Bulgaria's tsar a Nazi-collaborator, not hero, new book reveals

Bulgaria's narrative is that Boris III was a savior to the Jews. But in reality, he allied with Hitler to regain territory in Thrace and Macedonia, lost during the Second Balkan War of 1913.

 BULGARIAN TSAR Boris III, who ruled during the Holocaust, 1995. The book deconstructs what it says was his negative impact on the Jews as opposed to more positive narratives Bulgaria tried to present. (photo credit: REUTERS)
BULGARIAN TSAR Boris III, who ruled during the Holocaust, 1995. The book deconstructs what it says was his negative impact on the Jews as opposed to more positive narratives Bulgaria tried to present.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Many believe that Bulgaria, like Denmark, saved its Jews from the Nazi death camps. The book The Stolen Narrative of the Bulgarian Jews and the Holocaust (Rowman and Littlefield) by Jacky Comforty, together with Martha Aladjem Bloomfield, tells a different story.

It is a narrative that recalls Bulgaria’s alliance with Hitler to regain territory in Thrace and Macedonia, lost during the Second Balkan War of 1913.

In March 1941, Bulgaria joined the Axis powers and allowed the German army to cross its frontiers to attack Greece and Yugoslavia. A few weeks later, Bulgaria occupied Western Thrace and Eastern Macedonia – and its armed forces oversaw the delivery of 11,343 Jews to the Gestapo in Vienna, who then transported them to death camps in Treblinka. The Bulgarian king, Boris III, had refused to listen to the pleas of Charles Redhart, a diplomat of neutral Switzerland, to stop the deportations. The Bulgarians also assisted in the German occupation of Serbia, in which nearly 20,000 Jews lost their lives.

Martha Bloomfield is an oral historian who writes about minorities, immigrants and the homeless. Jacky Comforty, a documentary filmmaker, however, is the son of Bulgarian Jews who bore witness to those terrible years, survived and reached the United States. For both the authors, this story is personal.

Flag of Bulgaria. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Flag of Bulgaria. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Deconstructing the myth

They deconstruct the myth that depicts Boris as ”a savior of the Jews” – a myth later erected by both monarchists and Communists to advance political agendas. As Boris commented on June 22, 1943: “The great damage to humanity throughout the generations is caused by the Jewish spirit of profiteering” and related it to “the present global cataclysm.” 

In a telegram to German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Boris also consented to the deportation of thousands of Jews from Bulgaria itself in addition to those in the conquered territories. The other 25,000, wearing yellow stars, would be sent to camps to be conscripted into labor battalions, overseen and directed by the Bulgarian Army. Many subsequently testified to the brutality of their military overseers and the harshness of conditions.

Boris told Hitler that he would not send Bulgarians to fight alongside the Nazis in the assault on the Soviet Union, but, on the other hand, clearly thought that bartering Jews and other ethnic groups for territory was a worthwhile deal. An ethnically cleansed Greater Bulgaria would arise to take its place among the nations. 

Some Jews in Eastern Europe had already seen the writing on the wall and attempted to escape to the Yishuv in often unseaworthy vessels. In the Bulgarian port of Varna, 350 Jews boarded a rotting hulk of a ship, the Salvador, which sailed in December 1940. A few days later, it sank in a storm in the Sea of Marmara with the loss of 238 passengers. The remains of those who perished were buried on Mount Herzl in 1964. 

Comforty and Bloomfield relate how in January 1941, Boris gladly signed legislation that legitimized state antisemitism and essentially embraced Nazi Germany. Boris himself belonged to the House of Saxe-Coburg, as did the British royal family. Bulgaria however aligned itself with Germany in both world wars. Indeed, almost a thousand Jews died fighting for Boris’s father during World War I.

Only a couple of decades later, Jews were barred from the army and from public office. Jewish organizations were closed down and a quota system for Jewish students who wished to enter university was put in place. Jews were compelled to drop their Bulgarian surnames, reverting to their original Jewish ones.

Bulgarian Jews reacted by joining the resistance. The authors estimate that up to 10% of partisans were Jewish.

Thousands of Bulgarian Jews did survive, but it was not due to Boris. Instead it was due to the pressure placed upon him by Orthodox Christian clergy, the intelligentsia and generally people of goodwill.

Metropolitan bishops Stefan of Sofia and Kirill of Plovdiv regularly intervened with the king. They remarkably rushed to round-ups of Jews, awaiting deportation and zealously guarded by Bulgarian police – and secured their release. In May 1943, a march, attended by both Jews and non-Jews, protesting about the planned deportations and led by rabbis Daniel Zion and Asher Hananel, started out from a Sofia synagogue. The astonished police soon pounced on the demonstrators, but arrested only Jews.

In 1996, the JNF in its wisdom dedicated a forest to Boris. Many Bulgarian Jews worldwide were astounded by this move and extremely angry. It essentially honored a revisionist view of history and added to the anguish of survivors. A memorial to the deported Jews of Thrace and Macedonia was eventually erected in its place.

Jacky Comforty and Martha Bloomfield have done a service for the rest of us in shining a light on the dark and complex history of the Balkans. In an era of disinformation and fake news, their painstaking research has reclaimed this terrible episode in Jewish history for a wider audience and pushed aside those adept at manipulating it. It is an accessible and interesting read. 

The Stolen Narrative of the Bulgarian Jews and the HolocaustBy Jack ComfortyLexington Books456 pages; $125