Monday, 28 November 2016

Bulgaria - glimpse of hope in the dark years of Holocaust

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Bulgarian people's brave resistance during the Holocaust saved the country's Jews from certain death. The story is incredible... and true. 

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Only a couple of days after my trip to Tampere I find myself in a plane, surrounded by people from Tampere. This time members of the local wine club.

As the plane prepars for landing, the view outside the window is brown and autumnal. Dull looking suburbs; run-down countryside scenery. You could almost smell the cows, still lazily grazing on the nearby pastures.

By latest the ladies' extravagant sense of aesthetics reveals which part of the world we've just arrived. Fur-trimmed boots (with 4 inch heels, of course); sunglasses adorned with plastic diamonds. Welcome to Bulgaria!

As the rest of the party collects their luggage, I head over to the nearest kiosk in search of cigarettes. I'm startled to discover how expensive they seem: the price tag is almost the same as back home! It isn't until later I realize that despite the fact Bulgaria, too, is an EU member, they're not part of the Euro. The local currency is leva and with the current exchange rate euro prices are less than half of their leva equivalent. 

Boy at the kiosk smiles shyly and greets me with "shalom". I'm confused until I remember the star of David necklace I'm wearing. Instinctively my hand grabs it, wondering if it's such a smart thing to be wearing after all. Should I hide it in my bag instead? One can never know in these parts of the world, what with the antisemitism back on the rise again. 

synagogue door_star of David

Bulgaria is quite a different matter, though, as her extraordinary history shows. While most of the Eastern European Jews faced their death either in the local ghettos they were rounded up in or in concentration camps they were eventully shipped to, the story of how Bulgaria rescued their Jews from almost certain destruction is nothing short of miraculous.

It is as true as it is incredible and is one of the few glimmers of hope of that dark decade.

Sofia synagogue

Bulgaria having allied with the Axis powers, more and more restrictions were imposed on the Jewish population here, too. In 1943 the country signed a secret treaty according to which 20 000 Jews were to be sent to concentrations camps in the occupied Poland. 

The transfers were scheduled to start on March 10th. As the carriages started to arrive, however, the Bulgarians took a stand.

mezuza_Sofia synagogue

Normal people and religious leaders alike staged protests across the country and threatened to stop the trains from leaving, even if it meant throwing themselves on the tracks. Bulgarian government was flooded with petitions demanding the plan be dropped.

10 commandments in Hebrew

Three wise men in particular are to be thanked for all this: Former Minister of Justice Dimitar Peshev, head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church Stefan I and the Metropolitan Kirill of Plovdiv.The last one had his clergy forge thousands of baptismal certificates in a bid to stop the Jews from being deported.

Together the managed to overturn the head of country's ruler; Tsar Boris III, who in turn convinced Messieurs Hitler and Eichmann that Jews' contribution in the labour force was essential.

talliths at synagogue

One can only speculate the reasons for the extraordinary bravery of the ordinary Bulgarians. 

Why here of all the places?

Why wasn't similar resistance seen anywhere else?

Oh, what a difference it would have made...


One reason was, without a doubt, the Jews' long presence in the country. There have been Jews here at least since the 2nd century AD and the coexistence between dfferent groups of people has been peaceful. Jews have, in fact, a longer history in the region than Bulgarians themselves.

Another reason, why it has been estimated that the Nazi ideology failed to generate support here, is Bulgaria's own history. Apparently more than half a millenia under the oppression of the Turks made it that much more challenging to get them behind yet another hate-mongering machinery.

Obviously in a perverse way, the collaboration with the Jews' biggest enemy helped to keep the Jews safe. Allying with Germany gave Bulgaria better chance at defending their own Jewish population it would have had, say, under the German occupation .

But, sadly the story doesn't have a happy end for everybody, namelu the Jews of regions that were occupied by Germany but under Bulgarian administration such as Greek Trachea, Eastern Macedonia and Serbian Pirot. 11 000 of them were rounded up the night between March 3rd and 4th, a week before the Bulgarian transfers were set to take place.

Through Lom on Danube in the North Western Bulgaria and then Vienna they eventully reached their final destination: Treblinka. 


11 days later all but roughly a dozen of them were dead.

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PS. In case you, too, are interested in the Jewish history of my travel destinations, do check out the following:


* In collaboration with Viinitimo and European Trade House Ltd *



   Tukholman Suuri Synagoga_Stockholm Great Synagogue7   


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