Murdered Sephardic Jewish Community Remains Without a Voice
Annually, it is repeated in the contemporary media how ‘Bulgaria became the only Nazi-allied country in World War II to protect its entire Jewish population’ or that ‘Bulgaria saved all of its Jews from the death camps.’ While ultimately, members of the Bulgarian government, the Bulgarian public, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, did in fact take laudable actions which halted the deportation of 50,000 Jews from ‘Old’ Bulgaria to German death camps in Poland, there is no reason why the Bulgarian government should not discuss the 13,000 Jews they dispossessed, imprisoned, and deported from their own land of ‘United’ or ‘New’ Bulgaria.
Here are the facts. On March 1, 1941, Bulgaria...
entered into a pact with the Axis powers and participated in the German-led attack on Yugoslavia and Greece. As a reward from Adolf Hitler, Bulgaria received most of the Balkan area known as Thrace and Macedonia. Stating that Thrace and Macedonia were their ancient Bulgarian lands, they proudly declared the territory ‘United’ or ‘New Bulgaria’ and, within one month, initiated a national campaign of Bulgarization which ended with Bulgaria deporting all of the areas 13,000 Jews, who were subsequently exterminated at the Treblinka death camp in German-occupied Poland.
The Jewish communities of Yugoslavian Thrace and Greek Macedonia were made up of Spanish speaking Jews, descendants of refugees expelled from Spain in 1492. These Jews lived and thrived for many centuries among the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. In the early 20th century, Bulgaria secured Ottoman recognition of her independence, as did parts of Greece that were populated with Spanish Jews. The Spanish Jews living within Hellenistic borders became Greek citizens soon after. After 400 years of living in the Balkans, the regional Sephardic Jews went through a paradigm shift which politically transformed Spanish speaking ‘Turkish Jews’ into Spanish speaking ‘Greek Jews.’
In 1941, the Bulgarization began in earnest. Bulgarians forcefully deported Greeks and initiated mass colonization of Bulgarians into their ‘new’ land of Thrace and Macedonia, their ‘newly liberated’ regions. The Bulgarians removed the Metropolitan of Skopje, Josif Cvijovic, as well as bishops and priests from their offices. These Greek religious leaders were subsequently replaced with Bulgarian clergy. They quickly changed the names of towns and places to Bulgarian spellings and swiftly invested large amounts of money into infrastructure changes including the introduction of Bulgarian courts of law. Bulgarian officials who settled in 'New' Bulgaria with their families, were given land grants and homes to live in. Over 100,000 Bulgarians poured in from Sofia and other ‘Old’ Bulgarian cities to their much beloved and proud ‘New’ Bulgaria.
The Bulgarization extended to all areas of life. Greek administrative agencies were abolished and replaced with Bulgarian ones. Bulgarian governors were placed at the head of provincial administrations. The Bulgarians developed ‘regional directors’ who were in charge of larger areas—everyone was replaced with a Bulgarian, from executives down to janitors. Bulgaria ordered the licensing of certain professions; thus, making a living would be almost impossible depending on your trade. That, plus the fact that bank accounts were frozen, sent thousands fleeing. Bulgaria instituted an identical economic and financial regime in ‘New’ Bulgaria as that which existed in their old land. While the military and police forces were already in Macedonia, other Bulgarians were specifically brought in to address civil sectors such as education. Many new schools from elementary to university level were established to inculcate the young. Bulgarian became the only language of instruction, both in textbooks as well as teachers. Between 1941-1942, ‘New’ Bulgaria had 2,035 teachers—teaching in Bulgarian, using Bulgarian language textbooks.
Jews, fearing for their lives, were sent fleeing by the thousands from ‘New’ Bulgaria to Salonika and to other locations in the German and Italian zones, where repressive policies against them were not yet instituted. Sometimes, the Bulgarization became violent. Massacres were not uncommon such as those in the towns of Drama and Kavalla in September 1941, resulting in the killing of some 15,000 Greeks.
In the eyes of the Parliament at Sofia, Thrace and Macedonia became legitimately and completely ‘Bulgarian.’ The governmental organization in Thrace and Macedonia, its infrastructure, civic administration, institutes of higher learning, educational system, religious bodies, economy, and culture became legally Bulgarian. To the Bulgarians, ‘New’ Bulgaria was just as Bulgarian as ‘Old’ Bulgaria was. The government was extremely proud of their ‘New’ Bulgaria. They established and funded patriotic organizations in Macedonia to show the people and tell the world that Macedonia was their own. They formed cultural and charitable organizations in their beloved ‘New’ Bulgaria, and commissioned, printed and issued, nearly seven million commemorative postage stamps in 1941, recalling the ‘recovery’ of Macedonia.
Yet, today, when it comes to discussing how 13,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia were deported by Bulgarian police officers and soldiers to Treblinka where they were killed, Bulgaria remains silent. They don’t even mention the phrase ‘United’ or ‘New’ Bulgaria.
It was in ‘New’ Bulgaria where the Bulgarians rounded up over 13,000 Jews from their homes, confiscated their possessions, loaded them into rail cars, and deported them to Treblinka where they were killed in gas chambers. The deaths of these 13,000 Jews occurred with the direct participation and knowledge of the Bulgarian government—in alliance and volunteer partnership with Nazi, Germany. The Bulgarian government was the perpetrator in the deportation of 98 percent of Macedonia’s Jews—none survived. All of the families were destroyed, all of their possessions were confiscated, and their unique Spanish Sephardic culture was made extinct.
Until it finally gained membership status in 2007, Bulgaria sought to be accepted into the European Union, but its poor human rights record often presented a problem. Prior to their acceptance, the U.S. State Department reported that Bulgaria continued to have ‘problems in several areas’ such as: Law enforcement officers beating and mistreating suspects, prison inmates, and minorities, along with arbitrary arrest and detention; problems of accountability persisted and inhibited government attempts to address police abuse; restrictions on freedom of the press; government restricted freedom of religion for some religious groups; societal discrimination and harassment of non-traditional religious minorities persisted; societal violence and discrimination against women.
To counter this on the world stage, on more than one occasion, Bulgaria revisited the claim that it had ‘saved 50,000 Jews,’ that Bulgaria was ‘humanitarian,’ and that it must keep up its ‘respect for human life and human dignity.’ On at least one occasion, ex-president Peter Stoyanov said that the Jews’ rescue from deportation was ‘the best answer to the constantly asked question “What have you contributed to European civilization?”’
On many occasions, the Bulgarians used the story of the 50,000 Jews they elected not to deport to their deaths as part of their supporting evidence that they were ‘humanitarian.’ They did this on college campuses, at Holocaust memorials, in letters to American Jewish leaders, and in front of members of the United States Congress. Bulgarian officials suppress the fact that they directly sent 13,000 Jews to their deaths when they deported them from ‘New’ Bulgaria to Treblinka.
Annual Holocaust commemorations often discuss how Bulgaria saved 50,000 Jews, without so much as a mention that Bulgaria deported 13,000 Jews. And while on specific occasions, the Bulgarians have mentioned that 13,000 Jews were deported from Thrace and Macedonia, they never call the land by the Bulgarian name they used during WWII. The Bulgarians do not discuss ‘New’ Bulgaria, the people it deported or the devestation done to its historic communities.
When stating that ‘50,000 Jews were saved by Bulgaria,’ that country's government fails to mention that ‘13,000 Jews were deported by Bulgaria.’ It repeatedly fails to mention: that in March 1943, the Jews of the Thracian cities of Kavala, Drama, Komotini, Seres, Xanthi and Alexandroupolis, were dragged from their beds at midnight, barely dressed, in sub-freezing conditions and placed into warehouses in their respective cities. No mention is m,ade of how the Bulgarian military established a blockade around the cities to prevent escapes; how members of the KEV—Komisarstvo za Evreiskite Vaprosi (Bulgarian ‘Commissariat for Jewish Affairs’), which had been established to institute anti-Jewish legislation in Bulgaria, broke into Jewish homes and hauled out their inhabitants. No word is uttered about how the Jews were forced to walk, for many miles, being whipped by troops; how many Jews died along the way from cold, malnutrition and beatings; how they were placed in tobacco warehouses and later locked inside freight trains as human cattle for the dreaded trip to Treblinka, many diying enroute; how the Jews of Monastir were locked in ghettos, their property looted and stolen by Bulgarian policemen; how a curfew was imposed on the city and all movement was forbidden; how after the residences were evacuated, the Bulgarian police checked, house by house, to ensure that all the family members had left and all valuables were confiscated.
This year, as in years past, with the endorsement of the Bulgarian government, ‘memorial concerts’ will take place in Washington D.C., Boston, and New York celebrating Bulgaria’s saving of 50,000 Jews. This will occur as Jewish Community Centers and cultural organizations will praise Bulgaria for saving 50,000 souls, while not making mention of the 13,000 deported souls who died at Treblinka.
What compounds this issue is that this particular Jewish community was so totally devastated that they have no voice in the international community to speak for them today.
Shelomo Alfassa, is an author, historian and internationally known advocate for Sephardic Jewry. He has successfully worked with the U.S. Congress to bring about greater representation for Sephardic victims of the Holocaust and for Jews displaced from Arab countries. Material in this essay has assembled from primary and governmental sources.