To what extent and why were Bulgarian Jews spared during the Second World War?

To what extent and why were Bulgarian Jews spared during the Second World War?


In July 2000, a letter to the Israeli government signed by several prominent Bulgarians (including the Vice-Chairman of the Parliament Academic Blagovest Sendov) denounced the credit of King Boris III, his wife Giovanna and Vice-Chairman Dimitar Peshev for the salvation of Bulgarian Jews during the Second World War and led to the removal of their commemorative plates from the Bulgarian People’s Forest in Israel. This in turn led to heated debates in the Bulgarian Parliament[i] that culminated in the dismissal of Vice-Chairman Sendov but hardly resolved the question about the factors and motives that determined the fate of Jewish population in Bulgaria some sixty years ago.

The facts that we know with certainty give an answer about the extent to which Bulgarian Jews were spared during the Second World War. Of the 51,000 Jews who lived on the territory of Bulgaria as determined by the 1919 Neuilly Treaty, none was deported to concentration camps and, indeed, none died a violent death[ii] between 1941 and 1944, the period of Bulgarian involvement in the war on the side of the Axis. At the same time, the enactment of new laws subjected the Jewish population to restrictions and humiliations similar to those in the other countries allied to Germany; the expulsion of 20,000 Jews from the capital Sofia to the rural interior marked their peak. Some 11,000 people, the major part of the Hebrew population in the Bulgarian-occupied territories of Macedonia and Thrace, were deported and met their end in Treblinka.

The reasons and forces behind this double treatment are difficult to differentiate from one another. For all gruesome aspects of the treatment we can blame the opportunistic governmental policies based on the same national interest of recovering territories that in the first place attracted Bulgaria to the Tripartite Act; consequently, many of these policies were determined by external German pressure. (It is worth noting that, unlike other countries, anti-Semitism never played a significant role in political decisions or people’s general attitude in Bulgaria.[iii]) However, opportunism and interest also contributed to the salvation of Jews[iv], virtually allowing the prevalent sympathetic attitude to yield a result; without them, all humane efforts would have probably been futile. The actions of King Boris III, the Bulgarian government, single political figures and entire organisations, the Orthodox Church, various professional associations, Jewish and Zionist leaders in and outside the country, and the Bulgarian people in general created a unique situation the only clear feature of which seems to be the outcome.

Bulgaria’s close ties with Germany date back to the First World War when the two countries were allies, a choice determined by Bulgaria’s desire to recover the territories lost to neighbouring states after the Second Balkan War in 1913. The revival of these ties came in the 1930s, for similar motivations, this time with respect to the new losses defined by the Neuilly Treaty, and was reinforced by the tremendous increase in the volume of trade with Germany, reaching 68 percent of the total foreign trade in 1939.[v] The regaining of Southern Dobrudzha from Romania in September 1940 under the auspices of Hitler[vi] preceded Bulgaria’s joining the Tripartite Act on March 1, 1941. In April, Bulgarian forces took part in the attack on Yugoslavia and Greece and in return the country regained Macedonia, Thrace and parts of eastern Serbia, thereby fulfilling the national dream of a ‘Greater Bulgaria’.[vii]

The alliance with Germany naturally involved demands for the enactment of anti-Jewish laws. This accorded with the prevalent anti-Semitic attitudes in the cabinet of Professor Bogdan Filov (1883-1945)[viii]; indeed, as early as October 1940, the government had approved the Law for the Protection of the Nation (Zakon za zashtitata na natsiyata, ZZN), ostensibly restricting the rights of all foreigners, but practically aimed at the Jews.[ix] Members of the Jewish Consistory in Sofia and Jewish activists started an immediate information campaign designed to raise the awareness of the government and the population about the potential consequences of the new law. The reactions provoked by it demonstrate the general lack of anti-Semitism or xenophobia among the populace: although several organisations such as the Fascist-oriented Federation of Reserve Officers, the Pharmacists’ Association, the Students’ Union and the Merchants’ Association expressed their support for the law, the majority of public opinion was opposed to it.[x] Leading Bulgarian writers, politicians from both left and right, the Medical and Bar Associations and the Holy Synod (the supreme body of the Orthodox Church) protested in letters to the Prime Minister and oral appeals. Despite this mass denouncement the government held its ground seeing the legislation as a device for strengthening the relationship with Germany and hence improving the chances for regaining the lost territories[xi]; the law passed parliament on January 21, 1941 and was ratified by the king’s signature the same day. Its contents were partially borrowed from the Nuremberg laws and provided the government with a legal basis for its anti-Jewish measures. They prohibited the existence of international organisations in Bulgaria (affecting, for instance, the Zionist movement in the country), restricted the political rights, economic activities and freedom of movement of foreign nationals, forbade mixed marriages between Bulgarians and non-Bulgarians and defined ‘anti-national’ behaviour.[xii] In February 1941, the Regulations for the Law were issued; they expanded the restrictions and applied only to Jews. Some of these included the obligatory drafting of all Jewish males between twenty and forty (raised to forty-six in 1943) into labour battalions, at first together with Bulgarians, but after the protest of the German Labour Service against the equal treatment, as separate units assigned ‘very hard work’, such as constructing new trails in the mountains and building roads. Approximately 12,000 Jews were drafted into the forced-labour battalions and had to work under conditions similar to hard labour sentences.[xiii] Another humiliating obligation was the placement of identifying signs on Jewish houses or businesses and the wearing of the notorious yellow badge on Jews’ clothing. (The latter met with a strong resistance and produced some unexpected responses: among those Jews who did not plainly refuse to wear the stars, some were ostentatiously greeted in the streets by ordinary Bulgarians determined to invert the ostracising intent, and others devised their own versions of the stars containing the portraits of the king and queen.[xiv])

The next step in the anti-Jewish policy came in August 1941 with the establishment of the Commissariat for Jewish Questions (Komisarstvo za Evreyskite Vaprosi, KEV) in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The task of KEV consisted in applying the ZZN and its regulations to the Jewish communities, now entirely stripped of power and under the authority of the Commissariat; head of KEV became Alexander Belev (1900-1940), a pro-Nazi lawyer and one of the few true Bulgarian anti-Semites.[xv] The financing of KEV’s operations came from blocked Jewish bank accounts and special fees necessary for issuing documents to ‘persons of Jewish extraction’.[xvi] The first of these operations involved drawing up registers of Jews in ‘old’ Bulgaria and the occupied territories of Macedonia and Thrace as a prelude to internment and deportation[xvii]; and, indeed, all measures introduced by the Commissariat during the next several months were intended as preparation for ‘[t]he radical solution of our Jewish Question’.[xviii]

In February 1943, Belev and Adolf Eichmann’s representative Theodor Dannecker signed an agreement providing the deportation of 20,000 Bulgarian Jews as an initial step towards the total removal of the Hebrew population from the country. This had been a long-awaited moment on the part of the Nazis (there had been negotiations along the same lines at the end of 1941 already), who expected the compliance of Bulgaria with their own policy, at least as a gesture of gratitude for the recovered territories[xix]; accordingly, on March 2, the Bulgarian government approved the agreement. Because of fears of possible adverse public reaction the agreement and its subsequent enactment were kept secret.[xx] In two consecutive lightning-speed operations, on March 4 and March 11, about 12,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia were arrested, stripped of their belongings, confined in temporary camps and finally deported to Treblinka; only five hundred people of the local Hebrew population escaped or were released and survived the war.[xxi]

In spite of this ‘clearing’ Belev was still 8,000 Jews short of the agreement and decided to complete the number by deporting the Jews from the Bulgarian town of Kyustendil. His plans for complete secrecy as in the previous cases this time were foiled by his personal secretary Lilyana Panitsa’s leaking the deportation arrangements to leading Sofia Jews[xxii], who in turn alerted the Jewish community in Kyustendil. The campaign organised by the latter aroused strong responses among the local population[xxiii] and a delegation of Bulgarian and Macedonian functionaries arrived in the capital on March 8. After winning the support of the Vice-Chairman of the Parliament Dimitar Peshev (1894-1972), they were able to persuade the Minister of the Interior Petar Gabrovski into postponing the deportation. During the following week, Peshev spoke with other deputies seeking their support for a manifesto against the deportation; the manifesto bore forty-three signatures when he presented it to the Chairman of the Parliament (the angry reaction of the government eventually cost Peshev his place as a vice-chairman).[xxiv] At the same time, protests spread across the country. Bulgarian dignitaries visited the king and the Prime Minister or simply raised their voices against the inhumane policy (among the most forceful warnings was the threat of Bishop Kiril to lie in front of the rail transports deporting Jews[xxv]). The Communist Partisan movement started a campaign of sabotage operations across the country, while the leadership helped organise demonstrations and petitions against Belev’s plans.[xxvi]

Despite the ensuing resignation of Belev and the temporary turmoil the threat of deportation did not decrease during April and May. The Germans maintained their pressure, and the government came up with a compromise plan for the expulsion of 25,000 Sofia Jews to the provinces. The demonstrations by Jews and Bulgarians (inspired by the Communist groups) that followed the publication of the plan were scattered by force and within two weeks some 20,000 Jews were driven out of the capital and forced to live in provincial towns[xxvii], often in hardly bearable conditions.[xxviii] The expulsion marked the peak of Jewish persecution, yet it removed the threat of deportation to extermination camps.[xxix]

With the change in the war situation and particularly the German defeats in 1943, Bulgarian politics also changed.[xxx] The king died in August, after a meeting with Hitler at which he refused to deport Jews from ‘old’ Bulgaria (reasoning that they were needed to build roads[xxxi]). With the surrender of Italy in September and American pressure about Bulgarian policy, including the treatment of Jews, the government decided on a more flexible course.[xxxii]  The Germans abandoned their demands and finally, in August 1944 the ZZN was repealed. The 50,000 Bulgarian Jews could at last have some tangible hopes, which the succeeding Communist regime did not cripple immediately.

The difficulty in determining the actual forces responsible for the singular fate of the Bulgarian Jews stems primarily from the comparatively recent character of the events and their constant re-interpretation for political purposes (an extreme example of which was the dismissal of the current Vice-Chairman mentioned in the introduction). The version promoted during the totalitarian period contrasts starkly with the version of the present democratic system: what (or whom) one extols, the other denounces and vice versa. The absence of decisive historical evidence further aggravates the situation (for instance, at least until five years ago the Royal Court Archives in Sofia have remained sealed and unavailable to researchers[xxxiii], giving rise to criticisms at the Bulgarian Socialist party, a direct descendant of the Communist party, for trying to conceal the truth). For these reasons, I have given preference to non-Bulgarian sources, such as the Hebrew-compiled Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, in investigating my topic; although these may still have some bias (e.g. in overemphasising the significance of local Jews’ actions in the above-mentioned source), they are not influenced by Bulgarian politics and thus approach objectivity more closely. Most of them seem to point at the same conclusion: that no single person or group deserves the entire credit or even the major part of it for the salvation of Bulgarian Jews, and that this salvation came as a result of a combination of diversely-founded efforts and favourable circumstances.

Considering the various names proposed as the saviours of Jewry at one or another time only confirms this conclusion. Historians during the totalitarian period naturally ascribed the credit to the Communist movement only. The anti-persecutions broadcasts from the Bulgarian Communist radiostation in Moscow and especially the sabotage actions and the demonstrations in 1943 prove beyond doubt that the Communist resistance was concerned for the fate of the Jewish population; but neither the propaganda nor the acts of resistance influenced in any way the governmental policy[xxxiv], which renders them far less praiseworthy than they were displayed in later years. Besides, the historical facts clearly show that not only the Communists were concerned for Bulgarian Jews.

After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, a shift of historical paradigms occurred. The ‘revisionist’ version (represented in such sources as Boyadjieff and Kaltchev), in its attempt to rehabilitate the political situation before 1945, has sought to attribute Jews’ salvation to the king’s personal decisions, underrating the impact of everyone else (and excluding the Communist contribution altogether).[xxxv] It claims that Boris III, as the supreme authority in the country, saved the Jews by not permitting their deportation in March and May 1943[xxxvi]; furthermore, he countered Hitler’s own pressure about the matter twice before he died[xxxvii] (which gave rise to speculations that he was poisoned by the Nazis; however, no confirming evidence has ever been found[xxxviii]). Indeed, although the king’s decisions are not recorded in any known documents, it seems very unlikely that the Minister of the Interior would have postponed the deportation without Boris’s approval.[xxxix] The king was also known for his gestures of solidarity with the Jews (which greatly irritated the Nazis).[xl] On the other hand, treating Boris as the supreme ruler of Bulgaria places the major part of the blame for the deportation of the 11,000 Thracian and Macedonian Jews on him and seriously undermines his image in some ‘revisionist’ sources[xli] as a friend of Jewry. It is rather more probable that the king’s motives, for both the early deportation and the later resistance, were practical: the first aimed to meet German demands at as low a cost for Bulgaria as possible, preferably without arousing public remonstrance, the second prepared the ground for rapprochement with the western Allies.[xlii] It should not be forgotten either that the ultimate decision for a moderate Jewish policy was made in the Parliament after Boris’s death.[xliii]

Gabriele Nissim’s book The Man Who Stopped Hitler, published in 1998, is not less misleading in that it tries to present Dimitar Peshev’s actions as the single most important factor in shaping Jews’ fate. Peshev’s case is indeed unique: a Vice-Chairman of Parliament and member of the majority who goes against national political interests and appeals to the honour and responsibility of his fellow deputies for preventing an action that would place an eternal stain on Bulgaria’s history.[xliv] Once again, however, the account tends to underestimate the importance of others, from the secretary Lilyana Panitsa through the Macedonian members of the Kyustendil delegation who threatened Minister Gabrovski with “personal sanctions” (i.e. assassinations) if he insisted on the deportation[xlv], to the king himself. The Church, the intellectuals, political and professional organisations, the Jewish leaders in Bulgaria and abroad (including such key figures as Chaim Weizmann and Rabbi Stephen Wise[xlvi]), and the many ordinary Bulgarians who simply provided Jewish communities with food or employed Jews illegally[xlvii] all gave their contribution. If it is true that this contribution would have yielded no result without the government’s compliance, it is also true that without the support of the majority of Bulgarians, any policies of resistance would have been unthinkable.[xlviii]

The situation with the deported ‘non-Bulgarian’ Jews seems far less complicated and flattering. It may be true that Macedonia and Thrace were never officially recognised as Bulgarian territories by the Third Reich and that the local Jews were not given Bulgarian citizenship[xlix]; or that the Nazis exerted a constant pressure on the king and government to comply with their own policy[l] and that Bulgaria-stationed German troops presented a threat to the country[li]; but it cannot be denied that pragmatic interest played a crucial part in Bulgaria’s participation in the ‘final solution’. The policy of ‘opportunistic anti-Semitism’, as G. Nissim aptly names it[lii], aimed at the easy recovering of the previously lost territories combined with the non-intervention of Bulgarian forces in military operations; indeed, many politicians, including Peshev himself initially, saw the anti-Jewish laws as ‘temporary and limited’, ‘a way to achieve national goals’.[liii] In the end, however, these ‘temporary and limited’ laws did bring the stain on Bulgaria’s history that Peshev feared, albeit smaller than it could have been.

If there is a single moral to be drawn from the case of Bulgarian Jews’ treatment, it is that no human beings should be used as an exchange for satisfying national interests, be they even the most equitable or coveted ones. If this is remembered, there will be no real need for commemorative plates, politicians will have to devise other ways to dismiss one another, and humanity’s sleep will – perhaps – become less troubled.


Arendt, Hannah Eichman in Jerusalem, a Report on the Banality of Evil The Viking Press, New York (1970); available at http://www.b? (last visited on 31.01.2001)

Boyadjieff, Christo Saving the Bulgarian Jews in World War II Free Bulgarian Center, Singer Island (1989); available at http://www.b? (last visited on 31.01.2001)

Contemporary Bulgarian Encyclopaedia – “Съвременна българска енциклопедия”, гл. ред. Петър Николаев, “Анубис”, 1994

Encyclopedia of the Holocaust Ed.-in-Chief Gutman, Israel Macmillan, New York (1990)

Glenny, Misha The Balkans 1804-1999 Nationalism, War and the Great Powers Granta Books, London (1999)

‘The Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews: “Had The King Not Done It We Wouldn’t Be Here Now…”’(extended information about the symposium ‘The Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews during WW II’, held on February 1, 1995 in Sofia); available at (last visited on 31.01.2001)

Nissim, Gabriele

– ‘Peshev, the Man Who Made a Whole Nation Feel Ashamed’ (lecture at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on March 30, 1999); available at (last visited on 31.01.2001)

– speech at the solemn celebration of Dimitar Peshev on 6 November 1998 in Sofia; available at (last visited on 31.01.2001)

[i] A rather amusing log (unfortunately, in Bulgarian) of the debates can be found at

[ii] Kaltchev.

[iii] Encyclopedia, p. 265; see also Boyadjieff, Nissim – lecture.

[iv] Glenny, pp. 506, 510; Encyclopedia, p. 271.

[v] Encyclopedia, p. 265.

[vi] Interestingly, the Contemporary Bulgarian Encyclopaedia (Savremenna balgarska entsiklopediya) regards the Krayova Treaty by which the recovery came into existence as a triumph of Bulgarian diplomacy and the king’s policy, winning the approval of most of the Great Powers (Germany, USSR, Great Britain, France), rather than Hitler’s deed. This would support the alternative theory – that Bulgaria’s involvement in the war did not come as a gesture of gratitude but was largely forced by the presence of German troops at the northern border with Romania, and would remove part of the political responsibility for the subsequent events.

[vii] Encyclopedia, pp. 265-6.

[viii] Encyclopedia, p. 266.

[ix] Encyclopedia, p. 267.

[x] Encyclopedia, p. 266.

[xi] Encyclopedia, p. 266.

[xii] Encyclopedia, pp. 266-7.

[xiii] Encyclopedia, pp. 269-70.

[xiv] Glenny, p. 507; Arendt.

[xv] Encyclopedia, p. 267.

[xvi] Quote in Encyclopedia, p. 267.

[xvii] Glenny, p. 507.

[xviii] Quote from a letter by Belev to the Minister of Internal Affairs Petar Gabrovski in Encyclopedia, p. 267.

[xix] Glenny, p. 507.

[xx] Encyclopedia, p. 268.

[xxi] Encyclopedia, pp. 268, 934, 1465.

[xxii] Glenny, p. 509.

[xxiii] Encyclopedia, p. 268.

[xxiv] Encyclopedia, p. 269.

[xxv] Glenny, p. 510.

[xxvi] Glenny, p. 510.

[xxvii] Encyclopedia, p. 269.

[xxviii] Encyclopedia, p. 270.

[xxix] Encyclopedia, p. 269; Arendt.

[xxx] Glenny, p. 510.

[xxxi] Kaltchev.

[xxxii] Encyclopedia, pp. 269-70.

[xxxiii] Kaltchev.

[xxxiv] Encyclopedia, p. 271.

[xxxv] It is interesting to note that leaders of Bulgarian Jewry have supported both sides in this conflict – cf. Samuel Franses (Kaltchev) favouring the ‘Communist’ version and Benjamin Ardity (Encyclopedia, p. 271) favouring the ‘pro-Boris’ interpretation. This should only reveal the lack of clarity and the role of bias in the existing opinions about the issue.

[xxxvi] Encyclopedia, p. 271.

[xxxvii] See also Glenny, p. 511.

[xxxviii] Encyclopedia, p. 271.

[xxxix] Encyclopedia, p. 271.

[xl] Glenny, p. 510.

[xli] Cf. Kaltchev.

[xlii] Encyclopedia, p. 271; Glenny, pp. 510-1.

[xliii] Encyclopedia, p. 271.

[xliv] Nissim – speech.

[xlv] Encyclopedia, p. 269.

[xlvi] Encyclopedia, p. 270.

[xlvii] Encyclopedia, p. 270.

[xlviii] Boyadjieff.

[xlix] Boyadjieff. The same ‘pro-Boris’ source goes as far as to ascribe the entire deportation process to German agents, in an open contradiction with the rest of the examined sources.

[l] Boyadjieff, Kaltchev.

[li] Encyclopedia, p. 271.

[lii] Nissim – lecture.

[liii] Quotes in Nissim – lecture.

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