Moscow and Sofia spar over who saved the Jews of Holocaust-era Bulgaria

The feud was triggered by antisemitic graffiti on a Red Army monument.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova (photo credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova
A feud between Bulgaria and Russia over the rescue of Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust continued Sunday, as Russia defended its Foreign Ministry’s statement that the Red Army had prevented their deportation.
The controversy began at a news conference on Thursday, during which Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova condemned antisemitic graffiti that had been smeared on a Soviet Army monument in Sofia.
The Sofia Globe quoted Zakharova as saying: “This escapade is especially cynical in view of the fact that during the Second World War, it was thanks to our soldiers that the deportation of Jews from Bulgaria was prevented and thus about 50, 000 people were saved from certain death.”
Her remarks sparked uproar both among Bulgarian leaders and Jewish representatives, in light of the famous history of how a group of Bulgarian parliamentarians, church leaders, public figures and citizens came together and pressured the king and his government not to comply with the government’s plan to deport 48,000 Bulgarian Jews.
In March 1941, Bulgaria allied itself with Germany and Italy, hoping the AXIS powers would help it regain territories lost during World War I.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, has bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations upon the late deputy speaker of the National Assembly of Bulgaria Dimitar Peshav, the late metropolitan of Sofia Stefan, and the late metropolitan of Plovdiv Kiril, for vigorously opposing the anti-Jewish policies of the Bulgarian regime, and taking active steps against its policy of deporting the Jews of Bulgaria and handing them over to the Germans.
Both Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry and president slammed the Russian statement over the weekend.
The Foreign Ministry said: “When Bulgarian citizens stood on railway lines headed to the Nazi death camps; when representatives of the Bulgarian political, economic and intellectual elite wrote protest letters in defense of the Bulgarian Jews; and senior hierarchs of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church stood with the Jews gathered for deportation, stating that their compatriots could be taken to the camps only if they too were taken – the Red Army was thousands of kilometers away from the borders of Bulgaria.”
According to The Sofia Globe, Bulgarian President Roumen Radev backed this statement, describing Russia’s claim to be “deep ignorance of history or an attempt at provocation.”
The Embassy of Russia in Bulgaria subsequently released two statements on its Facebook page on Saturday. In the first, it recognized “the indisputable heroic contribution of the Bulgarian people, including representatives of the intelligentsia and the Orthodox Church in the fight against Nazism, including the rescue of the Jews living in the country from the death camps.”
The second Facebook post comprised a statement by the scientific director of the Russian Military History Society Mikhail Myagkov, defending the original claim by putting it into a much wider context. “If it weren’t for the Red Army, the Germans would have destroyed six million Jews and much more,” he said, going on to say that without the actions of the Red Army, the Nazis would have forced Bulgarian authorities to participate in the Holocaust on Bulgarian authority.
“So our Foreign Ministry is absolutely correct in saying that thanks to our warriors the deportation of the Jews from Bulgaria was prevented,” Myagkov concluded.
Commenting on the saga on Sunday, historian and Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, described the original claim as “absurd” but said there was some logic to the subsequent explanation.
“That’s not how the Jews were saved. The Jews were saved because of the opposition of some important people in Bulgaria to the deportations,” he said of the original comment by Zakharova.
“It’s true that many more Jews would have been killed in the Holocaust if it weren’t for the Red Army but it’s two separate issues,” he went on to say of the later comment posted by the Russian Embassy.
“There’s no question that the contribution of the Red Army in the defeat of Nazi Germany, which ultimately led to the cessation of the Final Solution, was absolutely critical,” he told The Jerusalem Post, adding that Myagkov’s argument that the Nazis would have forced Bulgarian authorities to participate in the Holocaust in their own country carried some weight.