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By Carl Savich
During World War II, a Greater Bulgaria was created by the Axis Powers, which included Macedonia, Thrace, and eastern Serbia. During the Holocaust from 1941 to 1944, approximately 5,000 Jews were killed in Bulgaria proper. Approximately 12,000 Jews were killed in Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia,Thrace, and eastern Serbia, Greater Bulgaria. Bulgaria was, however, able to prevent the deportation of the overwhelming majority of its Jewish population, approximately 48,000-50,000, which survived the Holocaust.
Greater Bulgaria and Macedonia
Bulgaria achieved national independence on September 22, 1908 when King Ferdinand I declared complete independence from Turkey after gaining autonomy in 1878. From 1396 to 1878 Bulgaria was part of Ottoman Turkey. In 1912-13, Bulgaria participated in the First and Second Balkan Wars primarily over Macedonia. Bulgaria lost Macedonia in the Second Balkan War, joining the Central Powers in World War I in an attempt to regain Macedonia. Bulgaria was a constitutional monarchy with a Narodno Sobranie, or National Assembly. In 1940, Bulgaria had a population of 6, 2000,000 which consisted of 85% Slavic Bulgarians, 10% Muslim Turks, 1.5% were Muslim Bulgarians, or Pomaks, who are Slavic Bulgarian Bogomils forcefully converted to Islam. The population was 87.5% Christian Orthodox; the rest consisted of Muslims, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. In 1943, there were 63, 403 Jews in Greater Bulgaria, which consisted of Macedonia,Thrace, and eastern Serbia, making up 1% of the total population. Jews settled in Bulgaria in the fist century AD. Bulgarian Jews were granted special privileges during the medieval period. In 1878 when Bulgaria achieved autonomy from the Ottoman Turkish Empire, Jews were accorded full and equal rights.
Bulgaria had fought in the First and Second Balkan Wars, 1912-13, World War I, 1914-18, and World War II, 1939-1945, motivated primarily by the objective to annex Macedonia, which was perceived as an integral part of Greater Bulgaria. Bulgarian nationalists also claimed Thrace from Greece and eastern Serbia for Greater Bulgaria. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini allowed for the realization of a Greater Bulgaria during World War II, after the Axis Powers invaded, occupied, and dismembered Yugoslavia. The “Bulgarization” of Macedonia,Thrace, and eastern Serbia followed, with Bulgarian forces seeking to eradicate the Serbian Orthodox population and Serbian political and cultural influence in Macedonia and eastern Serbia. In Thrace, the Bulgarian occupation sought to eliminate the Greek Orthodox population and Greek cultural influence. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini created a Greater Albania with the incorporation and annexation of Western Macedonia, Kosovo-Metohija, and southern Montenegro, into a Greater Albanian State, or Ethnic Albania.
Approximately 90% of the Bulgarian Jews were Sephardic/Sephardim, consisting of those who were expelled en masse from Spain in 1492. In 1493, Sultan Beyazit II had invited Spanish and Portuguese Jews to the Balkans. They had migrated to Bulgaria between the 16th and the 19th centuries from the Jewish settlements in Salonika and Sarajevo. Ashkenazi Jews from Romania and Austria-Hungary and Russia also settled in Bulgaria. Bulgarian Jews spoke Ladino, a Jewish version of Spanish. There was a Bulgarian-Jewish central council for the Jewish community called the Consistory. In 1918, the council adopted Zionism. The Bulgarian Jewish communities enjoyed administrative and financial autonomy. In Bulgaria, Jews were urban, their main occupation being in the retail trade and professional sector of the economy. In Sofia, Jews made up half the retail trade. In the late 19th century, three incidents occurred where Bulgarian Jews were accused of blood libel, of killing Christians/gentiles to use their blood in Jewish religious rituals. In the early 20th century, anti-Jewish riots erupted in several Bulgarian cities. The Union of Bulgarian National Legions (Saiuz na Bulgarskite Natsionalni Legioni), or the Legionnaires’ Association, a nationalist fascist/Nazi style organization, was established in 1933. A fascist group led by Peter Gabrovski, the Guardians of the Advancement of the Bulgarian National Spirit (Ratnitsi Napreduka na Bulgarshtinata), the Ratnitsi, was established. Branik, a youth organization based on the Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth Movement, was later formed.
Bulgaria, like Germany, bore the brunt of the Versailles Treaty, having Macedonia stripped away, having to pay reparations payments until 1932, and there were restrictions and limits placed on the size and strength of its armed forces. In the 1930s, Bulgaria switched to the export of “industrial crops”, primarily tobacco, which replaced wheat as the chief Bulgarian export. Small agricultural plots predominated with only 1% of land holdings exceeding 20 hectares in 1944. In 1929, Germany made up 29% of Bulgaria’s foreign trade, in 1933, 36%, 43% in 1934. By 1939, Germany made up 68% of Bulgarian foreign trade. Bulgaria thus was economically dependent on Germany. Economic dependency with Germany was reinforced by the trade arrangement between the two countries, Germany trading finished industrial products in exchange for nonconvertible currency. Britain and France showed no interest in trading with Bulgaria. Bulgaria thus was forced to depend on Germany economically.In 1936 a rearmament program was launched which relied exclusively on German arms and equipment. Economically, politically, and diplomatically, Bulgaria and Germany grew closer together as they sought to reverse the losses of World War I. Bulgaria sought to obtain Macedonia.
Bulgaria declared its neutrality with the start of World War II with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Bulgaria also sought a political rapprochement with Yugoslavia. A Yugoslav-Bulgarian friendship treaty was signed in 1937 and a renunciation of armed intervention in 1938. The Little Entente, a defensive alliance between Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, collapsed in 1938 with the German occupation and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. This forced Yugoslavia and Romania to seek greater ties with Bulgaria. Economic dependence on Germany forced Bulgaria to lean towards Germany. Germany also offered the prospect of territorial revision of Versailles and the annexation of Macedonia to Bulgaria. Bulgarian King Boris III was married to the daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. On February 15, 1940, pro-German Bogdan Filov was appointed prime minister by King Boris III, replacing pro-West Georgi Kioseivanov. Boris rejected inclusion in the Balkan Entente and in the proposed Turkish-Yugoslav-Bulgarian defense pact in order not to antagonize Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. Under the Treaty of Craiova, Romania ceded southern Dobruja to Bulgaria in 1940 under pressure from Adolf Hitler. When Germany massed troops in Romania in preparation for the invasion of Greece, Tsar Boris was forced to establish a “passive alliance” with Germany and the Axis Powers.
On March 1, 1941, Bulgaria joined the Axis countries in the Tripartite Pact or alliance. That same day, Hitler returned the southern Dobruja or the Dobrudzha region to Bulgaria from Romania in an arbitration agreement. The next day German troops were deployed to Bulgaria. Bulgaria participated in the attacks on Yugoslavia and Greece which began on April 6, 1941, Operation Punishment and Marita respectively. Bulgaria annexed Macedonia, Thrace, and eastern Serbia after the German occupation of Yugoslavia. Bulgaria declared war on the US and Britain, but not against the USSR. Bulgaria was also the only Axis country that did not send troops on the Russian Front.
The Filov regime instituted anti-Jewish laws. In July, 1940, the government stated that it was going to “take steps that would restrict the activities of the Jews.” On October 7, 1940, the Law for the Protection of the Nation was passed, restricting the rights of Bulgarian Jews. Josef Geron, the chairman of the Jewish Consistory in Sofia, and other members of the executive board and activists, sought to counter the new legislation by showing the harm it would cause to the Bulgarian society. King Boris refused to meet with them. In October, 1940, a group of 21 writers sent a protest letter to the prime minister: “On behalf of civilization and on behalf of Bulgaria’s good name, we beseech you not to accept the law, the repercussions of which would put a dark stain on our legislation and leave an intolerable mark upon our national memory.” The Bulgarian Bar and Medical Associations also sent protest letters. Bulgarian political leaders also protested. The Holy Synod, the supreme body of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, also protested and metropolitan Stefan of Sofia, Cyril of Plovdiv, Sofroni of Vratsa, and Neofit of Vidin personally intervened. There was a lack of an anti-Jewish history in Bulgaria and the anti-Jewish measures and legislation lacked popular support. In Bulgaria, Karl Hoffmann of the Reich Security Head Office, Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the RSHA, in a letter to Berlin of April 5, 1943, noted: “Anybody who is familiar with conditions in Bulgaria must realize that as the time draws near for the ‘transports’ of the Jews, there will be problems…. The Jewish Question does not exist in Bulgaria in the sense that it does in Germany. The ideological and racial prerequisites for convincing the Bulgarian people of the urgent need for a solution of the Jewish question as in the Reich are not to be found here.” There was support, however, for the anti-Jewish legislation: The Pharmacists’ Association (Aptekarski Saiuz), the Merchants’ Association (Tragovskoto Sdruzhenie), the Student Union (Studenskata Organizatsia), the Federation of Reserve Sergeants and Soldiers (Saiuz na Zapasnite Podofitseri I Voinitsi), and the Federation of Reserve Officers ( Saiuz na Zapasnite Ofitseri) supported the legislation.
On January 21, 1941, the anti-Jewish legislation was passed by the parliament and King Boris signed it into law. The anti-Jewish measures were modeled on the Nuremberg Race Laws. The racial definition of a Jew used the Nuremberg Law definition. The Bulgarian law stated that “the Jews are an evil and a foreign element among the Bulgarian People that acts against the State.” The law banned internationalist and supra-nationalist groups and organizations such as the various Zionist organizations in Bulgaria and the B’nai B’rith (Hebrew, Sons of the Covenant) organization. Under the new law, Jews were banned from intermarrying with Bulgarians. Jewish economic activities were restricted. Jews were confined to their current residences. Jews could not be elected to public office and could not vote for such offices. Jewish civil servants were forced to resign. A quota of Jews, numerous clauses, was to restrict Jewish enrollment in universities. The law also defined what was “anti-national” conduct by Jews and other foreign nationals in Bulgaria. In February, 1941, the regulations for the Law for the protection of the Nation were promulgated which further restricted Jewish rights in Bulgaria. In November, 1941, Bulgarian foreign minister Ivan Popov met with Joachim Ribbentrop, who reportedly told him that Hitler planned to deport all of the Jews out of Europe when the war ended. As a first step, Jews would be deported to Poland.
In August, 1942, a regulation was passed that created the Commissariat for Jewish Questions, Komisarstvo za Evreiskite Vuprosi, KEV. The Ministry of Internal Affairs implemented and administered the anti-Jewish laws and regulations and applied the Law for the Protection of the Nation. The KEV assumed authority over the Jewish community, which had formerly been led by the Jewish boards. On September 30, 1942, the lawyer Aleksander Belev was appointed the Commissioner for Jewish Questions. In an August 29, 1942 letter to the Bulgarian internal affairs minister Peter Gabrovski, he emphasized that the goal was the emigration of Bulgarian Jews:
The radical solution of our Jewish Question will be their emigration, which will have to proceed hand in hand with the confiscation of their property…. For the present, the possibility for such emigration does not exist, unless Germany were to agree to settle the Jews in Galicia or in another part of Russia. For the present time, until such time as conditions arise that would enable the emigration of Jews to proceed, it is imperative to toughen the measures against them.
The anti-Jewish measures were to be funded by Bulgarian Jews themselves. Jewish bank accounts were frozen and a set percentage was taken. Jews also had to pay special or extra fees for the issuance of official documents. The plan was to first deport the Jews from Thrace, then from Macedonia, and finally from the area of eastern Serbia annexed by Bulgaria. Finally, the Jews of Bulgaria would be deported.
The deportations were organized in Sofia between SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Theodor Dannecker, a specialist in deportations who had been transferred from France, and Belev. An agreement was signed on February 22, 1943 that stipulated that “as a first step, twenty thousand Jews will be deported to German territories in the east.” Under the deportation decree, “twenty thousand Jews, irrespective of sex or age… would be expelled to the eastern provinces; … the Bulgarian Ministry of the Interior would ensure that the transports would consist only of Jews.” The deportations were to be in secret. Jews were to be told that they would be transported to other regions ofBulgaria. The deportations were only to take place in Bulgarian-annexed Macedonia and Thrace. But Dannecker and Belev altered the agreement so that all Bulgarian Jews would be subject to deportation. On March 2, the Bulgarian government approved of the deportations with the understanding that Jews from Macedonia and Thrace would be deported. News of the deportations leaked out, generating widespread resistance and opposition. Bulgarian Orthodox Bishop Kiril sent a telegram to Tsar Boris threatening civil disobedience. Writers, prominent citizens, and Bulgarian Jews protested the proposed deportations. Belev initially proposed a list of 8,500 Jews to be deported from Bulgaria, excluding Macedonia and Thrace.
Because of widespread resistance, Dannecker and Belev began the deportations
in Thrace, which had a population of 4,000 Greek Jews. Bulgarian officials
were much more willing to “deport” Greek, Macedonian, or Serbian Jews,
that is, “foreign” Jews, than Bulgarian Jews. Bulgarian forces substituted
Greek Jews for Bulgarian Jews on the Bulgarian “death trains” as part of
their “Bulgarization” program. On March 4, approximately 12,000 Jews in
Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia,Thrace, and eastern Serbia were rounded up
and deported. They were herded in camps where many were robbed of their
possessions. Bulgarian officials then put then on trains which were under
the authority of the German Wehrmacht.The port of Lom on the Danube was
their first stop. Cargo boats took them to Vienna from there. They boarded
trains in Vienna which took them to Treblinka, where almost all were killed
in the gas chambers.
In Macedonia, there were 7,800 Jews, 3,800 in Skopje, 3,300 in Bitola,
and 550 in Stip. The deportations in Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia began
on March 11, 1943 at 2:00 AM when several hundred men were mobilized as
police and instructed to round up Jews from lists. They were told that
they would be transported to other parts ofBulgaria and would be allowed
to return when the war was over. They were also instructed to bring their
valuables and money with them.The police prepared carts to transport elderly
and ill Jews along with their luggage. Armed soldiers were in the streets
to prevent any Jews from escaping from the police. A survivor gave the
following eyewitness account:
On March 11, 1943, the Jewish quarter of Bitola in Macedonia was divided into 26 districts while the town was blockaded by army troops. Between 5 and 6 AM, Jews were to be ready within an hour to leave. At 7 AM, police escorted them from their houses to a railroad station at which time their possessions were taken from them. They were taken to the transit camp in Skopje, the Monopol tobacco warehouse. Heskija Pijade, a survivor, recalled what happened:
They loaded us into cattle wagons, fifty to sixty people in one wagon together with the luggage. There was not enough room and many had to stand. There was no water. The children kept on crying. … In one wagon a woman was in labor… and there was no doctor at hand. We reached Skoplje at midnight… They opened the wagons and in the darkness pushed us into two big buildings. Our train had had the wagons carrying the Jews from Stip coupled to it. We kept stumbling over each other in the darkness, dragging along our luggage, the children, the aged and the sick. Squeezed in the mass and continuously beaten by the Bulgarian soldiers, we tried to get into the building. At dawn we learned that we were in Skoplje, in the Monopoly building, and that all the Jews of the whole of Macedonia had been rounded up that day.
In the Monopoly, 8,000 Macedonian Jews were confined to 30 rooms in four buildings. A doctor from Bitolj has described conditions there:
“In one room there were over 500 persons… We and the Jews from Stip were kept locked in during the whole of the day because the plundering search of the Jews from Skoplje was still in progress… When some of us tried to peep through the windows, a policeman fired in the air…
On March 13, they opened the door for the first time and allowed us
to go to the latrines… They let out the 500 that were in our room and gave
us half an hour, whereupon they locked us up again so that more than half
the people never managed to relieve themselves or to get water… The food
was distributed once daily and it consisted of 250 grams of bread and usually
a watery dish of beans or rice… They gave us smoked meat from time to time,
but it was so foul that we could not eat it in spite of our hunger…
The Monopol transit camp, a government tobacco warehouse, contained 7,341 Jews. Eleven days later, 165 were released. These were doctors, pharmacists, and foreign nationals. The rest were transported to the Treblinka concentration camp on March 22, 25, and 29, where they died in the gas chambers. More than 2,000 children below the age of 16 were killed. Approximately 200 Macedonian Jews survived.
Resistance to the Holocaust in Bulgaria
In Kyustendil, the provincial governor opposed the deportation orders. Dimiter Peshev, the deputy speaker of the Bulgarian parliament, pressed Gabrovski to stop the deportations. This resistance caused a delay in the deportations. Peshev was subsequently reprimanded and voted out of parliament by a majority of the members. Belev resigned.
On April 5, the German minister in Sofia, Adolf Heinz Baekerle, sent a letter to Berlin announcing that pressure would be stepped up on the Bulgarian government to deport Bulgarian Jews. On May 22, 1943, a new deportation plan was promulgated that envisioned the deportation of 25,000 Jews from the capital, Sofia. They would be transferred to the provinces from where they would be deported out of Bulgaria. Within 12 days, 19,153 Jews were deported from Sofia and resettled in 20 provincial towns. Under the Law for the Protection of the Nation, all Jews ten and above had to wear a yellow badge with the Star of David, every Jewish house or business had to have a sign identifying it as Jewish. Curfews were established for Jews, they could not use main roads or streets, and they could not attend cinemas and cafes. Their automobiles, bicycles, and radios were taken from them as were jewelry and rugs. Jewish teachers were also dismissed from Bulgarian schools and universities.
On August 28, 1943, King Boris died following a meeting with Hitler under mysterious circumstances at the age of 49. He was replaced by a three-man regency ruling for his six-year-old son Simeon II. Filov became the de facto head of state. Bulgarian policy began to change in 1943 following the German military disaster in Stalingrad and the strategic failure at Kursk. The Allies also increased their air raids and bombardment of Sofia. The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and Orthodox metropolitans Cyril and Stefan opposed the deportations. The Bulgarian government was able to delay and scuttle the deportations of the Jews from Bulgaria proper. Many factors can explain why the Bulgarian Jews were not deported. Bulgarian Jews were mostly working class, or blue collar. They were not wealthy and did not disproportionately dominate any sector of Bulgarian society. There was thus no antipathy towards the Jewish population, there was no class resentment, no dissatisfaction or envy for the power of Jews in Bulgarian society, which was usually the ferment for the genesis of ideological anti-Semitism. Moreover, Bulgarian Jews were mostly secular, so they did not set themselves apart with religious rituals and customs and attire. King Boris III was ambivalent himself. His major motivation for entering an alliance with the Axis Powers was to annex Macedonia, which was perceived as an integral territory of Greater Bulgaria. Germany and Italy also exerted tremendous military, economic, and political pressure on Bulgaria to join the Tripartite Pact. Importantly, Bulgaria was a willing member of the Axis Powers, forming a “passive” alliance. Bulgaria did not have to be invaded and occupied, saving German lives and resources. So Hitler could not just order the Bulgarian government to do whatever he wanted because Bulgaria was an ally, not a conquered and occupied enemy combatant.
On September 5, 1944, the Soviet Union declared war on Bulgaria. Red Army troops invaded Bulgaria on September 9. On October 28, Bulgaria signed an armistice with the Allies.
In all, approximately 5,000 Jews were killed during the Holocaust in Bulgaria proper between 1941 to 1944. Approximately 12,000 Jews were killed in Greater Bulgaria, Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia,Thrace, and eastern Serbia. Between 1948 and 1949, 45,000 Bulgarian Jews emigrated to Israel, or 90% of the population. Only a few thousand Jews remained in Bulgaria. For these reasons, like Denmark,Bulgaria was able to prevent the deportation of the bulk of its indigenous Jewish population, 48,000 to 50,000.
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Levin, Nora. The Holocaust Years: The Nazi Destruction of European Jewry, 1933-1945. Malabar, Florida: Krieger, 1990.
Miller, M. L. Bulgaria during the Second World War. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975.
Oren, N. “The Bulgarian Experience: A Reassessment of the Salvation of the Jewish Community.” Yad Vashem Studies 7 (1968): 83-106.