Bulgarian heroes

The Fragility of Goodness: why Bulgaria's Jews survived the Holocaust

Tzvetan Todorov <em>Weidenfe

Tzvetan Todorov is both a historian and a moralist. Unlike many other modern historians, he sees no contradiction in pursuing both these activities simultaneously. Yes, he would argue, historians must set aside dogma in their search for truth, just as scientists are expected to do. On the other hand, because historians are themselves entrapped in the material they are studying, they cannot avoid engaging with the moral and cultural dimensions of their subject. As Todorov writes in his introduction to The Morals of History (1995): "It is not after explanation that value judgement intervenes: it is in its very heart, in the identification of its object."

The "object" he has sought to "identify" in this book is the answer to a question. How is it that the Jews of Bulgaria were not deported to the Nazi death camps during the last years of the Second World War? (Denmark, which then had a Jewish population of 8,000, is the only other country to fall under the Nazi sway of which this question could be asked.) By March 1943, the Bulgarian government, in response to insistent German pressure, had agreed to despatch to Poland all 40,000 Bulgarian Jews; the necessary paperwork for the operation had been completed; and the freight trains to carry the first batch of deportees directly to Auschwitz had been moved into position at the station designated for that purpose. Yet, at that moment, the Bulgarian minister of internal affairs cancelled the entire action.

Why did he pull back just then? The answer is that a set of complicated and even self-contradictory circumstances made it possible for a handful of upright, determined, brave and politically shrewd men to come to the rescue of their Jewish compatriots. Paradoxically, these men were able to use their influence so effectively because Bulgaria was an avowed and fully-fledged ally of Nazi Germany. For that very reason, the institutions of the Bulgarian state - above all the monarchy, the church and parliament - had retained much more than a notional degree of autonomy. (Sufficient autonomy, indeed, for the government to decline steadfastly to send troops to the eastern front.) Moreover, by the time the prime minister and his underlings acceded to the murderous German demands that Bulgaria's Jews be handed over to them, the Battle of Stalingrad had already been lost, a Nazi victory no longer seemed as likely as it had before, and many people in eastern Europe, King Boris of Bulgaria among them, had begun to cock an anxious eye towards the future.

As it happened, the king himself had never had much stomach for what he knew the Nazis intended to do to their Jewish victims. He had already permitted the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia - territories recently ceded to Bulgaria by the Germans - to be despatched to their fate; and the terrible spectacle of these sealed trainloads on the way to Auschwitz had outraged most who had seen or even heard anything of it. The king, it seems, was among them. Important, too, was the fact that there was in Bulgaria no strong, "native" tradition of anti-Semitism for the Nazis and their local sympathisers to draw upon. Indeed, the first piece of anti-Semitic legislation enacted in Bulgaria three years previously, also at the insistence of the Germans, had drawn strong protests from religious and political leaders, as well as the local writers' and lawyers' unions.

None of this, however, would have been of any help to the Bulgarian Jews if just two individuals had not taken it on themselves to put a stop to the crime that their government itself was now about to commit. The heroes of Todorov's book - and they deserve to be called nothing less - are Dimitar Peshev, vice-president of the country's National Assembly, and Stefan, the Orthodox Bishop of Sofia. Neither man had anything to gain from his intercession with the authorities on this issue: far from it. Yet neither was capable of regarding the high position he occupied merely as a privilege to cling to. To them, their positions gave them an opportunity to defend the helpless, and that was exactly what they did. They gathered their political and ecclesiastical allies around them and attacked both the king's conscience and the cabinet's weakness in the National Assembly. Not all their allies remained faithful, as the brief struggle went on, but enough did; in the end they triumphed.

More than half of The Fragility of Goodness is devoted to documents contemporaneous with the events described, or to the subsequent recollections of participants in the rescue. On all his sources, the author offers his own succinct and sober comments. The story he reveals was unfamiliar to me and I am glad to have learned of it. In due course, when Bulgaria was "liberated" by the Russian armies, the communists falsely claimed that they alone deserved credit for saving the Bulgarian Jews. Peshev had long since been dismissed by the old regime for the obduracy he showed over the issue; now the Communists sentenced him to death, along with several others who had joined him in his campaign. Some of the latter were duly executed, but Peshev himself was spared, imprisoned and later banished to the countryside. Bishop Stefan, too, was driven out of office and "retired" to the provinces. Goodness, they say, is its own reward. Hence its fragility, no doubt.

Dan Jacobson's most recent book is Heshel's Kingdom (Penguin, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, So what tribe do you belong to?