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.
Tzar 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.