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Volume 11, No. 2—March 2001  
Table of contents for this issue  

Sofia's Choice
Bulgarians saved their country's Jews from the Holocaust. But they can't decide who deserves the credit.
by Laura Secor

IN THE SERIES OF 1963 NEW YORKER articles that became Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt exhaustively cataloged the injustices Adolf Hitler visited upon European Jews. She paused for only a moment on the curious case of Bulgaria, an Axis ally in the heart of the Balkans where politicians, clergymen, and regular citizens helped protect nearly fifty thousand Jews from the death camps. Wrote Arendt, "I know of no attempt to explain the conduct of the Bulgarian people, which is unique in the belt of mixed populations."

Arendt's book famously demonstrated that evil flourishes in the very ordinariness of life, abetted by conformity, obedience, and unreflective ambition. How, then, is goodness possible? The question, as it bears on wartime Bulgaria, would appear to have an empirical answer, based on the documented events of 1943. But in a country where historical inquiry was long suppressed, the rescue of the Jews has taken on the dubious luster of national mythology, to be fashioned and refashioned, often according to the prevailing political will.

During the Cold War years, the hard-line Stalinist regime of Todor Zhivkov claimed that the Communist Party saved Bulgarian Jews from annihilation by organizing demonstrations in the Sofia streets. Others have since countered that it was wartime leader King Boris III who managed to shield the Jews from Nazi aggression. And for those uncomfortable with either option, the credit redounds instead to "the Bulgarian people," who, unable to stomach Nazi racial ideology, subverted the planned deportations. Ivaylo Ditchev, an anthropologist at Sofia University, mistrusts all three dominant versions of the rescue tale. He describes each as "but a form of excuse, a screen memory behind which a new national pride can be constructed in times of crisis."

The communist claim has been virtually discredited since the fall of Zhivkov in 1989. The debate over the king's role, however, came to a head just last summer, when a book by a Bulgarian-born Israeli Knesset member sparked controversy. Beyond Hitler's Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews (Adams Media, 1998), by Michael Bar-Zohar, incorporated nearly every popular account of the rescue into an elaborate potboiler rife with intrigue. Ultimately, Bar-Zohar claimed that the weak, equivocating King Boris was moved to noble action by widespread popular resistance, whereupon he stood firmly against deporting the Jews. This narrative irked those readers less inclined to credit the king. What caused an outcry, however, was Bar-Zohar's passing reference to a plaque in Israel that honored the monarch's role.

The memorial plaque had attracted little attention from the time Bulgarian Jewish émigrés donated it to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in 1993. But last March, after reading Beyond Hitler's Grasp, the head of Macedonia's Jewish community exclaimed that "the erection of a monument in the land of our forefathers [to] a villain like Boris III" was simply "shocking." For even if Boris could be credited with the salvation of Bulgaria's Jews, no one disputes that he also agreed to ship to the death camps the 11,363 Jews of Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and Thrace. To the Macedonians, the Bulgarian king was hardly worth honoring.

A group of Bulgarian politicians and intellectuals, led by the deputy speaker of the country's parliament, joined Macedonian Jews in petitioning Israel to have the plaque removed. On July 17, 2000, the JNF agreed to replace all the forest's memorial plaques with a single monument honoring "the Bulgarian people." But this success cost the Bulgarian deputy speaker his political career: Ten days later, he was ousted on charges of "harming national interests."

With Bulgaria's "red" coalition, successors of the communist ancien régime, battling the center-right "blue" coalition, which includes royalists, over the role of King Boris III, some observers worry that the rescue of Bulgaria's Jews risks becoming a crassly wielded political tool. Or worse: In a scathing essay on the monument controversy, Stefan Popov, chair of Sofia's Open Society Foundation, admonishes that Bulgarians will alienate Jews by showing them that "their tragic fate is used as a spice in our nationalist cuisine."

AMID THE furor, a new variation on Bulgaria's wartime story has begun to take shape—one with a protagonist but without a hero, one that has a moral but is not quite Chicken Soup for the Balkan Soul. At the center of this version is Dimitar Peshev, a previously unsung parliamentary deputy who shamed his superiors into reversing their anti-Jewish measures.

Peshev has recently emerged from obscurity thanks to the work of his biographer, Gabriele Nissim, an Italian journalist who published The Man Who Stopped Hitler in Bulgarian, Italian, and German in 1998. Most of Peshev's memoirs, written at the request of an archivist in 1968, had gathered dust in the Sofia State Archives for nearly thirty years; others were secreted away by Peshev's family, who released them for Nissim's study. Tzvetan Todorov, the Bulgarian-born theorist of literature and culture, includes portions of the memoirs in his forthcoming collection of primary documents titled The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust (Princeton, May). According to Todorov, who says Nissim's work played a "primordial" role in his undertaking, Peshev's action was but one among many necessary for the rescue; without it, however, Bulgaria's Jews would have been incinerated in 1943.

In Todorov's account, no one plays a morally impeccable role, but many perform admirable acts of courage. The setting is miserable interwar Bulgaria, a rugged country with a Black Sea coast and approximately six million inhabitants (today the figure is closer to nine million), most of them peasants and the majority Slavs. Having been liberated from the Ottoman Empire by the Russian army in 1878, Bulgaria remained the most Russophile Balkan nation. It was also the only Balkan country left simmering after World War I, when the Trianon Treaty forced it to cede the territories of Macedonia to Yugoslavia, Dobrudja to Romania, and Thrace to Greece, as well as to pay heavy reparations to Yugoslavia. Unlike Romania or Hungary, Bulgaria had no indigenous fascist movement to speak of. There did exist a fringe group of violent anti-Semites, called Ratnik, but it had nothing like the support of Romania's Iron Guard or Hungary's Arrow Cross. And yet, racked internally by party fragmentation and the unremitting terrorism of a Macedonian irredentist organization, Bulgaria stumbled into Hitler's arms. To the north, Romania had joined the Axis; to the west and south, Hitler was preparing to invade Yugoslavia and Greece. Bulgaria could stand in his way and risk invasion itself, or it could cooperate and share in the spoils.

Bulgaria joined the Axis in 1941. Provided that it would not be forced to fight Russians on the Soviet front, King Boris's government was willing to offer Hitler a base of operations in southeast Europe. In return, Hitler gave Bulgaria the region of Dobrudja outright. Macedonia and Thrace still belonged to the Reich, but Bulgarian soldiers performed garrison duties in the coveted territories, relieving German soldiers, who were needed on the Russian front. The territories, it was assumed, would be ceded to Bulgaria after the war. In the meantime, Macedonians and Thracians, who were technically citizens of the Reich, were encouraged to acquire Bulgarian citizenship voluntarily—unless they were Jewish, in which case they had no citizenship at all, for the Third Reich did not recognize them as its nationals.

Dimitar Peshev, the figure at the center of Nissim's and Todorov's books, had always considered himself a democrat. But concerned for Bulgaria's internal stability, he "followed the train of history," says Nissim, supporting the alliance with the Axis and the banning of all political parties. He soon became minister of justice in the authoritarian monarchy, and later, vice chairman of the wartime parliament, which had extremely limited powers. Of the parliament's 160 deputies, 115, including Peshev, supported the Nazi-allied government. (The remaining deputies had been affiliated with opposition parties before these were banned.) Bulgaria's prime minister, the former academician Bogdan Filov, was a Nazi loyalist and anti-Semite; its interior minister, Peter Gabrovski, was a member of Ratnik. Before Bulgaria even signed the Tripartite Pact, Filov had proposed a Law for the Defense of the Nation, based on Germany's Nuremberg laws. Jews were to be barred from the professions, dispossessed of many goods, forced to wear the yellow Star of David, oppressed by curfews, prohibited from certain neighborhoods, and subjected to other strictures. Jewish men would be mobilized for forced labor, mostly constructing roads.

Filov's initiative met considerable resistance. When it came before parliament in 1940, the unions of writers and lawyers, the Communist Party, and many prominent personalities deplored the discriminatory legislation. One petition admonished the parliament to remember Bulgaria's folk heroes who died fighting the Ottoman Turks and uttered with their last breaths, "Let us protect humanity and freedom!" Another declared, "When the Bulgarian people lose their sense of justice...they will lose their moral and spiritual uniqueness, their Slavic essence, their Bulgarian face." The Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church valiantly opposed all anti-Jewish measures, imploring Filov, "If there are dangers facing our nation, then the steps that are taken to counter them must target actions, not nationalities or religious groups; the proposed law, however, seems to have as its goal the special treatment of a Bulgarian national minority."

But the petitions fell on deaf ears. The parliamentary majority, including Peshev, accepted the legislation. According to his memoirs, Peshev believed that the law was merely intended to demonstrate Bulgaria's fealty to Nazi Germany—that it would never be implemented. He was wrong. Bulgaria's racial laws were indeed enforced, and they were among the harshest in Nazi Europe, writes Misha Glenny in The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999 (Viking, 2000). Yet by nearly all accounts, anti-Semitism had little purchase on the Bulgarian public. Some historians explain that Bulgarian Jews were largely assimilated into the working class. Thus, they might have seemed neither threateningly powerful, as well-to-do assimilated Jews were perceived to be in Germany and Hungary, nor visibly alien, like unassimilated Orthodox and Hasidic Jews in other parts of eastern Europe.

Whatever the reason, Bulgarian Jews wore the smallest Stars of David in Nazi Europe. Some non-Jews subverted the star's intent by treating the stigma as if it were a patriotic decoration, accosting random Jews on the streets with displays of sympathy and affection. Perturbed, German officials asked Interior Minister Gabrovski to mount an anti-Semitic exhibition in downtown Sofia in order to educate Bulgarians about the Jewish threat. Gabrovski, a committed anti-Semite, refused—the public, he explained, would not accept it.

THESE EARLY signs of resistance led Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official in charge of deportations, to dispatch one of his most ruthless experts to Sofia: Theodor Dannecker, who had overseen the deportations from France in the summer of 1942. Berlin hoped to execute its sweep of Bulgaria with great speed; otherwise the Nazi authorities rightly feared it would not take place at all. But Dannecker's efforts were repeatedly thwarted. It was not possible, for instance, to arrange a council of Jewish leaders, as had been done elsewhere to manipulate Jewish compliance. As Arendt notes, "The Chief Rabbi of Sofia was unavailable, having been hidden by Metropolitan Stefan of Sofia, who had declared publicly that 'God had determined the Jewish fate, and men had no right to torture Jews, and to persecute them'—which was considerably more than the Vatican had ever done."

Nonetheless, Filov did arrange a Commissariat on Jewish Affairs, headed by Alexander Belev, an anti-Semitic young lawyer and member of Ratnik. It was in the utmost secrecy that Belev signed an agreement with Dannecker ordering the initial deportation of twenty thousand Jews to the Polish death camps. Of that number, about twelve thousand would come from Macedonia and Thrace; the remaining eight thousand would make up the first shipment from inside Bulgaria's old borders, where some forty-eight thousand Jews lived.

In Macedonia and Thrace, the project was carried out like clockwork, overseen by the Commissariat on Jewish Affairs and executed by Bulgarian bureaucrats, soldiers, and police. The stateless Jews were expelled from their homes and robbed of their goods; collected in warehouses, where many were raped and abused; packed into suffocating boxcars; delivered to the Danubian town of Lom; loaded onto barges headed for Austria; and then conducted by the Germans to their deaths at Auschwitz and Treblinka. At war's end, only twelve returned alive.

The eight thousand "undesirable" Jews from Bulgaria proper were scheduled for nearly simultaneous deportation. But unlike the Jews of the occupied territories, they had good friends in high places. The commercial and political leadership of Kjustendil, Peshev's hometown, sprang into action when a thousand local Jews were taken prisoner on March 7, 1943. A delegation of Kjustendil gentiles set out for Sofia to plead the Jews' case to Peshev. By the time they arrived, the parliamentary vice chairman was already informed of their business: According to Nissim, a close Jewish friend from childhood had alerted him to the deportations. At the time, Peshev had offered protection for the friend and his family. The friend declined, insisting that the matter called for moral intervention on a far greater scale.

The day Peshev received the Kjustendil delegation, March 9, 1943, he requested a meeting with Prime Minister Filov. Filov refused to receive him. Peshev then turned to Interior Minister Gabrovski, who admitted the deputy to his chambers. According to Peshev's memoirs, Gabrovski claimed to know nothing about the new measures against the Jews. Fine, said Peshev; if such horrific acts are being carried out without the interior ministry's approval, then surely they should be stopped. Caught in a lie, terrified of a public scandal, and perhaps pricked by conscience, Gabrovski telephoned the governors of the cities where Jews had been rounded up—boxcars stood waiting at the depots—and halted the deportations. Peshev followed up with calls of his own to be certain Gabrovski had kept his word. Later, Peshev would write in his memoirs that he was struck by a look of nervousness in Gabrovski's eyes: The interior minister, Nissim speculates, suffered a moral qualm. "Gabrovski had a crisis of conscience for two hours," says Nissim. "He would not change after what happened, he would not become a hero, he continued to be an anti-Semite. But in that meeting with Peshev, he had a momentary fear that something was wrong."

In the week that followed, Peshev drafted a petition publicizing and condemning the anti-Jewish measures; he then collected signatures from 42 of the parliament's 115 pro-government deputies. The only opposition deputies he allowed to sign were those from the extreme right, so that the petition could not be dismissed as an antigovernment act. Appealing to the national interest, the signatories deplored the "cruel" anti-Jewish measures, which could "lead to the accusation of mass murder." Peshev wrote, "The honor of Bulgaria is not only a matter of feelings but also of policy of the highest significance, and it must not be jeopardized without good reasons approved by the whole nation."

Before submitting the petition to parliament and the public, Peshev sent a copy to Filov. According to extracts from Filov's journal printed in Todorov's book, the prime minister requested that Peshev wait a few days before publicizing the petition. In that time, he hoped to intimidate some signatories into withdrawing their support and to remove Peshev with a manipulated vote of no confidence. But Peshev went ahead and publicized the petition the next day, March 19, 1943. An enraged Filov secured King Boris's approval to force Peshev to step down, which Peshev did on March 24. In an interview, Nissim suggests that the king, like Gabrovski and Filov, wished to make Peshev pay for his impertinence, because in exposing the deportation plan, he had forced the authorities to reckon with their own actions and to recognize the public's opposition. Nonetheless, the deportations were definitively canceled—and by an order that came, Nazi records indicate, "from the highest place," which undoubtedly meant the king.

At the end of March, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop would press the matter with King Boris personally. Todorov highlights an inconsistency in the records of this discussion. According to Filov's diary, Boris insisted that Bulgaria's Jews be spared because they were Sephardim (the Nazis had spared some Sephardic Jews elsewhere). But according to Ribbentrop's account of the same conversation, the king agreed to deport "bolshevik-communist elements" of the Jewish population, so long as he could retain twenty-five thousand Jews in Bulgarian concentration camps. These were needed, the king maintained, for road construction. Todorov speculates that the king, suspecting an Allied victory was at hand, hoped to appease the Nazis only as much as he had to and meanwhile stall for time. How serious was he about deporting twenty-three thousand Jews and confining the rest in concentration camps? No records exist to settle the question, but most accounts suggest he was bluffing.

In the end, none of the Jews would be shipped to Poland. The German ambassador to Sofia wrote home in despair, complaining that "the Bulgarians have lived for too long with peoples like Armenians, Greeks, and Gypsies to appreciate the Jewish problem."

BULGARIAN JEWS escaped annihilation, but the war years were not kind to them. Many Jewish men toiled in work camps, and under pressure from Dannecker and Belev, King Boris agreed to expel Sofia's Jews from their homes. They would be dispersed into the countryside, where they lived out the war in poverty and forced isolation.

But even this action was carried out under protest, especially from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. When Sofia's Jews were rounded up on Bulgaria's national holiday, Kyril and Methodius Day, May 24, 1943, Metropolitan Stefan turned the traditional holiday festival into a mass demonstration. (The communist leader Todor Zhivkov would later be named the mastermind of the protests on this date, but no eyewitness has been found who can recall seeing him there.) Stefan sent Boris a telegram: "Do not persecute, lest you be persecuted. For with the judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Know, Boris, that God watches your actions from heaven."

It was not the first time the Church had risen to the Jews' defense. Stefan and Metropolitan Kyril of Plovdiv performed innumerable emergency conversions, and they offered Jews refuge both in churches and in their private homes. Back in March, when the Jews of Plovdiv were collected for deportation, Kyril reportedly threatened to lie across the railroad tracks to prevent the train from leaving. He is also said to have scaled a fence to join Jews held captive in a school yard, announcing, "Wherever you go—I'll go."

King Boris III died later that summer, days after a stormy meeting with Hitler regarding Bulgaria's nonparticipation in the war against the Soviet Union. He was succeeded by his six-year-old son, King Simeon II, whom the Communist Party deposed in 1944. (Simeon attended Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, in the late 1950s; today he is a corporate consultant in Spain.) Most Bulgarians believe the Nazis poisoned Boris, but the record is inconclusive, because his body has not been found. In 1991, Boris's heart turned up in a glass jar buried near his palace grounds—discovered by, among others, Blagovest Sendov, the head of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Sendov would later become deputy speaker of parliament—the one expelled for petitioning Israel in July 2000 against the monument to King Boris III.

As for Dimitar Peshev, he died in obscurity and poverty in 1973. Tried as a fascist, anti-Semite, and enemy of the people, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison after the war but served less than two. He narrowly escaped the gulag, living out his days in relative isolation. Says Ivaylo Ditchev, "My wife's family knew him—he almost never left his home." Thanks to Nissim's recovery work, however, the Bulgarian parliament has today dedicated Peshev's former office to a foundation in his name.

BULGARIA WAS not the only country in Nazi Europe that resisted anti-Semitic measures, but, with Denmark, it ranks among the few that succeeded in protecting Jews within its old borders from genocide. Denmark was a conquered territory and Bulgaria a voluntary ally. But both countries enjoyed an unusual degree of autonomy from the Reich; neither population adopted Nazi racial theory with much enthusiasm; and neither had produced a significant indigenous fascist movement.

Elsewhere, circumstances did not conspire in so fortunate a manner. The fact that anti-Semitism was not widespread in Holland availed Dutch Jews very little: Under direct German rule and with efficient local collaborators, Holland deported more Jews than France, where anti-Semitism had deeper roots. Nor did Romanian autonomy prevent that country's slaughter of 270,000 Jews. Puppet regimes in Croatia, Slovakia, and eventually Hungary also proved reasonably reliable executors of Nazi orders, though in the case of Hungary, a coup had to be arranged from Berlin when Admiral Miklós Horthy's regime grew responsive to pressure from the Vatican and neutral countries. Direct German interference undermined the sustained resistance in Italy, where 6,746 Jews were deported starting in late 1943.

Bulgaria resembled other Axis countries in one key respect: It abandoned those Jews under its command who were not its own citizens. In the case of western European nations like France, such a distinction protected some French Jews at the expense of Jewish refugees from the Reich. In the Bulgarian instance, the losers were the Jews of Macedonia and Thrace, delivered to the Nazis not only because of the Belev-Dannecker agreement but also because the Bulgarian government had previously declined to offer them citizenship.

Whereas the Danish authorities explicitly and consistently repudiated the anti-Jewish measures, the Bulgarian leaders employed a strategy of feints and bluffs. Because Bulgaria had voluntarily joined the Axis, its government tended to maintain at least the appearance of cooperation, and the populace, of patriotism. Hence, the anti-deportation petitioners in Todorov's collection, apart from the communists, do not engage in fiery denunciations of the government, which they generally regarded as legitimate. Rather, they genteelly and rationally attempt to dissuade the likes of Filov from pursuing fundamentally irrational acts. They argue that the Jews are good citizens; that Bulgaria should avoid future infamy in the annals of history; that there are no Jews in positions of power in Bulgaria anyway; that Jews who converted should be spared so that other Jews will convert; that unlike Germany and Italy, Bulgaria is a little nation that cannot afford to antagonize powerful Jews in Allied countries; that annihilating the Jews will endanger future foreign investment in Bulgaria. They seem to apprehend an approaching Allied victory, and they urge their government to protect itself from future opprobrium.

Many petitioners also lodged moral pleas, but most subordinated these to more calculated modes of persuasion. "It is not surprising that the argument from political interest is put before the moral argument," Todorov comments by e-mail. "This was an eminently political situation, and the petitions address those who are supposed to watch over the country's interests. Political arguments are the arguments that should move them." He adds, "The story of Peshev also shows an individual of an essentially political mind. That which motivates him is certainly some general principles, but his passion goes into the search for means (how to convince the prime minister). One must say that he succeeded—as opposed to many good souls in the same country or in others."

Although purely "good souls" are present among the petitioners in Todorov's book, they are notably absent from the story's center. Peshev, for all his courage in the crucial hour, initially signed off on the racial laws; Gabrovski, a true villain, made the critical phone call stopping the deportations; and as for the king, as Ivaylo Ditchev rightly notes, if he saved Bulgaria's Jews, "whom did he save them from if not from his own [prior] decision?" In the end, it was those in power, and hence those most compromised, who held the Jews' fate in hand. Says Nissim, "Perhaps if Peshev didn't exist, you could remember Bulgaria as a place where many people were against the deportation and there were many petitions but nobody had the courage to act. It is important to make the distinction between those who act in power and those who act outside of it."

BOTH NISSIM and Bar-Zohar claim that their books will soon be made into movies comparable to Schindler's List. Back in Bulgaria, however, some academics might wince: Will the country's ambiguous and partial Jewish salvation become sentimentalized—and then used to market a beneficent image of this little-known country throughout the world? For thinkers like Ditchev, the notion of "collective innocence" can be almost as distasteful as its better-known twin, collective guilt. Both concepts rely on the assumption that members of ethnic groups share in a stable and singular identity, a notion that many antinationalist intellectuals reject as both fanciful and dangerous. To complicate matters, the drive to commemorate Bulgaria's finest moment of ethnic tolerance coincides with the immolation of neighboring Yugoslavia and the proliferation of negative stereotypes about the Balkans. Burnishing an image of Bulgarian tolerance could help the country distance itself from such received ideas, but at the expense of promoting what critics worry is just a different, more gratifying cliché.

If Bulgaria is an unusually tolerant nation, what makes it so? Some writers on the Jewish rescue, including Todorov, point to the Ottoman legacy—a heritage Bulgaria shares with the rest of the Balkan region. The vast, multiethnic Ottoman Empire made few distinctions among its Christian subjects, and Balkan peoples (so named for the Balkan mountain range in Bulgaria) accepted life together, distinguishing themselves only from their Muslim overlords. No "superior-race" ideology emerged under such circumstances, Todorov writes; if anything, Bulgarians had a negative and self-effacing view of their ethnicity. How could Nazi racial science take root in such a climate?

Of course, the Ottoman legacy of tolerance was of little use to Jews under Romanian dominion—or, for that matter, to those of Macedonia and Thrace. Even in old Bulgaria, Ditchev cautions, the record is not above reproach: "Traditionally there is no anti-Semitism in Bulgaria. There is no possible comparison with Romania, for instance, and the Jew is, for the Bulgarian, a model of a hardworking person and good father. But there were also individuals in this people who broke the windows of the shops of Jews near where my mother lived, and this is something no one today seems willing to remember."

Péter Krasztev, an anthropologist of the Balkans at Central European University, contrasts the Jewish story with that of the Bulgarian Turks. Persecuted periodically throughout the communist era, Turks were forbidden to speak Turkish or to practice Islam, then forced to adopt Slavic names in 1984. Those who retained their Turkish names could not work, use banks, or drive cars; many were beaten and thousands deported. When approximately 370,000 Turks fled to Turkey, many of them were stripped of their passports and property. Todorov maintains that the anti-Turkish action was organized by the communist authorities and lacked popular support—that it in fact served to awaken Bulgaria's first dissident stirrings. But Krasztev remembers it differently: "Almost nobody raised his or her voice against the mass atrocities,...and nobody really appreciates the moral standing of those who dared to resist." The dissident movement, says Krasztev, was agitating only for a Bulgarian version of glasnost and perestroika; it began in 1988, but the Turks had been persecuted at least since the 1960s.

When a documentary film on the anti-Turkish measures aired on national television this January, Bulgarian prosecutors reopened an investigation into the last communist prime minister's role. But the question remains: If Bulgaria is historically without chauvinistic nationalism, how was it that seven times as many Turks were chased from its borders as Jews were protected inside them? In fact, says Krasztev, though it's true that Ottoman Bulgaria was ethnically tolerant and diverse, with the creation of the modern state and its institutions Bulgaria also developed modern nationalism. With it came a suspicion of minorities who had links to outside powers that could potentially destabilize the state. Powerless minorities like Jews, Gypsies, Armenians, and Vlachs continued to be tolerated. But the minorities many Bulgarians perceived as threatening were Turks, Greeks, and Serbs.

Says Krasztev, "Those scholars who want to emphasize the multicultural character of the Balkans usually refer to the premodern [Ottoman-era] attitude; those who speak about a 'powder keg' refer to the modern attitude. The tricky, and actually irrational, thing is that they really co-exist in people's minds, and both levels can be activated in any situation."

"I DON'T think Bulgarians are definitively immunized against intolerance. No people, alas, is so," concedes Todorov. But he suggests that critics exaggerate the dangers of taking too much pride in a Bulgarian tradition of diversity. "If a people pride themselves on having saved a persecuted minority, I don't have any objection to that; it's better than priding oneself on being the best incarnation of democracy which gives you, it seems, the right to conduct 'just wars' in the rest of the world; or on having been the greatest victim of human history. If only the Bulgarians, and other nations, could follow the example of the saviors during the Second World War!"

Todorov further admonishes that the political rhetoric of tolerance should not be confused with nationalist self-congratulation. Appeals to a Bulgarian tradition of multiethnic magnanimity appear throughout the petitions in Todorov's book, every one of which calls on Filov, King Boris, or parliament not to besmirch Bulgaria's international reputation for inclusiveness and diversity. And yet, Todorov wryly points out, most of the world "does not exactly know whether [Bulgaria] borders the Baltic Sea or the Persian Gulf": The exhortation to protect the pristine public image of the Bulgarian people belies the fact that "this image is nonexistent."

In fact, the central lesson of Todorov's collection harmonizes with Ditchev's view: No single national trait or heroic individual saved Bulgaria's Jews. Todorov portrays Dimitar Peshev as the most significant among a group of important actors, including the clergy, the professional unions, and a number of ordinary people. Each performed modest but necessary acts of personal responsibility. Just one weak link in the chain these actions formed would have caused the entire rescue effort to collapse. Todorov's concluding observation is finally more sobering than heartwarming: "It seems that, once introduced into public life, evil easily perpetuates itself, whereas good is always difficult, rare, and fragile."

So fragile, perhaps, that some Bulgarians fear that its effects can yet be undermined. "We might well persist in our complacency as saviors of the Jewish community in Bulgaria," writes Stefan Popov, "while the Jewish community itself flatly rejects this homegrown Bulgarian myth and goes way beyond the removal of memorial plates."

The Jewish community seems unlikely to take such action. But in Bulgaria, the story has become a source of not only pride but also conflict, wrested this way and that among advocates of its would-be heroes. When the Bulgarian parliament sponsored the first edition of Nissim's biography of Peshev, it insisted on appending an introduction explaining, as Nissim puts it, that "the book is very good but because Gabriele Nissim is not Bulgarian, he does not know the role of the king." The essay was excised from the second edition, indicating that the king's role is more open for examination than it was three years ago. But some lines of argument continue to provoke strong reactions. Last July, Ivaylo Ditchev published an article called "We Make a Myth of Our Jews" in the Sofia newspaper 24 Tchasa, pointing out that although Bulgarians may be tolerant toward Jews, "they are far less so toward Gypsies." The public response was ugly, Ditchev recalls: "I was accused of finding nothing sacred."

Laura Secor is a senior editor of LF. Her article "Rage Against the Regime: Serbian Students Fight Milosevic" appeared in the September 2000 issue.

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