Dimitar Peshev

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Washington Jewish Week, April 8th, 1999

'Bulgaria's Schindler' gets high marks in a new book

by Stephen H. Goldstein

In March 1943, the vice-chairman of the Bulgarian Parliament initially agreed with the king's secret plan to deport almost 50,000 of Bulgaria's Jews to Auschwitz. Dimitar Peshev, like many others, had been [so] dazzled by Germany that he did not oppose Bulgaria's racial laws, said Gabriele Nissim, 48, an Italian essayist and journalist, who has written a book about Peshev's later blocking the deportation.

Nissim described Peshev's moral transformation in prepared remarks in separate conferences March 30 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Italian Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C.

After more than three years' research of long-hidden records, Nissim wrote a book, "The Man Who Stopped Hitler in His Tracks: The Story of Dimitar Peshev, Who Saved a Country's Entire Jewish Population."

Norbert J. Yasharoff, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer from Arlington, organized Nissim's visit to Washington. Joseph Yasharoff, his father, served as Peshev's court-appointed lawyer in his Soviet trial in 1944.

Just two days before the trains were to carry those Jews away, Peshev awakened his conscience to enlist 42 parliamentary deputies in a petition to Interior Minister Petar Gabrovski for King Boris III to stop the deportation.

"When faced by the actual deportation of the Jews, not only did he feel ashamed for his supporting the laws," Nissim said, "but he succeeded as a high political official in projecting his own shame to the entire political class in Bulgaria."

King Boris had admitted "his own uneasiness" about the deportation to his counselor, telling him, "I did not have any intention whatsoever to introduce them in the country." Because Romania, Hungary
"and even France had approved them," the king said, however, he preferred to announce them rather than have the Nazis impose them.

Gabrovski, who had been a lawyer for a Jewish enterprise, helped to enact the racial laws against the Jews, Nissim said, but he also didn't want to ruin his reputation as "a convinced accomplice of the

Because Peshev challenged the policy of the king and the Bulgarian government, King Boris III didn't act on his doubts and experience a similar attack of conscience. Rather, he suggested Peshev acted in his own interests and for money, then removed him from office. When the Soviet army occupied Bulgaria 18 months later, in September 1944, Peshev faced trial and charges of anti-Semitism and opposing the Soviets.

In his defense, Joseph Yasharoff saved Peshev from the death sentence most of his colleagues received. The court sentenced him to 15 years' hard labor, but a friend's intervention resulted in a commuted sentence. Peshev lived another 28 years "in poverty, social isolation and frequent harassment by the authorities," Norbert Yasharoff wrote.

A key to Peshev's turning against the deportation, was a close friend, Jako Baruch, then a delegation from his hometown of Kjustendil, who visited him and "informed him of the imminent deportation of his childhood friends."

At first rejecting the news, Peshev finally understood the desperation of his hometown intimates, "not only out of love for his friends, but rather because he was ashamed of his own complicity, which he had carried on with silence and indifference."

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  Nissim, whose book on Peshev was published in Italian in September 1998, and Gabriele Eschenazi previously wrote "The Invisible Jews, the Survivors of Eastern Europe from Communism to Our Time,"
published in Milan in 1995.

Germany persuaded Bulgaria to deport more than 11,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, territories Bulgaria had annexed in 1941, Norbert Yasharoff wrote in "Bulgaria's Schindler,' a June 1995 article.

Despite the earlier deportations, submitting the Bulgarian Jews to the Nazis would have branded Bulgaria in infamy for centuries to come, Nissim said at the two conferences. "The moral prestige of the nation would have been destroyed along with the extermination of the Jews", he said.

Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic cannot understand this concept, Nissim said last week, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) continued air attacks on Milosevic's army in Kosovo, Bulgaria's western neighbor. "Not only did thousands of Bosnians and Kossovans die, but the moral consequences of Milosevic's politics will be paid by future generations."

"The difficulty" with his three years of researching the book, he said in an interview before his conferences, "was that Peshev's story was unknown in the world. History destroyed the memory."

Philip Dimitrov, Bulgaria's ambassador to the United States, attended both sessions with embassy staff. He said in a conversation after the first session that he "liked [Nissim's presentations] very much, especially when people get into the psychological level."

In a separate conversation, however, Nedyalka G. Chakalova, second secretary of the Bulgarian embassy, said Nissim's research about Peshev resembled a chess board with only two black and two white squares, not the full story.

Nevertheless, the National Assembly of Bulgaria honored Peshev's memory and Nissim's book in Sofia last Nov. 6, with the leaders of the Bulgarian, Italian, Israeli and European parliaments, including the current successor to Peshev as vice-chairman of the Bulgarian parliament.

Last Sept. 24, a day before a celebration in Milan of Nissim's book and Peshev, the Italian daily "Corriere della Sera" published an article by Arrigo Levi, "The List of Peshev - A Bulgarian Schindler."

On his Web site <http://web.tin.it/Peshev/join.htm>, Nissim collects signatures to support a memorial to Peshev to remember him in Bulgaria, Israel, Italy, France, the United States and the world.

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