Tag Archives: Russia

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.

Empire / Империя

I was listening to Terry Gross’s interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick and staff writer Evan Osnos and thinking about the psychology of empire. How does it feel to be the country whose name is imprinted on the empire, be it the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire? How does it feel to be one of the countries involuntarily made part of that empire, be that action by military might or political fiat? And what happens to the psyche of both when the empire, as all empires eventually do, ends?

The interview focused on Putin’s Russia and Remnick astutely noted that the end of an empire, even the end of a particularly dictatorial empire, is not always welcomed by all its citizenry.

“This was experienced not as a triumph by so many, but also as an incredibly disorienting, humiliating passage of history in which the great empire had disintegrated. … An economic depression came along that, for many people, was incredibly painful, like the ’30s in the United States. … A lot of people in Russia, exemplified by Putin, saw this as a crash followed by chaos, followed by poverty.”

Even without experiencing chaos and poverty, many in Britain felt the loss of empire on which the sun never set as disorienting and humiliating. How else to feel when all one’s education taught you to view the world as turning on your very particular axis?

Bulgaria had two medieval empires, but the second one ended in 1396 when the Ottoman Empire used a series of bloody military invasions to conquer it. Bulgaria remained part of the Ottoman Empire for the next 500 years. Even now, many Bulgarians can recall their childhood history textbook lesson on Tzar Simeon the Great (864-927) and the reach of his empire to three seas: the White Sea (Бяло море), the Adriatic Sea (Адриатическо море), and the Black Sea (Черно море).

But of course, it is the far more recent experience of empire that is the psychologically disorienting. From 1944-1989, Bulgaria was part of the Soviet Empire. As with the other “East Bloc” countries, Bulgaria was nominally an independent country, but the Soviet Union both directly and indirectly controlled the political, economic, cultural, and ideological activity. And while many certainly resented such interference, many also had some comfort in being part of something larger. Be it a cult or a club, a family or a tribe, a religious institution or a labor union—most people are buoyed by being a member of a group.

Remnick went on to say of the dissolution of the Soviet Empire:

“I think most Westerners experienced it and many Russian intellectuals and people of the rising, the nascent, middle class and educated people in particular, and people in cities, they experienced it largely as a great passage forward in history. And we forget that even then … a lot of people were made deeply anxious about this.”

Bulgarian intellectuals and those who had been part of what was for many years derided as the bourgeoisie as well experienced the fall of the Soviet Empire and true independence as a shaking off of the shackles and a great step forward. But construction of something entirely new does not immediately follow destruction of the old. Those who stood to lose everything fought to claw back what they could…and often far more than they had had previously. Corruption and poverty and uncertainty produced nostalgia for the very shackles that had tied them to stability and consistency. Anxiety can be debilitating and it’s natural to reach for what seems to be the cure. Much of Putin’s popularity in Russia may well be based on his ability to soothe that after-Empire anxiety for many of his countrymen.

Bulgaria’s anxiety was in party soothed by being a joiner, first of NATO and second of the European Union. One can be glad to now be part of that vaunted EU club, but still feel humiliation at being always referenced as the poorest member, the corrupt member, the suspect member, the member one doesn’t wholeheartedly welcome into one’s house.

russian-tankSo it is not altogether surprising that Bulgaria has voted for a president that had a career in the military and is considered “pro-Russia.” It is not surprising that various extreme candidates promising all sorts of certainty garner more votes than is healthy for a still nascent democracy. It is not surprising that people to whom empire was for 45 years a promise before abruptly being taken away should yet feel unsettled. What do Bulgarians just now reaching adulthood feel about their country’s place in the world? Do they see their world turning on a particular axis or is empire for them as historical a notion as the 20th century their parents lived through?