SOFIA — Bulgaria’s president was on hand on March 10 for a ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the country’s dramatic decision to save its 48,000 Jews from the Nazis.
So were representatives of the Bulgarian Orthodox church whose predecessors instigated the rescue, as well as a prominent Bulgarian-born Israeli historian and politician, Michael Bar Zohar, who published an early history of the episode, which was barely known until after the fall of communism.
Together they marched from Bulgaria’s national library — where an exhibition about Bulgaria’s WW II-era king, Tsar Boris III, is being held — to Sofia’s oldest church, where they laid flowers on a memorial to Boris and his wife, Tsarina Joanna.
But conspicuously absent from the ceremony with President Rumen Radev were any representatives of Bulgaria’s contemporary Jewish community.
Community leaders were invited only at the last possible minute, on March 9, according to Alexander Oscar, president of Shalom The Organization of Bulgarian Jews.
His group had already planned its own observance of March 10, known by Bulgarian Jews as “Day of Salvation.”
But Oscar said he would not have attended even if he’d been invited earlier — and he thought no one else from the local Jewish community would have either.
“Nobody from the community would have taken part in an event honoring the imaginary role of King Boris in rescuing the Bulgarian Jews and presenting a distorted history of the Holocaust,” Oscar said.
Oscar’s comments point to a longstanding and increasingly potent dispute over how Tsar Boris III should factor into Bulgaria’s Holocaust memory.
Though Boris did sign off on the order to halt the deportation of the country’s Jews, he was also the leader of a fascist government that allied with Nazi Germany, imposed oppressive racial laws on its Jews and facilitated the murder of more than 11,000 Jews in territory it occupied.
Boris died under mysterious circumstances shortly after returning from Germany where he met with Hitler in 1943.
Bulgarian troops deported more than 11,000 Jews living in Western Thrace, Vardar, Macedonia and the town of Pirot in today’s Serbia to Nazi death camps, where almost all were murdered.
St. Sophia Church, where the president’s ceremony took place, is home to plaques honoring Tsar Boris III and his wife that briefly stood in Jerusalem’s Bulgarian Forest.
The plaques were removed in 2000 after protests by Bulgarian Jews and their descendants who were uncomfortable with lionizing someone who oversaw the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
Previous “Day of Salvation” commemorations have not specifically exalted Boris.
But the wartime leader is a favorite of Bulgaria’s far right and those who admire the country’s pre-communist governments, and his profile has only risen in recent years as Bulgaria, like many other countries, has experienced a strengthening of its right wing.
“What we choose to remember and what we choose to omit when telling our own story is a mark of wisdom, courage and dignity,” wrote Bulgarian Jewish journalist Emmy Barouh in an open letter to Radev before the commemoration event.
“There is no morality to be found in the sinister arithmetic that the lives of 50,000 were ‘paid for’ by the lives of 11,343,” Barouh wrote.
“Skipping half of this sad ‘equation’ turns ‘80th anniversary of the rescue’ into another episode of political use of Bulgarian Jews.”
Immediately after the war, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was still about 50,000, its prewar level, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. But unlike in most communist countries, the government allowed Jews to emigrate in large numbers and in fact encouraged them to do so; the vast majority departed for Israel in the late 1940s.
Today, the World Jewish Congress estimates the country’s Jewish population at between 2,000 and 6,000; the country recently saw the creation of a Jewish school in Sofia and a cultural center in the remains of a crumbling synagogue in the coastal city of Vidin.
Local Jewish leaders marked the anniversary in other ways. Earlier in the week, some traveled to Kavala, Greece, for a ceremony at the site where Bulgarian soldiers deported thousands of Jews to Treblinka in 1943.
On March 10, they also held their own ceremony at a different monument in Sofia commemorating both the rescue and the murder of the Jews in Bulgarian-occupied regions. They were joined by public figures including Sofia’s mayor and Bulgaria’s foreign minister, Nikolay Milkov, and its prosecutor general.
Some Bulgarians had openly called for their country to pay greater homage to Tsar Boris III at this year’s March 10 commemorations. Daniela Gortcheva, a Dutch-Bulgarian right-wing media figure, circulated a petition calling for him to be recognized.
The petition asserted that leaving Boris out of the commemoration would be akin to what happened in the Macedonian city of Ohrid last year, when a Bulgarian cultural club named after Boris drew protests from those who noted that Boris’s government was responsible for the murder of thousands of Macedonian Jews.
That incident, the latest in a long-running conflict between the two Balkan nations over WW II history, rocketed Tsar Boris back into the national spotlight in Bulgaria and made his rehabilitation a focus of Bulgarian nationalists.
After Jewish groups rebuffed the petition, Gortcheva attacked her critics on Facebook as ungrateful “heirs of Communists,” “a fifth column of Moscow” and traitors — claims that Jewish leaders say echo anti-Semitic smears made against Jews in the past.
Shalom, Bulgarian Jewry’s leading organization, has filed a complaint against Gortcheva with Bulgaria’s prosecutor general — the same official who last month ruled that Bulgaria could bar a neo-Nazi march honoring a Nazi collaborator.
“Gortcheva — a great supporter of the Lukov march — has been persistently involved in the spread of Holocaust denial and distortion,” World Jewish Congress Executive Vice President Maram Stern said in a letter to Milkov.
“She combines such statements with slanderous claims that the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria SHALOM and the Organization of the Bulgarian Jews in Israel are disloyal to Bulgaria.”
Following the ceremonies, a group of Bulgarian scholars circulated their own appeal last week, calling on Bulgarian leaders to acknowledge the deportations of Jews under the country’s rule during the Holocaust.
“Our state never tried to find the appropriate language to mark two inseparable and yet antipodal historical facts: the preserved life of the Jews from the prewar territories of Bulgaria and the deportation to Treblinka (4-29 March 1943) of those from the lands occupied in April, 1941,” the appeal reads.
“The Bulgarian state should acknowledge publicly, sincerely and unconditionally its responsibility by apologizing for the persecutions and deportations of Jews during WW II.”
“It is a matter of basic decency and tactfulness that emphasizing the salvation should be done by those who were saved and not by the savior,” the petition added. “Here, exactly the opposite occurs: Bulgarians are engaging in self-glorification and inviting the Jewish community to pay them eternal gratitude.”