Beyond Hitler's Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews

One of the forgotten stories of World War II is the heroism of Bulgarians in saving their Jewish population from Hitler's concentration camps. I first heard this story from an old man in Sofia ten years ago. At the time I had lived in Bulgaria six months and my langue skills weren't great. As I listened to an old man tell us how Bulgaria refused to send their Jewish population to Hitler's death camps, I thought I didn't understand everything he said correctly. If Bulgaria hadn't sent its Jewish population to Germany, how come I hadn't heard about it in school? Why was this remarkable story lost when people talked about the Holocaust.

Back in our apartment that evening my companion and I talked about what he had said. Neither of us had head of this story and we both wondered if the old man was getting a kick telling some outlandish story to naive Americans. I heard the story a few other times before I returned to the states. I never really doubted the story but wondered why in all the books and classes about World War II I had never head of about Bulgaria being the only country to not turn over its Jewish population to Germany.

After I returned home from the states I started reading Bulgarian history books. Most of these books confirmed the story that Bulgaria managed to save it's entire population of 50,000 Jews, but the details and events of exactly how that came about were lacking. Occasionally I'd search the Internet hoping to find some more information. (One of the more interesting ones was a site about Dimitar Peshiv, one of the key people in saving Bulgaria's Jews.) Most of the sites I found weren't that helpful.

Then by chance I stumbled across Beyond Hitler's Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews and I finally found the book that contained all the information and detail I've searched many years for. As a history book it is well written and fascinating to read how a country that was aligned with Germany, managed to save its entire Jewish population. (The book is hard to find. Amazon doesn't have any copies in stock buy does link to some resellers who carry the book.)

Compared to most countries in Europe at the time, there was little anti-Semitism in Bulgaria leading up to and during World War II. Bulgarian Jews were, for the most part, an integrated part of society. Despite this, the Bulgarian Parliament passed several anti-Jewish measures -- such as forcing them to wear yellow stars and register with the government -- to keep the Alliance with Germany intact. (For siding with German, Bulgaria was given Macedonia and Thracian part of Greece -- lands that Bulgaria lost after World War I and believed to be rightfully theirs.)

Eventually a few anti-Semitic leaders set up a mass deportation that would send all Bulgarian Jews to Poland and certain death. It was only with the profound effort of about 50 people that eventually the plan to deport Bulgarian Jews was stopped.

Though Bulgaria managed to save its Jewish population, it was still a difficult time for its Jewish citizens. After the deportation plan was foiled, most Jews were as day-laborers or sent to temporary camps inside Bulgaria. In some camps the Jews were treated well and in other camps they were not. And, unfortunately, Bulgaria's hands aren't totally clean of blood. Bulgaria did deport non-Bulgarian Jews from the territories it had annexed. Almost 12,000 Jews for Thrace and Macedonia were sent to their deaths in Poland and elsewhere.

What struck me most about the book was how few people intervened to stop the deportations. For some reason I had expected because there was little, if any, animosity toward the Jews, the people of Bulgaria would be the ones to demand that they not be deported. But even though most were against the measures taken, they were silent. And not knowing what it was like to live in Bulgaria during World War II, I'm not necessarily blaming them for their inaction. (For the book, it seemed like a fairly tense and difficult period for just about anyone.) However, it does reinforce the fact that when good people do nothing, evil flourishes. And those who do act, even when their numbers are small, can have a profound effect on an entire nation.

Beyond Hitler's Grasp: The Heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews 3 1/2 stars (out of 4)