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Jews Commemorate Rescue in Bulgaria of 50,000 Jews

The Jewish community this week commemorated the 50th anniversary of the rescue of 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from Nazi death camps, an event that represented at least one bright spot in the dark days of the Holocaust.

While the heroism of the Danish community in trying to save its Jewish citizens during World War II is well-known, few remember this Bulgarian act of resistance.

In March 1943, the Bulgarians canceled deportation orders against their Jewish community, orders that would have resulted in the Jews being sent to concentration camps.

The rescue, carried out by members of the Bulgarian government, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and private Bulgarian citizens, was especially noteworthy because Bulgaria was officially a German ally in the war.

Speakers at Tuesday’s daylong event, organized by B’nai B’rith, linked events during the Holocaust to the present-day crisis in Bulgaria’s Balkan neighbor, Yugoslavia, and its breakaway republics.

The Israeli ambassador to Washington, Itamar Rabinovich, who was among the participants, urged the Jewish community to learn the “lessons of the 1940s,” and not just passively hope that the violence in Yugoslavia will not spread to the rest of the Balkans.

“Let us be active and assertive in trying to end the crisis,” Rabinovich said.

Jewish groups have, in recent months, played a leading role in calling for a more active U.S. policy to stop the “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Bulgarian Ambassador Ognian Pishev said his is a country with a tradition of “ethnic tolerance” that, among other qualities, helped it to step “back from the brink of nationalism,” unlike Yugoslavia.

“I don’t think people in 1943 thought we were making history,” Pishev said, but, he added, the rescue of the Jews was “one of the most courageous” acts in Bulgarian history.

A STORY THAT NEEDS TO BE TOLD

Pishev read a letter from Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev that noted the “courage” of the Bulgarians in saving the Jewish community, but also commented on the 11,000 Jews from Bulgarian-occupied Aegean Thrace and Macedonia, “who, despite the protests of the democrats, crossed Bulgaria on the way to the Nazi concentration camps.”

A historian, Professor Frederick Chary of Indiana University Northwest, said that the Bulgarian Jewish population was actually larger in 1945 than in 1939, an unusual statistic for a European country in the World War II era.

In his remarks, Chary summarized hundreds of years of relatively tolerant conditions for Bulgarian Jews, a community that, he said, dates back to the second century.

Several participants noted the good relations developed between Israel and Bulgaria in recent years, following Bulgaria’s overthrow of its Communist government and its shift toward a democratic society.

Participants also commented on the successful adaptation of the Bulgarian Jewish community to life in Israel. The vast majority of Bulgaria’s Jews left Bulgaria after the founding of the State of Israel and the rise of Bulgaria’s Soviet-dominated Communist regime.

In addition to B’nai B’rith, the co-sponsors of the commemoration were the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German political foundation.

Dieter Dettke, the foundation’s executive director, said in his remarks that the rescue of Bulgaria’s Jews is “a story that needs to be remembered and told,” especially today when Germany faces a resurgence of violence against foreigners and support for neo-Nazis.

The commemoration also included a showing of a new film about the Bulgarian rescue, “The Optimists,” by Israeli filmmaker Jacky Comforty, and a tour of B’nai B’rith’s new exhibit on Bulgarian Jewry.

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