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Sofia Garden

At the beginning of 1943, the Nazis – committed to the “final solution” of the Jewish problem, deliberated at the previous year’s Wansee conference – shifted their attention southwards, away from Poland. Having liquidated the Warsaw ghetto and completed the deportation of Jews to the extermination camps, the next stage in their plan focused on Salonika, home to Europe’s second largest community of Sephardic Jews.  They also had their sights on the territories of Thrace and Macedonia, wrested from Greece by the Wermacht and handed to king Boris III of Bulgaria in recognition of his loyalty to the alliance with Germany.

In March 1943 the first convoys of deportees left Salonika, Skopje and Gorna Djumaja bound for Auschwitz.

In Sofia only a distant echo of these events reached the populace. The Nazi leaders stipulated secret agreements with the state apparatus to prepare for the deportations of Jews from Bulgaria’s historic territories with as little fuss as possible: they were well aware of the population’s strong ties with their ethnic minorities and feared a backlash from society against the plans to transfer neighbours, friends and school fellows with whom people had always enjoyed good relations.

The deportation order was soon ready and was issued without warning to make the most of the surprise factor. But something went wrong: the strong bonds of friendship between the Jews of Kjustendil and the deputy president of the Bulgarian parliament, a native of that small provincial town, put paid to the Nazis’ plans. Initially, Dimitar Peshev was puzzled, almost incredulous at the words of his old school friend, but then he realized what was actually going on and he involved other members of parliament in decisive action to prevent the trains already loaded with their tragic human cargo from leaving. His intervention successfully exposed the secret deportation plan and the political action that ensued, with a letter of protest to the government and to the king, effectively foiled the attempt to eliminate Bulgaria’s forty-eight thousand Jews from the country. It was to lead, however, to this brilliant lawyer being ousted from power and marginalized from political life.

Another authoritative voice raised against the persecution of the Jews was that of the primate of the Orthodox church, metropolitan Stefan, who went as far as threatening to excommunicate the king if he failed to oppose the Nazi plans.

The arrival of the Red Army and the ensuing German defeat interrupted the “final solution” and Bulgaria’s Jewish community was saved.

The paradoxes of history continued, however: the most prominent figures in the rescue, such as Peshev and other deputies, were tried by the Communists for high treason for having joined a pro-Nazi government and some of them were sentenced to death. Peshev was saved by the intervention of an old Communist friend but he spent several years in prison and died forgotten and in poverty.

The new Communist regime revised Bulgaria’s recent history, placing the rising star of the nomenclature, prime minister and party secretary Todor Zhivkov, at the centre of the rescue operation. Bulgaria was to become Moscow’s most loyal ally, fiercely repressing all forms of opposition. It wasn’t until a few years before the fall of the Berlin wall that a dissident movement capable of being a thorn in the regime’s side gained a hold in the country.

Despite the end of Communism, the parable of the Jewish rescue was not set right until an Italian writer, Gabriele Nissim, investigated the facts and discovered Peshev’s diaries, bringing the truth to light in his book L’uomo che fermò Hitler [The man who stopped Hitler]. For his research, Nissim received the Knight of Madara medal, a prestigious Bulgarian honour.

After the Communist revisionism, and with the new move to democratic government, the diehard monarchists came up with their own version of the rescue of the Jews, attributing the merit to the king. In recent years Nissim has argued with Boris III’s son, Simeone – who in the meantime has returned from exile and been elected prime minister by the new Bulgarian democracy – about his father’s role in the tragic events of the Second World War.  Nissim  has urged him to recognize Peshev’s merits, and his defiant determination not to allow Bulgaria’s entire Jewish community, and with it the honour of the Nation, to be jeopardized.

Righteous in the Garden

The Peshev museum

The Peshev museum

Photogallery of the Peshev Museum, inaugurated on 25 October 2002 in Bulgaria.The museum is in the town of Kjustendil and it has been realized in the house where Peshev was born in 1894. It is supported by the embassy of Bulgaria.


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