Bulgaria continues to believe it saved its Jews. While it does have much to be proud about, it fails to take responsibility for deporting Jews in Macedonia and Thracia.
Bulgaria faces a major challenge with its Holocaust memory. It celebrates itself as saviours of their country’s Jewish population. Yet it remains reluctant to acknowledge any fault in the deportation of the Jews from occupied territories.
One important piece of history was the democratic election of Simeon, the son of King Boris III, in 2001. Simeon brought with him an agenda to rehabilitate his father, and has contributed to the climate of glorifying to the former King for his role in the Holocaust.
Far-right parties in the government also pose a problem. They prevent governmental
recognition of fault. As the Bulgarian Holocaust’s truth is obfuscated, room for revisionism
rises. Although officially banned, far-right supporters rally every year in Sofia to pay tribute
to a fascist general Hristo Lukov with close ties to Nazi Germany. In 2018, more than 1000
marchers took part.
The Holocaust in Bulgaria
Bulgaria was stripped of most of its territory after the First World War, and grew closer to
Germany. When war began, Bulgaria declared neutrality, while profiting from agreements
with Nazis. German diplomacy forced the return of Romanian territories and Bulgaria-
German relations tightened. In 1940 Bulgaria instituted the first of many laws aimed at the
Jewish population. In 1941 Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact, and seized the opportunity to
occupy territories in Macedonia, Pirot and Thrace. Bulgaria administered the territories and
granted citizenship but deported Jews to death in March 1943.
The Nazis then demanded Bulgaria send away its own Jewish population - only to ignite an
outcry from religious leaders, and politicians. The Tsar halted the deportation, instead
interning the Jewish population in the countryside of Bulgaria. Men were dispatched to
labour camps, and Jewish women and children stayed in countryside homes. In May 1944
the government began to dissolve the anti-Jewish laws. The Soviet Army forced Bulgaria to
declare neutrality and declare war on Germany.
Bulgaria engaged in its only military campaign of the entire war against Germany. The price
for joining the war was the complete withdrawal from the occupied territories, and Bulgaria
remained within the Soviet sphere until 1990.
Bulgaria deported 11,343 Jews from the occupied territories during the war, but allowed for
the survival of almost all of the Jews in its pre-war territory. Between 1948 and 1951, almost
90% of Bulgarian Jews emigrated to Israel, and the country now has between 3000 and
- 15 November 1990: People’s Republic of Bulgaria renamed to Republic of Bulgaria,
fall of Communism
- 1992: Decree restoring ownership rights in Jewish communal property to the
country’s chief Jewish organization, Shalom
- 2001 – 2005: Former King Simeon elected Prime Minister
- February 2003: First Lukov March in Sofia
- December 2012: Bulgaria admitted as Observer Country into IHRA
- 7 July 2016: Inauguration of monument commemorating Bulgaria’s bravery in saving
its 48,000 Jews
- 18 October 2017: Government adopted IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism and
appointed Georg Georgiev as national coordinator on combating antisemitism
- January – June 2018: Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union
- 12 March 2018: Prime Minister Boyko Borisov attends Holocaust Commemoration in
- April 2018: Commemorative plaque unveiled in Dupnitsa Railway Station to pay
- 8 May 2018: The Country of the Rescued Jews Exhibition Opening in Sofia
- December 2018, Bulgaria gains full status within IHRA
In June, 20917, Bulgaria adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)
definition of antisemitism and appointed Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev as national
coordinator for the fight against antisemitism. Unlike certain other countries in Europe, it has
not witnessed a significant rise of anti-Semitism.
Its record on the Holocaust is not as exemplary. The government continues to skirt around
the issue of the deportation of Jews from the occupied territories While quick to discuss the
country’s past saving Jews, Bulgarian presidents neglect to mention the deported Jews from
In a 2016 speech, former President Rosen Plevneliev spoke with pride how, “in the dark
years of World War II, Bulgaria… set an extraordinary precedent and saved the lives of all its
citizens of Jewish origin. Unfortunately, our country was not in a situation to do the same for
the Jews from Northern Greece and parts of Yugoslavia, as they weren’t Bulgarian citizens.”
Two years later, in March, 2018, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov attended the 75 th anniversary
of the deportation of the Jews in Skopje. But he never mentioned any Bulgarian
Borisov’s coalition depends on support from a right-leaning group called the United Patriots
and is composed of several parties: VMRO, National Front, and Attack (Metodieva).
Members, and even leading figures of these parties, are known for anti-Semitic remarks and
Despite its membership in the European Union, Bulgaria has no explicit law against
Holocaust denial, though it does criminalize the display of fascist and totalitarian symbols
Bulgaria has also joined the IHRA with Israel as its mentor, and currently has kiason status.
Bulgaria has no proper law on hate speech. Bulgarian law bans "incitement to racial hatred", but is questionably enforced. Although no Polish-style law regulating historical discussion exists, but the lack of Holocaust negation laws allows revisionist negation.
Bulgaria fails to teach about the deportation of the Jews from the occupied territories. The
curriculum of schools managed by the Ministry of Education was amended, in March 2018,
to include “the act of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews during World War II.” Former editions
contained little to no information on the Holocaust in Bulgaria.
The government has launched several programs to combat the lack of information on the
Holocaust in schools, including web resources and open lessons in seven cities, as well as
the work of extra-governmental organisations like Alef. Teacher training in conjunction with
Yad Vashem takes place annually and joint seminars for history teachers from Bulgaria and
Macedonia are held in Sofia. Although few university options exist to study the Holocaust,
Sofia University has been running the Hebraistika (Jewish Studies) program for the past
three years, the first of its kind.
The country has no Holocaust Museum. Occasional exhibits take place at the Sofia Synagogue.
Bulgaria has created several monuments commemorating the Holocaust, often celebrating
the rescue of its Jews. Many of these commemorative monuments have been erected under
the encouragement of Shalom, the umbrella organisation for Bulgarian Jews.
On May 11 2018, a plaque went up in Breznik to honour the Jews who worked in camps in
the area. Another plaque at Dupnitsa, unveiled in April 2018, pays tribute to locals who
saved their Jewish fellow citizens from deportation and “eased the sufferings of 4,000
Jews… who passed through in transit to the Nazi death camps.” Further monuments, such
as the one near the National Assembly in Sofia, were recently changed to include mention of
the deportation of Jews.
The capital Sofia has facsimiles of monuments from “Bulgaria Forest” of Yad Vashem. The
original monuments honoured King Boris III. Shalom criticizes monuments which do not
acknowledge Bulgaria’s role in the Holocaust.
March 10 is designated as the “Day of the Rescue of the Bulgarian Jews and of the Victims
of the Holocaust and of the Crimes against Humanity”, with commemorations taking place in
In May 2018 an exhibition travelled around Bulgaria, created by a Bulgarian Jew, Iakov
Djerassi, and funded by the Ministry of Culture. This exhibition, called “The Country of the
Rescued Jews” appeared in Sofia and Plovdiv, and purported to shine a new light on
Bulgaria’s Holocaust history, commemorating the 75 th Anniversary of the rescue of the
country’s Jews. The exhibit glorified the role of the King in saving the Jews, ignoring the
problematic parts of his reign. Most Jewish figures skipped the exhibition opening.
At the exhibition opening, Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov criticized Jews for their
role in Bulgaria’s communist governments. In response, the American Defamation League
President Jonathan Greenblatt called “ this remark anti‐Semitic for singling out Jews, as
Jews, for the harms caused by the Communist regime. Also known as the ‘Judeo‐Bolshevik
conspiracy theory,’ this idea that Jews are responsible for Communism or the evils of
Communist regimes is widely held to be anti‐Semitic.”
Bulgaria is the unwilling host of an annual Lukov March in February. Hristo Lukov, the
namesake is touted as an anti-communist hero, conveniently killed by, among others, a
Jewish partisan. His march involves torches and a uniform eerily similar to that of the
Wehrmacht. The march is organised by Bulgarian National Union, a small far-right party who
have named themselves after variant of Lukov’s own party, The Union of Bulgarian National
Legions. Beginning with small numbers in the early 2000s, the march grew and is now a
staple on the European neo-Nazi circuit. The government has banned the march, but it goes
away anyhow, with the government preferring to avoid violent clashes with the demonstrators. In 2018, Shalom created a 180,000-strong petition to stop the Lukov March. The march went ahead anyway.
There are several archives in Bulgaria, ranging from the records of State Security, to Jewish
Archives and military archives. All grant full access to researchers and are free to use.
Although Holocaust reparations began right after the war, the Communist government
nationalized much property. Most surviving Bulgarian Jews made Aliyah to Israel,
relinquishing their property to the state.
In 1990, democratic Bulgaria began restitution, and was successful in its restoration of
communal Jewish property, or fair compensation. Nearly all confiscated communal property
that was Jewish-owned has been returned, although one property in Varna remains in
dispute. Shalom has been assigned control of this property.
Confiscated heirless property is not covered in Bulgarian restitution legislation. Many
synagogues were neglected under communism to the extent that they had to be demolished,
or restored to be used for other cultural activities. There have also been disputes resulting
from additional construction on buildings and to whom ownership belonged. In 2003, the
government returned all of a building to Shalom but the top two floors, which had been built
after the building’s confiscation. Only in 2007 did the government gift the floors to Shalom.
Cases such as confiscated empty land upon which factories had been later built suffer from
In Bulgaria, Jews are associated with communism since the Jews who remained after the
war and did not make Aliyah tended to support the new Communist authorities and the
Since many Bulgarian people see themselves as victims of communism, the next step is to
see themselves as victims of the Jews – insulted further by the prevalent notion in the
country that the Bulgarian people “saved” the Jews.
In recent years, particularly since joining IHRA and approaching the 75 Anniversary of the
Rescue of the Jews on 10 March 2018, the government has been more active in matters
combating anti-semitism and raising awareness on matters of the Holocaust. Borissov’s
attendance of the Skopje commemoration was perhaps the largest step taken, but the lack
of a full acknowledgement or apology for Bulgaria’s involvement in the deportation of
Macedonian Jews qualified his presence.
Bulgaria has a host of far-right parties VMRO, Attack, and National Front. All flirt with anti-
Attack has consistently been the fourth-strongest party in the Bulgarian parliamentary
elections, while the other two have had wavering support, including an unsuccessful 2014
coalition. . The three parties are now in a coalition with the government as a minority party
(United Patriots), and two of the three party leaders are deputy prime ministers, Krasimir
Karakachanov (VMRO) and Valeri Simeonov (National Front).
Karakachanov is a quieter leader with fewer scandals. Simeonov has a long track record of
spewing hatred: he was convicted of hate speech against the Roma minority and admitted to
taking spoof pictures in the concentration camp of Buchenwald. The leader of Attack has
also published several anti-Semitic books, feeding into the myth of a Jewish cabal .
In 2014, the Anti-Defamation league conducted research on anti-Semitism in Bulgaria, and
rated it among the highest countries in Europe, lower only than Poland, Greece, and Turkey.
According to the survey, 59% of the interviewees responded “probably true” to the statement
that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.”
Iuliana Metodieva, in conjunction with Shalom, has conducted research on internet forums
and found a high level of racism present. Other interviewed figures were quick to mention
the anti-Semitism found online.
Football represents another venue for anti-Semitism. In 2018, two young fans painted
swastikas on their chests. In 2013 the Levski Club was fined after supporters displayed a
banner celebrating Adolf Hitler’s birthday. Many interviewed expressed the sentiment that
swastikas were commonplace at football matches, as well as anti-Semitic chants
(Metodieva). Mein Kampf and other anti-Semitic books are often sold in bookstores
Much of the intolerance in Bulgaria is directed at the Roma minority. Jews in Bulgaria are
less visible than other minorities, particularly because the Jewish population has historically
been well-integrated and because the names of children are derived from their father’s
name, often obscuring Jewish heritage.
The Bulgarian media reflects the national consensus. For the most part, it does not cover the
deportation of Jews and speaks only about the rescue. There is free speech in Bulgaria, but
it is checked by libel law and law against hate speech and incitement to racial hatred.
Abuses continue nonetheless. In 2015, four youths were acquitted after urinating on
synagogue wall and spray-painting “Death, Jews” on it . When interviewees make racist
statements, journalists often do not challenge them. On online forums, comments against
Jews and Roma tend to be left in place).
The Jewish community had to be rebuilt almost from scratch after the communist period.
Only two synagogues remain functioning, with former synagogues converted into cultural
centres to storage depots.”
The vast majority of Bulgarian Jews are a part of Shalom. Established in 1990, Shalom is
involved politically, fighting against the Lukov March and pushing for the appointment of a
national coordinator on combating anti-Semitism in 2017. It organized an exhibition
“Bulgarian Jews: Living History” in March 2018.
Shalom also publishes the newspaper “Evreiski vesti” and “La Estreya” magazine 30 . Although
Bulgaria lacks a full-fledged Jewish History Museum, the community has created one inside
the synagogue in Sofia.
The Jewish population of Bulgaria is somewhere from 3000 to 6000, constituting less 1% of the country’s population.
-Author: Caderyn Owen-Jones