May 14, 2002

Salvation of the Bulgarian Jews during the last world war

I would like in some way to demonstrate that not the entire population was composed of saints, but reason dominated the great majority. And in that way I would like to express my gratitude for having been born in Bulgaria, for the lesson that was imparted to my entire generation, and for the privilege of having known the meaning of being protected in the cruelest moments of my life and that of those closest to me.

The decade of the 1930s began rather badly, full of political uncertainty, Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany, the Spanish civil war began, Mussolini’s troops occupied Ethiopia. A breath of hope was provided by the various trips of Sir Nevil Chamberlan, greeting his people with umbrella held high. The years 1938-1939 demonstrated that with good will nothing had been achieved. Austria fell, then the Sudetenland, and then all of Czechoslovakia.

They say that the King of Bulgaria, Boris III, bitterly said, ”My army is pro German, my wife is Italian, my people are pro Russian. Only I am pro Bulgarian.” The King in that way attempted to keep Bulgaria neutral, outside the war that was approaching.

It did not take long for territorial temptations to appear. The first was Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister at the time, whom the King turned down flat. Then representatives of the Greek and Yugoslav alliance presented themselves. The king refused to accede to any of these parties. On the one hand he did not want to annoy Stalin, on the other hand he did not want to show sympathy toward the Allies. He had decided. He would be neutral. But his prudence unfortunately was frustrated. On the first of September 1939, Germany attacked Poland. Then in June of 1940, Paris and all of France fell. The famous General Petain, hero of the first world war returned and formed a collaborationist government in Vichy. The games had ended.

In Rumania, German troops had already entered. The conquest of Greece on the part of the Italians had been a failure.

Through the streets of Sofia could be seen strolling bond men and women with blue eyes. People murmured, ”They must be of the fifth column.” On the first of March, the Bulgarian prime Minister, Bodgan Filov, proudly signed the ”non aggression pact with the Berlin-Rome axis.” On the following day, the blue-eyed blonds changed their civilian clothes for the brand new uniforms of the German army. During the fall of 1940 was published the proposal for ”The law for the defense of the nation.” From whom did it have to defend itself? From the malevolent Jews, of course.

And thus began our Calvary:

  • 1. All objects of precious metals, jewels and other things, except for the wedding rings of married people, had to be put in pouches, sealed, and delivered to the National Bank.
  • 2. All Jewish properties were appraised, taxed, and for the first time a higher levy was imposed.
  • 3. All Jews over 10 years of age had to have sown on the left side, on all the clothes they wore over their underwear, the star of David in yellow and black (shame and death). On taking off any article of clothing, one could not leave a shirt or garment without the insignia of being Jewish.
  • 4. The entrances of apartment building and houses had to have the unfortunate indication that Jews lived there. There were white pieces of cardboard in whose center was found the star of David, bordered in black, and then in black letters it said, ”Domicile of the Jew…” (The rest of the text I do not remember.)
  • 5. The time came to return telephone sets to the state.
  • 6. In those days, no household had more than one radio. They were involved with the customs of possession and were handed in at the depository in the central post office. Friends used to visit us in order to tell us the news they had heard over the short wave radio from London (the BBC) or the United States (the Voice of America) , always in Bulgarian. They avoided commenting on the news regarding concentration camps. We knew something about those camps but we believed that they were tendentious news items from the allies against the Nazis. They also informed us of the advances of the Nazis into Russian territory.
  • 7. And other measures were taken against us. They gave us three days to leave our homes. We had to move to a quarter distant from the residential center. It was not a ghetto, simply it was out of the way.

Shortly before this last measure, our grandmother from Belgrade arrived. She arrived with just one suitcase. Sad and weeping, she told us that they had taken the grandfather from the house, they had taken him to a concentration camp on the outskirts of the city and two days later he was killed. How could one believe news like that? Nevertheless our father began to take steps to ask for expatriation. Our grandfather, a pharmacist trained in Vienna, had been during the first World War, a reserve captain, decorated by Germans and Bulgarians, fro having prepared a medication against malaria.

Friends of the grandfather, comrades at the Military Faculty, learned of his misfortune, came to the house and offered their services. One of them was a father-in-law of an important Coronel. Within a few months, we received from the Bulgarian Ministry of War a casual note which stated:

”Regarding your request for the repatriation of Joseph Pardo, reserve captain in the Bulgarian Army, the following note was received from the German occupation forces: The Jew Joseph Pardo died of a hemorrhage on 4 October 1941.

From 1941, all men between 18 and 46 years of age, were called to render service in the Forced Labor Camps. But in 1942, in the month of November, they were called anew to begin another period of work which lasted until October of the next year.

The work was hard, breaking rocks, laying railway lines. They had to change the narrow tracks of Greece for wide ones, so that they coincided with those of Bulgaria.

The rumor spread that convoys were approaching of Jews from Greece, and it was the truth. They could hear their cries in Judeo-Spanish: ”Brothers, help!!! Water!!! Bread!!! The head of the Forced Labor Camp prohibited the men from approaching the carriages in o4der to give them their own daily provisions and threatened them. The men made packs with their canteens and rations of bread, approached the carriages with roofs, and vigorous tried to get the packs to fall inside the carriages. They were not exactly elegant carriages, only for fifty five persons or eight horses, according to what was written on the outside. The gendarme who directed the camp, did not castigate anyone, turned a blind eye, and ordered another ration of bread to be distributed. Many of the workers got sick with malaria and died. Those who survived said: ”Thank God we are in Bulgaria”.

A new order came out, Jews could not walk through the loveliest avenue of Sofia, with its ochre colored cobble stones, which resisted earthquakes, armored cars. To kill time, Jews were not permitted to circulate between the hours of 21 in the evening to 6 in the morning. Curfew. The avenue was that of King Liberator, who had helped the patriots in the war of liberation from the Turkish yoke, that had lasted five centuries, and ended in 1877-78.

In those days, my father visited the office of a certain Mr. Covo, who had received a desperate letter from his son, who was studying dentistry in France. The government of Vichy had stopped being magnanimous towards the Jews. The young students and a companion had crossed the Pyrenees on foot, in winter, but the Spaniards wanted to return them to France. The friend of young Covo, had several frozen toes, which had to be amputated. Mr. Covo knew that the Bulgarian embassador was from Lom, and a fellow student of my father’s, and for that reason wanted his help. Father did not dare write Parvan Draganov, who had previously occupied the same post in Berlin, (it seems that he did not fulfill successfully the order of the Bulgarian chancellery, and was transferred to Madrid.) ”Who don’t you write the letter and mention my name, only say that from me you know that the minister is a man of good will,” my father told him. The minster took care of the two boys, and had them brought to Madrid, from where they sent letters to my parents.

I am 82 years old, and my head is full of memories. I have never failed to maintain a flowing correspondence with my Bulgarian friends. But in any case, I have read various books in order to refresh my memories.

Antisemitism in Bulgaria was always present, but it was like a habit, it was not cruel, at times joking, at other times somewhat aggressive, when the right wing groups ”Kubrat y Ratnitsi” made their appearance. The English historian, R. J. Cramton, in his book mentions that antisemitism appeared in Bulgaria with the arrival of the Russian liberation forces.”

Samovit and Lom were ports on the Danube. There could be found anchored various boats ready to undertake their terrible journey with Jews on board, toward Germany, Poland and the tragic extermination camps. After the Fall of Stalingrad, Hitler’s ire had no bounds. ”Fight to the last man!” He had not studied history and believed that what happened to Napoleon would not happen to him. Von Paulus did not obey the orders of the Fuhrer, and surrendered to the Soviets, with nearly 500,000 men, either prisoners, sick, or dead.

The Bulgarian parliament is unicameral. According to Christo Boyadjieff, 42 delegates signed a petition directed to the Bulgarian prime minister, ultra Nazi, asking that he not sacrifice the Bulgarian citizens who professed the Jewish faith. Infuriated, Filov threatened them to retract their signatures or to suffer the consequences if they did not. Two men of good will, Dimitar Peshev and Petar Mihalev, refused to retract their signatures, and were expelled from the parliament.

February was the fall of Stalingrad. And in the 9th of March of 1943, the commissioned for Jewish affairs, Belev, together with the German Dänneker, had decided to deport the Jews, according to the orders of one of the offices of Adolf Eichmann that operated in Sofia. Nevertheless their plan failed because of the opposition of the great majority of the people: churchmen, politicians, professional organizations, all headed by the Cardinal Stefan – venerated by Bulgarians and Jews – and also by Bishop Kyril, who stood between the train tracks in Plovdiv, declaring that train had to pass only over his body. Belev’s plans failed. Eichmann’s office insisted and Belev proposed a deferral, but continued making plans.

(a) One of them consisted in embarking them in groups of 16,000 people per month so that by 30 September they would end up with all of them, but beforehand all of them would be united in concentration camps and put on board the boats that awaited.

(b) The other was to evacuate all the Jews from the capital, sending them to the north of Bulgaria in order to be closer to the ports. A few of them would remain in the capital because they were necessary for the war effort. An employee of the commission, Lillian Panitza, made the error of informing Dr. Buko Levy. And a worker in the state publishing house, sent a copy with all the details regarding the future of the Jews to a very close friend. Panic spread because this friend indignantly revealed everything.

I cannot avoid mentioning something very private. One of the owners of the Royal Circus Dobrich came to our apartment in order to tip off our father that his brother, of the secret police, poking through the tasks that he had to complete, encountered the name of my father, and recommended to his brother that we disappear from our house for three days. The owner offered that my sisters and I go with him dying the color of our hair and hiding us in a cart near the animals. We thanked him and our father gave the necessary instructions. We and our grandmother went to an uncle’s house, where on the lower floor lived an important priest,

secretary of Cardinal Stefan. We made magic with the watches, in order not to leave after 9 p.m., and remain there. I didn’t want him to tell me where he would go with my mother.

I cannot forget Christo and Tsvetana Penchev who welcomed our parents so as to hide them until the danger was over. My father could not bear the humiliation of having to hide without having committed any crime.

He decided to return home. ‘Uncle’ Christo took the risk of bringing his revolver and accompanied them to our house. He spent the night with them.

The neighbors commented that the previous evening there had been visitors who rang the bell, knocked on the door, but no one appeared. ”Where were they? How late we were, we stayed at one of the wife’s brothers.”

On the 23rd of May Bulgaria celebrates the holiday of the culture, dedicated to the sainted brothers Kyril and Methodius (monks in Salonika). They created the so-called Cyrillic alphabet (in the IXth century). They translated the sacred books so that the people, recently baptized, understood the ritual in the Slavic language, avoiding the Greek rite. This day they began the marches between the Jewish headquarters and the Royal Palace.

My parents, my sisters, and the rest of the family were witnesses to the tragedy that had stricken all of Europe. Also we were the 48,000 Jews who had lived for centuries in Bulgaria. Cardinal Stefan, the democratic ex-premier Nikola Mushanov, Princess Evdokia, daughter of the King, Ekaterina Karavelova, approached King Boris III, with the request to read the letter which the Jews had written to him. I did not have the honor to read it. It was published in a Jewish yearbook in 1986, in Volume XXI, in page 223:

”Your majesty, in the name of the men, women, and children, we beg you, on our knees, that you extend your paternal hand to protect us, in memory of those who have fallen in the fields of battle. Give us your protection. We are prepared to shed out blood for the nation, for Bulgaria, but within its borders, not outside the country.”

There was a demonstration in favor of the Jews. 63 personalities, the most important politicians belonging to the liberal and democratic movement signed a very valiant document:

”These measures can be interrupted and defeated only by your majesty, because you are the true government.”

We know the rest.

Always one hears how the Danes saved their 8,000 Jews. Very few are aware that the Bulgarian people, with a population of 6 or 7 million people, saved from extermination camps its 48,000 Jews.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  • A SHORT HISTORY OF MODERN BULGARIA by R. J. Crampton of Cambridge University. Edited in 1987.
  • SAVING THE BULGARIAN JEWS IN WORLD WAR II by Christo Boyadjieff. Edited in 1989.
  • POLITICAL DIARY OF BOGDAN FILOV, published in 1990.
  • CONVERSATIONS WITH TSVETKO BOBOSHEVSKI.
  • CONVERSATIONS WITH TODOR MUSHANOV, nephew of NIKOLA MUSHANOV.
  • MY OWN MEMORIES, as I lived in Sofia at that time, and cherished those memories.

Beatriz Rosanes Samuilov was born in Sophia in 1920. She completed her primary studies at a public school and her secondary studies at the North American`s school in her city. After having passed the five tough years of the war in Bulgaria, Beatriz, who was already married, migrated to Israel in 1948 and from there, in 1950, to Argentina. Her father, Rafael Nissim Rosanes, and her mother, Regina Capon, were from Bulgaria (Vidin and Plovdiv, respectively), as well as her grandparents and her father’s second wife, Eugenia Pardo. The Rosanes appreciated the western culture and music and all of them played an instrument.

I come from Bulgaria and feel the inescapable duty to tell the story of our salvation during that bloody second world war of which we were witnesses and also protagonists.