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Heroes and Victims

Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland

Jan T. Gross
Princeton University Press, 261 pp., $19.95

The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nazis: Persecution, Deportation, and Murder, 1933–1945

Michel Reynaud and Sylvie Graffard, translated from the French by James A. Moorhouse, with an introduction by Michael Berenbaum
Cooper Square Press, 304 pp., $27.95

In 1941 Polish townspeople and farmers who had been persecuted by the Soviet occupation forces took their revenge on their innocent Jewish neighbors by torturing them and burning them alive. In 1943 Bulgarian right-wing politicians saved virtually all the Jews in their country and were later rewarded for their efforts by execution or imprisonment under the Communist government. Throughout the war German religious zealots refused to say “Heil Hitler,” preferring to be guillotined by the Nazis to serving in the war.

Such are the major themes of the three books under review. They raise questions that defy clear answers. Why did Poles, who had suffered badly under the Soviet occupiers, choose to kill those even more downtrodden than they were? Do murders committed by semiliterate Polish farmers, craftsmen, and day laborers belong in the same category as murders committed by educated and trained German policemen, as Jan Gross seems to suggest in Neighbors? Does the suffering freely accepted by German Jehovah’s Witnesses belong in the same category as that of the Jews, who were not asked what they thought of the Führer and were not allowed to recant? Why did the Bulgarians succeed in saving Jews while the Dutch, who were also not generally anti-Semitic, failed abysmally, with a nearly 100 percent Jewish survival rate in one country and only about 20 percent in the other?

1.

Before World War II, there were some 50,000 Jews in Bulgaria, making up less than one percent of the population—approximately the same low proportion of Jews as in Germany and Italy, and not at all comparable to the vastly greater Jewish presence in Austria, Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Russia. Is there a direct relationship between the proportion of Jews in a country and the extent of popular anti-Semitism? We might think so when we consider the relatively mild fate of the Jews in wartime Bulgaria and Italy; but the case of Germany obviously suggests otherwise. Other factors must have influenced the extent of popular anti-Semitism. Bulgarian Jews, mostly of Sephardic origin, were tradesmen and artisans, with only relatively few businessmen, landowners, bankers, lawyers, and professors among them. In contrast to France or Poland, for instance, no Jews were to be found in the Bulgarian army officer corps or in the state administration.

Unlike Jews in Hungary or Poland, Bulgarian Jews did not take an important part in the Bulgarian Communist movement. Thus they represented neither a political nor an economic challenge to non-Jews. Also, because there were so few Jewish journalists, artists, moviemakers, theater people, and writers in Bulgaria, right-wing critics of modern culture could not blame the Jews for immorality, secularization, corruption, and criminality. In addition, Bulgarians had more important minorities to worry about, such as the Macedonians, whose secret organizations had long been engaged in bloody terror, and also Turkish-speaking and Bulgarian-speaking Muslims.

With no Jews in important positions, there existed only minuscule anti-Semitic movements in Bulgaria. And yet Jews had much to fear. As Tzvetan Todorov explains in his strongly argued introduction to The Fragility of Goodness—a book that is largely a collection of documents—Bulgaria adopted some of the harshest anti-Jewish legislative measures in Europe. In October 1940, during the authoritarian rule of King Boris III, a Law for the Protection of the Nation severely restricted Jewish activities, and in 1941 many more such measures followed: Jews had to obey a curfew; many of them were expelled from their homes; others were forcibly conscripted into work gangs, and all were required to wear the yellow Star of David.

The worst persecution, however, did not happen in Bulgaria itself. In 1941, Bulgaria joined in Hitler’s Yugoslav and Greek military campaigns and was rewarded with the right to occupy and administer the province of Thrace in northern Greece as well as much of Macedonia and Kosovo in the former Yugoslav state. Even though Bulgaria was not allowed to annex these territories, the government conferred Bulgarian citizenship on their inhabitants, except for the Jews. This was a prelude to the deportation of the 11,384 Jews who, following their mistreatment by Bulgarian gendarmes, were handed over to Adolf Eichmann’s local representative in March 1943. The victims ended up in Auschwitz and Treblinka, where nearly all were killed.

The men chiefly responsible for this outrage were King Boris III and Prime Minister Professor Bogdan Filov. The prime minister was friendly to Germany, but Boris, a member of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family, which had produced many European kings and queens, including the descendants of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, disliked the Nazis. Bulgarians today still argue over the motives for Boris’s behavior toward the Thracian and Macedonian Jews as well as the sudden change of policy in 1943 by which he stopped the deportation to Germany of the Bulgarian Jews. Not for nothing was the King often referred to as “wily Boris.”

In Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania, governments allied with Germany alternately promoted and sabotaged the deportation of Jews, mostly but not always because of the changing war situation. But in these government decisions, the public had at best a very limited part. Not so in Bulgaria, where, in 1940, the anti-Semitic Law for the Protection of the Nation caused a public uproar. The first collective protest came from the country’s leading writers and other intellectuals. It is true that in Hungary writers and artists such as the composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály were the first to protest the anti-Jewish laws. But in Bulgaria, strong protests were made to the National Assembly by professional organizations, politicians, and religious leaders. And, instead of petering out as they did in other countries, the protests increased. Government officials, the public, and the Jews themselves all ignored the law ordering the Jews to wear the Star of David.

The deportations of Jews began in the spring of 1943, with the arrest of the Thracian and Macedonian Jews as a first step, to be followed by de-portations from Bulgaria itself. Huge street demonstrations erupted in Sofia, led by the heads of the Orthodox state church. Stefan, the metropolitan of Sofia (the equivalent of an archbishop), sent telegrams of protest to the King, and Kyril, the metropolitan of Plovdiv, is said to have warned that he would lie down on the rails in front of the next deportation train. When the authorities arrested the Jews of Kyustendil, a town not far from Sofia, a delegation of its leading residents went to the capital to plead the case of their fellow citizens. Not only were these Bulgarians free of anti-Semitism, they were also brave people and great humanitarians.

Yet, as Todorov explains, the protests would, by themselves, not have prevailed against the determination of Prime Minister Filov and several key members of his cabinet to deport Jews. What counted, Todorov shows, was that the Kyustendil delegation appealed directly to Dimitur Peshev, the vice-chairman of the National Assembly, and that Peshev took up their cause. When Todorov writes about “the fragility of goodness,” he is referring to the decision taken by Peshev, a conservative nationalist politician and a leading member of the party in power, to risk his position and life by politely, diplomatically, and yet resolutely turning against his own government. Carefully avoiding members of the opposition parties, he invited fellow members of the government party to sign a statement arguing that the Jews were no problem for Bulgaria, and that handing over the Jews to the Germans was against the nation’s honor and interest. Forty-two other deputies signed the statement, although about a dozen of them later got cold feet. Still, all this was enough to cause Boris III and the country’s other leaders to hesitate, and they postponed the deportations. Meanwhile, Metropolitan Stefan invited Bulgaria’s chief rabbi to live in his house. It is hard to find a comparable gesture anywhere else in Europe.

By the summer of 1943, the King, too, was siding with the opponents of deportation. Even though Peshev was thrown out of his party and the King died under mysterious circumstances in August 1943, there were no deportations. As happened in Denmark and Italy, even the German ambassador in Sofia began to reflect Bulgarian views on the Jewish question in his dispatches. Thousands of Jews were sent to the countryside to do forced labor, but virtually all were alive and unharmed when the Soviet army arrived in September 1944.

The Communists soon took over the country, killing many members of the country’s elite and putting on trial all the deputies from the wartime ruling party. As Todorov shows, of the forty-three deputies who had signed Peshev’s pro-Jewish declaration, the Communists sentenced twenty to death; most of the others were given long prison terms. Peshev himself was sentenced to fifteen years but was freed less than two years later. Among those executed were Deputy Ikonomov, who had been the first to sound the alarm on behalf of the Jews, and Deputy Petrov, who had fought hard in the National Assembly against the Law for the Defense of the Nation. Metropolitan Stefan was forbidden to carry on his pastoral activities.

During the Nazi alliance, not a single one of these brave men had been harmed. Now the Communists wiped them out while some in the Jewish community looked the other way. After two Jewish lawyers refused to represent Peshev at his trial, a third accepted; this courageous decision caused him later to be disbarred. Ironically, as Todorov explains, it was not what Peshev had done to save the Jews that persuaded the Communist court not to sentence him to hanging. What saved him was that earlier, as minister of justice, he had blocked the execution of a left-wing opposition leader.

Subsequently, most Bulgarian Jews emigrated, mainly to Israel, which left Bulgaria as judenfrei as all the other East Central European countries are today, except for Hungary and Romania. Under Communist rule, the wartime persecution of the Bulgarian Jews was barely mentioned, and when it was, their survival was attributed to the Communist Party. In history textbooks and in the press, wartime concentration camps were said to have held only political prisoners, while it was said of Auschwitz that “prisoners of all nationalities” had been killed.

After considering the claims and counterclaims regarding the survival of the Bulgarian Jews, Todorov rightly concludes that although the King was responsible for the death of nearly 12,000 Jews, he deserves credit for blocking German demands for deportation. This was a remarkable achievement, but the larger credit belongs to Dimitur Peshev and his fellow deputies who, in turn, would have been unable to act without popular support and, especially, without the support of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Compared to the lethargy of Pope Pius XII and of the Catholic prelates in Germany and East Central Europe, the Bulgarian church leaders were models of decency and strength.1 But who today remembers these saviors? Peshev, whose brief memoirs appear in the documentary section of Todorov’s book, is one of the thirteen “Righteous” Bulgarians who have been honored by the State of Israel. But he and his heroic colleagues and their tragic fate have been largely ignored by historians of World War II.

  1. 1

    For an informative study on the failure of Pope Pius XII to help his “own” Jews in Rome, see Susan Zuccotti, Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy (Yale University Press, 2000).

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