For over sixty years Bulgaria has been urging the world to accept five words as telling its Holocaust story: “We saved all our Jews.” To which we reply with six words: “Would that it were completely true.”
We underscore the part of the story that is completely reliable and worthy of high praise. All of us—Bulgarians and non-Bulgarians, Jews and non-Jews—should take the time to celebrate the bright side of the story. Ordinary people in civil society from many walks of life—church leaders and labor leaders, lawyers and doctors, artists and artisans, journalists and poets, right-wing leaders and Communists—stood up to their government in 1943 and stopped an atrocity. In short, Bulgaria does indeed have something to be justly proud of: more than 50,000 Jews survived the infamous plan to annihilate all European Jews. This astonishing fact is profoundly and literally encouraging; it gives us courage to behave in a similar way whenever we come across abuse of power or a vulnerable person under attack by the government.
On the other hand, insistence on the complexity of this narrative is imperative. First, the truth demands it. In January of 1941 Bulgaria adopted an anti-Jewish law based on the Nuremberg Laws. Five weeks later it became an ally of Nazi Germany and immediately imitated some of the worst aspects of Nazi legal theory, subjecting its Jews to ongoing persecution, slave labor, economic confiscation and overt discrimination.
Even more monstrously, in January of 1943—at the peak of the deplorable “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question”—the Bulgarian Cabinet agreed in principle to the round-up and deportation of all Jews with Greater Bulgaria, including the “new territories” of Thrace (northern Greece) and Macedonia (southeastern Yugoslavia) that Germany gave over to Bulgarian military occupation. Within weeks Eichmann’s lieutenant Theodor Dannecker worked out a detailed agreement with Bulgarian Commissar for Jewish Affairs Alexander Belev. Among the details were promises of Bulgaria to provide trains for the deportation, to pay a fee to Germany for ridding itself of its Jews – only Slovakia, headed by a Roman Catholic Priest Father Josef Tiso, paid the Germans for deporting the Jews --, and never to ask for the return of its Jews to Bulgaria.
Second, both scholarly and political consensus on these realities has been developing within Bulgaria in the past decade. In 2000 Georgi Parvanov (a trained historian) stated as a member of the Parliament: “The time has come for Bulgaria to face the truth of what really happened in 1943.” When Parvanov became the President, he stated in Jerusalem in 2008: "When we express justifiable pride at what we have done to save Jews, we do not forget that at the same time there was an antisemitic regime in Bulgaria and we do not shirk our responsibility for the fate of more than 11,000 Jews who were deported from Thrace and Macedonia to death camps."
This month, on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of these events, the Bulgarian Parliament voted unanimously to adopt a resolution that would have been unimaginable ten years ago, “… repudiating the passing of laws restricting civil rights and creating conditions for persecution and for economic and political repressions.” The current Parliament also honored Dimitar Peshev and 43 other parliamentarians for their “open stand against the deportation of the Jews of Bulgaria.”
The current Parliament, moreover, rightly “denounces this criminal act,” yet clings to the unnecessary and unfruitful defense that “the local Bulgarian administration had not been in a position to stop this act.” It is, of course, true that in 1943 local Bulgarian administrators and police and soldiers and train operators lacked the courage to disobey or otherwise refuse to cooperate in the illegal and immoral acts ordered at the highest level of its own government. Seventy years later, however, this obvious historical fact does not impede civil society in Bulgaria from urging its political leaders to face the future with the same courage that ordinary Bulgarians demonstrated so skillfully in 1943.
Having come so far from prior official interpretations of Bulgarian history, political leaders may now find that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain in their relations with two neighbors in the Balkans (Greece and Macedonia) by acknowledging clearly all three roles Bulgaria played in the Shoah, cherishing its role as rescuer, struggling with it role as persecutor, and renouncing its role as a collaborator in the murder of the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia.
As South Africa has taught us, something pretty close to the whole truth normally precedes complete reconciliation. Bulgaria has every reason to be proud of the role of civil society in protecting its own Jews from deportation. Germany—once the principal perpetrator in this story—is now a strong democratic society that has faced its ugly past and repudiated it. Bulgaria is now a new democracy that can build on the example of Germany by strengthening democratic society and by rejecting what it did in the distant past.
Michael Berenbaum is Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Ed Gaffney teaches law at Valparaiso University, and is the director of Empty Boxcars, a film on the Shoah in Greater Bulgaria.