Tag Archives: Dimitar Peshev

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Bulgarian EmbassyThe Government of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, defunct for nearly three decades, remains the posthumous owner of Bulgaria’s embassy in Washington, DC. So says the city’s real property tax database in a neat if entirely inadvertent fulfillment of the aphoristic certainty of death and taxes. All the same, the tax payment side is less than assured. The proposed assessment for the 2019 fiscal year is $5,931,630, up $44,100 or less than 1% over the prior year. It’s a moot point, though, since foreign missions don’t pay tax on their property unless there is the highly unusual case of lack of reciprocity.

Aleko Konstantinov.jpgRecords show that Kate Willard Boyd (1864-1940) owned the house cum embassy, perhaps inheriting it from her parents Caleb Clapp Willard (1834–1905) and Allie C. Jones Willard (1836–1874). Caleb owned and operated the Ebbitt Hotel as well as acquiring a lot of downtown property. His older brothers managed the still operating Willard Hotel. During the Civil War, author Nathaniel Hawthorne said the Willard “may be much more justly called the center of Washington and the Union than either the Capitol, the White House, or the State Department…” When iconic Bulgarian writer Aleko Konstantinov visited the city in 1893, he strolled down down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House and passed the Willard Hotel on his way to see the Capitol, declaring “The city of Washington, if not the prettiest, is at least one of the prettiest cities which I saw in Europe and America.”

Kappa Sigma flag
Kappa Sigma Fraternity flag

Kate married John Covert Boyd (1850–1927), surgeon and medical director for the United States Navy, one of the incorporators of the American Red Cross, and one of the founders of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity. On March 27, 1951, having inherited the house from his mother Kate, Walter Willard Boyd and his wife Ruth sold it to the three-year old State of Israel for $170,000. Nearly thirty years later, on November 16, 1981, the State of Israel sold it in turn to the People’s Republic of Bulgaria for an unknown amount. Just one day shy of nine years later, Bulgaria’s National Assembly voted to change the name of the country to the Republic of Bulgaria and removed the red Communist star and state emblem from the flag. It seems to be taking the District of Columbia’s Recorder of Deeds quite a bit longer to make the adjustment to the fall of communism.

 

The purchase of the building by Bulgaria from Israel may have been incidental in 1981, but the countries are connected in a way that is far from inconsequential. Fascistic and aligned with Nazi Germany Bulgaria may have been, but it was one of the few countries to have saved the Jewish population within its borders from the death camps and it established diplomatic relations with Israel at the country’s founding in 1948. Bulgaria had cut off diplomatic relations nearly 15 years before signing the deed for its new embassy, but Israel had not forgotten the country’s wartime efforts. By 1981, the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem had already recognized eight Bulgarians as being among the Righteous Among the Nations, including Dimitar Peshev who in 1943 was vice chairman of Bulgaria’s National Assembly. When he died alone in 1973, he had been forgotten by his countrymen but not by Israel.

 

On November 13, 2013, an article entitled “DC intersection renamed for Bulgarian who saved Jews” appeared in The Times of Israel. The Council of the District of Columbia had “symbolically designate[d] the intersection of 22nd and R Streets, N.W., in Ward 2, as Dimitar Peshev Plaza.” Were any of the principals involved in the effort to honor Peshev in this way were aware of the embassy’s previous owners?

In November 2016, I wrote a post called Degrees of Separation describing how surprisingly often objects and events seemed to connect to Bulgaria. But in following the trail of the Bulgarian embassy in DC, the words of French philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin may be more apropos:

“Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

The white, red, and green colors of the Kappa Sigma and Bulgarian flags. The hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, the family that owned both it and the house that became an embassy, and a Bulgarian author who found himself on that same avenue nicknamed “America’s Main Street.” Bulgaria’s purchase of its embassy from the State of Israel decades after—despite its dominant politics—its successful efforts to save the country’s 48,000 Jewish citizens from Nazi death camps. Dimitar Peshev’s recognition by Israel’s Yad Vashem. DC’s symbolically naming the intersection closest to the Bulgarian embassy as Dimitar Peshev Plaza. Surely not everything converges, but it’s delightful to discover how very much does.

What the Red Army DIDN’T Do

Russian embassy in Sofia attempts new spin in row on claims Soviets rescued Bulgarian Jews from Holocaust

Sofia Rejects Russia’s Claims About Saving Bulgarian Jews

For those in the Kremlin who might need a refresher course in history, the facts are as follows:

  • The deportation of Bulgarian Jews requested by Germany was cancelled in May 1943.
  • The Red Army entered Bulgaria in September 1944 providing “moral” support for a communist coup rather than acting on moral imperative to save Bulgaria’s Jewish population from the death camps.
  • The Red Army stayed until 1947 to ensure the communist government in Bulgaria was firmly established.
  • Far from having any role in the survival of Bulgaria’s Jewish citizens, the Soviet Union proceeded to suppress information about the rescue given the need for historic revisionism. After all, no credit of any kind could be given to its enemies of former government, church, and king; they were demonized as the bourgeois, the class enemy, the bloodsucker, the fascist—the propaganda was creative, pervasive, and endless.

The Russian Orthodox Church has a long history of strident and even malignant anti-Semitism. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church does not. Nor does Bulgaria as a whole; though of course there is anti-Semitism present, it represents a small and disapproved of sentiment. Such tolerance is not of recent vintage.

According to Julia Phillips Cohen and Sarah Abrevaya Stein in their article “Sephardic Scholarly Worlds,” the tolerant atmosphere in Bulgaria was such that Chief Rabbi of Sofia Marcus Ehrenpreis at the turn of the 20th century envisioned founding a Jewish University in Sofia to be populated by Sephardic scholars from throughout the Balkans. By 1940, the Jewish population had grown to 50,000, just under one percent of the total population. Despite siding with Germany in World War II as it had so disastrously done in World War I, and despite the institution of both work camps and anti-Semitic laws modeled on the infamous Nuremburg Laws in Germany, Bulgaria—with no Red Army in sight—managed to prevent the deportation of the Jewish population within its official borders.

This was not at all due to the pro-Nazi cabinet, but to the efforts of Dimitar Peshev, Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly of Bulgaria as well as Minister of Justice, and of the leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, particularly Metropolitans Stefan and Kiril. Peshev’s actions merited the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem Memorial Museum in 1973; Metropolitans Stefan (Stoyan Popgueorguiev) and Kiril (Konstantin Markov) received the same honor in 2001 for their heroic and unflagging interventions. The Bulgarian population generally supported their efforts, with individuals and small groups pleading the case for their fellow citizens. Metropolitan Stefan famously admonished Tzar Boris III in a telegram “Know, Boris, that God watches your actions from Heaven.”

The Red Army—it would go without saying but Kremlin spokesperson Maria Zakharova and her bosses apparently need it said—has not merited the adjective “righteous” in the matter of Jewish rescue. Zakharova, who decried those who are “unfortunately, completely unaware of the glorious pages of their own history, let alone anyone else’s” is completely unaware of the irony of such a statement coming from the mouth of someone promulgating historic revisionism.

How was it possible for a nominally fascist government, state-supported church and majority Christian population in Bulgaria to defy the Nazis in a way comparable in all of Europe only to Denmark? Certainly the countries surrounding Bulgaria proved themselves all too willing to engage in the virulent anti-Semitism for which Nazi Germany proved so ably a leader. It might have been because, through habits formed during Ottoman rule, Bulgarian Jews were thoroughly integrated into Bulgarian society, but on the other hand Germany itself had one of the most assimilated Jewish populations in Europe.

Boris IIITzar Boris III, himself of German descent, seems to have spent a good deal of time dodging German demands for deportation. Josef Goebbels wrote in his diary that Boris was “cunning like a fox.” Cunning Boris was entirely willing to deport to the death camps the entire Jewish population of Thrace and Macedonia, which were under Bulgarian control, but he drew the line at “his” Jews, hedging that they were needed for road maintenance.

Almost certainly, Boris made the politically expedient rather than the humanitarian choice given domestic and international opinion in 1943. But he felt sufficiently pressured by Bulgarian public opinion—as opposed to any influence of the Red Army—not to take the ultimate steps to satisfy Nazi demand and that means that the majority Christian population in the main thought of their Jewish neighbors as fellow Bulgarians.

Frederick B. Chary devoted his book The Bulgarian Jews and the Final Solution, 1940-1944 to the detailed recounting of the Bulgarian Jewish experience during World War II and concluded “Bulgarian anti-Semitism in the thirties was imported and concentrated in a few relatively small organizations…On the whole, Bulgaria had less anti-Semitism than other countries of the western world; and, moreover, an important section of the Bulgarian intelligentsia had developed the idea that its country was not anti-Semitic and that this tolerance was something in which to take pride.” Indeed, the German ambassador to Sofia, Adolf-Heinz Beckerle, bemoaned the fact that the average Bulgarian “does not see in the Jews any flaws justifying taking special measures against them.” The sheer quantity of anti-deportation protest throughout the Bulgarian body politic—state, church, civil society—was decisive in its success at saving its Jewish population.

The Bulgarian body politic, that is, not the Soviet Red Army.