Bulgaria commemorates rescue of 50,000 Jews in 1943

March 9th, 2008 - 8:56 am ICT by admin  

By Elena Lalova
Sofia, March 9 (DPA) Sixty-five years ago, mass public protests in Sofia saved tens of thousands of Jews from being deported to a Nazi concentration camp. At the time, 67-year-old Samuel Frances was three-and-a half years old. He and his family were then destined for death, the former Bulgarian correspondent for the Spanish news agency EFE recalls. The trains were ready to roll when authorities in Sofia cancelled the mass deportation, which they had already agreed to, at the last minute.

Although the estimated 50,000 Jews with Bulgarian citizenship who dwelled in Nazi Germany’s Balkan ally were rescued, they were still subjected to anti-Semitic laws introduced to “protect the nation”. As a consequence, 28,000 Jews like Frances were forcibly relocated from the capital to the countryside.

“My mother and my nine-year-old sister were sent to Novi Pazar in eastern Bulgaria,” said Frances, the former editor-in-chief of the Sofia-based daily Jewish News. His father was sent to various forced-labour camps.

An event in Bulgaria’s second-largest city Plovdiv recently commemorated their deportation on March 10, 1943.

At the time, both the Christian Orthodox church and 43 parliamentarians had lobbied for their fellow Jewish citizens, Maxim Benvenisti, the head of the Jewish organization Shalom told DPA in an interview.

Exarch Stefan, the then head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, was even willing to let the endangered Jews take shelter in the churches, he said.

Historians and politicians agree that Jews in Bulgaria had the “ethnic tolerance” among the population to thank for their rescue.

Since antiquity, paths have led to the orient and occident and seen Thracians, Romans, Tartars, Turks, Roma and Crusaders cross them or settle in the Black Sea country.

Synagogues and mosques can be found side by side in downtown Sofia not far from Christian-Orthodox churches and a Catholic cathedral.

However, not all Jews in Greater Bulgaria were saved. A total of 11,363 Jews were handed over to Nazi Germany from regions in what are now Macedonia, northern Greece and eastern Serbia, but were occupied and managed by Bulgaria during World War II.

In March 1943, they were handed over in the Danube city of Lom and deported to concentration camps in Treblinka in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Several waves of emigration occurred after the war during the communist era with the result that only around 6,000 Jews now live in Bulgaria. In the past years, the numbers of those acknowledging their Jewish heritage and taking an active part in Jewish life have increased.

The birth rate has also increased, said a pleased Robert Tcherassi, who manages the Jewish religious community in Bulgaria. Jews regularly congregate in a synagogue built in 1909, that was recently renovated and is now the biggest in the Balkans and the most magnificent in Sofia.

Since 1998, the Jewish ritual bath called the Mikwe is also being practised again.

The restitution laws after the fall of communism in 1989 have facilitated the return of Jewish property.

Benvenisti said that although anti-Semitism “has not taken root in the souls of Bulgarians,” many Jews in the country feel uncomfortable when confronted with the Ataka Party’s nationalist slogans.

This extremely nationalist and hostile party was founded around 15 years after the communist era ended and is now represented in parliament in Sofia and at the European Union parliament.

Anti-Semitic books such as Hitler’s Mein Kampf have been published and sold as no law banning them exists.

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