Scott Brinton

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


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 defied the Third Reich, never allowing a train to leave for an extermination or concentration camp. As a result, Bulgaria became a haven for Jews during the Second World War.

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 occupied (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 World War II, Bulgaria allied with Germany. Watching Nazi forces roll across Eastern Europe virtually unchecked, and hoping to regain territories lost during the First World War, the Bulgarian government signed a pact with Germany in 1941, following two years of neutrality. Bulgaria, however, did not participate when Germany invaded neighboring Yugoslavia or Greece that year.

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. Bulgaria’s Orthodox Christians had lived under the “Ottoman yoke” for five centuries, together with Jews, Armenian Christians and Gypsies. 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 on March 9 that year, according to the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

The next day, Metropolitan Kirill, 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 they would not allow it to leave. Armed SS officers surrounded them. Miraculously, the guards did not shoot.

Kirill had also 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.

Bulgaria did, however, pass a set of anti-Semitic laws in 1940 and did round up 11,000 Jews in Macedonia, Thrace and Pirot and sent them to their deaths at Treblinka in 1943, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, a project of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. That act was a terrible stain on the Balkan nation, which shielded its own Jews from deportation by sending them to labor camps in the provinces, according to "Beyond Hitler's Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews," by historian Michael Bar-Zohar, who is Jewish and was born in Bulgaria in 1938.

In 1939, Bulgarian Jews numbered 48,000. By 1945, they reached more than 50,000. Most of them, like Bar-Zohar, 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 the heroism, the humanity, of the many ordinary people who stood up and spoke out.

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?