The Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews:
"Had The King Not Done It,
We Wouldn't Be Here Now ..."
Facts do not cease to exist just because somebody
is ignoring them. (Aldous Huxley).
Who saved the Jews in Bulgaria during WW II? On February 1, an
international symposium in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia discussed again
this subject. The forum was sponsored by the Sofia University, the
St. Cyrill and St. Methody Endowment, the American University in Bulgaria
and the Augustin Peitchinov Endowment. Professor Michael Bar-Zohar and Dr.
Avraham Ben-Yakov of Israel presented in-depth scientific analysis based on
documents after long years of research. As one of the participants pointed
out, the symposium actually had to save the very discussion about who
indeed saved the Bulgarian Jews. Irvin Kristol wrote recently in The Wall
Street Journal that memory is the enemy of policy. The discussion in Sofia
shows that historical facts cannot be rejected by ideological reasoning. If
somebody's policy is colliding with memory and facts, there must be
something wrong with the policy.
- Not a single Bulgarian Jew was deported to the Nazi death camps during
the Second World War. With exception of ten casualties of a fire, no one
- Jews had to wear Star of David badges. Many businesses and professions
were forbidden for them. Jewish real estate and other property were
confiscated. Adult men were banned from normal military service and drafted
to build roads instead.
- Over 11,000 Jews who lived in the occupied territories of Macedonia and
Thrace could not be rescued. The claim of the Bulgarian Kingdom over
Macedonia and Thrace was never recognized by the Third Reich and Bulgaria
had no sovereignty over this region and its civilian population.
During the recent years the discussion about the interpretation of these
facts became very intense.
The Soviet Union installed in September 1944 a Communist regime in
Sofia. Since then, until November 1989 when state and party head Todor
Zhivkov was ousted, the official propaganda kept maintaining that the
Bulgarian Communist Party was the sole deciding force in the 1943 campaign
to save the Jews. For the next five decades the story remained the
same. What occasionally changed was just the name of the current
'leader-hero' who was credited with the success.
During the last few years, thanks to the democratization process in
Bulgaria, many 'forbidden' facts and factors have surfaced.
The public came to know that the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox
Church, in a sternly worded letter, unanimously asked the Parliament, the
Government and the king to prevent the deportation. The prominent
archbishops of Sofia and Plovdiv, Stephan and Cyrill, became personally
deeply involved and most dedicated defenders of the Jews.
A large group of parliamentarians led by the Deputy Speaker, Dimitar
Peshev, signed a letter of protest against the plans for deportation and
attempted to introduce legislative measures, based on Article 57 of the
Constitution (equal treatment of all Bulgarian citizens) and Article 61
("Every slave, regardless of his or her gender, religion and nationality,
shall enjoy freedom from the moment he or she steps onto Bulgarian soil")
Among the signatories there were not only left-wingers and Communists but
also middle-of-the-road politicians and, surprisingly, representatives of
the far right, such as Professor Alexander Tsankov. Finally, research
publications appeared in Israel, Western Europe and the USA. Authentic
documents confirmed explicitly that the late King Boris III was the
ultimate force in preventing the deportation (and, thus, the extermination)
of the Bulgarian Jews.
Some parts of the whole picture were already known to the broad public.
However, during almost half a century of oppression in Bulgaria there was
neither a free flow of information, nor independent research with access to
the archives. The very mention of a certain role of the king in the rescue
was impossible, since it might have undermined the propaganda myth. After
the palace coup in 1989, the leading official historian, Professor Iltcho
Dimitrov, a loyal to the Communist regime scientist (now Minister of
Culture in the current government of the renamed Communists) admitted what
the then-head of state told him back in 1986. Arguing that the diary of the
wartime prime minister, the late Bogdan Filov, shall not be published,
Zhivkov stated bluntly: "What conclusion will the public draw from this
book? That the bourgeoisie defended the interests of the nation and the
Communists were in a retreat!"
Sources and Archives
Numerous books and publications in the Western world examined the history
of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom in general and the period 1918-- 1946 in
particular. The circles who claim to have a monopoly over the truth,
criticized these publications with a laughable argumentation: the foreign
authors used mainly foreign sources in the research. What should have been
used -- the cock-and-bull glorification stories about the former dictator
Zhivkov being a descendent of ancient Bulgarian rulers and chief protector
of the Jews?
Over fifty years after the Communist coup in 1944, The Royal Court Archives
in Sofia remain sealed and absolutely closed for researchers. The only
explanation for such a paranoid secrecy is that there are documents that do
not fit the legends created by Communist propaganda.
Foul Language and Rhetoric vs. Facts
As G. K. Chesterton pointed once, people quarrel when they are unable to
For many former Communists, now renamed Socialists (among them,
regrettably, also a few Jews), the very reference to the word 'king' in any
favorable context triggers a primitive reflex, conditioned during decades
of indoctrination. Mr. Samuel Franses, in his capacity of Editor-in-Chief
of the Sofia-based Jewish newspaper Evreiski Vesti turned the paper into a
loudspeaker of hard-core Communists. In a one-sided, primitive campaign the
paper flatly rejects proven facts, brings in no facts but ideological
recitation, uses insults and foul language when referring to the late Boris
III. The king was called a 'fascist', an 'absolute monarch', a 'supporter
of extreme rightist organizations', a person who 'accepted the theory of
the Jewish inferiority' and so on.
King Boris III -- a fascist?
The king who successfully resisted the pressure of Hitler to deport the
Jewish population of Bulgaria to the death camps and to send Bulgarian
soldiers to the Eastern front, died in Sofia on August 28, 1943, under
suspicious circumstances, few days after a meeting with Hitler at the
Wolfsschanze (Fuehrer's headquarters). The late Pavel Grouev, King Boris's
Chief of Cabinet, revealed to his son that the king told him of an
"unusually stormy meeting during which Hitler insisted that Bulgaria join
the war against Russia." A quarrel started when Hitler rejected Boris's
arguments that Bulgaria shall remain neutral vis-a-vis Moscow. On August
16, King Boris visited his oldest adviser, Mr. Strashimir Dobrovitch. Boris
gave him an account what happened at the Wolfsschanze. Two weeks later the
dying of cancer Dobrovitch revealed to Princess Evdokia what her brother
had told him. "His Majesty had a terrible fight with the Germans (...) who
wanted Bulgaria to declare war on Russia and take an active part in it, but
the King had categorically refused." Dobrovitch went on quoting the King:
"The year 1918 won't happen again! Now my hands are free, I untied them
just in time ... But in order to achieve this, I had to put up a terrible
fight. Hitler went into a rage when I refused his demands [...] Screaming
like a madman, he attacked me and Bulgaria in a torrent of accusations and
threats. It was horrible. But I didn't give in one inch! He tried to
frighten me, but, instead, I calmly explained the situation, saying what I
had to say, clearly and unequivocally, i.e., that I have decided that we
should follow our own road. My hands are now free. [...] I saved you. Even
if I have to pay for it!" There is not a single known fact that King Boris
ever supported an extreme rightist organization. The generals Nikola Zhekov
and Hristo Loukov, two of the godfathers of the rightist National Legions,
bitterly complained through German channels to Berlin that the King was not
conducting pro-German and pro-Hitler policy.
King Boris -- an absolute monarch, a dictator ?
Far away from this. It is proven beyond any doubt that during his 25 years
rule Boris III was under constant threats of being dethroned by right-
wingers. At least four times (in 1923, 1925, 1934, 1941) the King mentioned
to his close advisers the possibility of an abdication in order not to be
responsible for the growing right-wing trends. He managed to delay
Bulgaria's participation in the Tripartite pact by five months. At that
time he once stated: "...I would rather prefer to enter an alliance with
Russia, never mind that the Bolsheviks will force me to resign
thereafter..." (How perspicacious of him: the young King Michael of
Romania did so in 1944. He was awarded high Soviet military
decorations. Soon thereafter he was forced to abdicate by the Romanian
Communist party leader and Soviet proxy Petru Groza (according to Michael,
it was done on gun point). Thus, King Boris III delayed the inevitable as
long as it was possible and managed to negotiate optimal conditions: the
Germans just to cross Bulgarian territory (fast, not as an occupying force,
and along strictly designated routes) and the country to preserve its
sovereignty. What else could the king do, facing the concentration of the
powerful German divisions on the Northern bank of the Danube? To fight a
short, hopeless war, to risk immense bloodshed and a German occupation of
King Boris III -- an anti-Semite?
Prominent Zionist Nahum Sokoloff who has visited Bulgaria and was received
in the palace, declared after the audience: "You can be proud of your king;
he is a friend of ours." Many Jews were suppliers, physicians and dentists
for the Royal Court. The king sent a message to the IX Bulgarian Zionist's
Conference that reads "My best regards to the Bulgarian Zionists who always
have been good citizens." The Jewish Consistory in Sofia and the king
regularly exchanged congratulations for holidays and anniversaries. The
last one, for the fifth birthday of Crown Prince Simeon, is from June
1942. Its publication prompted German ambassador, Adolf Beckerle, to report
the "incident" to Berlin. In his Diary (1943) Prime Minister Filov quotes
King Boris III as saying "...the German treatment of the Jews is inhuman."
When Bulgarian Jews were forced to wear the Star of David, many of them
attached to it the portraits of the King and the Royal Family. It is known
that on request of the Bulgarian Queen Giovanna (a daughter of the Italian
King Victor-Emmanuel) the Italian ambassador in Sofia, Count Magistrati,
issued Italian passports and transit visas to Jews of foreign nationalities
who lived in Bulgaria. It is a less known fact, however, that King Boris
quietly helped thousands of Jews from Slovakia, first been sent to Hungary
and then to Bulgaria, to receive transit visas to Palestine.
The King and the Rescue
On April 4, 1943, German Foreign Minister Joachim v. Ribbentrop, after the
talks he and Hitler had with Boris III in Germany, informs in a top secret
note the Imperial Main Directorate for Security (RSHA) and the German
ambassador in Sofia that the king was "not going to deport the Jews from
the old territories of Bulgaria", while Germany was insisting on the "final
solution." Boris III countered the German pressure with the argument that
the Jews were needed in Bulgaria to build roads. On March 9, 1943,
Interior Minister Gabrovski abruptly reversed the prepared orders to the
district governors to go on with the deportation. On the next day these of
the Jews who were already in custody, were released. The German ambassador,
Adolf Beckerle, reported to Berlin: "It is more than certain that the
interior minister was instructed from the highest place to stop the
execution of the planned deportation of the Jews from old Bulgaria."
The deportation was indeed prevented from the highest place -- from the
Palace. Alexander Belev, the head of the Office for Jewish Affairs, was
infuriated. He shouted at the Chief Rabbi Asher Hannanel: "You should be
grateful that you have powerful supporters behind you! Otherwise I would
lock you up, together with your entire congregation this very evening and
send you to Germany, not to Poland!" Monsignor Angelo Roncalli, the future
Pope John XXIII, was Apostolic Delegate (papal nuncio) in Istanbul. In a
letter to Boris III he intervened in favor of the Bulgarian Jews. On the
copy of the letter Mgr. Roncalli noted, by hand, that the King replied
verbally to his message. The note goes on: "Il Re ha fatto qualche cosa"
("The king has acted") and, noting the difficult situation of the monarch,
Mgr. Roncalli stresses once again: "Pero, ripeto, ha fatto" ("But I
repeat, he has acted").
The well-founded reports of Professor Michael Bar-Zohar and Dr. Avraham
Ben-Yakov led to the following conclusion: The rescue of the Jewish
population of the Bulgarian Kingdom was a product of the united efforts of
three forces -- the king, the Orthodox Church and the Bulgarian
society. None of them could have achieved it alone. Without any doubt, the
key role in this noble endeavor belongs to the man who was then at the
highest place and who made the ultimate decision -- King Boris III. The
international symposium in Sofia was attended mainly by representatives of
the Bulgarian Jewish community. One of them argued: "Yes, but we had,
indeed, to go through persecutions, humiliations, hardship..." Another
one, who has experienced all this himelf, gave the answer. Though
emotionally colored and not scientifically formulated, it was built both on
facts and common sense: "You're right. It was very hard. But I'm happy
because we were spared. The other option was we to be sent to Poland and
cremated. Had the king not done what he did, neither you nor I would be
able to be here to argue!"
Sofia - Munich
More documents on the saving of Bulgarian Jews during WW II are available
Text written by Nick Kaltchev
was put into HTML format on July 25, 1995