The lesson of Bulgaria for today's world

By Gabriele Nissim

The memorial stone in honour of Dimitar Peshev at the Garden of the Righteous of Milan

The memorial stone in honour of Dimitar Peshev at the Garden of the Righteous of Milan

Following we publish the remarks delivered by Gabriele Nissim at the inauguration that took place on 31 May 2018 at Palazzo Moriggia (Milan) of the exposition "La forza della società civile: la sorte degli Ebrei in Bulgaria 1940 - 1944" (the strenght of civil society: the fate of Jews in Bulgaria 1940-44) – organized by the Consulate of the Republic of Bulgaria in cooperation with Milan City Hall and Gariwo.

What do the rescue of Bulgarian Jews teach us?

How could it be possible that it was the only European country where a political élite, after embracing anti-Semitism and the alliance with Hitler, stopped the Jews deportation at the very last moment? There is something that is also inherent to our present time in Europe and the world. When evil is about to rise no one recognizes it and, alas, many are enticed by it, because evil presents itself with the fascination of goodness. Instead, it is precisely then that you can forestall the derailment of history to the worst direction, because, when evil wins, it is always too late. This is the reason why the Bible tells about the 36 Righteous who keep the fate of the world in their hands. They are the people who act to avert evil. And how can they do? By explaining people the truth and trying to convince the people who take a wrong route to change directions. It is not enough to protest or express your indignation, but you must put all your perseverance into educating and convincing those who, with or without awareness, get on a wrong train and corrupt the whole society.

Today many people believe that the return to nationalism, sovereignism, and an individualistic culture can rescue us. They do not realize that building up barriers and walls pave the way to hatred and wars among the nations. The most lucid narrator of this possible drift is a very interested observer. It is Steve Bannon, Trump’s former adviser, who wishes that a populist wave wipes out the European and international institutions. He in fact, as the New York Times wrote, envisages a beneficial apocalypse that can shake the world to make it be born again. However, he misses to talk about the possible consequences, that the Humanity already tragically experienced in the Thirties. If we want to reverse this path, that can lead to unimaginable conflicts, we must first of all talk to those who are wrong to get them to change their minds. We must use the weapon of reason, as Dimitar Peshev, the vice-president of the Bulgarian Parliament, managed to do. If we do not do this effectively now, we will head for defeat, and at the end we will gather the debris of all that will be destroyed. The Bulgaria of Jews rescue sets an example of a possible line of conduct.

This country, like fascist Italy, had followed the spirit of the time. It had followed the nationalist wave. It had applauded the alliance with Hitler. It had voted the racist laws against the Jews. It had re-conquered Thrace and Macedonia. It was a country that had managed to keep a relationship with Hitler without declaring war to Russia. It had enjoyed territorial expansion, without though having to participate with its soldiers in the war adventures of the Nazis. Bulgaria though would have to pay a price for all this: consent to the extermination of the Bulgarian Jewry. This was the political exchange that Nazi Germany demanded. Germans would grant Bulgaria the re-conquest of Thrace and Macedonia and the non direct participation into war, in change for the Jews’ lives. This is why King Boris, Prime Minister Filov and the responsible for the Jewish question Belev, devised a secret plan to deport the Jews. It was March 1943. At this point, after so much silence, some men appeared on stage. They were able first of all to speak truth and they did everything in their power to convince the country’s élite to change route. The dynamics is very interesting. I could define it as a mechanism of emulation of goodness which, ignited by a spark, shook the conscience of a whole country.

Everything started with a Jew from Kjustendil, Jako Baruch, who once learnt about the preparations of the deportation of the town’s Jews, did not accept to become a passive victim and decided to meet his old friend, the vice-president of the Bulgarian Parliament Dimitar Peshev. It was a fateful dialogue, because at first Peshev resolutely denied the information provided by his friends. He practically pretended not to understand the danger. Then, his conscience shaken, decided to act. Together with a group of deputies, he went at six o’ clock pm to the Minister of the Interiors Gabronski’s and, threatening to unleash a political scandal, he forced him to phone all prefectures to stop the deportation, planned for midnight. Peshev himself, not trusting the Minister of the Interiors, with the other deputies wanted to talk to the prefects to make sure the orders were actually revoked. However that gesture was not enough. Peshev was aware that the situation of the Jews remained on the brink, as the deportation order was only suspended. He grasped that it took a political signal from the Bulgarian Parliament, to make sure the government would not yield to German pressure again. “I asked myself what I could do. I could not remain silent anylonger[1] and remain inactive while such important issues were at play… So I resolved to act, but how? I had understood that personal gestures, albeit feasible, could prove scarcely effective in the long run. The government could reverse them with the same motivations by which it had justified the approval of the anti-Jewish measures… To forestall the irreparable we had to put forward the issue before the Parliament.” The Vice-president of the Parliament thus wrote, on 17 March, a document aiming at gathering the highest possible number of signatures from the deputies of the filoNazi majority, to be forwarded to Prime Minister Bogdan Filov, responsible with king Boris for the deportation order. He resolutely refused to gather the support of the opposition, because if his call were to be interpreted as an act of defiance against the whole line of action of the government it would face rejection.

The text was a true masterpiece, as it was meant to illustrate how the evil perpetrated against the Jews would befall the very Bulgarian nation. Peshev did not ask the deputies to defend the Jews out of compassion, in the name of a universal love towards the others – an argument that would not convince those who embraced the nationalist spirit of the time – but invited them to imagine the unbearable burden of guilt that would haunt the whole country.

He thus reversed the patriotic discourse. You could not become accomplice of genocide for territorial ambitions. The “moral” amputation was even worse than the “territorial” one. “Such measures are unacceptable[2], he wrote, not only because these people – Bulgarian citizens – cannot be expelled from Bulgaria, but also because this would have serious consequences for the country. It would be a stain of infamy on Bulgaria, constituting a heavy moral burden, but also a political one, depriving the country in the future of a valid argument in international relations. The small nations cannot afford to overlook these arguments, which, whatever happens in the future, will always be a powerful weapon, perhaps the most powerful of all. Which Bulgarian government could take on such a responsibility regarding our future? Such thing would haunt above all the government, but also Bulgaria. It is easy to foresee the consequences of such a situation, and this is why this does not have to occur. The honour of Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people is not just a matter of feeling, is above all an element of its politics. It is a political capital of the maximum value and this is why no one has the right to use it indiscriminately without the consent of the entire people”. The content of the call reminded of the text of the letter that, 10 years earlier, Armin Wegner had sent to Hitler, at the chancellory in Munich in April 1933 in vain, warning him about the shame that would haunt Germany because of the anti-Jewish persecution. “The shame that Germany faces [3] because of this will not be forgotten for a long time! In fact, who will fall under the same blow that one today wishes to land the Jews, if not ourselves?”. But in the case of Bulgaria the words of Peshev persuaded the deputies: 42 Members of the Parliament of the filo-Nazi majority signed the call, not because they had changed their mind politically, or they wanted a new international position of the country, but because for the first time someone made them think about the moral consequences of their deeds.

The vice-president of the Parliament though paid a heavy price for his gesture. King Boris and Prime Minister Bogdan Filov accused them of infringing the party discipline and acting against the government by his letter. On 26 March 1943, he was hence removed from the charge as Vice-president of the Parliament. King Boris was furious: Peshev had made known the deal the government had made with the Nazis to deport Jews. At this point, the secret operation could not take long any longer. Peshev had ignited a spark, in the Parliament and the country’s institutions, that could not be put off anymore: everybody became aware of the terrible responsibilities that the monarchy would take on by handing over the Jews.

On 31 March, king Boris, during a trip to Germany, informed Hitler and Ribbentrop that he had changed his mind and he could not deport the Jews of the inland, with the excuse that the country needed workers to build new roads. Karl Hoffman, the German secret agent accredited in Sofia, in a report of 5 April 1943 in Berlin wrote that Belev, the chief of the committee on Jewish questions, had been gotten over his head by the king, worried about his image before the public opinion. “Deportation presents itself in Bulgaria [4]as much more difficult than in Germany, because the government cannot make any move without taking into consideration the inner and international consequences.”

The lesson of Peshev and the Bulgarian deputies has multiple meanings. First of all it proved that if an ally of Germany refused to hand over the Jews, it had a wide margin of action to do so. Germans had to take into account the opinion of their allies. Bulgary had the courage to do so. But it is a teaching that is valid above all for today, as when you have the courage to speak truth to power about the possible consequences of nationalism, you can convince also the people who think differently. Today’s problem is that everything is accepted without a cultural resistance. And it is also for this reason that today, remembering Peshev, my praise goes to the President of the Italian Republic who invited us to think of the dangers of the disruption of Europe and our common fate. 

[1]Peshev, Sulla questione ebraica, Fondo n.1335, u.a.156, Sofia, Archivio Storico nazionale.

[2] Peshev, Lettera di protesta al Primo ministro Bogdan Filov,Fund 1335,u.a.85, Sofia, National Historical Archive.

[3] Armin Wegner, Open letter to the Chancellor of the Reich Adolf Hitler,1933.

[4] Karl Hoffman, “Report by the German Legation in Sofia to the R.S.H.A. in Berlin on the difficulties

Gabriele Nissim, Gariwo Chairman

Analysis by

8 June 2018

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