Picture this terrible scene: A man has a gun, and he’s chasing a child down the street, obviously about to shoot the child at any second. You don’t know what to do. You don’t want to get involved. The man shoots the child.
You’re safe, and you make excuses for the rest of your life, telling yourself that there was nothing you could have done about it anyway. And when it comes out that that same man was a serial murderer, and went on to kill many other innocent people, you just keep telling yourself that there was nothing you could do.
That, in a very simplistic way, is the story many people told about themselves during the Holocaust, the Shoah; the murder of millions of Jewish people during World War II. They said: “It was during a war, and the Nazis had the gun, and there was nothing we could have done.”
A few weeks ago, I was in Israel with a group from our synagogue. One of the places you go to when you’re in Jerusalem is Yad Vashem, the most important museum and memorial in the world for those killed in the Holocaust. In a way, I don’t like to go to Holocaust museums, because I get very upset. I’ve read books and talked to countless survivors and seen all of the movies, and I just can’t stand it. The Holocaust is part of my psyche; it is always with me; it is my nightmare.
But I force myself to learn more and I keep going to everything.
So there I am in Yad Vashem a few weeks ago and I am, as usual, overwhelmed by my feelings. But I decide to concentrate on just a few exhibits and try to learn new things.
I see, all over again, that my simple analogy about the man chasing the innocent child down the street has another possibility, in a way, even more horrible: The bystander can take his own gun and shoot the child. If you really understand the Holocaust, you know that it was not just the Nazis who killed Jewish people but the neighbors in many of the countries the Nazis invaded who were more than willing to help in the process.
And yet in the face of all that, walking around that museum, looking for some good in humanity, I became riveted with one tiny aspect of the Holocaust, what happened in one country, Bulgaria. You see in Bulgaria, things went very differently, and most of the Jewish people were saved, despite the fact that the Nazis had not only conquered the country but helped Bulgaria to become a bigger and better country. King Boris III established a military dictatorship in the early 1930s and aligned the country closely with Germany, its World War I ally, hoping to restore the territories it had lost in that war. In early March 1941, Bulgaria joined the Axis alliance and, in April 1941, participated in the German-led attack on Yugoslavia and Greece. In return, Bulgaria received most of Thrace from Greece and Macedonia as well as parts of eastern Serbia from Yugoslavia. Bulgaria benefited greatly from its alliance with Germany.
Beginning in July 1940, Bulgaria instituted anti-Jewish legislation. Jewish people were excluded from public service, discriminated against in their choice of places of residence, and restricted economically. A real wave of indignation overwhelmed Bulgaria a year later in 1942, when after a Berlin conference, the sanctions against the Jews increased. This decision was met with resentment and indignation by the Bulgarian people. Protest demonstrations were organized, and all the political parties and the Bulgarian Church took part.
Also in the spring of 1943, the Bulgarian government made extensive plans to comply with the Nazi demand to deport Bulgaria's Jews. Bulgarian society responded with a series of protest letters. Tzar Boris III took into consideration public opinion, and not a Jewish person from the real Bulgarian territories was sent to the camps of death. Tzar Boris became known as determined to avoid allowing Jewish people to be sent to the concentration camps in Germany.
Despite the menace and the impending danger for Bulgaria, the whole society and the Holy Synod gave their sincere support for the Bulgarian Jews.
To go over it: The Nazis would have killed all of the Jewish people of Bulgaria. So why didn’t Bulgaria, an ally and beneficiary of Nazi Germany, follow Germany’s lead and participate in the Holocaust? So what happened?
Significant and public protest from key political and clerical leaders moved King Boris to cancel these deportation plans.
After I came back from Israel, I read a book called THE FRAGILITY OF GOODNESS: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust by Tzvetan Todorov, who wrote that with the exception of Denmark, Bulgaria was the only country allied with Nazi Germany that did not annihilate or turn over its Jewish population. Todorov assembles key evidence from this episode of Bulgarian history, including government reports and memoirs. Through these documents, he reconstructs what happened in Bulgaria during World War II and channels the collective memories of that time. He recounts the actions of individuals and groups that, ultimately and collectively, spared Bulgaria's Jewish people the fate of most European Jewish people.
The Bulgaria that emerges in my mind from Yad Vashem and the Todorov book is not a heroic country dramatically different from those countries where Jewish people were killed. Todorov did find heroes, especially some Greek Orthodox clergy, some writers, some politicians, and--most inspiring--public opinion. Yet he is forced to conclude that the "good" triumphed to the extent that it did because of a tenuous chain of events. Any break in that chain--one intellectual who didn't speak up as forcefully, a different composition in Orthodox Church leadership, a misstep by a particular politician, a less wily king--would have undone all of the other efforts with disastrous results for almost 50,000 people.
In 1945, at the end of World War II, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was still about 50,000, its pre-war level. Next to the rescue of Danish Jews, Bulgarian Jewry's escape from deportation and extermination represents the most significant exception of any Jewish population in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Here’s something that was written by a class in Bulgaria recently:
Observing the unwritten human laws, the Bulgarians defended the rights of every one to live and develop his abilities regardless of his race or religion. The Bulgarian state took the side of human values and virtues and didn't suppress the sacred and immortal origins of man. Because the sun shines for everyone in the same way, there is a space for every one under the sun.
And here is Todorov again. He concludes that once evil is introduced into public view, it spreads easily, whereas goodness is temporary, difficult, rare, and fragile. And yet possible.
In a wonderful place like the United States of America in the 21st century, we are taught to think: Good will always conquer evil. But actually, Todorov is right about the fragility of goodness; goodness is fragile, easily broken.
A wise man once said: All that it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.
All it takes is for bystanders to stand by, watching, making excuses for why they haven’t done anything to stop the evil. The lesson of Bulgaria is that we have to support each other in our goodness.
That’s what a community is, people helping each other to be good reinforcing each other’s actions.
I know what you’re thinking: Why should anyone need reminders to be good? Just love everybody and do god things all the time.
Well, that sounds really nice, but real life, and real people, aren’t like that.
We need each other. In Bulgaria, it took clergy, politicians, and writers but mostly it took the average people.
Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day is tomorrow.
For many people today, the Holocaust is just something that happened in history.
But for some of us in this sanctuary, the Holocaust is something that happened to us and our loved ones.
For all of us, it should be a lesson in what evil; can do. Evil existed sixty years ago and it exists right now.
For all of us, it should also be a lesson in how good works. Good doesn’t just work through individuals, but by different individuals coming together to stop evil. Each of us has to play a part.
Picture a man with a gun who is chasing a child down the street. One of us tackles him. Another grabs his gun. Another person calls the police. Another person pins him to the ground. Another person goes to make sure the child is okay.
Together, we have stopped him before he could do any harm. We don’t have to make excuses for the rest of our lives.
And we have the sense that at least for now, we’ve done something good.
In this world, doing good takes all of us, working together, all the time.