The History of Bulgarian Jewry during the Holocaust

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If 48,000 Jews lived in Bulgaria before the Holocaust and nearly all of them were alive at the end of the Second World War, how could that not be called a rescue?  The answer is fascinating and complex.  Nearly 12,000 Jews in Bulgarian-occupied Greece and Yugoslavia were in fact, deported to their deaths--and it was carried out by the Bulgarian police at the order of the Bulgarian government. 
But when it came time to deport Jews from historic Bulgaria, something happened.  Through a mixture of luck, good friends and civil courage, Bulgaria's Jews were not sent away in March 1943 to the Nazi death camps.  Two months later, however, 20,000 Jews from Sofia were deported internally, where they worked in forced labor, were stripped of their assets, and lived in terrible conditions. 
This short film provides a context to one of the least known stories of the Holocaust.

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For almost 500 years Bulgaria itself was under Ottoman occupation, (1396 – 1878), the Ottoman Empire compared to other rulers were far more tolerant to their Jewish subjects. Under the Ottoman Empire Bulgaria was made up of diverse society that consisted of Muslims, Armenian Christians, Bulgarian orthodox, Roma and Tatars. You can learn more about the Ottoman rule in Bulgaria here.

The Ottoman Empire lost almost all of its remaining territory during the Balkan Wars, (1912 – 13). To learn more about what happened and who was involved in the Balkan Wars here is an article from Britannica Online Encyclopaedia.

Here is a brief timeline from the International Business Centre at Michigan State University of important historical events in Bulgaria’s history, from Bulgaria declaring itself an independent kingdom in 1908 to Bulgaria becoming a member of the European Union in 2007.

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Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust. An article by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Jewish World and the Holocaust. An article provided by Yad Vashem.

To learn more about the Holocaust remembrance memorial "Yad Va-shem" that is located in Jerusalem, and to find out about the original meaning of the museum´s name, read this article.

To find out more about the Sephardic Jews, read this Jewish Virtual Library essay on Sephardim.

Have a look at the Encyclopaedia Judaica to find out more about history of Bulgarian Jews.

Go on a Jewish History Tour of Bulgaria at the Virtual Jewish Library.

Compared to other countries, there was less anti-Semitic resentment felt in Bulgaria until the Second

World War, as Jews were an integral part of Bulgarian society. Find out about the role Jews assumed before and during the Second World War and why the fate of Bulgaria’s Jews was somehow different. Read this excerpt from Manus Midlarsky´s book: "The Killing Trap. Genocide in the 20th Century".

Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust. An article by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

This publication gives an overview of the history of Bulgarian Jewry. 

If you want to find out more about different epochs of Bulgarian Jewish history, e.g. the post-war period, check out this Jewish Virtual Library website.

A history of Jewish life in Bulgaria, from The Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture.

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This video explains that the history of Bulgaria during World War II is complicated and remains a point of controversy even until today. Here is an article from USHMM providing insight into the history of Bulgaria during the Second World War.

In the years leading up to World War II Germany put increasing amounts of pressure on Bulgaria to pass laws against its Jewish population. During October 1940, the Law of the Protection of the Nation was brought before the parliament, although many intellectuals opposed this law it was eventually passed the following year. This law and a series of ordinances severely restricted the life of Bulgarian Jews.

On January 20, 1942, several high representatives of Nazi Germany met in a suburb of Berlin called Wannsee, to discuss the systematic annihilation of European Jewry. This infamous meeting became known as the Wannsee Conference, and the decision made on the fate of the Jewish people was given the euphemism "The Final Solution".

In June 1942 a law was passed in Bulgaria that forced Jews to wear the yellow badges, you can read more on the history of the Yellow Badge here.

Throughout World War II Bulgaria’s anti-Jewish policies escalate and in February 1943, Alexander Belev signs an agreement with Germany for the deportation of 20,000 Jews to the death camps. The first to be targeted by this agreement were Jewish residents of Bulgarian-occupied territories - Thrace and Macedonia. As a result of these deportations almost the entire Jewish communities of Thrace and Macedonia were murdered in Treblinka.  Historical footage of the deportation of Jews from Macedonia, which was occupied by Bulgaria during World War Two. Here is more information on the deportations from Macedonia and Thrace.  

When Bulgarian intellectuals, members of the Bulgarian clergy and the opposition politicians learnt about the result of the deportations open protests against deporting Jews from Bulgaria began. Dimitur Pešev, a member of parliament, was instrumental in demanding a halt to these deportations. Pešev wrote a letter of protest to the government and the king, he managed to get 42 members of Parliament to sign off on his letter, which caused the government to reconsider its plans to deport the Jews of Bulgaria. Yad Vashem, The world Holocaust Remembrance Centre, posthumously honoured Pešev as Righteous Among the Nations.

While it is true that Bulgarians saved their Jewish population from deportation to the death camps, the Bulgarian government did round up, and deport, Jews from the two countries they occupied during the Second World War: Macedonia (which had been one of the Yugoslav republics) and the Greek province of Thrace.


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