THE EXAMPLE OF DIMITAR PESHEV
A RIGHTEOUS MAN IN THE 20th CENTURY
Twenty-five years ago, on the 20th of February, a man named Dimitar Peshev was dying in Neofit Rilski Street, in Sofia. He had definitely played more than a significant part to save the Jews living in an entire nation: however he was almost forgotten by everybody.
Probably the whole history of the Holocaust does not register a similar case. But still today Peshev's name is not counted among the Just in our century: his memory is neglected even by the survivors themselves.
In March 1943 Peshev succeeded, with his coragious deed, in saving forty-eight thousand Jews from deportation, by preventing at the last minute their leaving with no return for Auschwitz. Still, after the War he was brought to trial by the Communists and persecuted for the rest of his life. He never boasted of his deed, the noblest one that a man could undertake during Nazism. He never looked for glorification: his behaviour was that of a humble person.
During one of the usual boring days he was spending in solitude in his sister's home where he was actually sheltered, since the Communists had deprived him of his house, he told his nieces - Kichka, Kaludka and Milka - that he had done nothing really special. His was only a normal, humane act. Anybody in his place would have done the same.
He had been the protagonist of this act only by chance, because he had been the first one to be informed. He would have done it for anybody in danger: at that particular moment the Bulgarian Jews were in danger, but again, it could have been anybody, without distinctions. He did not feel like a hero. He simply considered himself a man with a conscience.
Dimitar Peshev's story has a universal meaning. He had crossed the evil, and had been able to recognize it. His life could be defined a "modern tale". A tale that philosopher Hannah Arendt would have loved, since she was the one that during the Eichmann trial - in Jerusalem, in 1961 - had raised the question on the Banality of Evil: could it have been possible for men who were plunged into that particular climate to be able to think on their own, and thus take autonomous decisions? Different decisions, which could even change the course of history? Peshev had succeeded in that.
Peshev was a man that, like many others, had come under the spell of the totalitarian experiences in the 20th Century Europe. Even though a democrat, he had become convinced, little by little, and fooled himself with his firm belief, that an authoritarian regime without parties could solve the problem of corruption and decay in politics. He became a supporter of the alliance with the Nazi Germany, and was not so much attracted by Hitler himself, as, rather, by the persuasion that the Third Reich could give back to his country the regions that were "unjustly" lost during the ill-fated Balkan wars in 1912-13. For this reason he had little or no qualms when the Germans asked Bulgaria to approve the racial laws.
On the day of the discussion in Parliament, Peshev was the Chairman of the session. He did not object; he truly believed that those restrictive measures were nothing but a petty and temporary provision. He could not imagine, at that stage, the real consequences: the Nazis would soon have demanded that all the Jews were handed over to them.
Peshev went on leading his sophisticated life in his aristocratic milieu, when one morning he suddenly received the desperate visit of a friend of his he had not seen for years, Jako Baruch. He was an old Jewish schoolmate of Peshev coming from Kustendil, a charming little town on the border with Macedonia, in which Peshev had lived up to his teens. Baruch informed him that the Government had reached an agreement with the Germans and therefore the deportation of the Jews was settled. The trains were ready in the stations. The following night the Jews were to be arrested and taken on the wagons to leave for Poland.
It was the 7th of March 1943. Everything was secretely decided in order not to alarm the population. Peshev had indeed heard strange rumours, but just like many others, did not worry about them. Now, in front of a friend who was asking him to help, his conscience was stirred. He startled. He was shaken out of his torpor and acted instinctively: at first he only thought about saving his Kustendil friends. He was not aware that he was actually about to save a whole people.
In the meanwhile a delegation from his home-town had come to Sofia: Vladimir Kurtev, Ivan Momchilov, Petar Mihalev and Assen Suichmesov were there. Peshev arranged a meeting with them in the afternoon in Parliament, where - together with some other members - he bursted by surprise in the office of the Minister of the Interior, Petar Gabrovski, after having in vain tried to see the Prime Minister, Bogdan Filov.
After a dramatic argument, Peshev forced him to withdraw the order of the deportation. He then personally called all the prefects' offices to make sure that the counterorder was actually obeyed. Thank to his unexpected initiative, Peshev had taken the Minister of the Interior by surprise. Thank to his determination to stir up a public scandal, he not only frightened him, but he also made him fear he would lose his reputation, since Gabrovski was in his inmost feelings ashamed of that deed. "I was impressed of how he was confused and shaken.... Thus I became convinced that he was not about to undertake his action."
In this way, though, deportation was only postponed: for this reason Peshev decided to launch an attack in Parliament. He was now beginning to realize that not only the life of a few friends was in danger, but the rescue of the entire Jewish Bulgarian Community depended upon him. There was no time to be lost: he wrote down an extremely hard letter of protest signed by 42 members of Parliament to plead the Government and the King not to commit such a dreadful crime that would have disgraced Bulgaria forever.
This rebellious act costed him dear: on the 25th of March Bogdan Filov summoned Parliament in order to neutralize Peshev. He tried to present him as a man with no honour that was acting for his own sake only. Then, without any discussion and with the imprimatur of the Crown itself, he was dismissed from his office for having rebelled against the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews. The Prime Minister stresses repeatedly in his diary how Peshev, after having lost his office, would have lived with the nightmare of being handed over to the Germans, should they have won the war.
What Filov could not forsee was the disruptive effect of Peshev's condemnation. The King began to back out: maybe he was feeling ashamed of what he had allowed, and the whole country rose up in favour of the Jews.
Boris III was about to have the same reaction of the Minister of the Interior, in those days. Once the spell of deceit was broken, he was feeling ashamed of his behaviour which, by the way, did not have the consent of the people. Moreover he had up to that stage tried to remove the gravity of the action, by giving the whole responsibility to Government. The initiative of the Vice-Chairman of Sabranie, the Bulgarian Parliament, made him feel a deep uneasiness: he struggled between the fear of making the Germans suspect, and the fear of losing his reputation in front of his people and in front of the whole world.
Peshev, with his unexpected deed, called everybody back to his responsibility. The Nazi sympathizers had to declare aloud that they agreed to the deportation, the intellectuals and the Church had to take an active stand, the opportunists could do nothing but choose, at that point. This is why Dimitar Peshev can be considered the craftsman of the miracle of the Bulgarian Jews.
The King suddenly died in 1943. Peshev rediscovered democratic values and fought for a political change in the country and for the re-alignment of Bulgaria with the Western World. He made a great mistake, though (a "great mistake" from the point of view of the Communists, needless to say): he publicly condemned in Parliament the behaviour of the partisans who were giving the country over to the Russians.
Without this faux pas, he could have triumphantly stepped into the new era in Bulgaria; an era that was opening upon the arrival of the Red Army. His papers were in order for him to become, at the end of the War, famous and esteemed in the whole world. He had been the only politician with a relevant position in a country which was allied with Germany able to disrupt that climate of silence about the fate of the Jews. He had forced the King as well as his Government to stop the monster of deportation.
He made the alliance with the Germans fail, and thus started the only true national resistance against Nazism. Even though he had never shouldered a gun to fight the Nazis, he was paradoxically their greatest enemy, the most dangerous partisan in the entire Bulgaria. He had personally fought a decisive battle against Hitler, and he had won: the Jews were still alive. No Army, no Head of Government in the western world, no Pope had been able to inflict such a severe defeat to the Nazis in their war with no boundaries against the Jews. Only in Denmark something similar had happened.
His taking a stand against the Communists costed him very dear when Bulgaria was occupied by the Red Army. He was brought to trial with the double charge of being an anti-Semite and anti-Soviet. During the trial the prosecution even hinted that Peshev had saved the Jews in exchange for money. It was definitely proved wrong by his Jewish friends who came on purpose from Kustendil to defend him.
The Court was all the same willing to condemn him to death, as happened to twenty other members of Parliament who had signed his letter of protest. There was a little miracle, however: Peshev's defending Counsel, Joseph Nissim Jasharov, pulled the so-called rabbit out of the top hat and reminded the Court that in 1936, when Peshev was Minister of Justice, he had saved Damian Velchev from a death sentence. Velchev was the new Minister of War, the author of the communist coup d'tat upon the arrival of the Red Army. Peshev was thus condemned to 15 years of inprisonment only, and was released after one year. He was spared the gulag only thanks to the intervention of a neighbour who was responsible for the Communist cell of the area. Peshev had in due time prevented his dismissal from his job.
After the war Peshev lived forgotten by everybody, shut up in his room: the Communists even denied him a chance to practise a profession. He witnessed thus a real farce: while he fell into disgrace and twenty among those who had signed the letter of protest were executed, the Communist Party celebrated itself as the craftsman of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews. There was even a proposal for a candidature of Todor Zhivkov for the Nobel Prize for Peace.
After twenty-five years from his death, Peshev's nieces - Kichka, Kaludka and Milka - and all those who feel somehow close to this emblematic character, are asking that his glorious merits be finally recognised and that his name be remembered among the Righteous that fought against the Holocaust. For this reason they are promoting an International Foundation in Bulgaria, in Israel, In Italy, in France, in the States as well as in the rest of the world to remember Peshev.
His story can set an example for all those who fight for human rights today and cannot bear that anywhere in the world somebody could be persecuted for his belonging to an ethnic group, for his religion, for his faith.
Peshev saved the Jews, but he would have done the same for anybody who were persecuted. This is his moral heritage that can make Memory alive and exemplary for future generations, as a great contemporary Bulgarian philosopher - Zvetan Todorov - has said.
20 February 1998, Sofia
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