Scott Brinton

How tiny Bulgaria saved 50,000 Jews in World War II

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I’m thankful for the March 21-22 nor’easter that blew across Long Island and dropped a foot of snow in Nassau County. No, really, I am.

Early last Thursday, I was shoveling snow at home in Merrick, feeling grumpy because I was at it yet again, when a friendly, relatively new neighbor wheeled his snowblower over and, in minutes, cleared my apron. This was after he had cleaned the sidewalks on both sides of the block. Suddenly, I was feeling less morose.

Later, my wife brought our neighbor a box of chocolates to thank him for his kindness. At first he didn’t want to accept, but she insisted, explaining that it’s customary in her homeland of Bulgaria to give chocolates when someone does a favor for you.

As it turns out, our neighbor, who is from Israel, is half Bulgarian. His grandmother is from the Balkan nation. What are the odds?

We quickly got to talking about how Bulgaria saved its roughly 50,000 Jewish citizens from extermination during the Holocaust. Impossibly, the tiny nation actually defied the Third Reich, never allowing a train to leave for an extermination or concentration camp. As a result, Bulgaria became a safe haven for Jews from across Eastern Europe.

As we spoke, it suddenly struck me: I had never shared in this column how Bulgaria saved so many Jews from certain death. It’s time that I did. No doubt, hate is on the rise, with the U.S. seeing a 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic attacks last year compared with 2016, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The story of how Bulgaria, which was enslaved by the Ottoman Empire from the late 14th century through 1878, stood up to a regime as powerful and ruthless as Nazi Germany should serve as an object lesson for us all.

During the Second World War, Bulgaria allied with Germany. Watching Nazi forces roll across Eastern Europe virtually unchecked, and hoping to regain territories lost during World War I, the Bulgarian government signed a pact with Germany in 1941, following two years of neutrality. Bulgaria was not, however, one of Adolf Hitler’s puppets. It did not, for example, participate when Germany invaded neighboring Yugoslavia or Greece that year.

As was the case in France, Bulgarians organized a resistance. My father-in-law, who died in 2000 at age 74, joined it when he turned 19. He was soon captured and imprisoned, but he survived. After the war, he signed up for the Bulgarian Air Force, rising to the rank of colonel.

The secret to Bulgarians’ ability to thwart Hitler was at once simple, yet profound: They said no Jews would leave the country. Period. They did so under the threat of death, but they were unafraid and undeterred. Bulgaria’s Orthodox Christians had lived under the “Ottoman Yoke” for five centuries, together with Jews and Armenian Christians. They were old friends.

When the Bulgarian government ratified an undisclosed agreement with Germany in 1943 to send 8,500 Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland, where 700,000 to 900,000 Jews were killed, word of the plan leaked out, and Bulgarians assembled in demonstrations at points around the country, according to the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

On March 10, 1943, Metropolitan Kiril, a bishop of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church who later became its patriarch, and 300 of his congregants stood in front of a train that was to transport 1,500 Jews from Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city, saying he would not allow it to leave. Armed SS officers surrounded them. Miraculously, the guards did not shoot.

Kiril sent a telegram to Metropolitan Stephan, the bishop of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, according to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Stephan, a staunch supporter of Bulgaria’s Jews, and 42 members of Parliament fired off a letter of protest to the Bulgarian king, Boris III, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship states. Jews held for transport were soon released and permitted to go home. No death trains ever left Bulgaria, according to Yad Vashem.

In 1939, Bulgarian Jews numbered 48,000. By 1945, they reached more than 50,000. Most of them immigrated to Israel in the years after the war, with the country’s Jewish population dwindling to 6,500 by 1950. Bulgaria and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, and they remain close allies today. In Jaffa, a picturesque city on the Mediterranean Sea in central Israel, a white-stone monument stands in the Garden of the Bulgarian People as a tribute to a nation’s heroism, its humanity.

Jacky Comforty directed the 2001 documentary “The Optimists,” about how Bulgaria foiled Hitler’s extermination plans. “We have an example of the power of the common man to stop genocide,” Comforty told The Washington Post in 2013, on the 70th anniversary of Bulgarians’ mass protests.

In 2017, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in saving Jews during World War II.

“Everyone is entitled to his own faith,” Bulgarian Orthodox Bishop Boris Kharalampiev said in “The Optimists.” “No one should violate the intimate spiritual life of another.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.