In the darkest hours of World War II, it seemed that the light of hope had gone out for the Jews in Europe. The German war machine was rounding up, deporting and killing the Jews in the gas chambers of Treblinka, Auschwitz and others in Poland and other countries.
Nation after nation had abandoned their Jews as Hitler’s armies silenced all opposition that rose against the extermination of the Jews and other people they deemed to be undesirables. It appeared that God’s chosen people would be systematically erased from Europe in the Nazi death camps.
At first Bulgaria was neutral in the war but fearing certain invasion by the German army, it decided to sign the Tripartite Pact with Germany, Japan and Italy on March 1, 1941 and become a part of the Axis. The promise to return territory lost to Bulgaria during previous wars seemed to seal the deal.
Bulgaria had already enacted a law on January 23, 1941 called the Law for the Protection of the Nation that stripped its Jewish population of all their rights and property. It was modeled after the Nuremberg Laws passed by Germany on September 15, 1935. This was the beginning of the problems for the Jews in Bulgaria.
On February 22, 1943, Alexander Belev, the Bulgarian Commissariat of Jewish Affairs and Theodor Dannecker, Gestapo Chief in Bulgaria and Deputy to Adolf Eichmann signed an agreement to deport 8,000 of the nation’s Jews plus 12,000 from Macedonia and Thrace to the Nazi death camps in Poland. March 10th was set as the date when the Bulgarian Jews would be deported. The trains were ready to take them to the camps and nothing seemed to stand in the way of this tragic disaster.
The Jews were to be deported to the death camps from the small town of Kyustendil near the Macedonian border and also from Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city.
The Jews in Kyustendil were warned several days before the deportation and they quickly prepared to send a delegation to Sofia to see if they could stop it. Only hours remained until the trains were set to leave and the fate of the Bulgarian Jews would forever be sealed. The Jews were to be deported to the death camp at Treblinka in Poland.
A delegation of four men went to Sofia, the Capital, to see Dimitar Peshev, the Deputy Speaker of the Bulgarian parliament. Peshev was born in Kyustendil and had many Jewish friends there. At first he couldn’t believe what he was hearing that a secret deportation of the Jews was about to begin the very next day.
He immediately promised to help his Jewish friends he grew up with in Kyustendil, however he quickly realized that it was not just his friends that were in danger but the entire Jewish population of Bulgaria. There was no time to waste. He must act or the Jews would perish.
This was a moment of truth that many of us come to in our lives at some point. A difficult decision has to be made. Fear grips us because we believe that failure will ruin us. It is at this point that we either decide to go forward or stay in our comfort zone and hope for some magical solution to solve the problem. Staying in our comfort zone seems so much easier than doing something about it.
Peshev immediately decided to act and asked to meet with Bogdan Filov, the Prime Minister but Filov, a strong anti-Semite refused to see him. Next Peshev went to see the Minister of the Interior Petar Grabrovsky, also a strong anti-Semite and Nazi lover, who at first denied the deportation but Peshev knew he was lying and pressed him to cancel the order.
Peshev was now a part of Bulgaria’s finest hour that history will never forget. He did what few would have done. He put his future, career and life on the altar of greatness and never looked back. He demanded that the order to deport the Jews to the death camps should be canceled. In a furious argument with Grabrovski, Peshev threatened to take the issue to the floor of the parliament and cause a scandal across a nation that had no hatred or issues with their Jews. The order was canceled two hours before the deportation started. The Jews were told to go home. For that moment in time their lives were saved.
Dimitar Peshev had stood up against the powerful forces in his own government and had won a reprieve for the Jews. One good man with a great heart who believed in justice and love for his fellow man had stopped the greatest killing machine known to man. The Jews were not deported from Bulgaria. This was nothing less than a miracle.
Peshev knew that the Nazi sympathizers in the government would try again so he took the issue to the parliament and convinced 42 other members to sign a letter of protest to the King to save the nation’s Jews. The men that signed the protest letter were all fascists and members of the King’s own party in the parliament. No opposition member in the parliament was allowed to sign the protest letter. It was to be clearly understood that this was the King’s own party opposing the deportations and not the opposition party causing a problem.
The Prime Minister who strongly disliked Peshev considered his actions treasonous. Dimitar Peshev was stripped of his position as Deputy Speaker of the Parliament and dismissed from the government. His life and career lay in ruins and disgrace from which there would be no recovery ever. His part in this great effort to save the Jews had ended almost as suddenly as it had begun.
His deeds were hidden from the world until the veil of communism was ripped away from Bulgaria in 1989. The communist lied and claimed they had rescued Bulgaria’s Jews from Hitler. They would never admit to the world that Dimitar Peshev, the Bulgarian Church and the King, all their mortal enemies, were the ones that actually saved the Jews.
The question asked by many is why did the people of Bulgaria, a small and powerless country, rise up as one to save the Jews when other more powerful nations did not? We believe the answer lies in the history of the Bulgarian people. Few nations on earth ever suffered as much abuse and humiliation as Bulgaria at the hands of tyrants. Bulgarians lived for almost seven hundred years under occupation and constant oppression.
The Bulgarian people understood what it is like to be persecuted, abused and treated unjustly. Perhaps no nation at that time could identify more closely with the Jews than the Bulgarians. The Bulgarian people had suffered under the yoke of tyranny for centuries. Their heroes Vasil Lefski, Georgi Rakovski, Christo Botev and countless others had laid down their lives for justice and freedom for the Bulgarian nation. The people of Bulgaria knew well what it is like to be persecuted and mistreated without a cause by evil men bent on their destruction.
The spirit and memories of these great men in Bulgaria’s history rose up in Peshev and others who stood up for the Jews and refused to surrender to tyranny. Because of this, Peshev’s career came to a swift and sudden end. He was banished to a life of poverty, destitution and isolation. He lost his property, his income and his good name and his reputation. He lived in fear of assassination for the rest of his days. He was denied his rightful place in history as a rescuer of the Bulgarian Jews long and until after his death. The communist tried him in an illegal “people’s court” for being a German collaborator, an anti-Semite and anti-Communist. Only a miracle saved him from the firing squad. He was given a 15 year sentence but only served one year because of his Jewish friends who influenced the Communist to let him go.
Thirty years later in January 1973, one month before he died, Israel honored him with the Righteous Among the Nations Award. This award is given to non-Jews who risked their own lives to save the Jews during the Holocaust.
It would be 45 years after the war ended before the world would hear the name Dimitar Peshev and learn of what he did to save the Jews of Bulgaria. Thousands of others across Europe did what they could to help rescue the Jews but only a few like Raoul Wallenberg, Oscar Schindler and Dimitar Peshev were able to rescue so many.
Dimitar Peshev and the Bulgarian people not only saved the Jews but they saved the honor and the reputation of the nation for time and eternity. The only other nation to save its Jews was Denmark.
Peshev once said, “My human conscience and my understanding of the fateful consequences both for the people involved and the policy of our country now and in the future did not allow me to remain idle. And I decided to do all in my power to prevent what was being planned from happening; I knew that this action was going to shame Bulgaria in the eyes of the world and brand her with a stain she didn’t deserve.“
The rescue of the Jews in Bulgaria had its beginnings long before World War II. It started in the mountains and the valleys of Bulgaria, in lonely and deserted places where countless men, women and children gave up their lives for freedom and justice and the dignity of the Bulgarian people. They fought against impossible odds, against an evil and ruthless empire that had held them in chains and slavery for almost five hundred years.
Dimitar Peshev and others simply followed the example of these brave men and women who were said to be have been born with the souls of eagles. The Bulgarians refused to allow tyranny to win and will forever be remembered as a people that rose up in a time of great need without regard for their own lives and safety and saved their Jews.
This is what it means to have a Great Heart.