Despite the vast literature and films on the history and legacy of the Holocaust, the story of what happened in the Balkans remains little known and relatively unexplored.
The devastating effects of the Nazi’s “Final Solution” on the small, predominantly Sephardic Jewish communities in that region are evident in the ruins of once-thriving synagogues across Bulgaria and the other Balkan countries, the untended Jewish cemeteries, and the memorial plaques, which often have unclear or misleading texts.
The synagogue in the town of Bourgas, where Chaim Zemach was born and spent his childhood, is now an art gallery. The Sofia synagogue, the largest Sephardic temple in Europe, where Robert Bakish’s great grandfather was once the rabbi, can barely function due to a diminished congregation. To raise a Minyan, a Jewish tradition that requires a minimum of 10 men to conduct a religious service, male tourists or even women are often enlisted.
What many people don’t realize is that during WWII Bulgaria was the only country which cancelled the scheduled deportation of its Jewish citizens to the death camps. Since then the nation has prided itself on the survival of Bulgarian Jews with much focus on what the government did to save them, not on what it didn’t do.
The short version: After enacting harsh antisemitic legislation in 1941-1942, in March 1943 the Bulgarian government rounded up and handed over to its ally, Nazi Germany, 11,343 Jews from Macedonia and Northern Greece, territories Bulgaria occupied during the war. They all perished at Treblinka.
Up next were the 48,000 Bulgarian Jews, who had been living peacefully in Bulgarian territories since they were expelled from Spain in 1492. After public outcry from a handful of prominent politicians, from the Orthodox Church hierarchy, and from ordinary citizens, in March 1943 the government called off the deportation of Bulgarian Jews, thus sparing their lives.
What is easily swept under the rug is the fact that the Bulgarian government also took actions to target Bulgarian Jews with the Law for the Defence of the Nation, forced them to wear yellow stars, seized their property and businesses, and ultimately attempted to send them to death camps in compliance with Nazi cohorts. It was not until tremendous pressure was applied by public outcry and by a small group of intellectuals, politicians and clergy that the government caved. When in 1948 the communist regime fully established itself, the government took control of the narrative, using only its heroic aspects to promote Bulgaria’s standing in the world.
Until 1989 Bulgaria remained behind the Iron Curtain; access to its archives was rare and minimal. It was only after the fall of the communist regime that access was finally allowed, but by then the “official” narrative of the Holocaust had already been formulated. The little known and “unusual” survival of the 48,000 Bulgarian Jews sounded too unbelievable and unreal to fit into that narrative. It also posed very uncomfortable and uneasy questions, such as: what was the role of public resistance in saving the Jewish population? Why didn't similar resistance happen in other countries? It also left the survivors of this story to grapple with many and unsettling questions: Who saved us? Why did we survive while others didn’t? How does our story fit into the larger narrative of the Holocaust?
To this day, the Bulgarian story remains little known outside of Bulgaria, its tremendous value lost in controversy and confusion.
A Question of Survival aims to shine a light on the relevance of this chapter in history to our current political climate. Looking at that chapter today one can’t help but experience a sense of deja vu. With the rise of antisemitism and totalitarianism as a result of political uncertainty across the world, minorities are again being scapegoated for political gain, and the role of public opinion in protecting them is ever so critical. Will public resistance be mobilized this time around to protect human and minority rights? Or will most citizens remain indifferent and complicit with the actions of their government? For those of us who are living through turbulent days, these questions remain wide open.