The ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of Bulgaria’s courageous choice to preserve its 48,000 Jews from the Nazis was attended by the country’s president on Friday.
In addition, prominent Israeli historian and politician Michael Bar Zohar, born in Bulgaria and who published an early history of the incident that was barely known until after the fall of communism, was present, as were representatives of the Bulgarian Orthodox church whose ancestors had organized the rescue.
Together they marched from the national library of Bulgaria, which is currently hosting an exhibition about Tsar Boris III, the monarch of Bulgaria during World War II, to Sofia’s oldest cathedral, where they laid flowers on a memorial to Boris and his wife, Tsarina Joanna.
However, any members of Bulgaria’s modern Jewish community were conspicuously absent from the ceremony with President Rumen Radev.
According to Alexander Oscar, head of Shalom, The Organization of Bulgarian Jews, community leaders were only invited on Thursday afternoon at the last minute.
On March 10, which Bulgarian Jews call the “Day of Salvation,” his group had already prepared their celebration.
Oscar claimed that even if he had received the invitation earlier, he would not have gone, and he believed that no other members of the neighborhood’s Jewish population would have either.
According to Oscar, “nobody from the community would have participated in an event glorifying the fictitious role of King Boris in rescuing the Bulgarian Jews and presenting a skewed history of the Holocaust.
Oscar’s remarks highlight a persistent and powerful disagreement about how Tsar Boris III should be remembered in Bulgaria’s Holocaust history.
Although Boris approved the directive to stop the expulsion of the nation’s Jews, he was also the head of a fascist regime that sided with Nazi Germany, enacted harsh racial laws against its Jews, and enabled the murder of more than 11,000 Jews in the territory it occupied.
In 1943, Boris visited Germany and met with Hitler there. Shortly after his return, he mysteriously passed away.
More than 11,000 Jews from Western Thrace, Vardar, Macedonia, and Pirot in present-day Serbia were deported by Bulgarian forces to Nazi concentration camps, where almost all of them were murdered.
Plaques honoring Tsar Boris III and his wife stood in Jerusalem’s Bulgarian Forest and are now housed in St. Sophia Church, where the president’s ceremony was held.
After objections from Bulgarian Jews and their descendants who felt uncomfortable with lionizing someone who oversaw the death of Jews during the Holocaust, the plaques were taken down in 2000.
Boris was not specifically praised in previous “Day of Salvation” celebrations.
The wartime leader, however, is a favorite of the far right in Bulgaria and those who respect the nation’s pre-communist governments.
His notoriety has only grown in recent years as Bulgaria, like many other nations, has seen a strengthening of its right wing.
During the commemorative event, Bulgarian Jewish journalist Emmy Barouh addressed an open letter to Radev with the following statement: “What we choose to remember and what we choose to ignore when narrating our past is a mark of wisdom, fortitude, and dignity.
After last week’s celebrations, a group of Bulgarian academics has issued its request this week, urging the country’s officials to recognize the Holocaust-era deportations of Jews while it was under the Bulgarian administration.
“Our state never tried to find the appropriate words to recognize two interdependent and yet antipodal historical facts: the preserved life of the Jews from the prewar territories of Bulgaria and the deportation to Treblinka (4-29 March 1943),” the request continues.
Bulgaria should openly, honestly, and unreservedly apologize for the persecution and expulsion of Jews during World War Two.
Impressive commemoration wth participation of top state officials 2 mark 80 years since salvation of 🇧🇬Jews.Worthwhile exhibition @National Library on history of Jews in BG & ctxt of decision of Tsar Boris III that enabled avoiding their deportation in WWII.@TheIHRA @MAERomania pic.twitter.com/4MpQZGipHg
— Brandusa Predescu (@B_Predescu) March 10, 2023