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Righteous gentiles? A new documentary recounts, in equal measure, compassion and cruelty towards Bulgarian Jews during King Boris' rule.

"I was meant to die in Treblinka on the day of my bar mitzvah," says 79-year-old Rabbi Haim Asa, in a haunting first line from Empty Boxcars: Murder and Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews in World War 2, a new 90-minute documentary by Professor Ed Gaffney * that had its world premiere in Bulgaria on October 11.


When we hear a story, it's human nature to look for heroes and villains. Such is the case with the "rescue" of Bulgaria's Jews during World War 2. Just that phrase alone, however, is repeated with such monotonous regularity that it's easy to overlook the fact that Bulgarian Jews in the Bulgarian occupied territories of Macedonia and Thrace were sent to Treblinka death camp in Poland where they were exterminated.

Gaffney's powerful documentary, which explores the dark side of Bulgarian anti-Semitism, as well as the saving of Bulgaria's 48 000 Jews, may not be welcomed by those Bulgarians eager to see an unqualified story of national heroism. Neither will it particularly please devotees of King Boris who like to think of him as a "righteous Gentile".

Empty Boxcars pays tribute to the courage of those Bulgarians who stopped the deportations but it's NOT a eulogy to Bulgaria's role in the war. As one Bulgarian Jewish survivor, Norbert Yasahroff, says--"What are we supposed to thank you (the Bulgarians) for--should I thank people for not killing me?" In the film, former president Petar Stoyanov pays tribute to the role of certain Bulgarians in saving the Jews, declaring it to be Bulgaria's "greatest contribution to European civilisation". Yet he also notes the 11 000 murders on the occupied territories. Therein lays the ambivalence of Empty Boxcars--mass murder and salvation are given equal weight.

The first half of Empty Boxcars is a harrowing tale of racism. It's the story of Bulgarian Jewish children, forced by a 1941 law to wear the Star of David, facing daily beatings from Bulgarian classmates as part of the latter's rite of passage into the Nazi youth movement. But these Jews in Bulgaria were "lucky" compared to the fate of their brothers and sisters in lands administered by Bulgaria. By 1943, there were a total of 63 403 Jews in the "Unified" or "Greater" Bulgaria (which comprised pre-1941 Bulgaria and the conquered territories of Macedonia, Aegean Thrace, and Pirot), constituting nearly one per cent of the population. Whole areas were to be ethnically cleansed, leaving, as Holocaust chronicler Michael Berenbaum describes it, "the absence of presence and the presence of absence".

Emulating Hitler

The backdrop to the Bulgarian story began with the Nuremberg race laws, introduced by Hitler in 1935, which deprived German Jews of citizenship. Racial fanaticism and the pursuit of "Aryan" purity--integral to the National Socialist creed--were the ostensible reasons for a policy that was clearly insane. Yet, in Bulgaria, the pro-German prime minister Bogdan Filov, assisted by a notorious anti-Semite Petar Gabrovski, as Minister of Internal Security (both appointed by King Boris) admired the Nazi policy. Between 1941 and 1943, Bulgarian Jews, whose freedom of movement was already constrained by a strictly enforced curfew, faced ever more draconian restrictions. And King Boris emulated the Nazi race legislation by introducing Bulgaria's equivalent of the Nuremberg decrees--the law for the protection of the nation.


King Boris' role is pivotal. So many labels have been assigned to the Bulgarian king--the "saviour" of Jews, fascist villain and friend of Hitler, then allegedly the "victim" of a vengeful fuehrer who poisoned him. The truth is perhaps more banal. According to Professor Gaffney, "cunning fox" may be a more appropriate description for Boris. When he meets Hitler for the first time in 1934, Boris appraises him as "someone possessed by demonic powers", yet despite his initial wariness of Hitler's racial policies, it was on the orders of Boris and his government that the Jews in the occupied territories were eventually murdered.

One survivor, Jamila Kolonomos, relates how Bulgarian troops transformed the local synagogue into "a sausage factory". Another survivor, Sabi Tchimino from Bitola, tearfully berates his family's killers. "Come here, Bulgarian. Who gave you the right to come here to Thrace and Macedonia? Why did you round up 12 000 Jews and take them to the crematoria?"

Resisting deportations

In February 1943 the round-up of Jews in Bulgaria itself began. At this point the documentary relates individual incidents of enormous courage. On March 10 1943, 1600 Jews were herded into a courtyard in Plovdiv and surrounded by police. Bishop Kiril, Metropolitan of Plovdiv, assured the assembled Jews that he would do everything possible to stop their deportation, including--if necessary--placing himself on the railway track. When a policeman tries to stop him entering the crowd, Bishop Kiril shouts him down--"Child, you're pretty small to stop me" and promptly sends a telegram to King Boris urging him to stop the deportations. Bishop Kiril was subsequently recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous among the Nations.


Other figure play a prominent role. In 1943 Bishop Stefan was one of the first to notice trains going through Bulgarian territory. "What I saw exceeded my notions of horror and my conception of humanity. In the boxcars there were young and old, sick and well, mothers with their nursing babies, pregnant women, packed like sardines and weak from standing. They cried out desperately for help, for pity, for water, for air, for a scrap of humanity."

Then there was Dimo Kazassov, a publisher and editor who wrote that "the war against the Jews in Bulgaria will inevitably put us morally at odds with public opinion around the world ... racial purity is a fairy tale. I do not believe in fairy tales and I am not about to draw conclusions of inequality among our citizens on the basis of an ill-founded theory of racial purity".

Perhaps Bulgarian MP Dimitar Peshev played the most pivotal role. When four constituents from Kyustendil came to Sofia in March 1943 to notify him of the persecutions of Jews from his city, Peshev confronted Gabrovski and persuaded 42 fellow MPs to sign a declaration opposing the deportations. "Measures against women, children and the aged, people who are guilty of no crime whatever .. are unacceptable. These people--who are still Bulgarian citizens--cannot be expelled from their own country," he wrote. Peshev was also recognised by Yad Vashem.

God's will?

King Boris' response to the resistance against deportations is worth noting. The monarch openly criticised the Church leadership during his April 15 1943 speech to the Holy Synod, citing "the profiteering spirit of the Jews for inflicting enormous damage over the centuries to the Bulgarian nation and to all mankind". The deportations ceased but to say this was thanks to Boris is clearly false.

Professor Gaffney's film is a fitting commentary to a period in history which has been heavily airbrushed by all sides. Supporters of King Boris like to think he was motivated by compassion for the Jews. The evidence shows he was coerced into taking a stand that may not have been to his liking. The subsequent post-war communist regime of Todor Zhivkov liked to take plaudits for the "rescue" of the Jews--indeed even Zhivkov assumed some credit personally--though he had no role in their rescue whatsoever.

The film shows a photograph of young Jews, smiling in a group photograph in Bitola. None survived the war. Their sole "crime" was being born a Jew. So if Bulgaria deserves "credit" (although such terms never really seem appropriate in such a context) for saving lives, it has to admit "culpability" for not saving lives. And, as so often, the history depicted in Empty Boxcars is a test of faith for those who have it. When Bishop Kiril found the Jews, fearful of imminent deportation, rounded up in Plovdiv, he reassured them with the following words: "My children, you must know that God will not allow this terrible thing to happen." So the eternal question for some people will be--naturally--why did God allow the slaughter of the other innocents?

* A full interview with Professor Ed Gaffney, who is now looking for a wider distribution for his new film, will follow in next week's The Sofia Echo.
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Title Annotation:Reading Room
Author:Hershman, Gabriel
Publication:The Sofia Echo (Sofia, Bulgaria)
Geographic Code:4EXMA
Date:Oct 15, 2010
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