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The Rescue of Bulgarian Jewry

The Rescue of Bulgarian Jewry

How all 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved during the Holocaust.


Many know the story of how Denmark rescued 8,000 Jews from the Nazis by smuggling them to Sweden in fishing boats.

Few, however, know the story of how all 50,000 Bulgarian Jews were saved. For decades, all records were sealed by the Bulgarian Communists in an attempt to prevent glorification of the King, the Church, and the non-Communist parliamentarians who at great personal risk stood up to the Germans.

Until the Communist downfall in 1991, the story remained untold, the last great secret of the Holocaust era.

Bulgaria is a small country which, at the outset of World War II, had 7 million people. The Jewish community, having lived in Bulgaria since the 2nd century CE, numbered approximately 50,000.

During the war, Bulgaria aligned with Nazi Germany in hopes of recapturing Macedonia from Yugoslavia and Thrace from Greece, which had been stripped from Bulgaria following their defeat in World War I.

In 1940, Bulgaria instituted social and legal restrictions of its Jewish citizens, in the style of the infamous Nuremberg Laws. Bulgaria also deported non-Bulgarian Jews in those territories it had annexed from Yugoslavia and Greece. Then at the beginning of 1943, the Nazis informed the Bulgarian government that all Bulgarian Jews would be deported to Nazi-occupied Poland.

The news of this inhumanity was a hot topic of conversation, and public opposition began to grow. This was due to the sense of close-knit community in the small Bulgarian population, and particularly the fact that Bulgaria consisted of minorities – Armenians, Turks, Greeks and Gypsies, as well as Jews.

As the date for the deportation drew closer, Parliamentary leader Dimitar Peshev led a coalition of 43 legislators who registered an official protest. Newspapers denounced the deportation. The Patriarch of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Stefan, actively worked against the deportation and issued fake baptism certificates in an attempt to save Jews. Bishop Cyril, who headed the church in Plovdiv, threatened to lie down on the railroad tracks and promised the Jews, "Wherever you go, I'll go with you.”

Finally, under public pressure, King Boris III forbade the deportation.

Since Bulgaria was a German ally, the cost of open resistance could have been total annihilation at the hand of Nazi troops. Yet the Germans were stretched militarily, and had to wrestle with the problem of how much pressure they could afford to apply in the face of this subversion. In the end, the Nazis decided to avoid a confrontation.

Thus Bulgaria became the only nation in Europe to save its entire Jewish population from the Nazi death camps, and King Boris has the distinction of being the only world leader to defy Hitler face-to-face during the war. (King Boris died under mysterious circumstances in 1943.)

Of the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews, some 40,000 went to Israel after the War. Among those was Michael Bar Zohar, who later served in the Israeli Knesset and wrote the remarkable book, Beyond Hitler's Grasp, detailing the rescue of Bulgarian Jewry.

The book was translated into Bulgarian, and the ADL shipped 30,000 copies to Bulgaria, to ensure that the population could learn about this heroic facet of their history.

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October 23, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 21

(17) marc engelis, November 10, 2017 8:16 PM

Bulgarian article

This article needs correcting.
They did not "save the jews" They sent them to forced labor cams instead of death camps.
They also did send all non-Bulgarian Jews to death camps.
It's a very mixed bag of treatment. But "saving" is not quite accurate.
Had the war continued it would have been death by work.

(16) Beatrice Pogin, April 23, 2017 6:14 AM


i met a couple in San Francisco who had a dress shop on Mission near 24th St Bart who were from Bulgaria., they told me about this. They were very nice.

(15) Silky Pittermanf, February 17, 2016 11:09 PM

Perfect? Not really

So Bulgaria saved 50,000 of it's Jews from the Nazis yet allowed around 11,000 from it's newly conquered territories to be taken away.
Were they perfect examples of pro-Jewish heros? No, but they (led by Tzar Boris) was still much, much better than any other country. It took a lot of guts for Tzar Boris to stand up to the Nazi.

(14) Petra, October 12, 2014 5:33 AM

I Was Born In This Small Country Which Saved The Bulgarian Jews

Thank you,, for mentioning my small nation for what it has done to save the Bulgarian Jews. We have studied at school about this historical fact.
The Bulgarian nation has treated its minority populations with respect. We are a mall nation build of Bulgarians, Turks, Armenians, Jews, Gypsies, and more minorities.
I have been raised to respect all people.
I am very proud with what our church and Tsar Boris did to save its Jewish population.
I read recently a book about Tsar Boris and his action to save the Jewish people. He was a king moved by human ethical norms.

(13) S. Alfassa, February 13, 2014 1:55 PM

Bulgaria sent 13,000 Jews to Treblinka

Bulgaria was complicit in the dispossession, torture and murder of thousands of Jews-yet, the Bulgarian government continues to whitewash this fact. While it's known that the Bulgarian government elected not to deport some 50,000 Jews from 'Old' Bulgaria to German death camps in Poland-what is not known is that Bulgaria was directly complicit in the murder of some 13,000 Jews from 'New' Bulgaria (Thrace and Macedonia).

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