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Eastern Europe

Bulgaria called to account for wartime treatment of Jews

An umbrella group of Jewish organizations in Greece has called on Bulgaria to acknowledge the deportation of thousands of Jews during World War II. The issue has sparked anger in a Bulgarian society riven by resentment.

Deportation of Jewish women and children

Thousands of Jews were deported from Bulgarian territory

The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece has called on both Sofia and the United Nations to note Bulgaria's role in the deportation of 11,343 Jews during the war, including around 4,000 from northern Greece and over 7,000 from what is today the Republic of Macedonia.

While Bulgarian troops did play a role in deporting Jews from neighboring areas occupied during the war, the country did not send any of its own Jewish population of 50,000 to the Nazis, despite the face it had an authoritarian king of German origin and was allied with Germany from 1941.

Efforts by liberal politicians, church leaders and the Bulgarian public were effective in the end, and the country successfully resisted German calls to send Jews to concentration camps and almost certain death.

Jewish-Polish-German author Arno Lustiger wrote about the subject in his book on the steps taken to save the Jews from Nazi gas chambers called Rettungswiderstand

"Most Bulgarian Jews survived World War II and the anti-Semitic extermination policy, but not due to the Bulgarian government or the head of state, who showed no scruples when it came to handing over Jews to the Germans. In March 1943, thousands of Thracian and Macedonian Jews from the part of Greece occupied by the Bulgarians were deported to Treblinka and murdered," Lustiger wrote.

"The role Bulgarians played in these deportations woke the nation up to the possible fate of their own Jewish population. Without the widespread resistance of the church, politicians and sections of society, the Bulgarian Jews would have experienced the same thing as Jews in the occupied areas did. This forceful protest was based primarily on the traditionally close relationship that existed between Jews and Christians in Bulgaria."

Historial blinders

As a German ally, Bulgaria never occupied - at least according to the nation's popular myths - territory in northern Greece or the region of Vardar Macedonia, which corresponds with today's Republic of Macedonia.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov on a visit to Yad Vashem

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov at Yad Vashem

Then, and even today, the occupation was and is interpreted by a majority of the Bugarian public not as a warlike act against sovereign states, but as a kind of national reunification.

At the same time, the responsibility for the deportation of Jews from these occupied areas is generally repressed or placed firmly on Hitler's shoulders.

This attitude is reflected in today's discussion of those events. Officially, Bulgaria has taken no position on the letter dated Jan. 26 that the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece wrote to the UN Department of Public Information.

It stated: "In the name of the historical memory of our brothers, victims of the Bulgarian atrocities in our country during the Holocaust, we ask you to include this small and 'untold' part of history in your briefing."

Touching a nerve

While Sofia has remained silent, the letter has touched a raw nerve among the public, and readers' forums on media websites have been roiling.

For some, it is the "wily Greeks" who are raising the issue, hoping to distract attention from their current economic woes. Others see it as the fault of the "arrogant Germans," who killed millions of Jews during the war and once again, irate readers say, hope to conquer the world.

The saving of Bulgaria's Jews has been recognized internationally by many groups and individuals. It has been a topic for Italian and German authors, American filmmakers, the State of Israel and Jewish communities in many countries, who have expressed their respect and appreciation for Bulgaria's actions.

"We will never know how many Jews could have been saved if others in occupied Europe had acted as the Bulgarians did. Both Christians and Jews there deserve to be collectively honored," wrote historian Arno Lustiger who added that as of January 2011, 19 bulgarians had been honored as "righteous" by Yad Veshem in Israel.

Selective memory

A majority of Bulgarians would like to have the focus remain firmly on this positive side of their history, and it is not the first time that the country has had difficulty taking a critical look at its own past.

Right-wing Bulgarians demonstrate with emblem

Right-wing extremism is on the rise in Bulgaria

Be it Bulgaria's aggressive role in the Balkan war and the two World Wars, a relationship to the Soviet Union that was so close that Bulgaria was often referred to as the 16th Soviet Republic, or the dark story of the country's secret police during the communist era, uncomfortable parts of Bulgarian history are generally not talked about or quietly swept under the rug.

Today, Bulgaria is witnessing the rise of a dangerous strain of nationalism coupled with racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. All together, these have led to attacks against the Roma population, Muslims, dark-skinned soccer players and gays and lesbians.

Given this, the current furor surrounding the letter sent by the Jewish umbrella group is not surprising.

Author: Alexander Andreev / jam
Editor: Joanna Impey

DW.DE