In the parade of horrors that marks the twentieth century, the Holocaust represents an until-then unimaginable nadir. Of all the countries living under German domination, only two, Denmark and Bulgaria, provided collective protection to Jews. Most of us are familiar with the heroic figure of the Danish king, who appeared with the yellow star sewn to his clothes after Jews had been ordered to do so, but far fewer know what happened in Bulgaria. In The Fragility of Goodness, well-known literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov, Director of Research at the Centre National de Recherches Scientifiques in Paris, author of Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, presents the facts as they occurred in Bulgaria during the crucial years from March 1941 onwards, when Bulgaria joined the Axis.
At the heart of this deeply moving book lies the counterpoint to the more commonly debated question of evil: the question of good. It was Hannah Arendt who famously noted the "banality of evil" during the Eichmann trial. But goodness, as Todorov shows, is never banal. Goodness requires something more. Arendt also wrote: "I know of no attempt to explain the conduct of the Bulgarian people, which is unique in the belt of mixed populations." One of the keys to unlocking the secret of Bulgaria's goodness in this instance can be found in Arendt's last phrase. Edging on the Balkan mishmash of peoples and states, Bulgaria was the very embodiment of a mixed population. Dominated by the Turks for 500 years (1396-1878), Bulgarians, as a frustrated German ambassador observed at the time, lack "our ideological clarity." He further complained, "Having grown up among Armenians, Greeks, and Gypsies, the Bulgarian finds no defect in the Jews that might justify special measures against them."
By 1918 Bulgaria had been forced to cede provinces with part-Bulgarian populations: Dobrudja to Romania; Thrace to Greece, and Macedonia to Serbia. A 1934 coup d'Ttat had left an authoritarian regime in place, with a king, Boris III, and a small democratic/communist opposition. Altogether these elements would seem to signal a weakened, fragmented state, one that would hardly rally to oppose a powerful ally like Germany. Yet this is what happened, even as empty freight trains waited to take Bulgarian Jews to Treblinka. Nazis were determined to transport Bulgaria's Jews to certain death; at the eleventh hour Bulgarians stopped them. Not once, but twice.
Todorov, who was born in Bulgaria but has long lived in France, allows the participants to speak for themselves, presenting their memoirs, letters and diaries. In his first forty pages, a small masterpiece of clarity, the Bulgarians emerge as clever tacticians. Having decided to remain neutral in the war, the government sided with its traditional ally, Germany. As a result, no Bulgarians were sent to the front. And Bulgaria received southern Dobrudja back after the German-Soviet pact. Then followed the contentious anti-Jewish legislation called the Law for the Defence of the Nation, approved in January, 1941, over vociferous protests. Next Thrace and Macedonia, returned to Bulgarian administration but never formally annexed, obeyed Nazi laws and deported their Jews. Wrenched by the sight of Jewish families trudging through the streets to be put on trains, ordinary Bulgarians, politicians, and religious figures reacted with outrage. The Orthodox Metropolitan (Bishop) Stefan of Sofia wrote to the king, but his protest fell on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, conditions in ŠOld Bulgaria' steadily worsened; Jewish freedoms were curtailed, yellow stars issued. Two unseaworthy ships filled with refugees bound for Palestine sunk. Amid all this, Bulgarian leaders maintained cordial relations with Jewish leaders and put off Nazi demands for deportation by insisting the Jews were needed for road work. The arrival of SS officer Theodor Dannecker, Eichmann's envoy in Sofia, sped things up. Arrests began in March 7, 1942; a quota (20,000 out of a total of about 48,000 Jews) had been decided upon. The next day, forty people from Kyustendil, near Sofia, formed a delegation to protest what they saw happening to their neighbours. Four arrived in the capital to speak with Dimitar Peshev, vice-chair of the National Assembly. When Peshev, well aware of the peril, met with the Internal Affairs secretary, the minister first denied the reality of the arrests, then called them off. Similar spontaneous protests were occurring all over the country.
Peshev then acted quickly. He wrote a letter of protest and got forty-two other deputies to sign the document, which condemned the government's anti-Jewish policy. The infuriated Prime Minister tried to force the signatories to withdraw, but thirty refused. Rather than yield to increased pressure to deport the Jews to Poland the following year, Boris III complied with their evacuation from Sofia (where most lived) to the countryside. Again there were protests. After the King's death, Sofia's Jews were allowed to return to their homes. Gradually all anti-Jewish laws were abolished.
Who deserves credit for this historical anomaly? Todorov freely admits that Bulgarians are not especially noble, nor do they consider themselves superior or heroic. But neither were they in the habit of demonizing minorities. Pluralism in Bulgaria, the result of long domination by the Ottoman Empire, meant that "strong national pride" was not a distinctive trait. Bulgarians sought no scapegoats among the Jews, all of whom spoke Bulgarian and lived not in ghettos but were dispersed among everyone else. Interestingly, the only recorded spontaneous outcry against the communist regime that later ruled the country, occurred when the regime began to persecute the country's Turkish minority in the 1980s. Attempts to target this particular group provoked the first dissident movements against Bulgaria's post-war rulers.
If compassion for the Jews' plight arose from the general population, it was not reflected in all of Bulgaria's leadership. The Prime Minister was thoroughly pro-Nazi. King Boris III, described by Goebbels as "cunning like a fox," cared above all for his country, and toyed with German demands. In late March Š43 he assured von Ribbentrop, during a visit to Germany, that Bulgarian Jews were really "Spanish," and besides, they were needed at home for road construction. When the Nazis again pressured for "Plan A", the transportation of Jews, he instead opted for "Plan B", evacuation. He then left on a hunting trip where no one could reach him. Just as Nazi pressure to round up the Jews of Bulgaria was becoming most acute, in the spring of 1943, it was becoming far from certain that Germany would win the war, a point not lost on the politically astute king.
If we are looking for heroes in this drama, then parliamentary deputy Peshev most obviously fills the role. Stubborn, brave, and original, he was not the only person in Europe to try to help the Jews, says Todorov, but "he was the only one to have led a legal, parliamentary action in their defence." (Many of the signatories to his protest letter were executed after the war; their defence of Jews meant nothing to the communists.) We read of the intricacies of Peshev's manoeuvres and the price he paid for them in extracts from his memoirs. He is one of thirteen "righteous" Bulgarians honoured by the State of Israel. Yet it's manifestly clear that Peshev represented a groundswell of opinion, from businessman Asen Suichmezov who tearfully rushed to Sofia to try to save the Jews in his town, to the most powerful leaders in Bulgaria. Increasingly, after some initial, depressing quibbling about converted versus non-converted Jews, Church leaders joined the protest. Especially vocal was Metropolitan Stefan, who, in the face of government threats, responded that "the doors of every Bulgarian church and monastery would be open to the Jews."
Having laid the events before us, Todorov concludes that a collective effort provided the necessary ingredients for good to triumph. "Any break in the chain and their efforts might well have failed." But the chain didn't break. The voices that follow Todorov's concise history allow the players on both sides of this remarkable drama a chance to be heard. What the well-meaning Bulgarian majority accomplished remains one of the consoling truths in a very bleak century. As Todorov writes, "It seems that once introduced into public life, evil easily perpetuates itself, whereas good is always difficult, rare and fragile. And yet possible." Words to remember. ˛