Beyond Hitler’s Grasp

A great many Jews know the story of how the Danes rescued 8,000 Jews from the Nazis by smuggling them to Sweden in fishing boats. Very few Jews know the story of how all 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved. Not a single Bulgarian Jew was deported to the death camps, due to the heroism of many Bulgarians of every walk of life, up to and including the King and the Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

In 1999, Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, flew with a delegation to Sophia to meet the Bulgarian Prime Minister. He gave the Prime Minister the first Bulgarian-language copy of a remarkable book, Beyond Hitler’s Grasp, written in 1998 by Michael Bar Oar, a professor at Emory University (a Bulgarian Jew who had immigrated to Israel and then to the USA). This book documents the rescue effort in detail. The ADL paid for and shipped 30,000 copies to Bulgaria, so that the population could partake in the joy of learning about this heroic facet of their history. The story is clearly the last great secret of the Holocaust era. The story was buried by the Bulgarian Communists until their downfall in 1991. All records were sealed, since they didn’t wish to glorify the King, the Church, or the non-Communist Parliamentarians who, at great personal risk, stood up to the Germans. And the Bulgarian Jewish community, 45,000 of whom went to Israel after the war, were busy building new lives, and somehow the story remained untold.

Bulgaria is a small country and at the outset of the war it had eight million people. They aligned themselves with the Nazis in hopes of recapturing Macedonia from Yugoslavia and Thrace from Greece. Both provinces were stripped from them after World War I.

In late 1942, the Jews of Selonica were shipped north through Bulgaria on the way to the death camps in sealed box cars. The news of this inhumanity was a hot topic of conversation. Then, at the beginning of 1943, the pro-Nazi Bulgarian government was informed that all 50,000 Jews would be deported in March. The Jews had been made to wear yellow stars and were highly visible. As the date for the deportation got closer, the agitation got greater. 43 ruling party members of Parliament walked out in protest. Newspapers denounced what was about to happen. In addition, the Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Krill, threatened to lie down on the railroad tracks. Finally, King Boris III forbade the deportation. Since Bulgaria was an ally of Germany, and the Germans were stretched militarily, they had to wrestle with the problem of how much pressure they could affort to apply to the Bulgarians. The Germans decided to pass.

Several points are noteworthy. The Bulgarian Jews were relatively unreligious and did not stand apart from the local populace by virtue of garb or rites. They were relatively poor by comparison to Jews in other countries, and they lived in integrated neighborhoods. Additionally, the Bulgarians had many minorities: Armenians, Turks, Greeks, and Gypsies, in addition to Jews. There was no concept of racism in that culture. The bottom line here is that Bulgarians saw Bulgarian Jews as Bulgarians, and not as Jews. Being a small country, like Denmark, there was a closeness of community that is often missing in larger countries. So here was a bright spot that we can point to as an example of what should have been.

The most famous of those saved was a young graduate of the Bulgarian Military Academy. When he arrived in Israel, he changed his name to Moshe Dayan.