In the darkness of the Holocaust, extraordinary acts of bravery and humanitarianism shed occasional rays of hope on the lives of European Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis. One of the most remarkable stories is the rescue of the entire Jewish population of Bulgaria.
In 1943, as the Nazi reign of terror spread and Jews throughout Europe were subjected to deportation and murder in the camps, Bulgaria’s Jews were to suffer the same fate.
The Vice President of the Twenty-fifth National Assembly of Bulgaria, Dimitar Peshev describes those days in his memoirs:
”I considered what I had to do. I could not fold my arms and sit back quietly when at stake were matters that would have such grave consequences both now and in the future. To remain silent would have been a breach of conscience; it would have been contrary to my sense of responsibility both as a deputy and as a human being. I would be responsible for the outcome if I did not take steps to halt actions …. that I knew to be a grave crime from a constitutional as well as a human and moral viewpoint.
I decided to act.”
Peshev and 42 deputies sent a letter to the Prime Minister, urging him to reconsider the decision. He argued that the deportation of Bulgaria’s Jews would have dire moral and political consequences for the Government and people of Bulgaria. He added:
‘Such a measure is inadmissible not only because these people, while not deprived of their Bulgarian citizenship, cannot be banished from Bulgaria, but also because it would constitute a detrimental act which would have grave political consequences for this country. It would put on Bulgaria’s face an undeserved stigma which would…encumber the nation morally’
By persistence and determination, 48,000 Bulgarian Jews were rescued from certain death. Bulgaria was the only country Hitler had controlled with more Jews living in it when the war ended than before the war had begun. Bulgaria and Denmark are the only two countries that saved nearly all of their Jewish population from the Nazi death camps.
Tragically, two years after his heroic and noble efforts to save the lives of thousands, Dimitar Peshev was sentenced by a ‘people’s court’ to a term of 15 years imprisonment. Twenty of his countrymen, who had also signed in defense of Bulgaria’s Jews, were condemned to death.
Tonight we honour these incredible acts of heroism and rescue.