Washington -- In a ceremony symbolizing hope at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum February 13, Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev received a plaque in gratitude to the Bulgarian people for their not widely known successful attempt to save most of the country's Jewish population from being murdered by the Nazis.
Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S Holocaust Memorial Council, gave Zhelev a plaque in tribute to the many Bulgarians, who, he said, saved 85 percent of Bulgarian Jews from the Nazi genocide. "The people of Bulgaria had the courage to resist evil," he said.
A photograph of the museum adorned the plaque above an inscription, which read: "In recognition of the people of Bulgaria who prevented the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the Nazi death camps."
Zhelev said he was "overwhelmed by emotion" and recalled his visit to the museum on the occasion of its dedication, when President Clinton spoke of the meaning of this special place.
"Humanity must always remember the Holocaust; thousands of innocent, young souls; victims of genocide," Zhelev said. Everyone must learn well "the cruel lessons of the terror," he added.
Despite the efforts of some Bulgarian fascists, Zhelev said that, fortunately, in Bulgaria the story was not as bleak as elsewhere in occupied Europe. Most Bulgarian Jews were saved from the death camps, which, he said, is "one of the least read pages" in history.
That most of Bulgaria's Jews "were fortunate to miss the trains that went to the death camps from all over occupied Europe" is due "to the brilliant manifestation of human solidarity" of those Bulgarians who said "no" to racism, anti-Semitism, and genocide, he said. "Close to 50,000 Jews -- Bulgarian citizens -- did survive," he added.
"The skies of Europe were darkened with heartlessness and indifference" a half century ago, Lerman said. But there was another category of people -- the rescuers. "These were the people who had God in their hearts, people who chose to stand up and be counted," he added.
"These acts of noble behavior light up the horizon of the darkened skies of Europe and saved the face of humanity. The people of Bulgaria belong to this special class," Lerman continued.
Although Bulgaria had its fascists, as every country in Europe did, "the majority of Bulgarian people -- the poets, the lawyers, the journalists, the leaders of the Synod and clergymen led by Dimetri Peshev, vice president of Bulgaria -- did all they could to save their Jewish neighbors," Lerman said.
"So, tonight," Lerman concluded, "we will not speak of Jews murdered. Instead, we will speak of Jews rescued. We will be paying tribute to the people of Bulgaria who refused to accept the orders of the Nazi invaders."
Prior to the remarks, President Zhelev laid a wreath and paused in a moment of silence in memory of the millions of Jews, and others, from all over Europe, who did not survive.
Here is a short report on President Zhelev's appearance at the Holocaust Museum in Washington yesterday evening.
I estimate that between 300 and 400 people attended this ceremony to mark the saving of the Bulgarian Jews during the Second World War. In the audience was Justice Stephen Breyer of the Supreme Court.
The program began with President Zhelev's placing a wreath on the Holocaust Memorial. After this, the audience assembled in the Museum auditorium. The representative of the Museum stated that three groups of people participated in the Holocaust: the killers, the victims, and the bystanders. However, there was also a special group, the rescuers, that deserve to be honored. Like other countries Bulgaria had its killers (Belev of the office of Jewish affairs), victims (the Jews of Aegean Thrace and Vardar Macedonia), and bystanders. But it also had its rescuers, and these in no small number. The courageous acts of Peshev and Metropolitan Stefan were specefically mentioned.
President Zhelev was then given a picture of the Holocaust Museum to which was attached a plaque recognizing the contribution of the Bulgarian people to saving their Jewish fellow citizens. In his remarks President Zhelev expressed sorrow for the murder of the Jews of the occupied territories, and act "that was not without the complicity of high government officials and the court." And he called attention to the opposition to the deportation orders by a broad spectrum of Bulgarians: intellectuals, politicians, writers, clergy. He also credited a tradition of toleration that exists in Bulgaria that was shown not only during the Holocaust, but by the acceptance of Armenian refugees from Turkish persecution and by the peaceful relations that long prevailed in some parts of the country between Bulgarians and ethnic Turks. The last was marred by the "Communist insanity" of the revival campaign, which sought to prolong the regime by sowing the seeds of ethnic hatred. This, however, was an aberration hostile to Bulgaria's tolerant spirit.
The president thanked the Museum for its gift and promised to display it prominently in Bulgaria.
President Zhelev received a standing ovation upon the conclusion of his remarks.
More documents on the saving of Bulgarian Jews during WW II are available here.