Wallenberg Foundation holds meeting with Bulgarian Minister for Foreign Affairs

Bulgaria will cooperate with educational projects of the Wallenberg Foundation

In a special audience at the Bulgarian Permanent Delegation to the UN in New York, Bulgarian Minister for Foreign Affairs Solomon Passy held a meeting with the founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, Baruch Tenembaum.

During the encounter, which lasted for forty minutes, Tenembaum and Passy exchanged views on the role played by Bulgaria during the Second World War and, specially, about the extraordinary attitude of the Bulgarian people and their King, Boris III.

At the end of the meeting Tenembaum announced to the press that Chancellor Passy has been appointed as an honorary member of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

The attitude of the Bulgarian people

In her book ”Eichmann in Jerusalem” Hannah Arendt points out: ”The surprising thing about the Bulgarian case and its relation with the Holocaust is that – in a region where anti-Semitism was an every day occurrence among all the ethnical groups and it had become official policy long before Hitler came to office – the Bulgarian people had never heard about a ”Jewish problem”. Under Nazi pressure the Bulgarian government decided to expel all the Jews of Sophia to rural areas but, surprisingly, the people stopped the deportations by protesting in front of the Royal Palace and at the railway stations.”

Boris III was later murdered, allegedly by German intelligence agents, who suspected that the monarch was protecting the Bulgarian Jews. However, the King’s death did prevent neither the people nor the Parliament from remaining alongside the Jewish community. No Bulgarian Jews were deported to the extermination camps in spite of all the pressures and, in June 1943, Adolf Beckerle, Nazi Ambassador to Sophia wrote resigning as Chancellor in Berlin: ”The Bulgarians have lived too much time with Armenians, Greeks and gypsies so that they can really appreciate the Jewish problem”.

The Peshev case

Dimitar Peshev was one of the many Bulgarian politicians in favour of signing an alliance with Adolf Hitler’s regime – not because he was attracted to the Third Reich’s policies – but because he was convinced that this was the way by which Bulgaria would be able to recover the areas lost during the Balkan wars of 1912-13. That is why he initially supported the Nazi racial laws against the Jews.

Nevertheless, one day Peshev received the visit of an old Jewish childhood friend who told him that behind the racial laws the Nazis hid the secret aim of deporting all Jews from Bulgaria to extermination camps. The trains were ready at the stations waiting for the order to set off towards Poland.

Peshev, a man used to the comforts of the aristocratic life, reacted instantaneously. He joined other members of Parliament and, together with them, he broke into the offices of the Department of the Interior and demanded the revocation of the deportation order. Peshev felt that the lives of 50,000 people – the total number of Bulgarian Jews – depended exclusively on him.

Peshev continued being an activist for the cause of the Bulgarian Jews and later, for democracy, values that he discovered in his fight against Nazism and its atrocities. For his efforts he was later ousted from office in Parliament and lived in permanent danger.

After the war he was in favour of Bulgaria’s alignment with the West and against the imminent entry of his country into the Soviet alliance. He was put on trial and accused of having saved Jews in exchange for money, despite the fact that many of his Jewish friends testified in the trial that the charges were false. He was condemned to death and was saved by a miracle: hours before his execution his attorney was able to prove that in 1936, when he was Secretary of Justice, Peshev had saved Damian Velchev, who had been condemned by the Nazis, from a certain death. Under the Soviet regime Velchev ran the War Department.

Finally, he was condemned to fifteen years imprisonment of which he served only one and lived the rest of his days in poverty forgotten by everyone, except by the Bulgarian Jews, who from Israel – after the mass emigration of the late forties- sent him money and took care of him. Dimitar Peshev died in Sophia on February 20th, 1973.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli

The story of the Bulgarian people and Monsignor Roncalli are tightly intertwined. This is why the connections which joined them cannot be left unmentioned, specially taking into account the background of Europe affected by war in general and by the difficulties of the Balkans region in particular. The IRWF has recently concluded a long investigation about the role played by the man who later was to become Pope John XXIII in the rescue of persecuted people, mostly Jews, during the Second World War.

Roncalli was the papal representative in Sophia between 1925 and 1934. In the Bulgarian capital he had excellent relations with the Jewish community. About this period the prestigious historian Mordechai Arbel has said:

”My grandfather Samuel Nissimoff was a very wealthy man. He donated one of his mansions to the Bulgarian Jewish community. Today the house continues being the community centre. A second mansion was rented to the Apostolic delegate, Monsignor Roncalli. He was a neighbour of the Nissimoff’s residence and became a close friend of Samuel, Nissim and Albert’s children. When he learnt that they had problems with their Latin he helped them and, thanks to this, they successfully passed their exams.

When Roncalli left Bulgaria he had already become a close friend of the family. Both Nissimoff’s brothers emigrated to Israel and they were surprised when Nissim Nissimoff received an official invitation to Roncalli’ investiture as Pope. Besides the Nissimoff’s family, his friends in Bulgaria were mostly Jewish. Queen Joanna of Bulgaria, King Boris II’s wife, was Italian, the daughter of King Victor Emmanuel. She became a close friend of Monsignor Roncalli, a relationship that was to continue after he moved to Istanbul. The story says that Roncalli told the Queen that he had information about the imminent deportation of the Bulgarian Jews to the extermination camps in Poland. I understand that this is documented in the book by the man whowas then the Head of Protocol in Bulgaria, Gruev, and in a biography published about Queen Joanna”.