SOFIA, Bulgaria (Reuter) Like their brethren elsewhere this month, Bulgaria's Jews are remembering with relief and gratitude Europe's liberation from Nazi tyranny 50 years ago. But the several thousand Jews still living in Bulgaria have a special reason to be thankful.
``No Bulgarian Jews died in the Nazi death camps. This is something we must not forget at this time as we recall the millions who perished in Europe during the Holocaust,'' said Samuel Frances, local historian and editor of the Bulgarian newspaper Jewish News.
In a region not known for its tolerance of ethnic or religious minorities, this small Balkan country emerges from the dark era of Nazi rule with one of the cleanest slates in Europe. Bulgaria's wartime government refused to hand over its 50,000 Jewish citizens to the Nazis in 1943 despite its military alliance with Germany.
Czar Boris initially tried to comply with German demands, earmarking some 8,500 Jews from Sofia and other Bulgarian cities for deportation. But 43 members of parliament drafted a petition and managed to avert the action at the last moment. ``My father and his relatives from Dupnitsa (south of Sofia) were to have been in that initial group to be deported,'' said Frances, who was a small child at the time.
In a letter sent to Berlin, the then German ambassador to Sofia said, ``The Bulgarians live with Armenians, Greeks and Gypsies and do not find any disadvantages which could justify special measures being taken against them (the Jews).'' Further half-hearted attempts at deportation failed as Bulgarians, Jews and non-Jews alike, staged angry demonstrations, often with the backing of Bulgaria's underground Communist Party.
``Some Bulgarian Jews died of course in the anti-fascist resistance, but none perished in camps solely on account of their race,'' Frances told Reuters.
His earliest memories are of Bulgarian Turks giving his family cream to stave off their hunger and of waiting impatiently for the arrival of Soviet troops in the closing days of the war.
Anti-Semitism, traditionally strong in many Eastern and Central European countries, including neighboring Romania and Hungary, long before the advent of Adolf Hitler, never found much support in Bulgaria.
``I think Bulgarian tolerance is linked partly to the country's position as a crossroads where Slavs, Jews, Greeks, Turks and Gypsies have always mingled,'' Frances said. Jews also played a positive role in the Balkan wars, fighting to wrest Bulgaria from Ottoman Turkish domination. ``Bulgarian Jews were never very rich, though they were well represented in the professions and the arts. There were never Jewish ghettos in this country,'' he said.
He also cited the opposition of Bulgaria's Orthodox Church to anti-Semitic ideas and its support for the Jewish cause. ``The church strongly opposed the czar's attempts to deport the Jews,'' he said.
Bulgaria's wartime record has drawn praise from world Jewish organizations. A U.S. Jewish group sent a plaque to the Bulgarian parliament inscribed with the words ``To the Bulgarian people who defended human pride.''
A similar plaque donated by the Israeli government stands in parliament commemorating the resistance to the deportations. About 90 percent of Bulgaria's Jews emigrated to the newly founded state of Israel after the war.
``Even today devout Zionists are thankful to Bulgaria's postwar Communist rulers for allowing this emigration to take place,'' said Frances.
Bulgarian Jews have played a prominent role in Israeli society, he added. Israel's current ambassador to Sofia, Abraham Sharon, was born and spent his childhood in Bulgaria. Like most other countries in the Communist bloc, Bulgaria broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967 after the Middle East war, on Moscow's orders.
Diplomatic links were restored in 1990 after the demise of Bulgaria's Communist government.
While praising Bulgaria's racial and religious tolerance, Frances said he was concerned about a recent growth in anti-Semitic literature entering Bulgaria.
``Because there is no history of anti-Semitism here we have not been used to fighting it. Bulgaria's immune system is not built to withstand such ideas,'' he said.
Like other European countries, Bulgaria has seen the emergence of skinheads who shout anti-Semitic slogans and spray abusive graffiti on public buildings.
Vandals recently daubed slogans like ``Jews out'' and ``Bulgaria for Bulgarians'' on the walls of Sofia's synagogue and a Jewish primary school.
The incident drew a swift condemnation from President Zhelyu Zhelev and other political leaders.
Frances said his Jewish organization was campaigning for a law banning the propagation of anti-Semitic ideas.
``We cannot afford to be complacent and just to rest on our laurels,'' he said.
More documents on the saving of Bulgarian Jews during WW II are available here.