Over the course of March 2018 a series of events took place in Bulgaria to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews, as well as the deaths of 11, 343 Jews from Aegian Thrace, Vardar Macedonia and Pirot. Throughout the commemorations, more than 30 leaders and representatives of the Ehud Oley organization of Bulgarian Jews in Israel, most of whom have been living in Israel since 1948, participated, speaking frequently – and movingly – of their gratitude for the actions of those leaders and ordinary people of Bulgaria who carried out the rescue 75 years ago.
The events around the anniversary started on 7 March with a concert of work by Bulgarian composers of Jewish origin, an occasion that also saw Shalom confer honors on the Union of Bulgarian Doctors for the courageous moral stand taken by their members 75 years ago.
On 8 March, on behalf of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Neofit accepted the Shofar award given by the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom” and a certificate of eternal memory in gratitude for the active role that the church played in preventing deportations and in fighting antisemitic discrimination between 1941 and 1944.
Also on 8 March, Vice Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva underlined that the Bulgarian authorities were “doing the right thing to prevent all forms of intolerance, xenophobia and hate speech.” She expressed regret that, as in other countries, there were “individual manifestations of antisemitism in Bulgaria, but they are carried out by isolated and marginal elements of Bulgarian society.”
On 9 March, the day of commemoration, government and municipal representatives, diplomats and community organizations laid floral tributes at the Monument of Gratitude in Sofia. International guests included Knesset member Aithan Broshi, Chairman of the parliamentary Israel-Bulgaria Friendship Group, the Head of the Delegation of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the IHRA, Ambassador Jovan Tegovski, the Chairman of the Holocaust Fund and Holocaust Memorial Center in Skopje, Goran Sadikarijo, the Director General of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, Anna Miszewska, the head of the WJC representative office for the Balkan countries, Ernest Herzog, members of the Diplomatic Corps, including the Israeli Ambassador Irit Lilian and the US Ambassador Eric Rubin.
The same day saw an event at the National Assembly in which Shalom conferred honors in memory of rescuers such as Dimitar Peshev, who in 1943 was Deputy Speaker, and other MPs from the ruling majority who opposed the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews. At the same event the book “75 Years. Unforgotten Faces of the Rescue,” which tells the stories of ordinary Bulgarians who opposed the deportations and antisemitism, was presented.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev emphasized that the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews 75 years ago was not accidental since the Bulgarian Jews have always been an important and indispensable part of the Bulgarian society and have been the vanguard of public life, of art, culture and science. The President also announced his forthcoming visit to Israel where he will take part in the Sixth Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism.
Such was the significance accorded to the commemorations that World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder and WJC chief executive Robert Singer came in person on 10 March to the ceremony in Sofia Central Synagogue:
“Bulgaria has set an example for the world to follow. And you remind us all today to never be silent in the face of evil, as well as to have the courage to stand up for what is right, to follow the simple rule that we all learned so long ago: to treat others as we would like them to treat us,” Lauder said at the ceremony in Sofia Synagogue.
The ceremony was attended by Prime Minister Boiko Borisov and the Mayor of Sofia Yordanka Fandakova who were presented with the Jewish community's special Shofar award in honor of the consistent efforts of the Bulgarian government in fighting antisemitism and hate speech, and for its commemoration of the Holocaust. The ceremony also saw the launch of the book "Bulgarian Jews: Living History", published by the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom”, which tells the compelling story of the Jews in the country over the past 2000 years, including the events of 1943, while also looking at the present and future of Bulgaria’s small but thriving Jewish community.
On 11 March, with representatives of the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in attendance among many others, commemorations were held in Plovdiv and at Bachkovo Monastery. Speaking at a wreath-laying ceremony at the Monument of Gratitude in Plovdiv, Israeli ambassador Irit Lilian said that today, the language of hatred, xenophobia and antisemitism was not a thing of the past:
“That is why we have to unite. We must not forget that the rescuers of the Jews were people who made and followed through on their choice. We should not forget that indifference is not the beginning, it is the end, as Elie Wiesel said. Bulgarians will always be remembered for not surrendering their humanity. That is why Israel will always be grateful”.
On 12 March, in a historic first, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov traveled to Skopje for the official commemoration of the deportation of more than 7000 Jews from the territory of today’s former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia that in 1943 was under Bulgarian governance, and stood together with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev to honor the memory of the deported Jews: “We have come to grieve and honor together those who failed to escape the Nazi machine,” Borissov declared. “No human life should be forgotten.” Those in attendance from Bulgaria included members of the Bulgarian government, US ambassador to Bulgaria, the leadership and representatives of the Bulgarian Jewish community, the representative in Bulgaria of the American Jewish Committee, the Head of the Bulgarian Delegation to the IHRA and other officials and media.
The commemorative events of the 75th anniversary in 2018 continued with an academic conference in Sofia on 14 March, co-organized by Sofia University, the Israeli Embassy, Shalom, the Bulgarian delegation to the IHRA and the Israel Institute in Washington.
A documentary exhibition entitled “1943: Persecution and Defense. The Fate of the Bulgarian Jews” opened at the country’s Archives State Agency on March 15, the first exposition highlighting the stories of the Bulgarians honored as Righteous among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem.
Commemorations will continue throughout the year, with events elsewhere in Bulgaria, including in Plovdiv, Dupnitsa, Lom, Rousse, Bourgas, Kurdzhali, Pleven and Varna, in addition to events scheduled in Sofia.
The Sofia Globe’s Clive Leviev-Sawyer and Imanuel Marcus (Magazine79’s Editor-in-chief) contributed to this report.