Anche la società bulgara non è impermeabile a tendenza antisemite. Per capirne di più Tanya Mangalakova ha intervistato lo storico Ivan Ilchev dell'Università di Sofia.

01/08/2002 -  Tanya Mangalakova

Nonostante la Bulgaria fosse alleata di Germania e Italia durante la II guerra mondiale si dice le sue classi dirigenti abbiano difeso i citadini bulgari d'origine ebraica evitando loro la deportazione. Mito o realtà? Tanya Mangalakova ne ha parlato con lo storico Ivan Ilchev, dell'Università di Sofia. L'intervista è in lingua inglese.

There are two types of Bulgarian Jews - the 'Sefarads', who come from the Mediterranean and the 'Ashkenazi', who come from Germany, Hungary, France, Poland. In 1942 the Bulgarian Jews outnumbered 51 500 (around 0.5% of the population). During the Second World War Bulgaria was the only ally of Nazi regime which saved its Jewish citizens. After the Communists came to power after 9 September 1944, many Jews left Bulgaria. At the end of 1951 there were only 7 676 still living in Bulgaria. But the exodus continues and the 1992 census registers just 3 461 Jews. Prof. Ivan Ilchev, a lecturer in Balkan history with the Sofia St. Kliment Ohridsky University, tells the fate of the Jews in the recent Bulgarian history.

Prof. Ilchev, when did the Jews arrive in the Bulgarian lands and who are they?

Traces about the Jews exist since the beginning of the New Era. At the time of the break-up of the Eastern Roman Empire the Bulgarian lands have been populated by Jews. At the age of fifty the Bulgarian ruler Ivan Alexander (1331-1371) fell in love with the Jew Sara, married her and gave her the Christian name of Theodora. She gave birth to three boys. One of them was Ivan-Shishman, who despite the fact that was not heir to the throne, became the ruler of the Tarnovo Bulgarian Kingdom and was the last to rule Medieval Bulgaria. European history has not witnessed a similar case in which a Christian state has been governed by a ruler from Jewish origin, whose mother is a Jew and that according to Jewish law makes him a pure Jew. In the memory of the people he is remembered as one of the best Bulgarian kings, who during many years vehemently fought with the Turks. The main bulk of Jews arrived in the XVI century after they have been evicted from Spain. Jew, who speak 'Ladino' (or so-called Spagnolski,), settled in the Bulgarian lands. At the end of the XVIII and the beginning of the XIX century Jews from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires started to resettle in the Ottoman Empire. These Central and Eastern European 'Ashkenazi' Jews preserved their status of a relative minority in Bulgaria and had difficulties in marrying the descendants of the Jews who emigrated from Spain. The Nobel prize winner Elias Cannetti originated from the 'Ashkenazi' Jews. At the time of Bulgaria's Liberation the Jews comprised less than 1% of the total population and till the Second World War they did not surpass this percentage point. They were predominantly urban dwellers and were concentrated in the towns of Sofia, Plovdiv, Vidin, Dupnitsa, Kyustendil, Yambol. They used to be mainly small owners - merchants, manufacturers, hired work.

There is controversy regarding the fate of the Bulgarian Jews during the Second World War. On 22, February 1943 Bulgaria signed a secret agreement with the Nazi regime according to which 20 000 Jews were to be sent to the concentration camps. On one side Bulgaria was the only ally of the Nazi regime which saved its Jews but, on the other side we still bear the shame that 11 343 Jews from the 'new Bulgarian territories' (i.e., Thracia and Macedonia that were administered by Bulgaria) were sent to the death camps in Poland. How could you clear this situation?

The public mood at the time was not anti-Semitic. Bulgaria became an ally of Germany due not to ideological proximity but due to its geo-strategic position and the national-territorial issues, inherited after the end of the First World War. The adopted Law for the Protection of the Nation was not meant only against the Jews but primarily against the organizations with international and cosmopolitan scope, for example free masons and communists.
Germany ceded Bulgaria the right to administer Thracia and Macedonia but these territories were not part of the Kingdom of Bulgaria. The Jews living there were not recognized as Bulgarian subjects and that was the reason why they did not have their representatives in the Bulgarian Parliament and had no channels to influence power similar to the ones of the Jews from the 'old territories'. Historians seldom speak about opportunity in history. The war reached a turning point during February-March 1943. On 2, February 1943 the German army surrenders at Stalingrad; the British troops defeat the German-Italian army in Northern Africa. The Bulgarian rule tsar Boris III was reluctant to take risks and to oppose the Nazi whishes. And the Jews from Thracia and Macedonia paid the terrible consequences of this situation. They were in fact recruited and deported from Bulgaria during March 1943. When instead the issue to recruit and deport the Jews from the 'old territories' was raised, the Bulgarian Jews had contacts with government circles and enjoyed the status of equal Bulgarian citizens. Besides, 2-3 months had passed from Germany's defeats. The administration of tsar Boris III, which governed the country with unaccountable power, already had additional thoughts how to solve this issue. That was the reason why the king delayed the deportation of the Jews. In the meanwhile the Kursk battle and the Anglo-American debark in Italy that toppled down Mussolini took place. In this uncertain setting no one in Bulgaria could think of radical measures against the Jews. Had the government of Mr. Bogdan Filov been adamant to deport the Jews, it would have succeeded. But Bulgarians oppose the deportation of the Jews. While in Poland, Lithuania, France, Ukraine, regrettably, the neighbors of the Jews hand them over to the Nazi authorities, the opposite occurred in Bulgaria.

According to the book of the emigrant Stefan Gruev, who worked for the 'Paris Match' Journal during 1943, tsar Boris III incited Dimitar Peshev, an MP in the Bulgarian Parliament, to prepare a declaration, signed by 43 MPs, against the deportation of Jews. But there is also another version: there is no written evidence that the king was instrumental into saving the Bulgarian Jews and this was only a result of the strong public pressure, the left organizations, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the intellectuals. What is the historical truth?

You are right that there is no written evidence about the role of the king but after 1936 not a single important event in Bulgarian had not occurred without the knowledge of king Boris III. Besides, he listened to the public mood, and there was no segment of it, which was anti-Semitic in Bulgaria. Even the leader of the only more significant mass movement claiming to be Fascist, Mr. Alexander Tsanov, signed the declaration against the deportation of the Jews. The king delayed until the latest the issue with the Jews; in the meanwhile he died and then no one cared about them.

32 106 Jews left Bulgaria from October 1948 till May 1949. Why did the Jews leave Bulgaria en masses with the arrival of the Communists?

Bulgaria is the only East European country, in which in 1945 there were more Jews than during 1939. However, war memories were still vivid; there was a strong Zionist organization operating in Bulgaria. The establishment of the Israeli state coincides with a radical change of the economic system, as Bulgaria adopted the Soviet model of economic development and the Jews knew what this was meaning for them.

What changes occurred in the cultural identity of the Jews that remained in Bulgaria after 1944? There were generations that grew without knowing the synagogue, the Jewish schools had been closed down... How did the Jews preserve their traditions? Can this be attributed solely to the family?

The religious tradition has been poorly preserved. The new type of state in Bulgaria fought religion. There were 5-6 000 Jews that remained in Bulgaria and, among them, there were many leftists. These did not have a very strong religious attachment. The Jewish house and the Jewish organization attempt to organize holidays, to preserve the feeling of unity among the Jews. But real and successful attempts to revive the Jewish spirit started after 1989, when the regime of Todor Zhivkov collapsed.

Do you share the notion that the Jewish community was the 'model minority' of Bulgaria, that together with the Armenians served the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) to show to the international community how tolerant it was? BCP wanted the Jews to serve as a model to the other more numerous minorities due to their conformist behaviour and strong tendency to assimilate...

I disagree, because the same tendency was present in the years of the Second World War, when Jews and Armenians were considered model minorities in Bulgaria. They are highly qualified and can be easily circumscribed in the structures of the power, their culture is European and pose no threat to the power. And then, altogether, they make up only 1% of the population.

'We are against the Jews because they possess all goods' was the slogan of the 'Brannik' organization from the 1940s. How would you comment the statements in the nowadays press that Bulgarian Jews enjoy dominant positions in the economy and that there is a Jewish conspiracy?

The slogans of the 'Brannik' movement certify misunderstanding about the way the economy functions. As a whole, Jews are better off than the Bulgarians but this happens because the poorest strata of society are concentrated in the countryside and there is a very limited number of Jews among the peasants. Should we compare the urban population, however, there are no significant differences between the Bulgarians and the Jews. There are 1-2 rich Jews before the Second World War and they never threatened to play a competitive role in the economy. There is no ground to talk nowadays that the Jews are rich. The ones who are wealthy today are the ones who possessed information before 10 November 1989 and partly had the power and capacities to transform this power into money. But the theory of the World Jewish conspiracy is purely a legend.