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Author recounts how Bulgaria defied Nazis

Balkan nation saved 50,000 Jews

Tuesday, March 21, 2000

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: Published March 23, 2000) The dates for the public appearances by Michael Bar-Zohar, Israeli author of a book about the rescue of Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, were unclear in Tuesday’s editions. He’ll speak at 7:30 p.m. March 29 at Eddy Theatre at Chatham College. From 10 to 11:30 a.m. March 30, he’ll be at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, which is in the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. That evening, he will appear at the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural fund-raiser in West Homestead.

When it comes to heroes who saved Jews during the Holocaust, many people have heard of Oskar Schindler.

  Author Michael Bar-Zohar, who was born in Bulgaria, will talk about the experiences of Jewish people there during World War II when he visits Pittsburgh next week.

Few have heard that that role also was played by the country of Bulgaria.

There's no Steven Spielberg movie, but there is a Michael Bar-Zohar book. In it, the Israeli writer recounts how the Balkan nation, even though it aligned itself with Germany and the Axis powers during World War II, managed to save its entire Jewish population.

Fifty thousand people.

"It's a beautiful story," says Bar-Zohar, whose book, "Beyond Hitler's Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews," was published in 1998 (by Adams Media Corp.).

He'll talk about it at appearances in Pittsburgh next week, including a fund-raiser for his host, the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center in West Homestead.

The center's president, Pat "Penka" French, says, "This is a story that needs to be told."

It's also one that reads like spy fiction, with characters such as a beautiful mistress who betrays a villain's evil plans.

"Wherever I speak, most of the people are just stunned -- they've never heard anything about it," Bar-Zohar says over the phone from his home in Israel. "There's always someone who stands up and says, 'That's such a wonderful story, it's a pity it's not true.' "

  Bar-Zohar scheduled to appear

Michael Bar-Zohar will make three public appearances while he's in Pittsburgh. He'll speak at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Eddy Theatre at Chatham College in Shadyside. On Thursday, from 10 to 11:30 a.m., he'll host a coffee chat for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.

Thursday evening he will star at a fund-raiser at the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational and Cultural Center at 449-451 W. Eighth Ave. in West Homestead. The event begins at 6 p.m. with cocktails and a silent auction, then dinner; afterwards, Bar-Zohar will speak, and musical entertainment will follow. Tickets are $30; for information: 412-831-5101 or 412-461-6188.


But it is true, as Bar-Zohar knows, because he and his family were there, and were nearly sent to certain death in the concentration camps.

He was born in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia in 1938. After WWII, when he was 10, his family immigrated to Jaffa, Israel. He did his military service in Air Force intelligence and paratroopers, and became a journalist and writer of books (including David Ben-Gurion's biography), as well as a public servant. Part of the year he spends in the United States, where he is a professor at Emory University and a very busy speaker.

It was at Emory in 1993 that he read a New York Times article about the wartime rescue of about 7,200 Jews in Denmark. He wrote to the newspaper about the much bigger rescue in Bulgaria, and, only after much checking, did the newspaper publish it. The flood of positive reaction to this little-known tale, and colleagues at the university, convinced Bar-Zohar to write the book.

In it, he points out that Bulgaria was different from most of Europe, in that anti-Semitism was almost non-existent. Jews were just one of many minorities that had lived together for centuries. And whereas the Nazis played on people's negative stereotypes of rich Jews, Bulgaria's Jews tended to be poor, non-religious commoners who blended in rather than stood out.

More than anything else, this overall attitude of tolerance -- built into the Bulgarian constitution -- is probably what saved Jews there.

The Bulgarian story wasn't without its ugly aspects. One of the reasons King Boris III had sided with Germany was that he wanted to reclaim lands, including neighboring Thrace and Macedonia.

In fact, early in 1943, 12,000 Jews from these two territories were shipped in railroad boxcars to death camps in Poland -- something the king did nothing to stop. He also didn't stop laws that discriminated against Jews in Bulgaria.

But he and the Royal Court twice helped thwart plans to deport all 50,000 of Bulgaria's Jews.

The other two big factors that helped were the pro-fascist majority in the Parliament, and the Orthodox Christian Church. Members of both "fought like lions," as Bar-Zohar puts it, to protect these Jewish citizens from government officials who cooperated with the Nazis, such as Prime Minister Bogdan Filov and the even more anti-Semitic Commissar for Jewish Questions, Alexander Belev.

So fearful were Filov and Belev of causing an uprising that they'd planned their deportation schemes in secrecy.

But Belev's secretary and secret lover, Liliana Panitza, tipped off the Jews and their supporters -- an act Bar-Zohar attributes, at least in part, to "pangs of conscience."

Whatever the case, the ensuing protests, backed by Parliament members, clergy, intellectuals and other Bulgarians, caused King Boris to cancel deportations just hours before the first Jews were to be rounded up -- in March 1943, and again in May.

The first time, Bar-Zohar, then 5, and his family were in the town of Kyustendil, living under curfews. They were among the 8,000 that Belev had slated to be deported first.

Bar-Zohar didn't include first-person accounts in his book, but says, "I remember everything," including how everybody was sewing bags out of sheets and pillow cases as they waited to be deported, supposedly to be resettled elsewhere. "Nobody believed they were going to be resettled," he says. "They knew they were going to die."

King Boris, the author argues, didn't want that to happen. And so, despite pressure from Adolf Hitler himself, he kept stalling. One tactic was to place all Jewish men in forced labor camps that he claimed were crucial for rail and road construction.

Bar-Zohar's father served in those camps, which he says weren't so bad: The men were treated well, furloughed on weekends, and released during the winters -- conditions that did not escape notice of the Nazis. But they were confounded by the Bulgarian mentality that, as one Nazi wrote, "lacks the ideological enlightenment that we have ... [and] doesn't see in the Jews any flaws justifying taking special measures against them."

Only after the war ended and the scope of the Holocaust (6 million killed) became known did the Bulgarians realize how lucky they'd been. As Bar-Zohar puts it, "Most of the European Jews would be delighted to have [had] just curfews and labor camps."

There were well-documented rescues in other places -- Bar-Zohar has taught a class about them that included German industrialist Schindler, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and their Japanese diplomat counterpart, Chinue Sugihara. But, Bar-Zohar points out that Bulgaria's was the only Jewish population in the Nazi sphere of influence whose number increased during that time.

Nonetheless, the story remained unknown outside Israel, where most of Bulgaria's Jews immigrated after 1948.

The true story was long suppressed, he says, in great part because the Communists, who came to power after the war, saw those who'd helped the Jews as enemies. After the fall of Communism in 1989, researchers could get to more materials. But because the little country remained unknown to most Americans, the story wasn't widely disseminated.

Bar-Zohar is hoping that will soon change: A crew is working on a documentary, for which he has written a script. It should be completed this fall. After that, he hopes it'll be turned into a motion picture, one that could reach as many millions as "Schindler's List."

The author of more than 20 works of fiction and non-fiction, Bar-Zohar knows this story has the right ingredients in the heroes -- from peasants to a king -- who risked everything to take a moral stand.

"This is the kind of light that pierces the darkness," he says. "It proves if others would have stood up, who knows how many people would have been saved."

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