie and from the Church. The protests, however, were muted compared to the uproar which occurred after the deportation order was announced. There were street demonstrations, parliamentary resolutions, and press reports expressing a national outrage. [Crampton.] A parlimentary group led by Deputy Speaker Peshev signed a letter of protest and claimed the deportation order was unconstitutional. Among the signatories were a diverse group of deputies from left-wing parties and moderate parties and even some far right deputies such as Professor Alexander Tsankov. Many ordinary Bulgarians complained as well as intellectuals, and most importantly church leaders. [Gilbert] Church leaders were very influenial in Bulgaria and had an important impact on public opinion. In sharp contrast, Church leaders in some Axis satellites (especially Croatia and Slovakia) actually supported the Holocaust. The Bulgarian Church spoke very forcefully against anti-Semitism and especially the deportation order. The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, in a sharply worded letter, unanimously insisted that Parliament, the Government, and the King rescind the deportation order. The prominent archbishops of Sofia and Plovdiv, Stephan and Cyrill, became personally and deeply involved and the most dedicated defenders of the Jews. Metropolian Stephen declared publicly that 'God had determined the Jewish fate, and men had no right to torture Jews, and to persecute them'. [Arendt] This was much more than what the Vatican did. (Of course the Vatican was not syrrounded by Fascist and later NAZI troops.) The Church headed by Bishop Kiril of Plovdiv (later Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church) threatened to actually lie on the railway tracks. There were 40 members of parliament who strongly protested the government action. Leaders of the political parties protested to the Government and the King, who while opposing the deportations, had not dared to cancel the order on his own initiative. Farmers in northern Bulgaria threatened to block railway tracks to stop deportation trains. [Gilbert] It is interesting that Bulgarian farmers were so opposed to the deportations. Conservative farm communities in some areas of Poland were highly anti-Semitic. We are unsure why they felt so strongly on this issue, but the Church may well have been influential here. Criticism of the deportation order was so intense that the Government not only rescinded the order, but actually released the Jews that had been sly interned. This was virtually unheard of in NAZI-dominated Europe. The Government released the interned Jews (March 10, 1942). This has become known in Bulgaria as the 'Miracle of the Jewish people'. The courage of the people involved here was immense. This occurred at a time when the German 6h Army was preparing to drive toward Stalingrad and it looked like the Soviet Union might be defeated and the Germans in control of Europe..
The NAZIs did not abandion their efforts against Bulgarian Jews. The Government again bowing to incesent NAZI pressure took another step toward more stringnt anti-semitic measures. They introduction a Jewish badge, a measure adopted in Germany and German-controlled country. The Bulgarian Jewsish badge was, however, like the earlier Bulgarian anti-Semitic measures, a disappointment to the NAZIs. NAZI officials complained that it was only a "very little star". Also few Jews wore it and there was very little pressure from the Government to force them to do so. (In other countries, failire to wear the badges often meant arrest which was a virtual death sentence.) The few that did wear it, rather than being scorned were generally treated with sympathy. Walter Schellenberg, Chief of Counterintelligence in the RSHA, wrote in an S.D. report transmitted to the German Foreign Office that "so many manifestations of sympathy from the misled population that they actually are proud of their sign" (November 1942). Finally the Bulgarian government revoked the decree. [Arendt]
NAZI pressure on the Bulgarian Goverment continued. We do not have details on the Bulgarian Government planning as to how to deal with the NAZI demands. We do know what the response was. The Government ordered the expulsion of Jews from Sofia to rural areas. The Bulgarians could certainly present this as an attempt to respond to NAZI demands. We assume that this was there intention, but we have no actual details. We do know that what the NAZIs wanted. The Bulgarian action duspersed Jews. What the NAZIs wanted was to concentrate them in ghetoes so they could easily and quickly be dispatched the death camps. Bulgarian Jews, unlike Jews in many other countris, were concentrated in Sofia and other cities and thus easier targets for the NAZIs. Instead city Jews were dispersed into rural areas, making them must less vulnerable (ADL). The NAZIs moved to occupy wavering Axis allies during the War (Hungary and Italy). There was concern that because of King Borris's defiance he might do this in Bulgaia. If so the Bulgarian Jews would have been very vulnerable. Even so, there were demonstrations in Soia protesting the expulsion order on humanitarian grounds.
The NAZIs hoped that assaination of King Boris would clear the way for the deportation of Bulgarian Jews. NAZI offocial Dannecker was sent to Bulgaria to ensure that this occurred (early 1943). The King's assasination apparently changed nothing. The Parliament and the Bulgarian people continued to oppose deportation. Dannecker aggressively pushed the issue with the Bulgarian Commissar for Jewish Affairs who finally agreed to deport 6,000 "leading Jews" to Treblinka--the NAZO show concentration cmp in Czechoslovakia. Again we do not know the politics of the Commission for Jewish affairs as to whether this agreement was arrived in good faith or was a delaying tactic. The war in 1943 had turned against the NAZIs. (Von Paulis had surrendered the 6th Army at Stalingrad, the NAZI summer offensive at Kurst was smashed, the Afrika Korps had syrrendered in Tunisia, Italy was knocked out of the War, and the Allied strategic bombing campaign was becoming increasingly effective.) As a result, Hitler's ability to intervene military in Bulgaria was declining month by month. Despite the Bulgarian commitment, no Bulgarian Jew was ever deported, including the 6,000 leading Jews. The NAZI demand was interesting. In many countries the NAZIs created Jewish Councils in which prominent Jews were enduced to cooperate in exchange for favorable treatment. These Jews were often the last to be deported. Unable to obtain the cooperation of prominent Bulgarian Jews, the NAZIs changed their tactics and went after them first. The chief rabbi of Sofia could not even be contacted. (He was being hidden by metropolitan Stephan of Sofia). [Arendt]
German officials by mid-1943 began to give up on the deportations. NAZI influence in Bulgarian from the beginning was based on intimidation--the fear of potential military innovation. As German military fortunes receeded, NAZI representatives in Bulgaria began to feel unsure of themselves and were seen in Berlin to be increasingly unreliable. The NAZIS had dispatched a S.S. officer to oversee the roundup nd deportation of the Jews who sent extremelingly frustrating reports to Eichmann.. German Ambassador, Adolf Beckerle reported to the Foreign Office that the Bulgarian situation was hopeless because "The Bulgarians had lived for too long with peoples like Armenians, Greeks, and Gypsies to appreciate the Jewish problem" ( June 1943). Beckerle also despondenbtly informed the RSHA that nothing more could be done. [Arendt]
Parliament as the Red Army approached the Bulgarian border revoked the anti-Jewish laws (August 1944). The Soviets quickly set up a Communist Government (September 1944). The new Communist regime attempted to dispairage both King Boris and the Bulgarian Church. and cetainly did not want to credit either with saving the Jews. The new Government claimed it was the Bulgarian Communist Party that saved the country's Jews. The actual story as explained above is quite different. In fact, if Hitler had preceived that the Communists were responsible for blocking deportations, especially in 1942, it may have enduced him to intervene militarily in Bulgaria.
The most tragic part of researching the Holocaust is the story of actual individuals. In the case of Bulgaris because of the courage of the King, the Church, and people at large there are many heatening experiences during this sad period of European history. One such account is that of Israel Baruch and his family living in Sofia.
Anti-Defimation League. "ADL Honors Bulgaria for Saving Jews from th Holocaust," Press Release, February 13, 1998.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (The Viking Press, 1970).
Boyadjieff, Christo. Saving the Bulgarian Jews in World War II (Free Bulgarian Center: 1989).
Crampton, R.J. A Short History of Modern Bulgaria.
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust (Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 1985).
Kuper, Leo. Genocide (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 255p.
Oschilies, W. Bulgarien - Land ohne Antisemitismus! (Ner Tamid Verlag, Erlagen, 1976).
Navigate the CIH Holocaust Section:
[Return to Main Holocaust country page]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Allies] [Biographies] [Children] [Concentration camps] [Countries] [Decision] [Denyers/Apologists] [Displaced persons]
[Economics] [Eisatzgruppen] [Eugenics] [German Jews] [Ghettoes] [Impact] [Justice] [Literature]
[Movies] [NAZIs] [Occupied Poland] [Process] [Propagada] [Resistance] [Restitution] [Questions] [SA] [SS] [Special situations] [Targets] [Wansee Conference]
[Return to the World War II]
[Return to Main Holocaust page]
[Return to the Main mass killing page]
[Return to CIH Home page]