The Jews in Bulgarian Lands”

Edited by Anna Popper

On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews from Nazi death camps during WWII and in memory of the victims of the Holocaust and crimes against humanity, a temporary exhibition was organised at the premises of the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Budapest, under the patronage of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria, H.E. Mr. Rumen Radev.

The exhibition, entitled “The Jews in Bulgarian Lands”, which has already been showcased in numerous countries, features 22 boards of documentary evidence that offer an insight into the life of the Jewish community in Bulgaria, sourced from the archives of the St. Cyril and St. Methodius National Library in Sofia. It was unveiled by H.E. Mr. Christo Polendakov, Ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to Hungary and Mr. Plamen Peykov, Director of the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Budapest, on the 23rd of November 2023 in the presence of Hungarian officials, members of the diplomatic corps, including the Ambassador of the State of Israel, H.E. Yacov Hadas-Handelsman, and representatives of the sizeable Bulgarian community living in Hungary.

In his opening speech, Ambassador Polendakov highlighted the deep-rooted connection between Bulgarian Jewry and the country’s history. He emphasized that Bulgarian Jews have always been an integral part of the Bulgarian society. One of the pivotal moments in this historical relationship occurred during World War II, when Bulgarian Jews faced the threat of deportation to Nazi death camps, as it happened in many European countries, and the persecutions of Jews across Europe claimed nearly 6 million lives.

Salvation of Bulgarian Jews in WWII – a Light in the Darkness 

The Ambassador praised the courageous and humane act of saving 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from the horrors during the Holocaust. He specifically credited Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria for his resolute decision and active role in opposing to the deportation of Bulgarian Jews in 1943.

Memorial of Tsar Boris III

The Monarch, along with members of Parliament and the government, expressed deep concern for the Jewish population living in the country. The firm stance of Tsar Boris III against the deportation of Bulgarian Jews, who were Bulgarian citizens, came as an unexpected surprise to the Nazis. This unwavering position to refuse the deportation of Bulgarian Jews, a unique case in Europe alongside Denmark, demonstrated Bulgaria’s commitment to humanity, solidarity, freedom and resistance against the atrocities of the time. This incredible feat was possible thanks to common actions of Bulgarian politicians, administrators, officers, clergymen, intellectuals and ordinary citizens, who refused to yield to Nazi pressure. This was a strong message of humanism, against any form of disrespect for human dignity and the right to life and opposition to antisemitism and discrimination.

“Bulgaria provided a historical example that we should all remember and a unique lesson about moral courage, empathy, solidarity and human right that can inspire people to stand up for what is right everywhere in the world.”

Extract from the Exhibition documents:

“Our century will go down in history as a period of mass violence, rarely seen before now. The persecution and extermination of Jews in Europe is indisputably one of its most tragic episodes. Although much less common, it is also an occasion for good, such as helping the persecuted and rescuing them from mortal threat. Such individual acts are carried out sporadically almost everywhere, but two countries can proudly remember the past because they provided the Jews with collective protection, despite being under German control – Denmark and Bulgaria.

The past should not simply be understood accurately; it also contains a lesson for the present because evil is never simply behind us. The rescue of the Bulgarian Jews is one of the few bright pages in the history of Jews during this dark time. It is indisputably a positive political act. It is such an unusual matter that it deserves our full attention – a fuller understanding of its conditions and the motivations of the participants would help us do better in future.

If we reflect on this undoubtedly laudable action – the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews – we will see that no single actor or factor alone would have been sufficient for good to triumph. Only their joint action made it possible. We would like to be able to name one person and declare them a supreme hero, a brave fighter against evil. In reality, the responsibility is shared.

By Tzvetan Todorov (1939-2017), Bulgarian – French philosopher, historian, sociologist and essayist: The Human Footprint. (T.) 1, The Totalitarian Experience. Sofia, 2015.

Source: Embassy of Bulgaria in Budapest

Photos by the Embassy of Bulgaria and DPA