Bulgaria’s church and government stood against Hitler
My wife and I recently returned from a river trip down the Danube from Budapest, Hungary, to Bucharest, Bulgaria.
The most historical center of my interest was Bulgaria and the story of how the country saved 50,000 Jews during the Holocaust, so unlike its neighboring countries. The story is also not as well-known as Oscar Schindler’s efforts on behalf of 1,200 Jews. The story, however, deserves to be told and retold.
Rather than fight a lost cause, the weak Bulgarian government at first agreed to allow the Nazis to remove their Jews to be sent to “work camps.” However, once Bulgaria learned the truth that these were “death camps,” the Bulgarian people began to oppose the Nazis’ plan. Leading the opposition was the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, under the leadership of Bishop Kiril. The bishop was supported by 300 church members.
An entire mobilization effort was undertaken, involving the printing of false baptismal certificates and hiding Jews among non-Jewish families.
Meanwhile, the political parties united in opposition to the Nazis, pressuring Bogdan Filov, the prime minister of Bulgaria, to stand firmly opposed to sending Bulgaria’s Jews to the death camps.
When the trains arrived to transport Bulgaria’s Jews to Treblinka’s death camp, they remained empty, while the church provided shelter for its Jews in hiding.
The czar of Bulgaria, Boris III, sent the trains back empty, stating that the Jews were needed at home as a labor force. However, to satisfy Hitler’s continuing demands, the king set up so-called “labor camps” within Bulgaria, ensuring the Jews that they would not have to leave the protection of their homeland. Jews were free to come and go as they pleased.
During the war period of 1939-1945, while Bulgaria was on the side of Germany, its army did not participate in military actions against the Russians, nor did it persecute Jews in any manner.
With the occupation of Bulgaria by Russian troops in 1944, communism expanded and took control by 1954. Bulgaria became part of the Soviet Bloc and suffered under the tight rule of communism until 1989.
Today, it is a thriving country, but still shows signs of past communist rule in its ugly buildings, referred to as “commie condos.”
The only European nation to refuse Hitler’s orders to surrender its Jewish citizens to the gas chambers, Bulgaria, has chosen to become a democratic nation. Over 90 percent of Bulgaria’s Jewish population has emigrated to Israel, establishing a special bond between the two nations. Only about 1,200 Jews remain in Bulgaria, most of them living in Sofia, the capital.
Israel recognizes this nation that managed to protect its Jewish population in spite of its being allied to Hitler.
Across the street from our hotel in Bucharest, on a main thoroughfare, was a souvenir shop whose owner wore a yarmulke and advertised his wares in Hebrew.