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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Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire for almost 500 years (1396-1878). Compared to other societies of the time, Ottoman rulers were far more tolerant to their Jewish subjects. Ottoman Bulgaria was incredibly diverse, its society comprised of Muslims, Armenian Christinans, Bulgarian orthodox observers, Roma, and Tatars. Learn more about Ottoman rule in Bulgaria here.

Find an overview of Ottoman history here. and explore this site from the University of Michigan's Turkish Studies Department for more information.

After a period of steady decline, the Ottoman Empire lost almost all of its remaining territory during the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars. The wars' events and combatants are all detailed in this Britannia Encyclopaedia entry.

To learn more about what happened and who was involved in the Balkan Wars here is an article from Britannica Online Encyclopaedia.

Bulgaria fought for the Central Powers in the First World War. After a turbulent interwar period, Bulgaria was then a part of the Axis Alliance in the Second World War. Examine this timeline of twentieth century Bulgarian history for more information.

The People's Republic of Bulgaria was formed in 1946, part of the Soviet Union. After forty years, a series of revolutions in 1989 overturned the communist governments in Cental and Eastern Europe. Read about the decline of communism in Bulgaria here.

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Compared to other societies in Europe, where the situation for Jews was more dire, Bulgarian society was uniquely lacking anti-Semitism. Read about the history of Jewish life in Bulgaria here.

Bulgaria's Jewish community is mostly Sephardic, and before the 1940s Ladino was spoken widely. In the present day, most Jews live in Sofia, the country's capital. Learn about Sofia's Jewish history in this article. This page contains an in-depth summary of Jewish life and history in Bulgaria.

This article discusses Jewish Life in Europe before the Holocaust.

After the Second World War, 90% of Bulgaria's Jewish population emigrated to Israel. Prior to the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, immigration to what was then called Palestine was restricted under British mandate. However this led to high levels of covert immigration: as rising anti-Semitism in Europe prompted more Jews to leave for Palestine, numbers of those entering the country without official permission rose. In the period between 1920 and 1948, this was referred to as Aliyah Bet.

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The history of Bulgaria during the Second World War is complicated and remains a point of controversy today. This article from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provides insight into the history of Bulgaria during the Second World War.

In the years leading up to World War II, Germany placed increasing 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. Many intellectuals opposed this law, but it was passed the following year. This law and a series of ordinances severely restricted the lives 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, the euphemistic name given to the fate of Europe's Jewish population being "The Final Solution".

Bulgaria's Jews were made to wear yellow-star badges in June 1942. This was part of the descriminatory legislation passed in Bulgaria during the war. Read more on the history of the yellow-star badge here.

Throughout World War Two, Bulgaria’s anti-Jewish policies escalated, and in February 1943 Alexander Belev signed an agreement with Germany, deporting 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, clergy, and opposition politicians learnt about the fate awaiting those deported, open protests against deporting Jews from Bulgaria began. Dimitar Pešev, a member of parliament, was instrumental in halting 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. Read about Pešev on the Yad Vashem website here. For more information, read this excerpt from Manus Midlarsky's book, The Killing Trap: Genocide in the 20th Century.

While Bulgaria's Jewish population was saved 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.

Film Details

  • Duration:
    00:11:01
    Countries:
    Bulgaria

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