One fearless and determined man, Dimitar Peshev, aborted attempts to deport Bulgaria's 50,000-strong Jewish population to a sure death in Hitler's concentration camps
By Norbert J. Yasharoff
From "The World & I" Monthly Magazine, June 1995, Washington, D.C.
Except for a small number of historians, holocaust researchers and leaders of Jewish organizations, very few people know the story of Dimitar Peshev -- Bulgaria's wartime National Assembly Vice President. While Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-winning "Schindler's List" showcased the [exploits] of righteous gentile Oscar Schindler, whose heroic acts rescued over 1,200 Jews from the claws of the Nazi extermination machine, Peshev was responsible for saving all Jews living within the old boundaries of wartime Bulgaria -- a number reaching close to 50,000 souls. [ His story, so long ignored, richly deserves to be told, as well. ]
Even a commemorative plaque on the wall of the "Bulgarian Corner" of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. does not tell the whole story. It says:
"Hitler's military allies in Europe were Italy, Bulgaria, Finland, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia and Romania. Many of them cooperated with the Nazi program of genocide. Bulgaria, by preventing the deportation of its native Jewish population, was among those that did not.
As it fell under German influence, the Bulgarian government enacted antisemitic laws. Jews were excluded from Bulgarian society and the economy; marriage between Jews and non-Jews were banned; Jews were confined to ghettos and forced to wear the yellow Star of David badge. In 1943, Germany urged Bulgaria to begin deporting Jews. The Bulgarian government complied to the extent of deporting to the Treblinka death camp 11,384 non-Bulgarian Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, territories it had annexed in 1941.
The threat of deporting Jews from Bulgaria proper, together with passage of racial laws, aroused protests from Bulgarian intellectuals, professional associations and the Orthodox Church. The government, mindful of public opinion and aware of the collapsing German war effort, postponed the deportation of native Bulgarian Jews.
Although the persecution of Bulgarian Jews remained harsh, it did not lead to deportation and genocide. The Jews of Sofia, the capital, were expelled to the provinces. Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 45 were confined to forced-labor camps. Nevertheless, the entire native Bulgarian Jewish population survived the "Final Solution."
The plaque maintains that the deportation of native Bulgarian Jews was postponed by a "government mindful of public opinion and aware of the collapsing German war effort." The truth, however, is that public protests, ineffective as they were even with regard to the harsh, anti-Jewish "Law for the Protection of the Nation," could not, and did not, bring about the postponement of deportations. As for the government's awareness of Germany's changed fortunes of war, that came more than half a year after the Nazi debacle at Stalingrad and was not a factor in its decisions to first issue, and then rescind, the deportation orders in the winter of 1943. Postponement of the deportation was the direct result of the unprecedentedly courageous actions of one Bulgarian politician, Dimitar Peshev, of which -- for some reason -- the Museum text fails to make any mention.
Considering the magnitude of his deed, Peshev deserved to be mentioned in the commemorative plaque and not be relegated to the row upon row of "Rescuers," whose actions -- albeit noble and heroic in their own right -- are not in the same category as his.
It is, therefore, imperative to set the record straight. My qualifications for doing this stem from my father's deep involvement in the fate of Peshev after the war, from my own first-hand recollections about the events in question, and from my careful study of historical documents, books and research papers on the subject published in Israel, Bulgaria and the United States.
The persecution of Bulgarian Jews was carried out in the framework of the virulently antisemitic "Law for the Protection of the Nation" patterned after the infamous Nazi Nurenberg Laws. The law was approved by the National Assembly in late 1940 in spite of the many protests made by writers, artists, professionals, and church officials, and went into effect in early 1941. Chief enforcer of this law was the man who drafted it in his capacity as Commissar of Jewish Affairs, the pathologically antisemitic lawyer, Alexander Belev. All the measures taken by Belev in implementing the "Law for the Protection of the Nation" were aimed at preparing the ground for the deportation of the Jewish community to Poland in the spring of 1943.
Early that year, Adolf Eichmann's special emissary, Theodor Danneker, who was considered to be one of the top Nazi experts on Jewish affairs, came to Bulgaria and together with Belev worked out a plan to deport the Jews of Bulgaria as well as those in the lands occupied by Bulgaria. The deportations were to be accomplished in stages. The first groups scheduled for removal in March and April of 1943 included the almost eleven and a half thousand Jews living in Bulgarian-occupied Greece and Yugoslavia and eight and a half thousand Jews from Bulgaria proper.
The deportation plan's implementation began during the night of March 8-9, 1943, when all or part of the Jewish residents of at least 17 Bulgarian provincial cities were rounded up and herded into makeshift detention camps. In the southwestern city of Kyustendil, where the entire Jewish population was to be deported, friendly Bulgarians leaked news of the secret plan to the local Jewish leadership. These leaders received confirmation of the news from relatives and friends in Sofia.
Confident of their long-standing friendship with their Christian neighbors, Kyustendil Jews turned for help to a group of non-Fascist local officials, whose response was audacious. A three-man delegation was hurriedly dispatched to Sofia to plead with the government to rescind the impending deportation. On March 9, 1943, the delegation met with Dimitar Peshev, who in addition to being Kyustendil's parliamentary representative, was also vice president of the National Assembly.
Peshev Prevents Deportation
The three emissaries impressed on their fellow townsman the need for speedy action. The Fascist government of Prof. Bogdan Filov, they said, had to order for the release of all detained Jews and cancel all planned deportations. Despite his Germanophile background and the fact that he voted in the National Assembly in favor of the anti-Jewish laws, Peshev's conscience was deeply disturbed when confronted with the real possibility of sending Bulgaria's 50,000 Jews to certain death -- on top of the already accomplished deportation of the entire Jewish communities in Macedonia and the Aegean region.
Peshev immediately invited the Minister of Internal Affairs, Petar Gabrovski, to his office where a number of Jews and members of parliament had gathered. As described by Frederick B. Chary, author of "The Bulgarian Jews and the Final Solution, 1940-1944," the best study published so far on the subject, Peshev "threatened a scandal in the National Assembly and demanded that the deportation orders be cancelled. After a phone call to [Prime Minister] Filov, the minister called off the operation." Distrustful of Gabrovski, Dimitar Peshev personally telephoned the district governor in Kyustendil, instructing him to release without delay the detained local Jews. He issued similar instructions to all other jurisdictions where Jews were detained. Thus ended the first attempt to deport the native Jewish population of Bulgaria to the gas chambers in Poland.
But Dimitar Peshev, whom Jews now openly applauded as their savior, did not confine himself to securing the temporary cancellation of the deportations. He was set on permanently foiling the deportation plans of Nazi Germany and the Fascist regime in Bulgaria. As vice president of the National Assembly, Peshev succeeded in obtaining the support of a sufficient number of deputies (mostly from the ruling Fascist Party), as required by the Rules of Parliamentary Procedure, in order to introduce a bill stripping the Commissar for Jewish Affairs from handling Bulgarian Jewry in the same manner in which it handled the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace, namely "delivering" them to the Germans for extermination.
Eliciting strong opposition from the Fascist government and a majority of its parliamentary supporters, the bill was defeated on the floor of the National Assembly. At Filov's request, Peshev himself was censured by the Assembly and removed from the vice presidency. Following that, he became a non-person, living in near seclusion and in constant fear of assassination. Already at that time, it was widely recognized that by acting so fearlessly against the deportation of Jews, Peshev had embarked on a suicidal mission. But had he not undertaken it, Bulgarian Jewry would have perished in its entirety. By bringing about the cancellation of the first deportation order, he gained the time necessary for popular opposition and Germany's military reversals to convince the Filov government that cooperation with Berlin on the Jewish issue was no longer in Bulgaria's best interests.
As a last gesture of appeasement to the Germans, the Bulgarian leadership ordered on May 24, 1943, the expulsion of all the Jews living in Sofia to cities near the Danube River, from which they could, if so decided, be more easily deported to Poland. In the end, the deportation never took place. As the war continued to heap defeat upon defeat on the once invincible German armies, successive Bulgarian governments were more interested in distancing themselves from the Third Reich and concluding a separate peace with the Allies than in complying with Nazi demands for the deportating of Jews. When Soviet forces invaded Bulgaria on September 9, 1944, Fascist rule came to an end and a new government coalition of anti-Fascist parties, acceptable to the Allies, was installed. All laws against the Jews were revoked, and the process of restoring Jews to full citizenship began.
The new authorities lost no time in instituting People's Courts to try the members of the Fascist establishment, including cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, military leaders, and members of the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs. All of them were sentenced to death and executed. Dimitar Peshev was also brought to trial, in spite of his extraordinary contribution to the rescue of Bulgarian Jews. The Communists, who already dominated the governing coalition, were more interested in punishing the members of the previous regime than in acknowledging the heroic deeds of those who protected and defended the Jews. Finally, under pressure from some Jewish communists, who could not help but feel indebted to Peshev, the Sofia Bar Association selected my father, Joseph Yasharoff, to serve as Peshev's court-appointed lawyer.
"Throughout the trial and, particularly, in his summation speech," writes Bouko Piti in his book, "They, the Rescuers," published in Tel Aviv in 1969,
"Yasharoff stressed the courage displayed by Dimitar Peshev in voicing from the rostrum of the National Assembly his own firm opposition and that of about forty other members of the parliamentary majority, who followed his lead, against the anti-Jewish policy of the Bulgarian government. He pointed out that... Peshev's actions demonstrated to Nazi Germany's envoys how unpopular among Bulgarians from all walks of life was the idea of deporting the native Jewish population to the extermination camps in Poland. Yasharoff also told the People's Court that Peshev's bold efforts had greatly contributed to the 'political decriminalization of Bulgaria on the Jewish question' and to its acquittal on one major count in the court of world public opinion."
Peshev Escapes Death Sentence
Entered in the court stenographer's records is a note pointing out that -- contrary to accepted courtroom behavior -- when my father concluded his summation, the audience burst into wild applause and some of the other defendants (all former Fascist officials) rose to their feet, prompting the judge to declare a brief recess. My father was beaming with joy when I approached him outside the courtroom. He knew -- even before sentence was pronounced -- that Peshev's life had been saved. Indeed, the court recognized the defendant's unique contribution to the rescue of Bulgarian Jews and agreed that his courageous acts must be taken into account as highly attenuating circumstances. Unlike the majority of his former colleagues in parliament whom it sentenced to death, it imposed on him the relatively light punishment of fifteen years' hard labor.
Peshev's sentence would later be commuted, and he would be free to languish in poverty in the home of relatives. He was not allowed to practice law or any other profession. By that time most Bulgarian Jews would be in Israel, and, with the Iron Curtain tightly closed, they would be only partly successful in helping him out financially. Peshev died in 1973 poor, persecuted by the communists, forgotten by all -- except for those of us on his very, very long rescue list, who are alive today, leading normal lives in the United States, Bulgaria, Israel and many other countries around the world.
Peshev's success in preventing deportation would not have been possible if it were not for the fact that the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians were not antisemitic, espoused religious tolerance, and were sympathetic to the plight of the Jews. Therefore, it was only fitting that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum honored the President of Bulgaria, Dr. Zhelyu Zhelev, at a special commemorative program during his visit to Washington in February, 1995 -- an expression of gratitude to the people of Bulgaria for their noble deeds.
Norbert J. Yasharoff
Bulgarian-born Norbert J. Yasharoff is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer, who is currently active as an independent consultant on East European affairs and a lecturer on developments in the former Socialist countries. He frequently addresses civic, religious and cultural groups on the fate of Bulgarian Jewry during World War II.
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