Sixty years ago this month, Bulgarian citizens took the first heroic steps to prevent the deportation of 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to Nazi death camps.
It also was 60 years ago, however, that Nazi-allied Bulgarian occupiers brutally rounded up and deported nearly all the Jews of Macedonia, as well as Jews from parts of Greece and southern Serbia.
Parallel ceremonies in Bulgaria and Macedonia next week are marking the twin events from two decidedly different viewpoints.
In Bulgaria, where the wartime heroism has prompted numerous awards and honors in recent years, the ceremonies are what the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, James Pardew, called a “celebration of courage and tolerance” honoring individual Bulgarians and their political and religious leaders.
“Through their decisive actions,” Pardew told an audience in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia earlier this year, “Bulgaria ensured its place in history as a society that respects the life and human dignity of all people.”
In Macedonia, however, the ceremonies have a different character.
They are a mournful commemoration of the almost total annihilation of centuries of local Jewish life and culture. Macedonian Jews want to make sure this fact isn’t overlooked amid the celebration of the Bulgarian rescue.
“It’s a two-way thing,” Zdravko Sami, vice president of the 200-member Macedonian Jewish community, told JTA in a telephone interview from the capital, Skopje.
“First of all,” he said, “it is thanks to a part of the Bulgarian population, including religious, intellectual and political leaders, that the deportation of Jews from Bulgaria itself was stopped — and they deserve the recognition.”
On the other hand, he went on, “The Bulgarian government and authorities were the culprits in the deportation and extermination of 98 percent of Macedonia’s Jews. That’s a record percentage of destruction.”
The ceremonies in Macedonia include the wreath-layings, speeches and other formal events that annually mark the occasion.
But, Sami said, they also will include a series of seminars, lectures, broadcasts and other initiatives throughout the year aimed at furthering awareness of the Holocaust and its impact.
The first of these was a public roundtable discussion this week on Holocaust memory, anti-Semitism and multicultural coexistence.
It was cosponsored by Macedonia’s Holocaust Fund, which was established last year with funds granted by the government in compensation for the heirless private property of Macedonian Jews killed in the Shoah.
The rescue of Bulgarian Jewry represented a unique chapter in Holocaust history, but its full story remained largely unknown until the fall of communism in 1989.
During World War II, Bulgaria became an ally of Nazi Germany, largely so that it could occupy and annex neighboring territories it had lost in earlier wars — areas in what is today Macedonia, the Thrace region of Greece and parts of southern Serbia around the town of Pirot.
In early 1943, the Bulgarian government signed a secret agreement with the Nazis to deport 20,000 Jews to death camps in Poland. The deportations started with Jews in the annexed territories.
Between March 4 and March 11 of that year, Bulgarian soldiers rounded up thousands of Jews, loaded them into Bulgarian boxcars and shipped them en masse to Treblinka.
“Of 11,363 Jews who were deported to the camps in Poland — the residents of Macedonia, Thrace and the city of Pirot — only 12 people survived,” Israeli diplomat and researcher Nir Baruch told the producers of “The Optimists,” a recent film about the rescue of Bulgarian Jewry.
More boxcars already were lined up to receive a first wave of 8,500 Jews in Bulgaria proper. Word of their imminent deportation leaked out, however, and the news triggered protests throughout Bulgarian society.
The then-vice president of Parliament, Dimitar Peshev, sprang into action when he was warned of the imminent deportation of Jews from his hometown, Kyustendil, on March 9. He made public the secret deportation deal and forced a temporary cancellation of the order.
Jacky Comforty, the Israeli director of “The Optimists,” tells how on March 10 his grandfather and his family, along with many of their neighbors, already had reported to the local school in the city of Plovdiv, while police sealed the doors of their houses.
“They all carried suitcases packed with clothes and food for a long trip,” Comforty recounted. “Treblinka was to be their destination. But they never reached it. After waiting all day long in the school yard, they were simply sent home.”
Peshev, meanwhile, galvanized 42 fellow legislators to sign a protest petition to the king. Orthodox Church leaders in Sofia and Plovdiv also spoke out, and professors, doctors, lawyers, students, labor leaders and peasants staged protests, including marches and street demonstrations.
Within weeks, Boris III told the Nazi leadership that he needed the Jews as construction workers.
He moved them into labor camps, but refused to deport them or hand them over to the Nazis.
“No one in any other country with a pro-Nazi government had ever used his political power to bring about a moral crisis among the accomplices of the Final Solution,” Italian author Gabriele Nissim, who wrote a book on Peshev, said at a lecture in Budapest.
Peshev, he said, had managed to transform politicians who had “opportunistically fallen in with the Germans into men with a conscience and mind of their own.”
“The Optimists” and Nissim’s book on Peshev, “The Man Who Stopped Hitler,” are part of a spate of recent documentaries and books that have brought the rescue of Bulgarian Jewry to world attention since the fall of communism.
Postwar propaganda had credited Communist Party leaders for having saved Bulgarian Jewry.
In 1945, the Communists sentenced Peshev himself to 15 years of prison for collaborating with the Nazis as a member of the wartime Parliament. He was accused of having worked to save the Jews for money.
Peshev was released after just one year. He lived in Kyustendil until his death in 1973, impoverished and largely forgotten until his rehabilitation in the 1990s.
Last October, a museum dedicated to his life was opened in the Kyustendil house where he was born.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.